Colm Tóibín deftly combines creativity and criticism in his work — a covetable skill he gained from a life spent as a journalist, critic, travel writer, playwright, and novelist. With his new novel, Brooklyn, now available, the award-winning Irish writer chatted with our sister publication Boldtype about crossing mediums, dealing with identity labels, and why being a novelist is your parents’ worst nightmare.
Boldtype: How does journalism inform your fiction, or travel writing your playwriting? Do you identify more with one style than others, or is your writing a multi-genre dialogue?
Colm Tóibín: Journalism is good as training; better, maybe, than a creative-writing course. It teaches you to be clear, to know how to open and end a piece, and to be alert to the idea that writing is for the reader. But I think this works best when you’re in your 20s — your job is not to have your style, your prose, become flattened by work in a newsroom. I approach fiction with a greater sense of reverence than I do nonfiction. I write the novels in longhand; I would never do that with a travel book. I have a sense in fiction that I’m working with the music of words, the rhythms of sentences. I have only written one play, but it seemed to me to be the same process as writing fiction.
BT: How does traveling — and, through it, the experience of being an outsider — factor into your work?
CT: The best thing about traveling is coming home, bathing in the familiar. I suppose any writer is an outsider; you’re always watching and plotting, rather than participating. I spend a lot of time alone, whether in Ireland or elsewhere. More and more, I like having stability, having the day to myself. Even if I’m traveling, I like the idea that I have two rooms to work in during the day, and maybe spend most of the day, four or five days of the week, alone. You can hardly call that traveling.
BT: It has been said that the best English writers are Irish — but, whatever one’s opinion, there’s no denying that you come from an impressive literary legacy. As you see it, what is the significance of being qualified as an “Irish writer”?
CT: I think it’s important not to put a thought into it. I maybe am Irish, but I think I come more fundamentally from a town in Ireland, or a family in that town. I have been marked by the town and the family more than I have been by the country.
BT: In addition to being categorized as an Irish writer you’re also described as a gay writer. How do you react to these inevitable labels? Do you think they’re beneficial, or can they be alienating?
CT: I am also bald. I don’t notice a section on us in bookstores. I think you’re best to look at these labels as oddly comic. A few years ago, someone wrote to me to ask for comments about publishing and gay novelists. It was strange. I had been working so hard, and thinking only about my book, that I had forgotten I was gay. I think it’s easier to be gay on holidays, or at the weekend, or late at night, when you’re not otherwise busy.
BT: You recently quoted a friend as saying, “The biggest nightmare for a parent would be to have a novelist child.” Why would that be so hellish? How do you envision the role of the novelist?
CT: I think you watch things as a novelist, and remember things that other people might remember too, but not seriously. You end up putting structure on things that were unstructured, or putting real moments beside ones you’ve invented. For those who are close to you, this is often very difficult. Would you like your partner, who witnessed those first gasping fake orgasms of yours, to write it all down in a novel? Would you like your declining years in some facility to be charted greedily by your loving child and then published in the New Yorker, down to the last and most personal detail?
CT: Someone told me the story when I was a teenager — just the bones of the story — and it stayed in my mind. It was all about “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn,” and I didn’t think about it as a subject for a novel for many years. And then it came to me, clear and stark and waiting to be written down.
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