Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in 1955. The second youngest of five children, his family tree is thick with writers and Republicans – Tóibín’s father Micheal, a historian and secondary school teacher, founded the local museum in the town’s 13th century castle.
Tóibín himself attended St Peter’s College in Wexford, and in 1972 went to study History and English in UCD. The day after taking his BA in 1975, he left for Barcelona, where he stayed for three years, an experience that informed his early books, including The South (his first novel, completed in 1986 but not published until four years later, when it was taken on by Serpent’s Tail) and the non-fiction Homage To Barcelona.
On his return to Dublin, Tóibín established himself as a journalist, editing Magill until 1985, when he began to travel extensively in South America, the Sudan and Egypt. Throughout the 1990s, his association with Picador and his editor Peter Straus bore a triptych of acclaimed novels, The Heather Blazing, The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship, and he also forged a parallel and prolific career as a non-fiction author (Bad Blood: A Walk Along The Border; The Sign Of the Cross: Travels In Catholic Europe; and Love In A Dark Time: Gay Lives From Wilde To Almodóvar.
Tóibín also became a Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at New York Public Library, and has taught in numerous major American Universities, including Stanford, Princeton and the University of Texas. In 2004 he published his most widely acclaimed book The Master, a novelisation of the life and trials of Henry James, which won the IMPAC, the Lambda and the LA Times Novel of the Year Awards, as well as being shortlisted for the Booker. He followed this with his first short story collection, Mothers And Sons, in 2006.
Now comes Brooklyn, his sixth full-length novel, which tells the tale of Eilis Lacey, an Enniscorthy girl who emigrates to New York in the early 1950s. His most traditionalist book to date, Tóibín largely ignores the panoramic backdrop of the immigrant experience in the big city, preferring to relate Lacey’s story in a simple, intimate style (or non-style) stripped of linguistic trimmings. Redolent of Jane Austen’s parlour dramas, it is rendered at a measured pace that requires no little confidence and discipline. The writer met Hot Press on a March afternoon in a Dublin hotel, a few minutes walk from his city centre residence.
Peter Murphy: With Brooklyn, you’ve managed to somehow endow this small, closely observed story with a fair amount of page-turning impetus. How?
Colm Tóibín: “Do you want the theory of it? The theory of it is that if you add enough detail to the perceptions of a third person – and leave enough out – where everything is seen only through one set of eyes, then in the slow reading of it the reader becomes that person, despite their best interests or even knowledge, and fills in the gaps themselves. All you keep doing then is get the next detail, and the next one and the next one. But most of the details have to be truthful to something, and not boring in the rhythm. But if you fuck this up, you lose everything overnight. You can’t teach it. If you try to tell someone how to do it, they can never do it. You should be able to guide someone slowly through their character, but it can’t be done. It’s funny, ’cos I’ve tried it, and it comes back dead.”
So how did you formulate this method?
“Part of it comes from teaching, where I’ve been trying to formulate a whole set of principles. I banned back-story: “No flashbacks are allowed this semester in this class: I don’t care how the characters met, just tell us what they did next.” In those classes I also tried to make everybody laugh, to give them the idea that, ‘I’m not boring you, and you don’t bore me back. We’re in this room for three hours together. I’m going to say something so outrageous that we’re going to disrupt the class next door and there’ll be complaints about us, because I want you to give the same back to me when you write something.’”
Presumably you arrived at this through re-reading and teaching the classics. Brooklyn reminded me of Jane Austen.
“What happened was in 2006 I had to teach Pride And Prejudice twice. A three hour fuckin’ seminar with me wandering it alone with students who might or might not have read it, or have anything to say about it. Sometimes they would and sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they used to go silent for three hours. (George Moore’s) Daniel Deronda I did twice, drove them out of their minds with this Daniel Deronda shit. Esther Waters. And (Henry James’s) The Portrait Of A Lady. And bits of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. I would spend days going through them line by line, because I wasn’t bringing any critical theory with me, or any historical background or anything other than, ‘Look at this line, look how this moves.’ So it got into me. I was so worried that these classes would go silent that I put huge amounts of work into it, just out of fear.
“And what happened then was I had written the first chapter of this novel in 2000 and published it in the Dublin Review under the title ‘House For Sale’, and I didn’t put that into the book of stories (Mothers And Sons). So I had that, and I was down in Blackwater on my own one night with the fuckin’ roaring sea and wind, and there it was, the story, instead of some big complicated thing I was doing.
Most of your novels eschew modernist tricks. They’re very linear and traditional in their approach to narrative.
“Part of this comes out of teaching as well. I was up against it in America because of David Foster Wallace and a guy called Ben Marcus. I had to say at one stage, ‘I don’t think you understand, but my job is to de-Ben-Marcus-ise this entire room!’ I believe he’s a nice guy and I believe David Foster Wallace was a great character, but if you couldn’t do it like they could do it, copying them was awful to read.”
Flannery O’ Connor once said that, “Manners are of such great consequence to the novelist that any kind will do. Bad manners are better than no manners at all, and because we are losing our customary manners, we are probably overly conscious of them; this seems to be a condition that produces writers.” I was reminded of that quote as I read the interplay between the boarders in the Brooklyn guesthouse where Eilis stays, or the scenes with the grim-faced Enniscorthy shop-owner…
“Who you must know and love! Not that she’s based on anyone in particular, but that sort of person.”
These complex power-plays have to be boiled down to a line of dialogue so charged with meaning that the reader understands not just the line itself, but the ulterior motive behind it, the implications and consequences of what the character is saying.
“You could put no flavour into the writing and just allow everything they said to have some tiny little twist in it, in the peculiar turns of phrase that they have. If you’re not putting any style into the prose, into the book, then how they speak has to shine out, because if that doesn’t happen, nothing happens. Every time one of those women opens their mouth, whatever they say has got to have something, the whole orchestra has to be as good as when, say, Mrs Bennet talks in Pride And Prejudice, or the arrival of Lady Catherine De Burgh, those sorts of figures. Or even Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Every time one of them speaks they’ve got to say something astonishingly self-serving or peculiar.”
Where did you learn the dynamics of how these women speak?
“It’s like being a kid and my aunts arrive. I would be small and they’d be full of nylon stockings and the sale in Bolger’s and Burke-Roche’s and all that sort of talk. And they’d be smoking, and something would be said about somebody, and then my mother would say, ‘Nothing about that now.’ I had one aunt who would arrive, and she’d have been at the golf club and the sales in Dublin and on holiday somewhere, or she’d be at Courtown at a dance, and at five or six, there was nothing more interesting.”
My father called that “earwigging”.
“Yeah, little pitchers have long ears. But there was nothing else to do. People don’t remember that RTE 1, which was the only radio station, went off the air between about 1.30 and 4 or 5, and there was absolute silence. It’d come on again with ‘O’Donnell Abu’ being played on a xylophone, and you’d realise there was going to be a programme coming through. It was a Joe Duffy-free zone, which is something I feel entirely nostalgic about.”
The novel deals with some big themes – emigration, integration, the plight of homeless Irish men in New York, but always through Eilis’s perception, on a reduced scale.
“Yeah, I was uneasy about this Christmas scene where it becomes almost politicised, where the priest makes a point about the broken down old men. But you need to make it clear that this is just one drop in an extraordinary phenomenon that took place, which is the Irish experience, and if you don’t have the old men coming in, and how that day went, you only make it personal.
“I nearly took that scene out ’cos I thought it was going to look like I was trying to make a point, but I felt that if I could only do it through her eyes, where she doesn’t even get the point of it all, the reader sees more than she does, as happens with the African-American women and the Holocaust survivor. She gets none of it because she’s too busy soaking it in.”
So many of your stories have a crucial scene that features a singer who stills the room. In Brooklyn it’s a homeless sean nós singer at that Christmas dinner organised by the local priest.
“On my iPod I have Joe Heaney singing ‘Roaratorio’, written for him by John Cage. Now, Joe Heaney went to New York and worked as a doorman, so when it says, ‘That man has made LPs’ – the early recordings of all our traditional musicians were all made in New York, because there were loads of studios and basements for the jazz musicians, and they were cheap, and a lot of the musicians were there. I must have gone to a lecture by Mick Moloney on this subject, but Joe Heaney was on my mind. As far as I’m aware, he only ever gave one paying concert for the public, which I attended in 1982 in the National Concert Hall, not even in the hall but in the lobby. By that time he was an academic and had gone to work for some University in Seattle. But he first went to work as a doorman in New York because he couldn’t get anything else. So you couldn’t judge these (homeless) men, you couldn’t tell which of them was which.”
Did you intend this book to have any resonance with the modern day immigrant experience in Ireland?
“I thought that, especially here, people weren’t taking it on board, what it was like for all the people trying to get into Ireland from Poland or Nigeria or anywhere. They were missing home, there were all these things behind their lives, and Ireland was sort of, “These people are coming here and cadging our social services.”
“No memory. It was almost as though the people who left (Ireland) were banished, and in their banishment, people knew nothing about it, because it didn’t happen to them. Even if it happened to their brothers and sisters or aunts and uncles, somehow it was other and elsewhere. So when it came the other way, it seemed to have no resonance for people. When it emerged first, I was really shocked that they didn’t say, ‘Listen, we’ve got to actually behave impeccably about this.’
“And then of course when it happened on a personal basis, when people suddenly discovered their kid had a best friend in school, with lovely parents, they’d go crazy to stop an individual case, but in a referendum they’d vote the other way. So nobody was getting it. I think a lot of people felt, ‘Watch it – this is only going to bring us very bad luck.’ This lack of awareness of our own historical heritage. So I was slightly aware, as I suppose Joe O’Connor was when he wrote Star of the Sea, that this was something that needs to be written more and more.”
That’s the power of historical stories: you have your pick of any precedent, you can write about almost any modern social event through the prism of the past.
“And people can get it or not. I mean, I was writing the last bit of it in California during the intense debates between Clinton and Obama when 40 million immigrants were not mentioned once. In other words, they were going to damage their party a lot by the things they were saying about each other, but they weren’t going there. McCain had gone there all on his own, and even he was drawing back from it in his debates. I was watching it, going, ‘This is the great unmentionable. All around us are plumbers and carpenters, the people keeping this place going, 40 million of them, but they’re not to be mentioned in a campaign where every single thing has been said.’ I was really aware of that in America.
There’s a scene in the book that views the subject of segregation through the unlikely lens of nylon, when the Italian store where Eilis works begins to stock tights for African-American ladies.
“I couldn’t raise the subject myself, so I asked a friend of mine to ask an academic, an African-American woman of that age, could she help me. And she just said, ‘Tell him Red Fox’. So I Googled Red Fox, and they offered me on e-bay a pair of the stockings that you buy. And I did a reading in Stanford, and in the Q&A mentioned this, and Arnold Rampersad, who was the biographer of Ralph Ellison, came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I’ll check that for you,’ and he rang his mother-in-law and she said, ‘If you were African-American it was Red Fox, but if you were Caribbean or Puerto Rican or lighter-skinned black, then it was Sepia or Coffee. She also said that you could buy ordinary nylon stockings and boil them in coffee and that would give you what you wanted. I thought it was a terribly interesting idea.”
You made a point of writing a novel set in New York without any slyly prophetic Twin Towers references.
“No 9/11 shite. No scene where she comes to that spot where the Twin Towers were going to be built and sees something for a second. I was acutely conscious of not going near that, not even a hint of it. I was going to tiptoe backwards from it right across the Brooklyn Bridge with my eyes shut. I think it’s probably the first book set in the region since 9/11 that hasn’t said something about it.”
Why the conscious avoidance?
“In those years after 9/11, everyone felt their task was to somehow make sense of this, dramatise it or deal with it. And it subsequently became an assault on the idea of the novel; that the novel somehow had to respond to 9/11, whereas I’m not sure quite what Moby Dick had to respond to. In other words, it was as though it was the novel’s job to do what the newspapers were failing to do. When I was growing up, no one told me what the novel was for, so I sort of resented that idea.”
May I conclude with a dumb question?
“Yeah – great!”
How do you arrive at a name like Eilish for your main protagonist?
“It just came and I didn’t change it, and I meant to. And then I felt, ‘Fuck them. This is going to go out into the world maybe, and it would be good to have a name that no one knows how to say.’ I left it too long. I wrote it longhand and typed it up on a computer, but I don’t have the skills to do word search and change it every time.”
You go to ‘File’ and scroll down to the ‘Find’ and ‘Replace’ facility.
“If I’d known that I might have thought about it for a while. But I particularly love one of the brothers being called Martin. There’s something about a fella being called Martin Lacey in Enniscorthy that just fuckin’ urgently needs to be in a book!”