Sometimes, a memoir comes when you least expect it. It happened that way for the actor Gabriel Byrne. “To be absolutely honest I didn’t intend to write it. I know that sounds crazy,” he said. He was preparing for a film role, and began writing thoughts about his life and childhood. “It began as just scraps of memories,” he said. “It was a surprise to me that I remembered so much in such vivid detail.”
The result is “Walking With Ghosts,” a lyrical and moving memoir about both his life as an actor and his Irish childhood. Although Byrne doesn’t subscribe much to the idea of an Irish sensibility — “a lot of the things we tend to think of as national characteristics are actually universal traits,” he said — he does allow that “there is something about coming from a small island that induces a certain way of thinking about the world.” Others who grew up in Ireland in his generation, he added, will no doubt find points of similarity.
Byrne said it won’t be his last book. “I’m working on a novel at the moment. I learned a lot from writing the memoir,” he said. Acting and writing are “two very, very different disciplines,” he added. “Acting is a collaborative experience, whereas with writing it’s a solitary kind of occupation: nobody can write that thing for you. You’re part of a team in a film or a play, whereas the writing part drives on a very different part of the artistic process.”
Still, both rely on a willingness to confront one’s vulnerabilities. “I think that’s part of the process,” Byrne said. “If I go on stage or on a film I always feel tremendously vulnerable as well. You have to trust that vulnerability as being a signpost to something. If you didn’t feel any vulnerability I don’t know what the point of it would be.”
Byrne will be in conversation with the writer Colum McCann at 7 p.m. Tuesday in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.