Exquisite restraint for maximum expression: an interview with Colm Tóibín (part two)
Part one of this interview can be found here.
Tóibín has, to date, written or edited 21 books. I asked him which had been the most difficult to write, and which had been the most joyful. He said: ‘There’s a long story in the collection Mothers and Sons which I think is the best thing I’ve done, it’s called “A Long Winter”. And there’s a second story in that called “A Song”. “A Song” is probably only about six pages. And “A Long Winter” is probably 80 to 90 pages.’ The last time Tóibín was in Australia was when he wrote ‘A Song’. He would have a commitment, an interview like this one, ‘then I would go back upstairs, I would write another paragraph… it was on my mind so much and it came as though someone had opened a sluice gate and some water got out, and it kept coming out. And it was effortless, it was unbidden… I didn’t need it or want it, and I had an absolute compulsion to do it. And there it is.’ And ‘A Long Winter’ was possibly the hardest for Tóibín, as he ‘had to go back up into that landscape – the high Pyrenees in Spain, and really study it, trying to get all the details right. It was a very hard story. It also required an awful lot of work to make sure that it wasn’t tedious. Because it has all the ingredients of tedium.’
So does each story come in a different way? I asked. ‘Very much’ Tóibín nodded, ‘also in terms of how quickly it gets done or how lazy you get about it, how much you delay and don’t do it. All those sort of things.’ And Tóibín’s work has a lot of range, in terms of the setting. The story ‘The Night’ is set in Argentina. The novel The South is set in Spain. And then there’s The Master. But Tóibín said he thinks that’s now his territory, in those works. ‘There are a few recent stories that are set in New York, but they’re very much about outsiders in New York, Irish people in New York, people who don’t belong. I think that’s it now, I don’t think I’ll get any more places.’
In many interviews Tóibín does get asked about being an Irish writer, or a gay writer. I asked him how much he feels those aspects are integral to his work. ‘Well they’re fundamental, but then the page is not a mirror. So you don’t think about them.’ Tóibín said, in some ways, ie. if you’re a man or a woman, it has an effect on the way the world deals with you, but it isn’t as though it’s what you think of as you wake up in the morning. ‘It mightn’t effect how you deal with the page,’ he said, ‘if you’re writing a sentence.’ In a way it’s the writer’s job, according to Tóibín, ‘to get involved in areas of self-suppression and self-annihilation… whereby the page matters and you are the least burden on the page. But nonetheless, of course those things are important.’ I mention, for example, how Kafka’s context was important to the production of his work, it can’t be left out (writing in German in Prague, Jewishness) but knowing the context isn’t imperative to the reading of his work – it resonates through the internal states of his characters and the situations they navigate.
Of course, the writer has a life outside of literature – and literary influence. Art and music have both played a part in Tóibín’s creative life. He was an art critic for Esquire for three years, with a monthly column. You can find Tóibín speaking on Cezanne’s Route Tournante in the Guardian series ‘writers on artists’, here. Regarding art, ‘that business of looking very closely’, Tóibín said: ‘my eye has changed a lot in the last 20 years, so that I’m now terribly interested in a certain sort of minimalism. I’ve become fascinated by it. And there are a few painters especially – a Scottish painter called Callum Innes. There’s also Russian constructivist drawings, or even paintings, especially Mondrian. I mean, just the business of the line. And what the line can do.’
In terms of music, Tóibín was so pleased, when he got to Melbourne, to find the room had a CD player in it. ‘I’m coming from New York, New York to Auckland, so I had some CDs… I’ve been listening to Bach in the room, on my own CD. The radio is fine, even your iPod is fine, but it’s not the same as just putting on a CD.’ Tóibín listens to a lot of Bach, but no longer to any orchestral. ‘I can’t listen to Beethoven symphonies or Schubert symphonies but I listen to Beethoven chamber music and Schubert as well.’ He also listens to Irish ballads. But when writing – absolute silence is necessary.
Has writing changed for Tóibín at all, say, in the past ten years – with the internet, and the cult of the author? It sounds as though Tóibín steers clear of computers. He writes his books longhand, in an A4 size. And he thinks he was just getting started around the same time as the ‘cult of the author’. His first novel was published in 1990, ‘and I remember Ian McEwan said that when he published his first two books there was nowhere where authors were interviewed. And prose writers didn’t do readings. So you simply published your book and it was up to your publisher to market your book. But then somehow or other publishers got it into their head that a way of marketing a book was by the author.’ I wondered aloud at the authors who are naturally private or introverted, and how this part of the job (which is really quite contradictory to being in a room alone, writing) might affect them. As, I suppose, they have the right to just be their work. Tóibín agreed, to an extent. ‘You should havethe absolute right to become grumpy-boots, silent, difficult, combative.’ But it’s ‘become so normal’ to ‘do what your publisher used to do for you, which is sell your book.’
Tóibín really had the opposite problem, when he began: ‘when I published first, the book was published by such a small publisher in such a small way that everyone else was doing it except me. I watched what it’s like, if you’re on the other side of that, where your book and you are not at festivals, but everyone else is, and you’re certainly realising… no-one’s reading my book’. Tóibín never really recovered from that initial feeling of ‘oh wow, that’s a bandwagon actually I should get on’. If you’re not on it, he said, ‘you’re actually losing an awful lot, in that you’re not being read.’ Overall, Tóibín says, ‘I’m not sure it does any harm’. It’s part and parcel in the professional literary world, now. Tóibín also had the privilege, early on, of witnessing Irish writers who were ‘really superb readers of their own work’. Notably, Patrick McCabe and Anne Enright. ‘Therefore if you were on a platform with them, you were watching things they were doing with their voice and the audience – almost as actors, as performers. … you became much more skilled than you would have by being in that very good company’.
I felt very privileged to be in ColmTóibín’s informative and very pleasant company for an afternoon. Brooklyn is published in Australia by Picador.