‘No matter what I’m writing,’ says Colm Tóibín, ‘someone ends up getting abandoned. Or someone goes. No matter what I’m trying to do it comes in.’ It’s a reflection, he says, of his own consciousness. It makes ‘its way into everything’.
If Tóibín is on close terms with the ache of loss, few writers have put it to such elegant use. He is in the midst of a period of roaring success: we are sitting in a hotel in Soho, talking about the new film of his 2009 novel Brooklyn, which has the lure and pain of leaving Ireland and family at its heart.
Its heroine is Eilis Lacey, a young woman in the 1950s who is helped by an emigrant priest, Father Flood, to leave her home in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, for a fresh start in New York. The book has translated well, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby carrying its potent mixture of sadness, exhilaration and sly wit to the cinema.
The film was shot in Enniscorthy, where Tóibín himself grew up, and will be screened there at the end of this month. Is he nervous? ‘No, I’m easy about it. It’s relaxed. There’s no downside. I have a house on the strand. I go into Enniscorthy sometimes, the farmers’ market on a Saturday, but all those relationships between writers and towns have really changed. Now it’s “write whatever you like.”’ Ireland is less touchy now than in the old days, when Irish writers such as John McGahern and Edna O’Brien were powerfully denounced by the clergy.
Today, at 60, Tóibín — who could not read until the age of nine and as a child spoke with a bad stammer — seems an unstoppable literary force, an international man of letters. His permanent home is Ireland, where he has the Enniscorthy place and also a townhouse in Dublin. He has joked that his greatest fear is that ‘Ireland will eat me’, but he frequently escapes its jaws. ‘These days I can kind of go where I like. I teach in Columbia University, my boyfriend is in Los Angeles, and then there’s home.’ All the while, he is producing essays, novels and criticism — the most recent is a study of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop — to waves of acclaim.
Still, there is no pomposity: I get the impression that the rush of ideas in his head leaves little room for it. He speaks quickly but with emphatic deliberation, and his face is both watchful and memorable, the kind you might glimpse meaningfully illuminated by candlelight in a period drama: it is seamed and solid, with strong eyebrows and a heavy jaw, but his expressions are as mercurial as the weather off the Irish coast.
I met him briefly some years ago outside a bookshop in north London, and had thought perhaps I might remind him of it, but when I shake his hand it is the very first thing he mentions: time, place, company, all exact. He clearly has a razor-sharp memory, which allows him to fillet his own life for his novels: the scene in Brooklyn in which Eilis is the only passenger eating on her transatlantic crossing — too naive to realise seasickness will be imminent — was inspired, for example, by ‘a boat journey: Mallorca to Barcelona. I’m the only guy eating in the restaurant. All the Catalans know there’s a storm coming, I don’t.’
Growing up, he was surrounded by the showy chatter of aunts and older sisters — hence, perhaps, his unusual mastery of the thought processes of female characters. ‘They talked, they never let silence happen. They would never talk about what was on their mind, but they could talk about clothes, about anything. I first heard the story of Brooklyn from them, just about a girl who had come home and taken off her ring.’ In contrast, ‘the men could be grumpy and say very little’ — he assumes a comically taciturn look as he imitates them — ‘Turn down that television!’
As a boy, Tóibín studied the adults around him more carefully than they knew, noting what they said and what they didn’t. ‘You learn this is all about some sort of performance, you need to see through it.’ Making sense of adult mysteries became a matter of psychological survival: there was a damaging period when his father was ill in hospital, and the eight-year-old Colm and his younger brother were dispatched without explanation to live for several months with relatives. His father, a teacher, died when he was 12, a cataclysmic event rarely spoken of thereafter (described in his novel Nora Webster, but told from the viewpoint of a character similar to his own mother).
One of his themes is how people absorb a tragedy and alter themselves in its aftermath. Did the shock of his father’s death — the feeling of suddenly standing alone —somehow spur him on? ‘No matter what I do I’m driven. I take on too much work and I finish it and I deliver. I have a funny work ethic. I always had. It comes out of some deep insecurity. You’re not going to have an argument with your father and then settle into your life. There’s no shadow.’
Irish society is still intimate enough for intellectual and political arguments to matter fiercely, which is fruitful for a writer (many leave its shores, desperate for space, only to find that in space no one can hear you scream). Despite his travels, there’s a sense that only Ireland could have forged Tóibín, with his fascination for layers and contradictions. He has a stubborn tenderness for the outsider and the pariah, a tough reluctance to join any self-righteous ‘bully group’, as he calls it. He thinks that might partly stem from his own experience. ‘It’s popular to be gay now, but for a long time it wasn’t.’
Although he has written excoriatingly in essays about clerical child abuse in Ireland — that ‘many of those of us who were brought up in the Church now know that we listened to sermons on how to conduct our lives from men who were child molesters’ — he has avoided sweeping condemnation of the priesthood in fiction. In the novel Brooklyn, Father Flood is a decent man. ‘That’s very conscious. I became very interested in those emigrant priests. They worked tirelessly in that way.’
Tóibín’s grandfather was in the old IRA, and his father in Fianna Fáil, but he has never relaxed into comfortable prejudices: during the grim tit-for-tat violence of the Troubles, he sought out the stories of ordinary Ulster Protestants as well as Catholics. While walking along the Irish border in the mid-1980s for a book of reportage, he spent time with Alan Black, the sole survivor of the 1976 Kingsmill massacre in which 11 Protestant workers were taken from their minibus by an IRA gang, lined up and shot. ‘We went out and his son was learning to drive. And I thought, all of the other fathers didn’t get to do this.’
What does he miss when he is away from Ireland? ‘I miss the sky, the weather, the landscape. The soft look. The half-said thing. Where I’m from in Wexford the people will say very little and you’ll have to find out what happened if you want to know.’
He tells me the story of how, when he was away, a nearby house partly crumbled into the sea due to coastal erosion. When he returned ‘someone said to me about the people who lived there: “Ah, they went into the village” but he wouldn’t tell me the house had fallen into the sea. I had to go and check that for myself.’
Tóibín clearly enjoys it now, the game of ‘the half-said thing’. After all these years, a brimming silence feels like home. Even for a lifelong listener, it still leaves room for discovery.