A Conversation With Writer Colm Tóibín on the ‘Close Imagining’ of Fiction

“A really good idea might come to you at night and seem really wrong in the morning. So you’re always testing things.”

Jessica Gross | Longreads | February 2015 | 17 minutes (4,283 words)


The Irish writer Colm Tóibín has written eight novels, two books of short stories, and multiple works of nonfiction. His latest novel, Nora Webster, follows a widow in 1970s Ireland as she moves through her mourning toward a new life. That book was almost 15 years in the making, and Tóibín’s previous novel, Brooklyn, which centers on an Irish immigrant to the United States, grew out of Nora Webster’s early pages. Both novels—like all of Tóibín’s work—subtly portray their characters’ complex inner lives, the details accruing slowly to finally reveal an indelible portrait. I spoke with Tóibín, who splits his time between Dublin and New York, by phone about the protagonists he’s compelled to write about and how he goes about creating their worlds.

In Nora Webster, the pacing of the writing follows that of Nora’s movement through her mourning and grief. Did that come naturally through the writing process, or did you maneuver the pacing in revisions later on?

I think if you don’t do that naturally, then attempting to think about it or to force it would be to make the reader start noticing the tricks you’re using and the tactics. You would lose the reader following you and believing in you. So in other words, the tone of the book is actually organic. And the thing is that I’m trying to judge that at the same time as do it, but if I spend too much time judging it, then I lose the doing it.

In the same way, if you’re running and you start thinking of running, something goes wrong with your breathing and your pace, whereas if you just let the running happen, you will get something from it. Or playing sport, in that if you decide you’re going to hit an ace in tennis and then you think about your ace, you don’t hit one. It’s only that funny moment where you get a mixture of almost no concentration and at the same time fierce concentration that you then start getting the ball in.

You began writing Nora Webster in 2000. How did you get to the point of actually completing it, and what was that process like?

I put a lot of thought into the book. It was always in my mind, even when I wasn’t writing it, and I would go through days where I would think, “Oh, I know what I’m going to do with it today,” or “I know what I’m going to do with it the next time I go back to it.” A really good idea might come to you at night and seem really wrong in the morning. So you’re always testing things. And then every year I would add to it in some way or another.

But a few years ago I found that I had all the different parts of the book and I needed to sit down then and connect them. And therefore I’m constantly reading over, checking if, “is there enough there for that, okay, so now this”—so it became quite strategic, as well as trying not to think too much. I mean formally strategic: that material can go there, I’m going to leave that out completely, this scene is going to need one more thing.

This novel intersects very slightly with Brooklyn: In the very beginning, the mother of Brooklyn’s protagonist pays a visit to Nora. But the overlap ends there. Why did you want to do that instead of making each a complete stand-alone?

Well, what happened was that I was reading over the first chapter of Nora Webster about five years after I wrote it. And the story of Brooklyn jumped out at me from those early pages. And so I went and wrote that. And if you look at that opening chapter of Nora Webster, you find that there are mentions of various women’s names who could help her. One of them is from The Blackwater Lightship, and another is from The Heather Blazing. And there are women who come in from some of the short stories as well.

Is that pleasurable to you, carrying characters over from one story or book to another?

Yes, yes, it’s sort of fun. And it anchors the book in something of a “real” world that is actually a fictional world. It just connects things. Henry James did it a few times, actually. And of course James Joyce does it. Some of the characters in Dubliners emerge in Ulysses. And it happens in Joseph Conrad’s work, too.

Is there an aspect of it that’s also a reward for the careful reader, or the reader who’s read many of your books?

Yes. It was funny—when I was in China, some of the audience thought that it was almost an error, like an offense. One woman said it to me accusingly: “You took the character from one of your books and put it into another book!” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, I did that, yeah.”

She thought it was cheating?

She looked at me, yeah, like it’s cheating, serious cheating. I said I thought it was terrific.

As if you plagiarized yourself.


You experienced a trauma in childhood that parallels what Nora’s children, particularly her son Donal, experience: Like him, your father became ill, you and your brother were sent to live with your aunt and your mother didn’t visit or write at all for months, and your father passed away when you were young. And many of Donal’s traits, including his stammer, are ones you shared. How did you decide to tell this story from the mother’s perspective instead of the child’s?

I felt there wasn’t enough depth in the boy, Donal, that he was too young, and that you could write a very melancholy, Irish short story about his coming home from school but it wouldn’t be any more than that. You couldn’t actually chart his development, because there wasn’t enough to start with. He’s too young. You could write one of those very naïve child books of the world being watched from his perspective.

So, I mean, I did think about it. And it is there, to some extent, especially in The Heather Blazing. But I thought if I did it from the mother’s point of view, I would get more, that there was more of her there to work with. It’s almost as though if you’re painting, say, trying to paint a child is very difficult. You can get something innocent and sugary and naïve, whereas when you paint an adult you get an entire personality with all the experience that goes into that personality.

Do you paint?

No, but I look at paintings a lot.

It’s interesting that you lay it out as practical, novelistic concern. I wondered if there was an element of trying to challenge yourself to empathize with your mother?

It’s not exactly my mother, but it’s the mind, the spirit of somebody of that age at that time who had gone through that experience. And some of what I did was from personal observation and memory. Some of it was from imagination.

I understand that Nora is a separate character, that she isn’t your mother, but was there any part of this writing that involved processing what had happened to you?

It doesn’t work like that, in the sense that you’re manipulating the material too much for it to be a form of therapy. It just doesn’t come out like that. What I was doing was I was building the book. So I didn’t really get anything more than what is in the book. At least I don’t think so. How can you judge, you know?

In your books, there is so much meditation on being alone and how it is a double-edged sword. A lot of your characters are really pained by solitude, but then, in other moments, crave it. Could you talk a little bit about solitude in your own life?

I suppose one of the funny things about writing is that it’s solitary, compared to playing in an orchestra. And if you’re writing, your main aim is not to leave the house at all in a given day. So you do know something about that.

But also in fiction, especially in the lives of women, how do you deal with solitude? You look at how Jane Austen deals with it, for example, or how Henry James deals with it, about giving a woman a rich solitude. You’re giving her a funny power, the power of rich reflection, which can be very dramatic in a book. It’s very dramatic in Pride and Prejudice and in Portrait of a Lady. So it sort of works in the sense that as long as you fill it with enough intelligent sensitive life you can actually get quite a lot of dramatic effect. Whereas with men it’s harder because you do need to get them out of the house and it’s what they’re doing in society or at work or at sport or something that makes them matter. With a woman it’s often domestic space.

In a Los Angeles Times review of Nora Webster, Darin Strauss writes, ” Tóibín’s method is of a piece with the book’s approach to drama. Or, make that drama avoidance; this is a novel that abjures not just plot twists but plot advances. Tóibín never manhandles life and would in fact prefer not to leave any fingerprints on its lapels.[…]Tóibín’s written a book that de-pressurizes—that, when faced with a dramatic moment, shies up its collar and ducks into the alley.” How do you respond to that? Do you agree?

Well, I think that what’s happening in the novel are a set of changes which are almost imperceptible. And there’s no big moment of release. There is no pure drama in the book, it’s all tiny aggregation, something new, or Maurice, her late husband, is left out for a few pages—you give her other thoughts, other things that preoccupy her. So it does move, but not in a way you can easily find. But certainly there is a big distance between the Nora at the beginning and the Nora at the end. But what your problem as a reader is, you wonder: Where did this start? So to that extent, what you’re reading is correct, that it isn’t as though she has a big epiphany scene on the beach. She doesn’t.

Your protagonists are not passive, but they’re also not at all larger than life, or even particularly active. I get a sense of verisimilitude from your work.

Yeah. I’m interested in a way in the submerged figure, in somebody who you wouldn’t notice on the street, and what you can do with that figure. If everything in a novel has to be more exciting than the last then I think the reader will grow very weary. But it doesn’t mean that you have to make it as thin as life. In other words, if you ask somebody what an ordinary day in your life was like, the answer to that is, well, it’s very thin. I mean its fine in its way but it’s very thin. Fiction does have to have a greater density and sense of pattern, but it doesn’t mean that the characters have to be constantly colorful.

Why does the submerged figure interest you more than the person who would be noticed on the street?

Because I think you can work, and certainly I can, with the sort of northern light—short days, long winters, silence. I’m not good with long summers or lots of sunshine. Grayness and shadow and shade interest me. If I was Brazilian, I’d probably have a different attitude.

To be quite literal about what you said, do you think of yourself as somebody who moves along in the shadows, observing, and is not really noticed on the street in this way?

No, I’m not like that, no. I always think it’s bad manners to go around a place with a morose look on your face. I might be wrong about that, but that’s my view there.

I wanted to talk a little bit about Brooklyn. There is a scene in which Father Flood, Eilis’s priest in America, informs her that her sister, Rose, has died back in Ireland. What was writing that like?

Well, I found all that episode very difficult. What you’re trying to get is shock, without using the word shock too much. You’re trying to get this slow business of her realizing, From this moment onwards, my life is going to change. And yet all that episode has to be fully convincing to the reader. And the reader must never feel for a single moment that their heartstrings are being pulled too much. So you have to withhold an awful lot of her easy emotion. And yeah, it was very difficult to write, because you can’t really write it unless you feel it. So you have to give yourself the feeling.

How do you do that?

You start imagining it, and then you start having it.

Do you ever cry as you’re writing?

Yes, I have done that. There’s a particular place in The Heather Blazing where I did that, and I found with Brooklyn, writing the letter—there’s a letter Rose’s brother, Jack, writes her from Ireland—I found that particularly difficult. I wouldn’t want to do that again.

What about that letter in particular?

Well, it had to be written in a very particular voice, because he was not especially literate. And I suppose that made things more vivid for me as I was working. There is also a scene in Nora Webster, towards the very end of the book, where Maurice almost appears to her. Again, I found that very difficult, I mean emotionally difficult.

I have to also imagine that writing the scene in the Testament of Mary in which Mary watches Jesus, her son, being crucified—

Yeah, yeah, that particular scene was also very difficult. With every book I find that the book needs a moment of great, pure emotion. But in order to write it, I have to be ready.

How do you ready yourself?

By entering into the character’s spirit in full, by imagining the scene in full, and then almost living it moment by moment as I’m working.

Once you break off for the day, how do you recover from that experience?

With those scenes, the scenes I’m talking about, you actually finish them in a day. You start early enough that you know you’re not going to actually have to try and sleep with the work half done. With these scenes, I built up to it and I knew it was coming and my main effort was to try and get it right the first time because you can’t write it from the beginning twice. In other words you almost have to do it as though it’s real.

It is such a strange thing that the more forceful the writing is, the less the reader feels it.

Yeah. I think that’s the big thing. The more bright color you’ve used, the less the reader trusts you. It’s like the difference between a scream and a whisper.

Like some of your other work, in The Testament of Mary—which tells the story of Jesus’s rise and then crucifixion from Mary’s perspective—there is a lot of meditation on death. At one point, Mary says, “I had been made wild by what I saw and nothing has ever changed that. I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that, or lessen what it did to me.” Have you ever had that feeling, that there was no going back from an experience you’d had?

I think that if you’ve had a close friend who dies, for example, that you can have that feeling. I think anyone who’s been through all that knows all that.

What has been the response, or what would you hope would be the response, to the book of people who are quite religious?

I think before there’s faith there is doubt. Or buried within faith there is doubt. So I was sort of working with that idea. I mean that no one’s faith is pure. There may be people who claim it is, but it has to include moments of doubt and almost feed on moments of doubt.

In your fiction, you take pains not to gloss over the daily drudgery of work and making money and routine—and also find some beauty in that.

I think novels are filled with the world. I mean things of the world such as money, such as domestic interiors. And all of those things matter in a novel in a way that they maybe don’t matter so much in a poem. I tend not to use it symbolically, though. I tend just to place it there, and it may have a resonance, but it doesn’t have a symbolic value.

Right, it’s almost the opposite—it’s the grounding reality. Have you had a lot of daily-grind jobs?

Not really. But the thing is, you take a lot from very little. I mean, I have worked in offices. But with a novel—there’s a wonderful story Henry James tells about a friend who wrote a novel about French Protestant youth. Someone said to her, “You really must have researched, you must know a lot about French Protestant youth.” And she said, “Well yes, I was walking down the stairs and I looked in a doorway and there was some French Protestant youth in the door and I passed on but I did see them.” That was enough to get what she needed for the novel. So I think it’s an interesting idea that a day’s work in an office can give you a lifetime’s work in an office if you’re a novelist.

And perhaps is actually more effective because you don’t actually have to feel hemmed in by, or beholden to, the reality of it.

Yes, yes. You want to get things right, but they don’t have to come from deep knowledge. In other words, I think it’s important to remember that novelists can work from a surface and get a great deal from the surface that suggests depth. Yeah, you’re quite right in a way that if you know it too well you end up putting in all the unnecessary details.

I read that while you were working on Brooklyn, you met someone who lives in Brooklyn—where Eilis lives in the book. So you asked him to email you what was going on outside his window, and used that to create detail in the novel.

I think it was just one email I sent—”Could you just tell me what’s going on today?” And he said it was so cold in Brooklyn that people had their faces completely covered and you could just see eyes coming towards you on the street. And so I put that straight away into the book. I just needed one more detail for that day that was completely observed and right. And I was in Ireland working and I thought, well, if I was in New York I would go for a walk in Brooklyn and I would get something from that walk. I couldn’t do the walk, so I sent an email.

Did that one detail engender other imaginings on your part?

Yeah, I could almost then see the streets, see the cold, feel just how severely cold it was. And from Eilis’s point of view, Ireland tends to be a more temperate climate. You don’t get that biting New York cold in Ireland. I mean you can and do, but it’s unusual. Whereas here, in New York, it belongs to the winter.

Several of your books, including Brooklyn, Nora Webster, and The Testament of Mary, are told from a female perspective. Is writing from the opposite gender helpful in unlocking an imaginative door, in that from the start there are mandatory differences from your own perspective?

I think that even writing an autobiography, I mean an absolute autobiography, describing something as you thought it was involves so much imagining that you’re always involved in pursuing something you really don’t know and trying to find a shape for something that you’re not quite sure of. So it isn’t as though there would be moments if you were writing from a male perspective in which you’re sure of your ground.

The thing is, you’re never sure of your ground, because you’re always wondering what the next detail should be. So no matter what you’re doing, you’re involved in the close imagining, entering into a spirit of someone who is not fully known to you, even if they were, for example, yourself, because it is a sort of glittering process of trying to find the right image to come now that will work rhythmically and will make sense dramatically.

I usually interview writers right when a book comes out, when they’re doing the whole publicity tour. So it’s interesting to be talking to you in an in-between time. What is this time like for you?

I’m trying to write a new book, basically. I have a new short story, and I’m trying to add to the book every day. It’s really a slow process, a novel. You really sometimes think, “God, this book is never going to be finished.”

Does having written so many books help you in starting the next one, or are you always starting from scratch?

I think that you become more experienced, even instinctively you know your instinct for pacing, for knowing how much detail to put in here, how much to leave out. I think all that might possibly improve as you work. And you also get more confident, which may be bad but also can be good in the sense that have an inkling that maybe this will work. And you do realize—with a bit of shock—that a book takes a number of years, that just because you’re working on it doesn’t mean it’s going to be finished soon. You just have to be slow and patient and very deliberate and determined.

Do you feel sad to live with your short story characters, provided they don’t come back in other works, for only a short time and then have to say goodbye to them?

I think the sadness arises really from the fact that people don’t really read collections of stories with the same zeal as they read a novel. I mean the exception being someone like Alice Munro, who actually managed to build up a big readership for her stories. But most writers don’t have that readership, especially most novelists who write stories. People just think your stories are under-imagined novels.

So the story itself is a sort of odd orphan that’s been put into an orphanage and is not going to be adopted. And you feel a sort of funny responsibility for that because you think if someone is going to go to the trouble of reading this it had better be as good as it can be.

Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process? I was curious to read that you write longhand, and then edit longhand, and only word process at a late stage.

Yeah, I write in longhand and then I transcribe that eventually onto a machine. But I’ve done some work on it before that. I like the pen, I like the page, I like the paper. If you’re working on a computer, you can erase and delete and go back and replace so easily, whereas if you’re writing with a pen you have to cross out the words. It isn’t the same business, so you tend to try to get things absolutely right the first time. It doesn’t mean you do, but it means you try.

“You said in one interview, ‘Writing tends to be very deliberate. A novelist could probably run a military campaign with some success. They could certainly run a country,’ which really made me laugh. Can you expand on that?

What you’re doing is you’re devising strategies for controlling information and emotion. You’re operating tactically all the time. You’re thinking a number of years ahead. You’re planning and plotting and then you’re allowing the textured work to emerge without all that plotting. But in other words, if I were in the White House, I would be very good at forward planning and knowing what should be happening the next year, the year after, knowing what my priorities were and also being able to deal with the things that arose everyday. So I would actually be a very good President of the United States! All of us involved in the writing are involved strategy and tactics and arranging material. And so it’s very close to what people who have power do.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.