Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 2004
Republished here, to celebrate Toibin’s 3rd appearance on the Man Booker Longlist. (He made the shortlist for the Blackwater Lighthouse and The Master.)
A visiting novelist recently expressed huge admiration for Colm Tóibín. She said her ambition was to emulate him in writing with huge emotion, yet utter clarity.
“You have to feel it before you write it,” says Tóibín when we meet to discuss ‘The Master,’ his new novel based on the life of Henry James. “It’s like the start of music. It is quite limited in its register but you can get a lot of expression and emotion in to it if you feel it enough.”
‘The Master’ is Tóibín’s 5th novel; his 4th, The Blackwater Lightship was short listed for the Booker. He is translated into 22 languages, and he has written 5 non fiction works. He was brought up in Wexford, a county to have produced many of our best writers.
“Yes we’re all really smart,” he agrees, suggesting this might be because of the racial mix found in the county.
There’s a touch of the exotic about Tóibín- an attentive interviewee who fixes me with intense, long lashed brown eyes. After a spell when he escaped the restraints of Ireland, and taught English in Barcelona, he worked as a journalist, and he feels the discipline has helped his writing.
“You’re always alert to the immediate reader. You don’t write for yourself, and if you don’t achieve clarity in journalism...” he shrugs. His news writing, in particular helped him in his writing of ‘The Master,’ as with reams of research available, he needed to focus on the important points of the story.
Always fascinated by James’s work, Tóibín was astonished to discover how much of his life informed his writing. But with biographies out there on most of the members of the James family, wasn’t it tough blurring fact and fiction?
“The main thing is to only do it once,” he says. “I stayed at home and read, but I didn’t take any notes. I never do. It’s got to be in your mind.”
There are eleven sections in ‘The Master,’ and it’s a fascinating study of a man who never faced up to his sexuality. There are scenes that are resonant with desire, with missed chances and misunderstandings. Does Tóibín think James died a virgin?
“I do,” he says, adding that it was a much worse time to be gay then than now. So he doesn’t envy James? “I don’t pity him. It was a glamorous life, but he never had much success in his lifetime, until younger novelists understood his great achievement.”
“I enjoyed making up this world that was so far from my own,” he says. “I enjoyed describing James’ complex life, and bringing in minor characters I invented, like the Russian Princess at the start of the novel.”
There is a wonderful line in the novel, which turns the idea of ‘writer’s block’ on its head. Henry James ‘believed that he would spend the coming months working on stories, and perhaps be fortunate enough not to have the inspiration for a new novel until well into the New Year.’
“That’s actually a line from a novelist friend of mine,” says Tóibín, breaking into laughter. “I said ‘what’s wrong?’ and he said, ‘I hope I won’t have another idea until after Christmas.’”
“I remember when the whole ‘Blackwater Lightship’ thing came to me. I remember thinking ‘what I would love would be a Summer where I could swim and maybe write short stories, or write a nice novel about nice people, and instead I am facing this novel about an Irish family in Wexford set over 6 days on a tiny canvas with a bleak landscape. It’s the last thing I want.”
‘The Master’ opens in January 1895, when James’s first play is about to open. He’s anxious; having never seen anyone read his work. The play is a disaster. Colm Tóibín hasn’t seen anyone read his work either. And his first play is to open at ‘The Peacock’ in August.
“I had already written the first chapter of ‘The Master’ when I got the letter from the Abbey asking me if I’d like to write a play. Part of the reason for saying ‘yes’ was that I’d written this chapter. I thought it would be funny to write one.”
But isn’t he afraid that his play will follow James’s to oblivion?
“Obviously I’ll not be suffering from tremendous equilibrium on the evening. There are a number of jokes in the play. If they don’t laugh at them the whole thing is gone. But if they do it will be tremendously satisfying.”
Tóibín adores the freedom of the writer’s life. He lives fairly quietly, becoming totally gregarious on visits to New York and London. But he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in Dublin.
“I missed out on all the changes that have happened,” he says. “They happened in my absence, or despite me. I don’t know what to make of it. The new restaurants have no resonance for me.”
He’s more than happy with the changes in publishing though, and respects Cecelia Ahern.
“It’s remarkable that someone her age should spend all night writing, and would want to win fame as a novelist in an age of video,” he says. “Here comes this girl with no literary background, but it’s what she wants to do. Publishing has to have all that glamour and profit. That’s what keeps the show on the road.”
When I ask Tóibín what he would most like someone to say about his work, he is lost for words. After a long, long silence he says,
“That you offer the reader some comfort. Often you get comforted by recognising something that’s true or that’s new. That you can deal with. Somebody whose brother had died sent me a CD of songs. She said, your novel- The Blackwater Lightship- was so helpful. It just got me through. If it did that for her, then that’s great.
Then he grins, showing his sharp, crooked teeth.
“Let them just finish the bloody book and buy the next one” he says.
The Master cy Colm Tóibín is published by Picador at 23.19 euro.