Rebekah does the Edinburgh Book Festival. Part 3: Colm Tóibín
You may have guessed that this author is Irish. What you mightn't know is that he spent some years teaching Literature and Creative writing in Texas and New York. The result? An Irish accent with Texan drawl. Pretty neat.
Colm Tóibín is a man who writes beautifully. I've only read one of his books - The Master, which is about Henry James - but I want very much to read more. I should have bought that copy of Brooklyn when I saw it in my bookshop. Then this event would have been even more brilliant.
The man is funny. He's witty. He's sharp. He's also very clever, and seems like he has a lot of heart. Plus, he tells us he's got a pile of neuroses, and would like to have an integrated personality but can't choose which one. Apparently, this means he was destined to be a writer. It shows.
Tóibín read three passages from his latest novel Brooklyn, which is about a young Irish girl who moves to the USA because she can't get a job in her home village. Tóibín describes this as the "secret" history of Ireland, the bit that no one talks about. He says this is because almost every family in Ireland had someone move to America for work, and it's almost shameful (for the Irish) that they couldn't find jobs at home. And he points out that the opposite is true of Irish Americans: they're proud of their roots and are happy to talk about it.
The USA, of course, is the land of glamour and opportunity. Beautifully, he said one reason why it might have been such a popular place for the Irish to move to (right into the last years of the last century) is because your descendants could become President of the USA, whereas in England, as he understands it...
So. To more detail.
One of the main characters in the novel is Father Flood, and he's a force for good in the book (like Priests should be).
Tóibín says: One of the advantages of being a journalist and a novelist is that you can get out all of your vitriol in the paper, which means that you're ... nicer when writing a novel.
But a story that really moved Tóibín was that of Ireland's first "scandalous" priest: Eamon Casey. He had an affair with an American woman, who then went back to the USA and had a baby. And the question Tóibín asked about this was whether that disgrace would become the narrative of Casey's life, and his good years of hard, selfless work with the poor of London would be ignored, forgotten, wiped away. So in a way, he wanted to remind people that Priests are often good, strong people, the Christians they should be.
He also says that the whole issue is difficult to deal with because there are times when a priest is the man you most need to have around - when a relative is passing, etc. So you might write a scathing opinion piece on the priesthood one day, and the next be welcoming Father Reilly into your house.
Irish and Americans are both charming people, but they have very different kinds of charm. So an aristocratic English lady in the 1930s might say to her guests, "Pay no attention to the charm of my Irish servants. They don't mean it." But an American's charm is most often heartfelt and genuine.
Charm plays a minor role in the novel. The main character, Eilis, marries an American man, Tony. But before they get married, she has to decide whether charm is what she really wants. And Tóibín says that Eilis' love interest had to be charming so that readers would like him!
How the novel came about:
Tóibín's father died when he was 12 years old, and a lot of people came to visit his mother almost every evening, which the young boys began to detest. At one of these visits, a woman was talking about her daughter who had moved to Brooklyn. And after she left, other people told more of the daughter's story - she apparently hadn't told her parents everything.
Later, after a mix up, Tóibín ended up with the photo of this daughter in his missal envelope. It had information about her, and how she died (so she could be prayed for), and for a long time he would look at that photo.
Then one day he wrote her tale as a short story.
In between that time and the writing of the novel he lived in the US for a time, and would miss things about Ireland that he didn't even like. Then he reread that short story he wrote, and there, in about five lines, was a full story arc. So he made it into novel.
Isn't that a nice story?
- The novel is about dislocation and things unsaid. Dislocation of people who emigrate and fail to integrate into their new country, thus becoming stuck between two places, part of neither one nor the other. And the things that are unsaid are myriad: the pain of children and siblings leaving, self-sacrifice of big sisters for their younger ones, etc.
- Tóibín doesn't like to revisit main characters in later books. He feels that once a book is finished, that person's story belongs to the reader, or to the realms of silence and the imagination. But he is happy to reuse minor characters and weave them through several texts.
- The most important thing to remember as a writer is that you shouldn't enter your books. Your opinions no longer matter when you embark on a work of fiction. You must engage in self annihilation.
- Tóibín has a new collection of stories coming out in October. He's currently writing a new novel, and collaborating with an artist on Something.
And here endeth Rebekah's Festival experience. Next year she'll do lots more, and take some time off work for those weeks, because that would be amazing.