'I've waited all these years to write Nora Webster...'
With his new novel, Colm Tóibín has finally found a way to write about the death of his father
Colm Tóibín will turn 60 on his next birthday, but you can still see the impish boy in him, always up for a conspiracy, always up for some fun. The last thing he wants to do is talk about himself. His natural curiosity about people means he'd much rather find out everything there is to know about you, so the experience of interviewing him ultimately feels not unlike wrestling him to the ground and kneeling on both shoulders until he agrees to answer a question about himself. Speaking metaphorically, of course.
He's incredibly good company. His conversation is a delightful mix of entertaining stories collected over a lifetime spent observing the famous and powerful, confidential comments passed stagily sotto voce and serious thought, although he prefers not to ruin a good social evening by indulging in the latter.
He arrives wearing a pristine white shirt, open at the neck, and an oatmeal jacket, perfect for the mild October weather we have been having. His latest novel, Nora Webster, tells the story of the title character after the death of her husband. Left with two young sons, and living in Enniscorthy, Toibin's home town, Nora has to figure out a path to a new life beyond marriage in small-town Ireland of the 1960s. It's the first time Toibin has told this story in fiction, which is based loosely on his own experience.
"I've waited all these years because I just couldn't see a way to do it. What happened at home was, my father died when I was 12 and myself and my younger brother were there with my mother in the house for the next few years, and because it was so much around silence and things not said, no big dramas, just greyness, I couldn't see a way into it. I couldn't get a shape for it. I certainly wouldn't have written a memoir about it because there was nothing to remember.
"And yet, it makes its way into some of the books along the way. Vaguely and obliquely. There's one section in The Silent Cross where I talked about doing therapy with Ivor Browne where it comes up, but that's completely autobiographical.
The book had its origins almost 15 years ago. "In the spring of 2000, in the aftermath of the Booker prize [he was shortlisted for the Blackwater Lightship in 1999 and went on to win the prize in 2004 with The Master], I went to stay in a writers' residence place in Florence and it sounds like it's going to be great, but in fact, it was a bad spring. It was damp and you couldn't really go out much because it rained. So I worked, and I wrote the first chapter of The Master and the first chapter of Nora Webster. So I've had all the years then to add to it and think about it. The problem is a lot of material wouldn't work with it. If you write it down as it was, it falls apart for the reader. It's like someone just moaning or groaning."
There is a feeling that Nora is forging her way under the watchful eyes of a small community, but Tóibín wasn't trying to create a suffocating atmosphere. "It's only suffocating sometimes. Other times it's very nourishing. She's being looked after. There's no chance she's going to be unprotected, there's a lot of protection, people watching her, people being tactful, as well as tactless. If you go to a funeral in a country town, the whole community is out, it's not necessarily stifling. It's not valley of the squinting windows."
Another shared experience that comes out in the book is Donal's stammer. Tóibín developed a stammer after his own father died. "There was nothing I could do about it. It was really frightening because no one else had one. It came out again when I went to learn Spanish because I had obviously worked a way through every English word and how to say it and control everything, but when it came to the new language it came again and I couldn't control it."
I wonder was Tóibín anything like Donal when he was a boy. "Poetry became my thing. Being a little 12-year-old and writing poetry, it had to be kept a secret because no one else was reading poetry. I published a lot of poetry in Eirigh, run by the Capuchin order. That dried up, the inspiration. Being any good at it dried up too. By the time I was 20, Paul Muldoon had his first book out, and in UCD, there were poets like Aidan Matthews and then Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney, and I remember the level of linguistic sophistication and rhythmic skill was so enormous that I felt I was still stuck as a 12-year-old."
He went to Spain after finishing college and when he came back, he started work on his debut novel. He was editing Magill magazine at the time and says the book kept him going in some ways, but when he finally completed it, nobody would publish it. "It took me two years and two months to find a publisher for it. And I got £1,500 for it. I was delighted."
He is bemused by the large contracts and vast sums young writers secure today. "I intervieweed Mary Lavin in 1981 when her selected stories came out and she told me that she had a contract with The New Yorker but they only paid her for what they used, and she had a rule that she always wrote the stories that The New Yorker was least likely to take, on the basis that if she didn't do that, she was writing for money and writing for money would be considered the lowest form of life for that generation. John McGahern would have had the same attitude about money or to get involved in the marketplace. There was a group of writers who would have, including Banville, Lavin, McGahern, who had the feeling this was a vocation and it would never ever make you a penny, but it was the most important thing in the world that you could do."
You get the impression that Toibin agrees with them in principle, but he's a pragmatist too. "I remember being so happy with the first book and that someone was going to publish a book of mine, that the money didn't occur to me. It was only later when I became interested in the business side of things, where actually this business was changing so fundamentally that if you were going to behave eccentrically about money, they were going to behave eccentrically towards you. The publication of a book depends on so much. Reviews don't really matter as much as discounts, systems of distribution, and marketing."
Alongside his novels and non-fiction, Toibin has continued to publish collections of short stories. "The stories are great because no one reads them," he says with one of his kingfisher-light trills of laughter. "They're lovely because you're working at home on your own and you're thinking, whatever is going to happen now, no one's going to read it and no one wants me to do it. And that gives you a very pure feeling.
"Every so often, The New Yorker will take a story. They don't pay that much any more. Elizabeth Bishop bought a car once with a short story that The New Yorker published. That wouldn't happen any more. Oddly enough, that is lovely work. It's like a prayer rising up without any idea of whether it's hitting any spot, whether god is listening."
He now splits his time between Dublin and Manhattan, where he teaches creative writing at Columbia University. He doesn't venture forth too much, going out only to attend the odd music performance in the Alice Tulley Hall on a Sunday afternoon. "Last year when I went back, I was booked in a good seat, on my own, no social stuff. I went and sat down and an American voice behind me said, 'I hope you're going to be quiet', and I looked behind and it was Phillip Roth. He would probably feel like I do about people making a single sound. One of the most dreadful things that happens is there's a guy beside you conducting." He mimes conducting an orchestra.
Toibin seems to be an incongruous combination of incredibly social and deeply anti-social. "I'm very good at A - being on my own - and Z, where I'm just going nuts, but the middle bit, somewhere around N, I'd be missing for that event," he says with a wicked smile.
Despite his solitude, he is in a relationship, but will only be drawn so far as to say he is no domestic goddess. "Domestically, I'm the most useless, I really am a disaster. I'm always trying to make up for it. If I find a posh supermarket anywhere nearby I'll buy ready-made food... and then find it a month later."
He'll tell stories all day long but ask him to tell you about his philosophy on life and he is appalled. "I don't have any. You'll have to ask Michael Harding. I wouldn't know anything about that. I don't think about it. I work from a position where all I want is the next sentence - does it sound true, does it seem true? I have a feeling that if you move out of that too much, no matter how large your brain is, you make foolish statements about ethics and metaphysics, that are probably untrue and silly. Wittgenstein's 'Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should remain silent' sounds pretty good to me."
Nora Webster is published by Penguin Viking.
Life in brief
BORN: Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford in 1955, the second-youngest of five children. He studied at University College Dublin before moving to Barcelona, where he lived until 1978. When he returned to Ireland, he worked as a journalist for In Dublin, Hibernia and The Sunday Tribune, before becoming features editor of In Dublin and then editor of the current affairs magazine, Magill. He published his first novel, The South, in 1990.
FAMILY: His father died when he was 12 years old. He was raised by his mother. Nora Webster is dedicated to her and to Colm's brother.
LIKES: Classical music.
DISLIKES: Men who 'air conduct' at classical music concerts.