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Meet the WritersImage of Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín is a literary star of the "new" Ireland, the one -- as noted by National Public Radio's Jacki Lyman -- is short on whiskey and St. Patrick and long on cell phones, personal computers, and a stage set for economic opportunity. This is an Ireland where the people stop to cheer an author, yes, an author, whose latest novel has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its key subject matter is the protagonist's struggle with his homosexuality.

"When I went down to get my groceries, people stopped their car and got out of them and waved at me and looked at me as though I was an athlete and shouted at me, ‘Come on, you can do it. You can do it,' " Tóibín said on NPR's All Things Considered in 2000. "And I basked in the sunshine of Irish approval and love for about three weeks.... You know, sort of -- I keep wondering when this, you know, backlash or something is going to happen, but I'm afraid it isn't going to happen. I'm afraid the country has changed, and being a writer there is actually quite a nice thing these days."

In fiction, travelogues, essays, and newspaper columns, Tóibín has established himself as a writer who can connect both the political and the personal to a sense of place. Though his work has often been informed by the political history of Ireland, he has also drawn on his travels to places like Spain and Argentina to create settings for his work.

And, even though his current home of Dublin has never made an appearance in any of his fiction, the environs of his youth -- County Wexford -- have been prominent.

The Washington Post, in a 2000 review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, which Tóibín edited, called him a "journalist and critic of influence, a brilliant novelist steadily harvesting his own postage-stamp piece of Wexford as diligently as Faulkner worked Mississippi."

"Colm Tóibín has established himself as a major and distinctive voice in contemporary Irish fiction," the Dictionary of Literary Biography has noted. "While his work makes much of the complex associations between people and place, he eschews easy stereotypes of Irishness in favor of the often-contradictory impulses that pull on contemporary lives.

Tóibín was born into a family that had a long history in his hometown. His father, who died when Tóibín was 12, was a local schoolteacher, and his grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was twice imprisoned by British authorities for civil disobedience against British rule.

Tóibín explored this history as a writer, following four years teaching English in Barcelona, Spain. He began as a features editor but moved to editing a current affairs magazine and joined the Sunday Independent in Dublin in 1985 as a columnist. As an author, he started by writing travelogues on Ireland and Spain before publishing his first novel in 1990. The South, which draws on Ireland's Catholic-Protestant tensions as well as Tóibín's life in Spain, is about an Irish woman who leaves her husband and son and moves to Spain, falls in love with a political artist, and returns to Ireland as an artist herself, once her son is grown.

This novel would establish Tóibín's reputation as a writer with a keen sensibility for characterization ("His novels have been noted for their deft characterizations, particularly of women, as evidenced by the strong female protagonist in The South," noted Contemporary Literary Criticism), but it wasn't until later novels such as The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship that readers would realize his insight into gay characters as well.

"This is not a simple, upbeat story about gay liberation or political activism," Merle Rubin wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 1997. "Powerfully imagined and tautly written, it is a subtly shaded portrait of a country in transition, a culture beginning to reflect important political changes, and a man coming to a new understanding of himself."

David Bahr, writing in The Advocate in 2000, predicted that The Blackwater Lightship -- now that it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- would finally make Tóibín known outside his magazine's primary readership: "His latest...should finally prove to straight American readers what many gay people have long known: that Tóibín is one of the more honest and subtly powerful novelists publishing today.... Perceptive and moving, The Blackwater Lightship again reveals Tóibín to be the kind of restrained, quiet writer whose prose feels as natural as breathing. His poetic narrative is so understated that its profound lyricism often takes you by surprise, infusing a potentially familiar tale with vibrant new life."

Mixing fiction and biography in 2004, Tóibín penned a novel inspired by the life of Henry James. "Ambitious and gracefully plotted," said the New Statesman. In the pages of London's Observer, a previous Tóibín skeptic confessed he had been swayed. "There's little in Colm Tóibín's previous work, to some of which this reviewer has been immune or even mildly allergic, to prepare for the startling excellence of his new novel," Adam Mars Jones wrote, "The Master is a portrait of Henry James that has the depth and finish of great sculpture."

Moving fully into nonfiction, Tóibín continued to impress.

The New Statesman observed that The Irish Famine: A Documentary was "no arid survey of the historiography of the famine, but a stimulating quest, prompted by a personal and vocational curiosity. And Joseph Olshan, writing in Entertainment Weekly in 1995, awarded Tóibín's The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe an A, not only for its ability to dissect the Church's close relationship with European politics and social order. "[W]hat Tóibín comes back to is the transcendent power of Catholic ritual," Olshan writes. "Indeed, in a very moving centerpiece, Tóibín describes a therapy session during which he relives his father's death and comes to realize that his most profound wish is to bless his deceased parent with the sign of the cross. This is an extraordinary document."

But it may always be the intensely personal moments in his fiction that will always stand out. Susan Salter Reynolds noted as much in the Los Angeles Times in 2000. "There is little reconciliation in Colm Tóibín's novels; moments in which the stage is set for it usually pass," she wrote. "His novels build to these moments, fraught with potential, from which the air goes out with a nasty little hiss, and a new chapter, full of reasons not to live, begins.... It's good to read Tóibín's honest novels, in which human beings fail to forgive, fail to understand. We spend so much of our lives in the dark, shouldn't literature face this as squarely as we must?"

  (Arthur McCune)

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Good to Know
Tóibín's novel The Story of Night is No. 84 on the Publishing Triangle's list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels of all time.

He counts two books by James Baldwin -- Giovanni's Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain -- as major influences on his work.

Tóibín covered the downfall of the military dictatorship in Argentina in 1985.

He joined such authors as Roddy Doyle in the 1997 novel Finbar's Hotel, in which each of the seven authors wrote individual chapters set in the same 24-hour period at a fading hotel.

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In the summer of 2004, Colm Tóibín took some time to answer some of our questions about his favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
I read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises when I was 16 or 17. I loved the glamour, the sour wisdom, and the range or characters. I had never thought of going to Spain, but the book made me love Spain and want to go there. I didn't know then how powerfully the prose style of the book would affect me, how the emotion was all hidden, and the sentences seemed so plain and yet were so powerful.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
In no particular order:

  • Company by Samuel Beckett -- This is a late short work, mesmeric, full of repetitions starts and stops. Every word has an astonishing weight and every sentence a sort of gruff music. Nothing happens. But a voice speaks. And it is the tone and quality of that voice which haunts and holds. This is a master class in tone and texture.

  • A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion -- I came to this book when I had started to work as a journalist and had already read Didion's The White Album, which I loved and admired. But there was an extraordinary power behind this novel, wonderful sharp sentences and brilliant use of repetition, great sense of observation and comedy. Again, a stunning use of voice.

  • Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann -- The Second World War is coming to an end; an old humanist in Germany, devastated by what has become of his country, tells the story of his doomed friend, the genius composer Adrian Leverkuhn. This is complex and dense, a novel which deals with tradition as tragedy, with lectures on German music, and always in the background a sense of evil encroaching. The minor scenes and characters are fascinating, they read like gossip against the heavier, more Germanic sequences. I love the use of history and scholarship and then the great sense of character and story.

  • Daniel Deronda by George Eliot -- This is a sprawling big novel, a story of unrequited love and unhappy marriage, with much sensuality and mystery, much foolishness and a great deal of wisdom. It is, for the first half, a sweeping drama of the old sort, and then slowly it becomes a novel about the origins of Zionism. I love Deronda more than I love anyone else in fiction. I love his earnestness, his good humor, his seriousness and intensity, his dutiful nature. But I also love Gwendolyn, who is flighty and rash and deserves what she gets until she gets it.

  • Age of Iron by J. M Coetzee -- Again, voice. An old woman is dying. It is the last days of apartheid. South Africa is falling apart. This is her letter to her daughter. The prose is taut, nervous; our narrator has a sharp intelligence but does not suffer from self-pity. An old tramp haunts her house; she gets caught in a riot; her body decays. The style is riveting, utterly convincing.

  • Amongst Women by John McGahern -- This is a lesson in how to structure a novel and how to modulate a tone. But you don't notice the skill at first; you notice the plot and the characters and the rhythms of the story, which seem as natural and elemental as the seasons. It is the story of old Moran, an Irish tyrant, and his three daughters. It is a perfect novel whose simplicity is deeply deceptive, but no less compelling for that.

  • The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James -- This is a great cathedral of a novel. It is perfectly made, exquisite in its style and detail and construction. But is also contains a sense of evil, of real duplicity and treachery. It is a great American novel in that it deals with a woman in possession of a bright openness to life and experience, wanting as innocently as she can everything from life. Her very skill at self-invention and self-reliance makes her prey to darker forces whom she does not recognize but will slowly come to know.

  • The Trial by Franz Kafka -- This a great nightmare, which, when you wake up from it, is replaced by a nastier reality. Kafka was not playing a game with this but sets up the arrest and detention of his hero with immense conviction, down to every strange detail and piece of embarrassment and piece of cruelty, so that you become him and hope that he will survive, while the author seems to laugh darkly in the background at your foolishness.

  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe -- Achebe caught a Nigerian community at the moment of change from a tightly knit and organic society to the new world order, when colonial forces would destroy the old quasi-feudal and equally oppressive world. This reads like a ballad, and its procedures have the same melancholy inevitability as the words of a beautiful old song.

  • Island by Alistair McLeod -- These are the collected stories of a great Canadian storyteller. They are full of the harsh, bleak landscape of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, where family loyalties are fierce, where memory brings a terrible sadness with it. McLeod writes with great tenderness, handling time and place with a master's skill. His characters are deeply rooted, and thus when uprooted, live a deeply gnarled existence. He writes with very special ease about childhood and old age.

  • The Enigma of Arrival by V. S. Naipaul -- This is a novel about exile and solitude, a slow-moving and gripping novel about the sort of life which the author himself, in exile from Trinidad, has lived in England. He is very observant; nothing is lost on him. He does not miss home, but misses some larger completion that evades him as he walks the lanes of England and works on his sentences. Slowly, the novel builds up a sort of power, created, I think, by sheer levels of intense concentration on a single consciousness and a single experience. And out of it comes something universal and strange.

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen -- This is the flowering of the English novel. It is witty and wise; there is not a single flaw in this book, or a single moment that you do not relish. When people are good in Austen, they are very, very good, with a refined sensibility matched with kindness and intelligence and sensitivity. When they are bad, mostly they are only slightly bad, unless they are funny and then they are very, very funny.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • Chinatown by Roman Polanski -- Of all the films, I would take this to a desert island and I love meeting someone else who loves it too and talking all night about it. Every line of dialogue, every visual joke and connection, the overall intricate story, Nicholson and Dunaway's performances, all of this makes for a piece of pure perfection, improved only by watching it another time.

  • Autumn Sonata by Ingmar Bergman -- I snapped up the DVD of this as soon as it appeared. It is a two-hander between two of the greatest actresses in the world with a script that is magnificently intense and beautifully joyless. Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman play daughter and mother. The film happens over a long night, accusation heaped upon accusation, with no light and no forgiveness. I wish every film (except Chinatown) was like this.

  • Amarcord by Fellini -- I also make an exception for this, which is a great memory film, golden and funny and classically Italian, with scenes of such hilarity and warmth and beauty. It must have been a joy to write and make and it feels like that still when you watch it.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I never listen to music when I am writing. It would be impossible. I listen to Bach in the mornings, mostly choral music; also some Handel, mostly songs and arias; I like Schubert's and Beethoven's chamber music and Sibelius' symphonies; for opera, I listen to Mozart and in recent years Wagner.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    I think I would love to be a member of a book club that would just read George Eliot for her wisdom, her bravery, her knowledge, and her plotlines and characters.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I like to get dictionaries. I love giving whatever new novel or book of poetry I have been enjoying.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I am violently untidy. My desk is overcrowded. I write my first drafts in longhand in a long notebook using a plastic throwaway fountain pen. Then I work on a word processor using a different desk and a different room.

    What are you working on now?
    I have my first play opening on August 16th at the Abbey Theatre, the Irish National Theatre. The first draft was quick and easy, the many rewritings have been hard as hell. We did a studio workshop recently for three days, and it was amazing to see the actors working on the lines and ways to make it all more exciting. I am for the first time in 25 years writing poetry and recently published a poem in the Times Literary Supplement. I am also writing some short stories and plotting a novel in my head. (I never take notes.)

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    My first novel was turned down by about twenty publishers over a period of two and a half years. Because my name is Irish and would not be familiar to English editors, one of them said: "If she writes anything else, do let us know." Slowly, very slowly, the books began to sell and be noticed.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
    There is a young Irish novelist and playwright called Stuart Carolan who should be snapped up. His first play, Defender of the Faith, was performed here recently to packed houses. His first novel should soon be finished.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    It is important to find a publisher and equally important not to be noticed until your third or fourth book. Finish everything you start.

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  • About the Writer
    *Colm Tóibín Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *The South: A Novel, 1990
    *Homage to Barcelona, 1990
    *Heather Blazing, 1992
    *The Sign Of The Cross: Travels In Catholic Europe, 1994
    *The Story of the Night, 1996
    *Blackwater Lightship, 1999
    *Finbar's Hotel, 2000
    *The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, 2000
    *Love in a Dark Time, 2002
    *The Master, 2004
    Photo by Bruce Weber