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When HQ met... Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín's Chinese editor couldn't be happier that Brooklyn, the author's latest novel, has just won a Costa Book Award. Often cited as the populist equivalent of the Booker Prize, the Costas aim to promote enjoyable reading as well as literary merit, and most of the winning novels are propelled on to global bestseller lists.

"About a month ago I was walking on the street with my editor in China, where Brooklyn is just about to be published," Tóibín explains, "and he said, 'It's a real pity the book hasn't got a prize. Without that it's just like any other book.'"

The truth is, however, that Brooklyn is not like any other book. Having written about alienation from country, the family and ultimately from the self over the past two decades, in his sixth novel the Wexford-born Tóibín created Eilis Lacey, a central character who is so divorced from her own feelings and the emotional realities around her that she is possibly the most passive heroine ever to grace the pages of a novel. Brooklyn was a huge gamble in a literary world that's increasingly built around easily marketable stories.

"Nowadays you have to keep your book on the three-for-two table for as long as possible," Tóibín says. "The books on the shelves around the tables are there for decoration purposes only."

Trying to get your book on the table is the big thing.

"Publishers sit around in marketing meetings trying to figure it out. You can imagine what they were saying at the meeting in China, where they had to market this book about an Irish woman going to America and not doing that much."

Brooklyn has its roots in a story about a woman who emigrated to New York that Tóibín heard in the kitchen of his family home at the age of 12. It made its way into a paragraph of a short story called House for Sale, published in The Dublin Review in 2000, and was expanded on in a later story, A Woman Calling, which the author thought was the end of the line for it. But then he realised he had a novel on his hands.

"There was a point in expanding it into a novel when I thought, 'Nobody is going to want to read this,'" he says. "But then I had to make myself go all bolshy and finish it. I think it was about time someone like Eilis appeared in a book. She's in a minor key. If Brooklyn was a visual art, it would be a drawing."

The novel is a story of 50s emigration, as Eilis leaves Enniscorthy, Co Wexford at the suggestion of a priest and begins a new life in New York. Her reluctance to enter into the full spirit of her transition has its foundations in Tóibín's own experience of living and working in America as a creative writing lecturer for much of the past decade.

"You have to get through the constant business of being foreign," he says. "People talk about New York as such an exciting place to be, but sometimes you wake up and wonder what the hell you are doing there. How are you going to face it? I think a whole lot of that emotion was part of the book.

"On my way home, I would arrive at JFK and find myself in that stretch where all the Irish were, waiting to get on the plane with that look on their faces that says, 'I'm actually okay now', and I'd realise the past few months had been a strain."

Eilis finds love in New York with Tony, an American-Italian who represents another aspect of America, one that Tóibín finds equally hard to grapple with. "If someone in Ireland is very charming, people are very uneasy about it. They begin to wonder what that charm is masking. In America, when I came across this charm in students or colleagues, and discovered they were just really nice, with no hidden darkness, I couldn't get over it. It was a new idea to me.

"In the book Eilis keeps looking at Tony thinking there's this different side to him that he isn't showing. But then you see that actually he's a really sweet guy. It's almost as if he's two-dimensional -- the third dimension is completely missing."

This sense of missing dimensions permeates the book, a disconnection with the self that also has its roots in Tóibín's own personal experience.

"I wonder, is it because if you're gay in a small town, you're open to that sort of alienation from what's general?" he says, quizzing himself on why exile from the self is so central to Brooklyn and all his work. "Images of cosiness or togetherness and domestic harmony are things that don't mean that much to you. There's the idea that you won't be able to create a self that is integrated and works with society around you. I think that's something that's with me to this day, something anyone who is gay knows."

Commenting on Tóibín's Costa win, one critic suggested that the judges' decisions were a reversal of last year's Booker -- Brooklyn was longlisted, but it failed to make the shortlist. Tóibín laughs out loud at the idea, but then becomes introspective.

"Twenty years ago, or more, when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Whitbread [the previous incarnation of the Costa] for An Artist of the Floating World, it would have seemed so remote from me, so strange that it might happen to me. It's not what I expected would happen, and the great thing is that there doesn't seem to be a down side to it. Winning awards is just fine." HQ

Brooklyn (Viking) is now available at €12.99