Q&A with Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is considered one of the world's finest living writers. He comes from the small town of Enniscorthy in southeast Ireland, a place he frequently returns to in his books. Two of his works, The Blackwater Lightship and The Master, have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The screen adaptation of his novel Brooklyn was recently nominated for three Academy Awards. Tóibín is noted for his rich description of life's small details and characters rendered with depth and fullness. His works frequently explore the panoply of human emotions with a finely honed realism. Colm talked to Tallinn Arts about what it is like to see one of his novels on the big screen, his confusion over America's political landscape and where Irish society is heading.

Can a writer be a gregarious, slaphappy, high-fiving their buddies at the sports bar type or must they always be in a sense solitary people?

I suppose you could try, but you would always find yourself standing back and watching, or internalizing things.

When you began writing, were you striving for a particular style or literary voice or did it just develop naturally?

It came on its own, but it needed a lot of revision. I never put any thought into anything other than the prose sentence by sentence.

Early in your career, you were drawn to Spain. What was your fascination for that country?

I like the colours, the look of things, the variety, the beauty. And when I went there first – in 1975 – it was a good time in Spain.

Can it be depressing to write about grief, as you did in Nora Webster?

It’s hard. You have to feel what the character feels.

Do you think if you had written The Testament of Mary a generation ago you would have, as it were, caught hell?

It would have been fine after about 1985. Before then, it would have been more difficult.

The film adaptation of your novel Brooklyn is very highly regarded (three Academy Award nominations etc.). What is it like seeing one of your stories turned into cinema?

The experience comes back to you raw. You are the only person who knows how slowly this story began, and how tentative it was, and how easily it might have never been told. And now as film it seems oddly complete, utterly there. And what that does, strangely enough, is that it causes the whole emotion that gave rise to the book to re-appear.

If you could describe the Irish character in a few words, what might they be?

I never make generalisations.

Have you ever considered the affinity of the Irish and Russian "soul"...the commonplace erudition, love of drink, love of stories, love of music and dance, the fatalism?

I have come across the commonplace erudition much more in Australia than in Ireland or Russia. I drink very little myself. I don’t especially like stories. Dance? I don’t think I have ever danced. Music? Yes, I like music, as do many Germans and Catalans. Fatalism, yes, maybe Irish and Russian fiction share that.

Growing up gay in Ireland, did you feel in a sense estranged or exiled? Could this have contributed to your choice of vocation? Is "exile" necessary for the writer?

Yes, estranged. I watched the world carefully. But I don’t think that made me a writer, it just made me sometimes tackle certain and uncertain themes.

Did you ever fear ghettoizing yourself as a "gay writer"?

No. I am gay and Irish and a writer. There are no two ways about that.

What compelled you to write about Henry James?

I could not fully make sense of him. He seemed filled with ambiguities. I saw a drama there.

It has been noted in that book, The Master, that the protagonist struggles with the problem of balancing a life of the mind and of feeling. Has intimacy been an issue in your own life?

No, it has not.

Ireland has gone through tremendous changes in the past 15-20 years with immigration and the lessening influence of the church. Where do you see Ireland heading? What is the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland's future?

The church has no further role in secular matters. The project now is to get the church out of education, and stop it running hospitals where it has no expertise. But they still haven’t learned that lesson. I have yet to hear a bishop talk about prayer or the soul .

You have spent a lot of time in America. Any thoughts and the state of the nation, the presidential race and the phenomena of Donald Trump?

It is a big and complex country. I am an east coast liberal in America. I just don’t understand Republicans, let alone supporters of Trump. My America is a small place: it is the New York Public Library, National Public Radio, The New York Review of Books, Columbia University, the Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall.

The old Greeks told us there were four humors that comprised the human essence and personality; blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Where do you fit in this schema?

The old Greeks were wrong. It is not so simple as that.

Where does Colm Tóibín figure in the Irish literary tradition?

My worry is always the next sentence. I have no idea about my place in any tradition.


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