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On the morning of Friday, April 3rd, the highly decorated Irish author Colm Tóibín found himself in a rather unusual position: seated in front of a class of twelfth graders at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School on Euclid Street. The school visit was part of Tóibín’s participation in the PEN/Faulkner Foundation’s Writers in Schools program, which brings writers who participate in the non-profit’s Reading Series into D.C. public high school classes to discuss their work.
Tóibín’s work as a novelist, journalist, non-fiction writer, and playwright has garnered much acclaim. His novel The Blackwater Lightship (1999) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, as was The Master (2004), which also won the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year.
At Banneker, Tóibín fielded questions about his latest novel, Brooklyn, which will be released in America on May 5th. I sat down with him after the class to discuss various topics, including his writing style, his coming-of-age as a gay writer in Ireland and the persistence of overly phallic writing at a certain American M.F.A. program.
So how did you enjoy the visit to Banneker High School this morning?
I dread schools. I don’t do them much, because I find the gap between what you do and the kids’ perception of that is too great. Though you might often get one kid who is absolutely interested, it’s a cross between a freak show and time off. So I really wasn’t looking forward to it. . . It’s actually the best time I’ve ever had with students. It wasn’t just that they were intelligent, but there was an openness in the way they would look at you. It was very inspiring; they were much better than reviewers.
You began your career as a writer by writing journalism and continued to do so after your first novel, The South, came out in 1990. If you’re in the practice of writing journalism, how does an idea for a novel form in your head?
Often you start with a single image, and you don’t know what it is, so quite often it’s hard to remember exactly where it began. But it’s often very small. I don’t take notes; I don’t have a diary. If it is important enough, it will stay in your mind. Then what happens is stranger. Suddenly, . . . that image . . . becomes an idea, and this can happen in a second. You just glance at the sky, or you can be walking down the street, or you’re just looking down into your coffee, and suddenly you realize, “Oh my god, that is where that is going.” It can be quite overwhelming, in that something so small can suddenly become a plan for a book.
There are autobiographical elements to Brooklyn: Eilis is from Enniscorthy, your home town, and she, like you, emigrated from Ireland in her early twenties. Given the similarities between your own life and your protagonist’s, why did you decide to cast a woman rather than a man in that role?
I think if I had made her one of her brothers, for example, she wouldn’t have been as open. In other words, her weekends would have been much more about going out with guys, drinking, having confidence. . . Whereas guys could swagger around in groups, girls were never given a sense of entitlement to do anything and didn’t even seek entitlement. . . There can be much more going on beneath all the time, an inwardness going on all the time in her. . . I wanted to get the experience of someone who was totally sensitive to [her environment], even damaged by it, affected by it, and would always keep things to herself. It never occurred to me to make her a man.
As a novelist, you tend to craft your stories within a fairly conventional form rather than experimenting with different forms. Do you ever consider trying to write a more experimental novel?
I’ve been trying to write about them; I’ve been writing a lot recently about Donald Barthelme in the New York Times, and I’ve written a piece on Flan O’Brien, on Pesoa, Borges, and all that. In my own work, what I do is just get a tone and stick with it. The tone, as you say, is ostensibly quite traditional, but what I’m trying to work with are levels of secrecy and silence that go beneath words. So a sentence which might seem quite simple actually is concealing a lot. It’s really quite difficult to do because you really have to concentrate on not getting it wrong. But you’re absolutely right that the novels are formally conventional, and that’s done because I really couldn’t do the other type. I’d love to write a big, strange, sprawling book.
You are an openly gay writer living in Ireland, a country whose culture is known for having been less than progressive when it comes to gay rights. I’d like to ask you a question about the following passage from your nonfiction work Love in a Dark Time, and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature:
Some of the greatest writers of the age [between the Victorian era and 1993, when laws against homosexuality in Ireland were rescinded] were fully alert to their own homosexuality. In their work, they sought to write in code…
You published The Story of the Night, a novel that deals openly with homosexual sex and relationships, in 1996, just three years after homosexuality was legalized. Before that book, did you ever feel like you were “writing in code”?
I suppose I did worry before The Story of the Night, and certainly because I was dealing with London editors. . . In other words, [to Londoners,] the idea that someone was still in Ireland—Ireland seemed so strange. We could talk about everything, except that, almost. . . But I have to say that although the law was changed in ’93, the attitudes changed much earlier. The law was delayed by ten or fifteen years, so that I probably should have written the book earlier. It is possible in the first novel The South, that [homosexuality] is there somewhere in that book, if you read that book a certain way.
It’s something I’ve had to be careful with. I suppose I learned to say, “I’m Irish and I’m gay, and male,” and at times those things don’t interest me. At times a character doing something else would interest me more, and I’ll want just to escape from it slightly in a book. There’s a slight lesbian scene in [Brooklyn], but since I’ve written the novel I’ve written a few very explicitly gay stories. It moves back and forth; it’s almost like playing different instruments. And I think gay people have a right to be many other things besides gay. And I think it’s a funny right, that you have to assert sometimes, such as, “I’m gay but I also really love baseball,” you know what I mean? So in other words, it comes and goes in the fiction.
When you were writing The Blackwater Lightship, which is not only about a gay character but about a gay character with AIDS, were you ever aware of the possibility that your novel might be interpreted as an attempt to push a social agenda or effect social change?
I never wanted to write that book. I was desperate not to write the book, but it kept coming to me. But it was also a book about the three women. Once the story came to me, as how it could be done, it wasn’t pushing a social agenda as much as dramatizing the social agenda. So at the end of the book, you’re as sorry for the mother as you are for anybody. I was dramatizing a social situation rather than preaching.
I read your interview in The Manchester Review, and my favorite part of that interview was when you said, “I’m against a whole grain in American writing which is male, macho, so I don’t encourage any guys to write about penises.” Can you tell me to whom you were referring?
Yeah, in Texas I found, at Austin, in the first class that everybody was doing it, and all the girls were sitting there while the guys were describing it. And I said, “If you want to write about your prostate operation, go ahead.” But one guy was going, “He was rock-hard all night”—give me a break here. Give me, you know, erectile dysfunction—that would be interesting, but this is not. Why don’t we forget about it all semester? Next semester, all you guys can get back to it, but I’m not having any more of it. I’m retiring it.
Which contemporary American writers interest you?
Jeffrey Eugenides has only written two books, but they’re both amazing. I read Toby Wolff, Richard Ford—that sort of school—Raymond Carver. But there’s also another school who, I suppose, are much more difficult: a line going from someone like Donald Barthelme to David Foster Wallace.
Every so often, there is one writer that, like a lot of writers and readers, I go back to, and that is Alice Munro. You just go across the room, and you get Alice Munro, and you just go, “Oh, oh.” Twisting the story, and the plainness of some of the writing.
I have to ask what you think of this line, from a story by Alice Munro called “Material.” In the story, the narrator describes the process by which a writer learns to transform a person from real life into a fictional character. The narrator calls this “an act of unsparing, unsentimental love.”
It’s also an act of unsparing, unsentimental treachery. I know no one who’s ever not done it. Once it occurs to you to do it, you go there. Sometimes it’s very wrong, and you know it’s wrong. In other words, you’re taking something that isn’t yours. . . Elizabeth Bishop describes it, and the term she uses for it is “infinite mischief.”
But it’s also, perhaps, an act of love in the sense that for some reason something that you know matters so much to you, even though it belongs to somebody else, that you want to write it down. It’s a very complicated business. . . My friend Fintan O’Toole said, “The biggest nightmare for a parent would be to have a novelist child.”
Download a full transcript of the interview here.