Section: Arts

On the Record: Colm Tóibín

On the Record: Colm Tóibín

You have expressed admiration for the poetry of Louise Glück. Her work has been described as “spare,” and many publications have characterized your own writing as “austere.” Do you consider Glück’s poetry to be an influence on your writing? More generally, how do you feel about your writing being described as “austere.”

You know, I don’t think I’m austere. I think if you woke up in the morning and said “Darling, I’m austere,” your friends would laugh at you and James Thurber could write a really good New Yorker cartoon about you. You know, “Hey, guys. I’m austere.” I think there’s a DNA involved in whatever style you write in. It’s almost like having a singing voice—some people have a bass, some people have a baritone, some people have a tenor.

I taught for a quarter in Stanford, in 2006. I think Eavan Boland who was the head of the department. She’s a poet. Just casually, I would go down to her office to find out what’s going on, and she would realize how little I knew, especially what’s going on in American culture then, and she suggested that I look into Louise Glück and I was astonished by the poems because I know people talk about the austerity and the chipping and cutting away and paring away, but I found her poems riveting and filled with feeling and I suppose that maybe that feeling is underneath — is an undercurrent — it’s a very strong undercurrent and she can use very little means to achieve a great deal of effect, but it wasn’t the means I was interested in, it was the effect. Certainly, there are a few books of mine that I have written since then that I don’t think I could have written had it not been for that encounter.

Your most recent work, House of Names, draws upon the narratives of Classical Greek tragedies. These works were originally written in a lyrical format. In adapting them, how did you consider the poetic structure of these tragedies? How else did these tragedies inform House of Names?

Not really. I took the story and every time I was stuck I went back to one of the versions just to get back into what happens next, how they’re structured as drama rather than as poetry: Who says what? Who exits there? Who comes back into the room? So it wasn’t the language of them — I mean it wasn’t the tone of them that I was using as much but the connection is — and it’s there in Louise Gluck as well is that if you have power? and you have speech you can get a funny sort of power with a heightened texture and a sort of eloquence that might come from the notion that the person speaking or writing is only doing them once and may not repeat this….Do you know this word everyone is using now called “mansplain?” People must have been saying it and I just missed it, but I was speaking to my class last semester and I said “Hold on what was that?” and they all laughed at me. I said “What does it mean?” And it also was really funny that I didn’t know what it meant, but I said “Oh my God. Have I been doing that all semester?” And they all sort of looked at me and were too polite to say “Well, yes, in fact.” But what’s the opposite of mansplaining? The opposite of mansplaining is where Antigone, Medea, Elektra, Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath … Joan Didion. A woman writing poem and so some how or other she has not spoken before or said this before so listen to her now because it may not come again. In other words the opposite is garrulous. So that the poetry I was interested in in those texts – in Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides- was when the woman gets to speak – what that sounds like now. And I was getting energy from that.

In Brooklyn, your main character is a young woman and she’s coming to a new country as an immigrant. Right now, in the U.S. and around the globe immigration is, obviously, a hot topic. What informed the theme of immigration in Brooklyn? Was it based your own experiences?

It was partly my own experience in that thing I’ve just been describing for you about going for a semester away from home, arriving with a bag in a foreign country and going in to sleep in a room that I was not familiar with the sounds in the morning…and eventually looking forward to going home. That was one thing. The other thing was that at the time I wrote that book, people were emigrating into Ireland. Ireland was taking people in for the first time in history. Normally, we emigrate. We arrive in your country or Australia or in England, but in the town I was writing about loads of Polish people had arrived, and loads of Chinese, and loads of Nigerians, and the country was very uneasy about this.

I thought it was astonishing that Ireland after all its history would be less than welcoming to people who were coming as either economic migrants or as asylum seekers, and people were really talking about “Oh asylum seeking is one thing if you grow up in a war zone but economic migrants well they’re not really…” I said what are you talking about? They’re looking for work and they’re looking for a new life. They’re doing exactly what we did all over the world. But I’ve found that society, almost by virtue of the fact that it has sent out so many people, has become cautious and inward looking. Brooklyn…it wasn’t a direct intervention in that debate but I was aware of that as writing it…You could read this book and say “Well, that’s how one person felt sad.” The next time you’re in your supermarket and there’s a Lithuanian woman at the checkout and she’s looking melancholy, spare a thought for her. [00:16:01]

In the address you delivered at Trinity College prior to the referendum on same-sex marriage, you noted that “other communities who have been oppressed – Jewish people, say, or Catholics in Northern Ireland – have every opportunity to work out the implications of their oppression in their early lives. They hear the stories; they have the books around them. As gay people, on the other hand, we grow up alone; there is no history.” Are authors of contemporary queer literature creating a shared history akin to that of the Jewish people? Can they ever truly catch up? Do you see your own work as contributing to a queer canon?

I don’t think it can catch up. Oddly enough, when something gets quoted back to you, you normally squirm and deny you said it and you’ve got to give it context and all that, but oddly enough with what you just read back: Yeah, I meant that and I’m glad I said it and I couldn’t put it better. I’m talking about a twelve year old or a thirteen year old. If you’re a 13 year old Palestinian you’re from this family, but it’s not as though you can be a 13 year old from an entirely gay, fully gay, family. It would be very unusual. If you’re gay, your brothers and sisters are gay, your parents are gay, your grandparents are gay, your aunts and uncles are gay, there must be such case, but it would be unusual. Gay people are, in the early years, as they attempt to deal with this and figure out what it means for them, alone. This is part of the reason why film and books become really vital because it allows them to look in the mirror. The ideas of looking into the mirror and seeing nothing is terrifying, it’s like you’re a vampire, a monster — there’s not you there. For this reason, many gay people will talk—as much as they are willing to talk about their first sexual experiences — about the first time that they came across a book, or a film or a TV show some image of themselves, something that startled them because it was so true and meant so much. It’s much like the novels of feminism and the feminine identity, like the books of Margaret Atwood. These are books that make a difference to those who read them and identify. This movie “Call Me by Your Name” that’s coming out — someone is going to go to that and think that might be how I felt that time. Whatever you say, that is liberation.

The British author Hilary Mantel came to Kenyon last year to deliver a keynote address. Many Kenyon students only knew about Mantel because of political writings on British issues, and specifically her writings on Margaret Thatcher. She was known foremost as a British writer who had attained international acclaim. You occupy a similar position, except as an Irish writer. Do you feel pressure to act as ambassador for Ireland, both as a writer and as an Irish citizen in the international spotlight?  

My friend Anne Enright has something really good to say about that. She said that she’s only Irish on Tuesday. And, you know, I think if you go around saying you’re the Irish ambassador, the actual Irish ambassador to the United States might say, ‘I’m the ambassador, if you don’t mind.’ I think that a writer’s job is to work on their sentences. And I think if you look at Hilary Mantel, she’s doing a pretty good job at that — and I think she was doing a pretty good job of that 25 years ago, it just took the world a pretty long time to notice and catch up with what she was doing as a stylist. I think if you start thinking when you’re writing, ‘I’m an ambassador,’ someone should hit you over the head hard to wake you to tell you that you’re not actually an ambassador, you’re a writer — and get on with it.

At the time of the referendum in Ireland, I realized something I could do was write speeches. I have a funny ear and I can write speeches — I can probably write speeches for a lot of people, including politicians. So I wrote politician’s speeches, and no one will ever know which ones I wrote, because the rule is you never say. And I also wrote some newspaper articles. Then I gave that speech at Trinity before the referendum on same-sex marriage because I was a gay guy and people had heard of me — and I was asked. I have also been involved in Catalonia and its relationship to Spain. I have really been working on that in that past few month or so. I have written about one piece a week on the subject because I used to live there and speak Catalan and I have some sense of what’s going on there. It’s interesting things like that, which happen every once in a while, where I can get involved. If you have began to think that you were important in some way, I think you’re going to end up like Norman Mailer. You know the phrase “Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York?” People just knew not to vote for him.

I’m all for Catalan independence, but there needs to be a massive debate about whether there should be independence, but what sort of independence and how Catalonia will deal with the matter of being a small country — the matter of the fact that everyone knows everyone, how jobs are given out, the matter of corruption. The idea that the deputy president of Catalonia was actually imprisoned, and not only that, but he is an openly gay politician and as the police were throwing him in prison, they made various homophobic remarks to him that are almost unrepeatable. It is just sickening. I think Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, is just one of the most sickening people in Europe at the moment. The sooner he’s got out of power, which will happen by the grace of God and the Spanish electorate in the next election, the better. We have so many blueprints for how to handle a secession movement, just look at, and this is what I always say, you will always win the argument if you just say, ‘Look at Canada.’ No matter what they say again, you will always win. Look at the relationship between anglophone Canada and French-speaking Quebec; just look at how that was done with so much respect for the other language, for the other culture, for the other people. And also with Northern Ireland, where it was worked out so that you can be Irish, you can be British — and you can be both. Catalan independence would begin a process of negotiation that would go on for years. You cannot, on the other hand, arrest elected politicians who are merely exercising their constitutional rights; even if they behaved illegally, they have not behaved violently.

We were struck by the unique writing conditions you impose upon yourself, which you described in an article in the Guardian. For example, we have never heard of a writer purposefully sitting in an uncomfortable chair while he writes, and we’re interested in why you hand write your works before typing them. How did you come to find that these exacting conditions were important to your writing process?

I sort of drifted in to writing. Years ago, I was traveling in Spain and the beginning of a book just occurred to me, but it was the time of typewriters — long before you were born — and I didn’t have one with me, I didn’t have access to one. So I went to a shop and I bought a big notebook and a pen and I went back to longhand and I wrote that whole book by hand. That book was “The Blackwater Lightship.” I almost enjoyed it — I mean, it was still work — but there was something about being able to actually touch my work. Another thing: There’s a terrible thing, which I’m actually sitting in right now, called a ‘master of the universe’ chair, which is made of hard plastic and allows you to swing around like you’re the head of the office and you can see what everyone else is doing. I don’t think that chair is a good idea when you’re writing. When you’re writing, you should be bent over, and you need to be in pain and your shoulders should be bent — you need to be pulling things up from within yourself. You can’t be too comfortable; it just isn’t good for your soul. 

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