An Interview with Colm Tóibín

By Ahsem Anwar Kabir, Contributing Writer

Over the weekend of November 3, I was in Dayton, OH attending the annual Dayton Literary Peace Prize. I have an article covering that prize at large in Washington Square News that can be found here: I also conducted an interview with this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Colm Tóibín. Tóibín is an Irish novelist with a career that spans twenty-seven years and eleven novels. He has won several prestigious literary awards, such as the Booker Prize, and the Los Angeles Times novel of the year. I also see a Nobel Prize in his future. He is currently a visiting professor at Columbia University.

AK: I’m always interested in the debut of an author, or any artist, like how a novel is gestated. And according to your afterword in The South, the gestation period was quite long, like almost a decade. So, how did you remain resilient through it, and what else did you do in that time?

CT: I started the novel when I was working as a journalist. And I was working intensely as a journalist, in other words, by the time I begun, you know, I’d written a bit of it, but, I took a job as the editor of the Main Arts Count Affairs magazine. I was 27. And the novel became a mixture of things for me. One was a release from the daily business, of current affairs: where I was writing about art, about exile, about sex, about, you know, Spain. So it became a way of just having my own private world. And it was also hard, because I didn’t have much spare time. And, so, the problem when I finished it was that nobody would publish it. And the agent I wanted- young agent- said “it needs a lot of work.”. And I said “what?” I didn’t understand what she meant. So I said “well what needs work?” And she said she didn’t know. So that was really disappointing. So I went back and I worked again on it and eventually she agreed to do it. But even so, nobody would pub- I mean it was really turned down by everybody. Eventually, a small publisher in London did it, and once it came out- once it was in print- somehow it seemed that had given it an authority that it didn’t seem to have in manuscript. And people started to want it… for example, it was bought in America, it was bought in various other countries. But… what was difficult was a lot of my contemporaries- people younger than me- were publishing their first and second books, during all this time. So everybody knew I had written a novel, and said “when’s your novel coming?” and I said, “well I don’t have a publisher for it.” So there were definitely difficult times, and it was difficult to start a second book, under that pressure.

AK: Okay, and I mean I guess that ties into the next one. So, afterwards would you say that since you had the affirmation- that it got easier, to write each book?

CT: No, and it’s still not the case. The case sometimes is that you think you’re working on something that’s coming right… and it isn’t. And you need a year… I mean, really, the more time you put into thinking about a book, the more you live with it, before you write it. The more, then- when you do it- you know what the arc is, or the drama is, or the character is. If you go quickly into a book, you know, idea, start writing and try to finish, there’ll be something jagged and fully unimagined about a book. And it doesn’t matter how experienced you get. You can rush into something because you get an initial excitement having written a first paragraph, or having thought of an idea. And because I now have more discipline, more time, I could write a book maybe quicker than I did my first book, but sometimes when you do that you only have a draft of a book, and the problem is you don’t know that. You think “Oh my god-” Cause if you think “I’m only writing a draft”, you won’t put any really hard work into the book. So you think you’re finishing it. You think it’s finished. And it’s not.

AK: You don’t want to edit it.

CT: It’s not just editing… it has to be- some of it has to be- rethought, to be re-seen. Working in the theater has helped me a bit, because in the theater, if you’re working with actors or directors, you’re always rewriting. You’re always rethinking. You’re always reimagining an initial script. I mean, so the theater has been useful.

AK: Okay, so like they force you to revise things more.

CT: Yeah, the actress suddenly says, “there’s something I could do”… and it’s like “Okay, right! yeah!” and you start seeing it, in rehearsal. And it’s like “Okay. Tomorrow morning I’ll have that scene for you.”

AK: Okay, so if you see it acted out, then it makes-

CT: Yes, yeah.

AK: Okay. I guess the next question, it’s fast forwarding to the newest book, House of Names. So I read it, and it’s very, I would say, different from your other work in that it’s a retelling of a historical tragedy. So did you always have an interest in this story, or did you recently get that interest and where did that interest come from?

CT: Um, I certainly… the Electra part of the story was always there. But this was when I’d read a play that I’d not read before by Euripides called Iphigenia in Tauris, which gives the story from Clytemnestra’s point of view. And once I saw that, I thought, “Oh my god, I could work with this”, because I have a new way, new perspective on it. So for years it was lying dormant as the Electra. Then of course, once I realized that the son, the Arestes part had to be added, that was all news to me because I had to make this kid, and give this kid these attributes. He’s capable of murdering his own mother. What sort of person is he? So I had to sort of make him. But I did have one element of the story all along, which was always in the back of my head, of writing a version of Electra. There’s a novel [of mine] called The Blackwater Lightship, set in Ireland, which is a sort of retelling of the Electra story, set in a contemporary setting, which is Ireland.

AK: Yeah, and so it was sort of-

HP: Hey, I hate to break you up cause you always have great questions-

AK: Thank you.

HP: But, they need to get him back to the hotel. So if-

CT: Okay, so we can do one more question?

AK: Yeah, one more, one more.

HP: Okay then, come that way.

AK: Alright, I’m sorry. One more I guess is, on your Wikipedia page, it says that you work under painful, austere working conditions?

CT: [laughing] I just- I told somebody that, that I don’t use one of those swing chairs. [Writing is] hard work. It’s not like running the universe. It’s not like swinging around. You know those modern chairs? I use a hard wooden chair, and a pen.

AK: Hm. Cause it’s- your work is a lot about the process of creativity and stuff, so how you feel that being in pain-

CT: Well not exactly pain, but not being in comfort, not feeling this is a sort of pleasure, not feeling this is a great adventure, and I’m really excited, and- it’s all got to be darker, slower, stranger, and more painful.

AK: Okay. got you. Well, thank you. I appreciate it. You’re really busy, but thank you for finding the time.

CT: See you.


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