The Wondrous Colm Toibin

I’m a bit of an author groupie. I admit it. There’s nothing better than listening to an author talk about how and why s/he does what s/he does. So, last week, when I had the opportunity to go and listen to Colm Toibin, author of one of my favorite books, Brooklyn, I was ridiculously excited. When a friend offered a VIP ticket, I was dizzy!

First: his name. In the Australian Radio National interview, below, you’ll see he says something like ‘collum toe bean’. Those are terrible phonetics, but I think you get it.

Here are the main ideas I took away from the public discussion at City University here in Hong Kong. Please note that this represents how I understood what he said. It may not be exactly what he intended!

On mothers as characters:
As characters, mothers can get in the way. They replace indecision and they can be an obstacle in a son or daughter’s journey. He said that characters need to grow away from their parents to become themselves.

On the difference between fiction and theatre:
Fiction lends itself to a lack of communication in a way that theatre can’t.

On home:
He said someone once said that home is where the heart breaks. He said home is where you keep your CDs. When he arrives in the US (where he teaches part of the year), the next morning, he misses Ireland. He misses things he doesn’t even like, like Irish bread. Out of this, he creates a short story every year. He talked about how, as a child, his family in Wexford would travel to the coast every year. His mother made them swim even if it was raining. He didn’t like it – it was miserable, but later, living in Dublin, he missed those beach holidays. He built a house on the cliffs where they’d holidayed as children. It’s kind of miserable, but when he’s not there, and he thinks of it, he likes it. When he stays there, the morning after he arrives, he wishes he were back in Dublin. He reminded us of Thomas Wolfe’s take: You can never go home. Colm said home is a place of the soul. He knows it and it knows him. He said he can’t work with a character at home. He needs to take them out—they need the displacement.

On writing female characters:
He said men often don’t talk about important things. Women worry about things. They’re more interesting to write because everything is a decision.

On writing what’s in the shadows:
Rather than write about the new marriage in Pride and Prejudice, he’d be interested in what happens five years later. He said love is of no use to a novelist. He wants to know what it’s like on a Monday. He’s interested in broken things and shadows—they’re much more interesting. (This was my favorite part.)

On writing a novel:
The idea of imagining others is a terribly important skill—desperately important. An idea’s not enough to write a novel. The characters have to move into a rhythm. The piece has to move of its own accord. It becomes something that matters. Take the first idea or paragraph as a gift and then work hard.

You must tell a story that you should not tell, must not tell. Break the rules. Open things up for people. Use parts of yourself that everyone else keeps secret. Reveal yourself. Our calling is a very serious one. Writing is rewriting and reading.

On writing the end to a novel:
It can’t be planned in too much detail. If you have an image of what the end has to look like, you’re condemning it. You need a looseness in your character development. See where it takes you. Don’t force the structure. The ending has to be organic rather than deliberate. He likes to find a way to vaguely establish some kind of future for the character—a door slightly open. You need an honest friend to read your ending. He said there’s no good ending for a book.

On his writing practice:
He said excuses are rubbish. In Barcelona, he went back to writing longhand. He said that even if you have to work in a windowless room, get down and do it. Reward yourself as necessary— for instance, with chocolate or checking email. We fight a constant battle against laziness and excuses. You can always find an hour in the day. There’s only one way to work. It’s to work.

I love the idea of writing what’s in the shadows. You can really feel that in Brooklyn. I felt often, while I was reading it, that the story was actually happening between the words. You understand so much that is not said. He’s really a great writer.

ABC Radio National Interview:


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