This year’s Woodstock Bookfest will feature acclaimed Irish novelist Colm Tóibín reading from his own work and serving as reader for the debut of a music-and-short-story collaboration between the late writer John Hersey and his son Baird, a composer.
Tóibín is best known in the US as the author of Brooklyn, the 2009 novel that was made into a film in 2015 starring Saoirse Ronan. He also wrote The Testament of Mary (2012), a portrait of Christianity’s most venerated woman as a grieving and angry mother, and numerous other novels, short-story collections and nonfiction books. Three of his novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize: The Testament of Mary, Nora Webster (2014) and The Master (2004). He lives in Dublin and New York City, where he’s the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman professor of the Humanities at Columbia University.
Tóibín’s latest novel is House of Names, a reimagining of the House of Atreus story from Greek mythology: a series of revenge killings within a family. He’ll be reading from that at the Bookfest and taking questions.
“An Evening with Colm Tóibín” should be a treat for anyone who attends. His novels are quiet; his recurring themes are, in his words, “the East Coast of Ireland with waves that don’t crash against rock but sort of break gently, of a gentle landscape, mild manners, and of people who generally are more content in silence than they are in full disclosure.” But in person, Tóibín is warm and gregarious, cracking jokes and telling stories, able to speak at length and with insight about both the sublime possibilities of fiction and the nitty-gritty of the writing process.
We spoke with Tóibín this earlier this week.
Have you visited the area before?
I did the [Writer’s Festival], must have been six or seven years ago now. I was up in Buffalo and I was coming down and got off the train. Could I have got off the train at Rhinebeck?
And it was a big crisis, because I opened the door and there was just no way of getting off the train. If I jumped I would have died. It was so high because the conductor hadn’t seen me, so we had a lot of shouting and screaming and he had to run down with a ladder. And obviously I know the song; everybody knows the song.
“By the time we got to Woodstock we were half a million strong / And everywhere there was song and celebration.” (Laughs)
As they say of Woodstock, a town famous for a festival that never happened here.
She didn’t even go to it, Joni Mitchell [the songwriter]. She didn’t even attend.
When did you first visit the U.S.?
I think first was before Saint Patrick’s Day in 1989. I was working as a reporter, and it was the year before my first novel came out. There were at that time great divisions within Irish America, within the old Irish America. For example, the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick at that time in New York had a men-only black-tie dinner, so obviously the new people who had come in the ’80s – a lot of people came over in the ’80s – just couldn’t believe this; it was just this amazing idea that there would be a black-tie men-only dinner, so they decided in 1989 not to go to it and to hold an alternative event down in SoHo.
And so there was a sort of split within the ranks of Irish America, which then made its way into a gay group trying to march [which] had been told in fact that the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York was a Catholic parade and that they couldn’t march. Whereas things in Ireland were changing so fast at that time that I think, in the early ’90s, the “Best New Float” in the Cork parade was the lesbian float, whereas Irish America just hadn’t caught up with Ireland, which we thought was sort of strange. So when I came in ’89, I reported on all that, I went to it, I talked to everybody. It was very clear in ’89 that there would be a decade or more of division between the two groups, but I think it’s all been worked out now.
What’s very nice now is that Mrs. [Loretta] Glucksman, who’s a wonderful person, is going to be the grand marshal of the parade; so a woman is going to be the grand marshal. Not only a woman, but a smart woman. She’s a woman who’s contributing hugely to Ireland, and indeed to America, with the Glucksman House at NYU in New York. Mrs. Glucksman has been a huge figure as a sort of a philanthropist in culture in Ireland and culture in Irish America, so that’s really why she’s so important. She’s a much-loved figure within our world, not only because she’s contributed so much, but also because she’s contributed so widely, and she’s somebody I think people really admire on the cultural side. So it’s just great that somebody like that is leading the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, rather than a politician or indeed, might I say, a cardinal.
Do you see an enduring influence of Irish culture on America?
You notice certainly in New York that all of the bars are Irish. You know, those names like the Blarney Stone, and you just go around thinking like, “My God, did the English never set up bars here? Did no other group do that?” Then obviously you have figures in the literary landscape like Eugene O’Neill, and certainly when anyone Irish watches Long Day’s Journey into Night, and you’re absolutely aware that this is an Irish play, this is an Irish father, this is the whole business of sort of a long drunken rant by an Irish father.
I think the other area is that in the first half of the 19th century, there was a huge emigration from Ulster, which was Presbyterian, which has almost been written out of history. For example, Henry James’ grandfather came over in the late 18th century, so you have the grandfather of Henry and William James being Irish, and a lot of the early presidents were from that Presbyterian Irish. But of course, once the Irish came after the famine, there was a division again between the Irish Presbyterians and Protestants and the Catholics, and the Presbyterians and Protestants didn’t really want to be associated with Ireland as much as they had up until about 1847-48.
What did you learn from Henry James?
He was the guy who really perfected the idea of third-person. You tell a story not in the first person of what I saw or what I experienced, but you tell it by what she or he experienced, and you stick to that point of view throughout a book, so that everything is told from the eyes of a single person. If you tell it from the first person, it distances the reader from the voice; the reader knows I am not that person, that person is telling the story, it’s someone other than me. But if you do this in the third person – what she saw, what she remembered, what she noticed – the reader starts to see the world through the eyes of that third person, of that character. It has to be controlled: You have to keep it so that it’s not the author seeing, it’s the character in the book seeing, and James perfected that.
Other writers had done that too – it’s in Jane Austen, it’s in George Eliot. But James was the one who really worked with it, and also worked with the idea of the novel as a form of architecture, as a sort of building. He called it the “house of fiction,” the way in which you would build a story, being added to, constructed, and that every part of the story fits in, in some way or other. So he’s an absolutely fascinating figure, also because of how little of himself appears in his books. He used great self-suppression when he worked, and he worked very intently through the minds of his characters, keeping himself distant. You don’t really know, when you read one of these novels, who he is, or what his opinions are, or what his own background is.
Then of course he himself, when you find out about him, is a fascinating figure. He began to interest me.
Did seeing the film Brooklyn change your memory of your book? Now when you think of Eilis, do you think of Saoirse Ronan?
Yes, it’s one of those things where I think it’s unusual, where – it’s only from my point of view, and I’m the guy who wrote the book – the film is very close to the book, and we were just very lucky that Saoirse Ronan [was available]. The problem was that at the beginning, the producers were looking for the money, they couldn’t get it, so it was about two years’ wait. So in those two years, Saoirse Ronan arrived at the age where she could do the part. If [the financing] had been instant, it would have been another actress, and we would have lost something amazing. There was something luminous and miraculous about her performance. And also John Crowley, the director, and Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay, were very faithful to the story, so I was very lucky with it.
The only thing added was the end, which is sort of implied in the book but it’s there in the script. I found that very moving. I’ve seen the movie a good lot now, and that’s the bit that I tear up: at the end when she finally sees him and he comes out of the store and sees her, and she’s come back. I find that really moving. I didn’t write it; Nick wrote that. But you know it’s one of those examples – people say that it doesn’t happen often – where the book and the movie complement each other.
When you wrote The Testament of Mary, did it change the way you thought about Mary? Did it lead you to a different understanding of her?
It began as a sort of joke at a party in literary Dublin where someone was talking about lost Greek plays, and I said, “Well, of course, the New Testament is a sort of lost Greek play.” And he asked, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, the idea of Mary fits in very much with the sort of Greek tragic heroine.” Then, of course, somebody who was in the conversation was the director of the Dublin Theater Festival, wrote to me asking me if I would write that. I thought what was interesting was that her silence is notable in the New Testament… That story of being from a small village where your son leads a huge movement… I suppose it was that idea of the distance between where they were actually from, which was Nazareth, and him actually defying both the Romans and the teachers, you know, the Jewish teachers, but that would have been something so enormous. It didn’t really strike me before in the same way how news would come to her, and how alarming it would be.
So I suppose it was that part; but it was also as well the actual, what she went through, and the memory years later of what that would have been like. I really hadn’t a clue when I started what I was going to do.
You talk about how sometimes there’s a sentence or an image that gets you started with a book. What was it for The Testament of Mary?
I think it was the image of seeing, when they were trying to crucify him, that they couldn’t get his second arm to come out. I was trying to see the thing in real time, as though it hadn’t happened yet. But it was also just being there that day on the hill, what it was like in real time, with all the people arriving and it being, for a lot of people, at the beginning a sort of ordinary day; crucifixions were sort of normal… The physicality of it would have come to me as an image that was very powerful.
You’ve talked about how you like to work in a hard chair because you shouldn’t be too comfortable while writing. Thinking of The Testament of Mary, and how you had to try to imagine yourself there at the crucifixion, it reminds me of a monk in contemplation.
Ten or 20 years ago they invented these sort of Master of the Universe desk chairs, which were meant to be the same shape as your back, and that you could turn around quickly in an office. I think if you’re trying to write a novel, you need to pull things up from yourself and find images that are difficult, that are challenging, that don’t come immediately. If you’re in a really comfortable space, then that isn’t helpful. You need to be concentrating fiercely, and you’re more likely to concentrate fiercely if you’re in an uncomfortable chair.
Is it because it’s like “This is time to work, not time to relax”?
Yeah, exactly. You’re not swimming in the Mediterranean; you’re writing a novel.
In House of Names, Electra tells Orestes: “We live in a strange time. A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in the house it brushed you with its wings.” You’ve said it was important to get the gods out of the way in this story and make it about human emotions and agency, but I wonder if you were also drawing on the decline of Catholicism here, and the uncertainty of what comes next.
I think it’s absolutely correct that I was brought up in an Ireland where there was no question of – no one was questioning anything, really – and into a time when suddenly everything was open. [Before that had been] a time of great devotion, to saints, to the Virgin, to mass, to sacraments, and where the church had a great deal of power; and then just watching over 20, 30 years when that devotion faded. Now that didn’t happen in my parents’ generation or my grandparents’ generation, when that devotion remained the same; so yeah, I lived in that time, and obviously that made its way into the work. It’s there in that passage you just quoted from House of Names, and it’s there in some of the other books: just the idea that people believe one thing and then they believe another thing, and you discover they believe two things, or they believe in less and less, with the implication that something has faded. And I think that’s a very dramatic subject.
You also wrote Pale Sister, a monologue for Ismene, Antigone’s sister.
I’ve been working on that for a good while now, and it’s more or less done, but the poor actress now has to learn it. Learning a monologue is hard work; you don’t have the give and take of dialogue. But yeah, it’s Ismene, the sister of Antigone, years later remembering what happened to her sisters. So the latest project.
What draws you to Greek literature?
I’m not interested in Oedipus; in other words, it was just those two stories: the story of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon and their children, that I thought was really dramatic. In other words, how do you get to the stage where somebody like Orestes wants to murder his mother? How do you get to the stage where someone like Clytemnestra wants to murder her husband? Those things began to fascinate me.
There’s a late play by Euripides called Iphigenia in Aulis, where this whole story is told from Clytemnestra’s point of view rather than Electra’s, and I hadn’t read that before, and it interested me when I read it, because I thought, “Oh wow, you can see the thing from a different perspective.” The Ismene thing has always been on my mind, because of course there are two sisters, and one sister is the one who takes action and the other sister is the one who doesn’t. So I think, in all of our lives, that idea of, “Should we be on protests? Should we be complacent? Who is complacent? Who’s on a protest?” is something that shapes peoples’ lives all the time. Some people are very political and some are not. So I was interested in just taking that division between the two sisters and looking at it dramatically, seeing where it would take me.
In Nora Webster, there’s a lot about music toward the end. I was wondering if you think there’s any similarity between the work of a novelist and the work of a composer – particularly the idea of having a theme and developing and exploring it in many different ways over a work.
In some way, what you’re doing is you’re working with rhythm. In other words, there’s an idea or a memory, or something someone tells you, or an image in your brain and in your mind, and then it gets released as rhythm, as a sentence; and so you start working with the rhythm. So yes, in that way you are working close to music, and in other ways you’re working close to painting.
But what I was really working from there [in Nora Webster] was the idea of how much a piece of music brings back memories, and if you put on a piece of music, it’s almost like a smell: You think, “Oh my God, I remember where I was when I heard that first.” And so in using the music in Nora Webster, they were very much pieces of music that had come from childhood, things that my mother had listened to that I used. She did listen a lot to that Archduke Trio, and she did listen a lot to those other pieces of music mentioned in the book. A lot of that would then conjure up, for me, a lost world, so I used them in that way.
How do you think about detail? Physical description, for example. There are some writers who when they introduce a character, they do kind of a head-to-toe thing, “an aquiline nose, a small thin mouth…”
I feel that the more you leave to the reader’s imagination about what someone in a novel looks like – you may need to let people know they’re tall if they’re tall, or if they’re older or what age they are, but other than that you leave it up to the reader to imagine. I think if you try to interfere with that by telling the reader what they look like, you don’t get anywhere.
Is it because when you’re reading you’re not really – even if someone did give you a description, you’re not really picturing it as if it were a film?
No, it really doesn’t work if you try to do it. So the best thing is not to try to do it and let the reader then start to imagine what the person looks like. In Brooklyn, for example, you never really get a description of [Eilis]; but she does have an effect on people, and you can see in the way that people respond to her that she must have some sort of warmth or some sort of glow or some sort of grace by the way people respond to her. People seem to want to help her, do things for her. But she’s not conscious of this; she doesn’t look in the mirror a lot, she doesn’t think about her own effect, but she does have that effect, so slowly you get a sense of her physical appearance by that.
You’ve said that returning again and again to some of the themes in your work, like grief and difficult family relationships, isn’t therapeutic, that it probably isn’t very good for you. The natural question would be: Why do you write?
When people were living in caves and they all went out hunting, and one guy stayed behind and did drawings on the caves of the animals, and we can still see those drawings in various places. That idea of trying to create images, of leaving something, of making something, of adding depth to our experience by creating images of it, is sort of fundamental to us. It may be mysterious in its impulse, but it’s essential; it’s absolutely part of our makeup. It’s always been there.
This being a writers’ festival, there will be a lot of workshops and Q & As, with writers asking questions, seeking insights. Do you have any general advice?
I think one of the problems you have is when you start working, you know the story, and in a way you know what you need to do, so it becomes boring at a certain point for you, because you just need to get the thing down. You just need to get up and every day you need to add to it. Whereas the opening of a book comes by some form of inspiration, some mysterious way that you didn’t expect. The rest of it is work, and you just need to do it. And you need to concentrate. And you need to finish it.
And the temptation is to start another book in the middle or not finish it, because you want to do something else. I think that’s something that arises where people just haven’t finished a thing that they’ve started, and the advice would be, “Just finish it.” And what happens then is that something strange happens: The more you work on something, the more you get into the rhythm of work, almost like an athlete running; you get to control it, you get to see it better. But the main thing is to finish it.
“An Evening with Colm Tóibín” will be held on Saturday, March 24 at 8 p.m. at the Bearsville Theater. The Woodstock Bookfest runs from Thursday, March 22 to Sunday, March 25 and includes many other author panels, intensive workshops, parties, a Story Slam and more. For tickets and more information, see https://woodstockbookfest.com.