The World of Colm Tóibín
The writer talks to Jessica Salter about his working patterns, local history and his deep relationship with his radio.
Colm Tóibín, 56, was born and raised in Co Wexford, Ireland, and is the author of works of fiction and non–fiction including The Blackwater Lightship (1999, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Master (2004, winner of the Dublin IMPAC Prize and shortlisted for the Booker) and Brooklyn (2009, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year). His new collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers & Their Families, is out this month. He is Mellon Professor in the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and divides his time between Dublin and New York (colmtoibin.com).
Daily routine The only routine I have is that I finish everything I start. I wake up early every day – about 6.30am – but I do not work every day. I could laze for a day or two, but I wouldn't do it for three.
Working patterns I move from table to table and from study to study throughout the day. I have lots of openings to pieces of work scribbled down in lots of notebooks (pictured). The problem is once you've written the opening paragraph and worked out how the rest of the story will go in your head, there's nothing in it for you. I write in longhand using disposable fountain pens on the right–hand side of the notebook for the first draft, then I rewrite some of the sentences and paragraphs on the left–hand side.
Childhood ambition I wanted to be a poet as a child and I have a wall in my study (pictured) dedicated to poetry books, all in alphabetical order, that reminds me daily of my failure. The rest of my books, I just know where they are, but you have to keep poetry books alphabetically otherwise you can never find anything.
Career plan When I was 19 I thought I wanted to be an English civil servant. It was the most exotic thing at the time – can you imagine, in the middle of the IRA bombing campaigns? I saw an ad inviting Irish applicants for an induction course so I signed up. They put us up in a really cheap hotel but it was terribly exciting as I'd never been out of Ireland before. There was an incredible bookshop called Compendium in London and that was where I first found a CD of Brahms's A German Requiem, which started a bit of an obsession.
Banned music These CDs (pictured) are all different recordings of A German Requiem. But I'm not allowed to listen to any of them until I finish the novel I'm working on – I started it in April 2000. There will be a moment at the end of the novel where the woman will say, 'I'm going to sing in A German Requiem.' I haven't written that scene yet and until I do, I can't listen to my CDs. Everywhere I go I find another recording of A German Requiem and I have them piled up as a warning to myself: get on with your work.
Spain I first went to Barcelona in 1975 after university and I stayed for three years. I learnt Catalan because that's what everyone speaks in the mountains. They speak English to foreigners but what people say to each other is much more important than what they say to you. I love Spain. I go back every summer.
Local history Brid, my mother, painted this view of Vinegar Hill, outside Enniscorthy in Co Wexford that she saw every day from our house. It is a very famous area because it was where they held the last battle of the Irish Rebellion, fought in June 1798. The Irish rebels were disorganised in every way and the English moved very, very slowly and surrounded them on the hill. Everybody died. My father, Michael, was a local historian and he founded a museum in the town in 1962 dedicated to the battle. People brought in things that they thought the museum would want, just bizarre little items that somebody in their family had handed down to them.
Bad habits I don't have any. I think I'm a figure of great virtue really. It's hard to be more precise than that.
Chair I arrived in New York in 2000 because I had been awarded a fellowship at New York Public Library, which is one of the best gigs in the world – you get an office in the library and they pay you a salary. I hadn't lived in New York before and I had an apartment on 90th Street and Columbus Avenue, with nothing in it. I discovered this company called 1–800 MATTRESS who I called on Friday at 5pm and by Saturday lunchtime four men had arrived and put up my bed. Then I found a chair, which I thought was the most beautiful thing. I couldn't part with it when I left so I brought it back to Ireland and I sit in it in the evenings and read.
Fire starter English people don't know about these but every person who's ever lived through an Irish winter will be able to tell you about a briquette .They are used to light the fire. I can still sing the ad that we used to hear as kids: 'Bord na Móna, cheap briquettes, easy to light, cheerful and bright.' We can still have open fires in Dublin so if I'm in for the day I will light a fire while I'm reading.
Fitness I swim, especially when I'm in America because the universities I have worked at have such lovely pools. When I was a professor at the University of Austin in Texas, it had such a luxurious swimming–pool that one end had a raised ledge in the water specifically so you could drag a deckchair in and lie on it and read. But the problem is that the students are all so young and the thing with Americans is that when they're fit, they are so fit. So you feel like someone's granny pottering about in the slow lane.
Going out Dublin is a much quieter city than anyone thinks it is. It's a very good city if you are young – you know, with pub life and all that sort of stuff – but it isn't for me. Dublin shuts down when you get to a certain age, like you simply don't exist. I meet people in their houses so I know it is going to be a quiet evening with a few drinks. But in New York things are so exciting – places are open until 4am and anything can happen. So I have a rule that I don't drink in New York because I don't want to wake up with a hangover and not be able to work.
Art Every so often I buy a piece of art that I shouldn't and that's been going on for 30 years now. When I was in Australia in 1996 I read a small article in some provincial newspaper about an aborigine painter: they just called her Emily. I went to Melbourne and I asked everyone if they knew where the paintings by this woman were and someone pointed me towards a gallery. I saw this (left) and I thought it had a lot of power. It looked to me like something quite serious had happened. She's now become quite famous retrospectively (she died in 1996).
Bedtime listening I have a deep relationship with my radio. I remember hearing the words, 'Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin…' on Radio 4 when I was a child and as a grown–up I always listen to the Today programme and Start the Week. If I'm in Dublin or Spain and I'm not in bed to hear the midnight news then there is something wrong.