Colm Tóibín is an Irish writer. His books include The Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn and, most recently, House of Names. He was the recipient of the Kenyon Review’s Award for Literary Achievement prize. He delivered the Denham Sutcliffe in Rosse Hall on Saturday, Nov. 11.
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? 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. 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.
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 a hot topic. What informed the theme of immigration in Brooklyn? Was it based your own experiences?
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 immigrate. 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. 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.
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?
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. 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. 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 no 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. Whatever you say, that is liberation.
We were struck by the unique writing conditions you impose upon yourself, which you described in an article in the Guardian. How did you come to find that these 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.
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 somehow 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.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.