An ‘Austere, Whispering Power’: An Interview with Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín has spent much of his career unearthing and troubling familial relations in works such as The Testament of Mary, Nora Webster, and New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. This scholarly and writerly interview probes relationships presented by Tóibín between art and living, psychology and fiction, form and national identities, fiction and politics, art and sexuality, biography and narrative, the writing of a novel and our reading of it. Tóibín was invited as a visiting author to Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, where I was an instructor at the time. I was privileged to have dinner with him after his reading in March of 2010. Later at the Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Seattle, Washington during February of 2014, I attended a panel discussion session with Colm Tóibín and American novelist Rachel Kushner. Tóibín discussed a range of topics, including visual art, the historical novel, and the assertion of the writer within public discourse. In June of 2016, Tóibín responded to the following questions about relationships that permeate his writing, extending to the reader an invitation to rethink those relationships as he does in his fiction. 

In the chapter on W.B. Yeats of your non-fiction work, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, you focus on the relationship between father and son and also the tension between complete and incomplete work. This is what all writers struggle with in some way. You describe the letters written by John Butler Yeats to W.B. Yeats as being “from the great unfinisher to the connoisseur of completion.” At the same, John expressed his regret that William joined Lady Gregory instead of staying with his father in his “concrete life.” Do you think there is a relationship between an artist’s ability to complete and his or her participation in the concrete? Writers handle writing and living in so many ways. For example, Woody Allen claims that he doesn’t travel much and keeps a regular schedule seven days a week so that he can write every day. This is how he writes and directs at least one film every year for forty years now. For you, what is the relationship between living and writing?

There is no easy solution to the problem of how much work to do and the quality of that work. Woody Allen may end up being the director of one or two good films. All of the others will be forgotten. Yeats, for much of his creative life, wrote poems over four or five months of the year and the rest of the year hung out in London. He even did tours in America and ran a theatre in Dublin. He got energy from that and his work has a forceful relationship with energy. I think that Yeats needed to resist his father not only because of his father’s indolence, but because Yeats’s interest in ‘concrete life’ was slight, but sufficient to keep him going. His instinct was to symbolize, totalize, and it is the tension between that instinct and the concrete image that gives his work such power.

So many of your stories involve people who are alone and sometimes a choice between being alone and being in a relationship. “Sleep” and “The Pearl Fishers” are two that stand out to me, among others. In “The Pearl Fishers,” you write “I live alone now and I work hard. And when I am not working I am away. I do not see anyone I have no desire to see…. I love a long day when the night promises nothing more than silence, solitude, music, lamplight, the time broken by maybe half an hour on Gaydar to see if there is anyone new, or even anyone familiar, in the city centre who might stop by for what they call sex with no strings attached.” To what extent is loneliness as an experience more productive for you than a relationship?

A story, or even a novel, is closer to a lyric poem than a clear statement of opinion. In other words, no word is the last word. Words are moods. I wrote what you quote; I could just as easily have found an image that suggested quite the opposite and I would have gone with it had it suited the moment in the story.

Much of your work is concerned with familial relationships. New Ways to Kill Your Mother and The Testament of Mary strike me as being particularly influenced by psychoanalytic theory and culture. You commented on this aspect of The Testament of Mary at an AWP panel discussion in Seattle in February 2014, saying that the work is an imagining of what Mary’s telling would be like from a modern understanding of “trauma.” Have you thought about any of your work as Freudian? Are there advantages to thinking about fiction in relation to psychoanalysis?

I wonder if we are not all subconscious and if the conscious will or the surface self is merely like orange peel. But a novel needs orange peel as much as it needs orange. In other words, surface statement, surface feeling, surface dialogue are important elements. But they are always ways of hiding or concealing or revealing what is beneath. I think this was in Shakespeare before it was in Freud.

The Testament of Mary has been called a novel. It reminded me of the German novella such as Death in Venice or The Metamorphosis, both of which also progress intensely one character’s interior life in very few pages. What were your thoughts about form as you were writing this? Would you call it a novella? 

I have no idea what a novella is. Maybe it is a short novel; maybe a long story. I think of my book as a short novel, but I consider the two works you mention as long stories. More happens in The Testament of Mary; there is more stuff. But I am not sure. My story A Long Winteris almost as long as The Testament of Mary, but I think of it as a long story. All of the narrative stems from one action. In The Testament of Mary, there are many such actions.

Many of your characters have a pattern of moving out and away from the conflicts of family life into what seems to be a more liberating and larger social sphere. Do you think it is true for many people that family must be escaped?

Yes, we move from being children to adults, from a home that was made for us to a home we create, or try to. This is a very dramatic subject.

I am struck, again and again, by your short fiction. I am interested in forms of fiction and national identity. Does the Irish short story mean anything distinct to you? You have talked and written about the national and formal characteristics of the Irish novel before. In a 2009 interview, you say that “it’s possible to look at how the novel developed in France and in England and to see it developing in a way that is close to the way that society developed: slow progress, continuity, and people having choices and chances coming their way. You can’t find that in the Brazilian novel and the Irish novel.” Are there particular ways in which Irish short fiction reveals a relationship between Irish national identity and the form itself?

I would not like to generalize about the Irish short story. Many Irish short stories do not interest me. I like Joyce’s stories and some stories by Mary Lavin and John McGahern. I like a story by Daniel Corkery called “Nightfall” and Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation.” In recent years I have enjoyed stories by Anne Enright and Claire Keegan. The point I was making in that interview is that in Ireland we have no great tradition of the novel in the nineteenth century, like France does, or England. We can read those books, of course, but they don’t come from our world. It means we have to make up a world, or live in a more limited and less layered one.

Many authors of the short story have specific ideas about its function and affect on the reader. Poe writes in “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale” that “In the brief tale…the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.” Flannery O’Connor contends that “being short does not mean being slight. A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience of meaning.” She writes, “a story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.” What is a short story to you? 

I am really not sure about any of this. Maybe a story is closer to a poem. It depends more on rhythm and the mysteries of rhythm than on plot or even character or even drama or conflict. But there are so many types of stories. Maybe many of them depend on one strange turn, one pull and push in the rhythm that hits the reader’s nervous system. One strange moment—something pure, but also sharp, direct.

What is modern fiction? Is there such a thing, or is all fiction modern?

I don’t know. I notice a lot of irony and general jokiness, a sort of knowingness on the part of the author, many of whom, it seems, have been to college, some of whom have stayed in college too long. But there are also many novels where this doesn’t happen.

When asked what books you generally avoid in a 2015 interview with The New York Times, you said that you avoid “books about philosophy (especially metaphysics and ethics).” I can’t help but wonder if there is a story or stories behind that remark. Have you had bad or unfulfilling experiences with philosophy? How are literature and philosophy different for you?

At least mechanics has helped us to make machines. What has ethics done? What has metaphysics done? Indeed, what has philosophy done? In around five billion years, the sun will have used up its fuel and the world will shrivel. Where will we be then? What will the philosophers have to tell us about Being then? 

You are a prolific producer of non-fiction. You seem to suggest that the reason for some of these writings is mystery or doubt. In the first chapter of Love in a Dark Time, you approach the common perception that gay writers are trying to hide their sexualities in the text and ways in which those works have been (mis)interpreted. You seem to strive against the ever-present impulse of literary critics to read queerness into the works of gay writers. In the process of resisting this critical impulse, you also spar with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick several times. You write, “Critics will not give up on James. He was gay; therefore he must have written stories which, if we read them carefully and deeply, will yield evidence of this.” You frequently cite Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. She argues about James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” that “to the extent that Marcher’s secret has content, the content is homosexual.” You respond by saying that “Marcher’s secret clearly has a content and the content is possibly homosexual.” You argue against Sedgwick’s claim that “the denial that the secret has a content…is a stylish and ‘satisfying’ Jamesian formal gesture.” You respond that “it is not a stylish or satisfying formal gesture. It is, ostensibly, about a man who realizes that his failure to love has been a disaster.” Why do you think Sedgwick reads these same texts so differently than you? 

I admire Sedgwick’s work enormously. All I was doing was trying to refine it, riff on it a bit. She needed to express herself with certainty, I think, because she was working against ingrained and quite lazy readings of James. She needed to be assertive. She did the groundwork. I don’t think we differ that much, except that she is much smarter than I am. 

Post Stonewall, there is nominally gay fiction. Do you ever think of your work as particularly political?

I am gay and this enters the books in ways that are overt and hidden. Ditto with being Irish. But I suppose the novel is, or should be, or must be in some way, a display of personality, however concealed or shrouded in ironies and artifices. So my books are personal. I write them. But they also come from the world, the world I both know and sometimes am utterly unconscious of.

In Love in a Dark Time, you often characterize the range of attitudes assumed by biographers toward their subjects. You point to biographers who seem to disapprove of their subjects, as in the case of Ronald Hayman and Donald Prater’s biographies on Thomas Mann. Why do you think biographers choose to write about people of whom they disapprove? 

There is a problem about scholars and writers. Scholars in general spent their twenties in libraries. Many writers did not. Scholars are not naturally anarchic. Writers often are. Thomas Mann did not go to college. He knew nothing more than what he wrote about. He devoted himself to him work rather than to his family. If we wanted him to devote himself to his family, or get a PhD, then we might not have his work. Often, scholars want writers to be like them. I notice this in biographies sometimes. But then other biographies are not like that.

It occurred to me that there are some, but not enough biographies on relationships in general, and especially not on friendships. You have written biographies of gay writers and writers in relation to their families, as well as biographies of individuals such as Lady Gregory and Elizabeth Bishop. Are there other kinds of biographies that you believe are scarce or that you wish to write?

Yes, with Gregory and Bishop, you have two writers whose friendships were deeply important. You get the same with Yeats (but not with Joyce), and with Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster (but not Thomas Mann or Wallace Stevens). I would like to write a few more critical/ biographical books about writers and artists—about James Baldwin, for example, or Yeats, or Cezanne—but there is not enough time.

In your chapter on Francis Bacon, you discuss the tendency of biographers to relate the art and life of the artist, specifically art and sexuality in particular ways, as you say, “there is an interest in connecting a lurid personal life to lurid paintings.” You say that Bacon is a “biographer’s dream of a homosexual, from his father’s rejection of him, to his sex with stable-hands, to his lust for his father, to his wild times in Berlin and Paris.” How do you explain this common correlation between art and life in biographies?  

Bacon’s real life was in the studio. He was a most thoughtful and serious man. This emerges in his interviews with David Sylvester. But some of the books about him write about how alarming he was when he was in company. He was even more alarming, however, when he was alone, which is why his pictures are so startling still. But how do you write about that energy? He was the only one who knew what it was like and he did not keep diaries.

There are moments in your writing that can only be described as melancholy absurdism, moments that starkly awaken the reader to the absurd realities of living. In one interview, you refer to the “moral mistiness” surrounding characters in the works of James and Conrad and how they are written as not perceiving themselves politically or personally. Many of your characters perceive their communities with great precision and patience, despite their lack of interest or inability to see themselves. These moments are frequent in The Testament of Mary. We experience these moments when Jesus’ reputation as the Son of God is constructed quickly and seemingly without question by those who believed they knew him. These moments accumulate until they are overwhelming in the parts leading up to the end of Nora Webster. For example, you describe Nora’s inability to recall how the subject of boarding school ever became a reality for Donal. In both works, we have a mother who feels excluded or distant from the knowledge of her community. Are there authors that stand out to you as taking on this task as well?

I suppose James in his novels is good at keeping a secret from a character, rendering them oddly powerless —Isabel Archer, for example, in The Portrait of a Lady and Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl—because they do not know something, but oddly powerful in other ways. Many of Conrad’s novels are about degrees of perception and ways of missing the point. I am interested in this—it comes most forcefully in my novel The Story of the Night—but have never had it formulated before, so thanks for this.

Many of your narrators are women. It is as though you inhabit these women rather than simply writing from a woman’s perspective. Are there differences for you in writing the perspectives of women and men? 

I am not sure. Writing James in The Master and the judge in The Heather Blazing involved inhabiting the character, who was male. I can’t see any other way to work. Or there are other ways, but they don’t interest me much.

On the subject of absurdism, it occurred to me as I was teaching Camus’ The Stranger that “Three Friends” in Mothers and Sons has a very similar structure as the beginning of Camus’ novel. Fergus and Meursault each experience their mother’s death strangely, followed by a scene that combines the ocean, swimming, and sexual awakening. Are you aware of this similarity? Was Camus’ fiction ever important for you?

It sure was! I read The Stranger in my teens and it meant a great deal to me, as did Sartre’s trilogy, which no one seems to read any more. I found the same sort of distance from experience in Hemingway, especially The Sun Also Rises, but also some of the stories.

You have connections with writers who are part of discussions on existentialism, such as Hemingway. You wrote the introduction for the Penguin edition of Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel. You also wrote about Samuel Beckett in New Ways to Kill Your Mother.Do you think you have been philosophically influenced by these writers in your own thinking and writing?

Hemingway, I think, more than Sabato or Beckett.

I would like to know about endings. After all the events in a novel a character’s life is often defined, usually unfairly, by the novel’s ending. What becomes of all the details, all of the vital moments in the middle of a novel by the end of Nora Webster? It is remarkable that, as readers, we hold onto the seemingly smaller moments of a novel in light of its final moments. How do you think about an ending as you approach it?

I think I am more interested in how a string quartet ends, or a piano sonata, than I am in an ending in books. The melody is being played out. It falls, something weakens, then the last notes take on a sort of austere, whispering power.

About the author

Dr. Amy Foley teaches literature, writing, and philosophy at Bryant University in Rhode Island. Some of her published and forthcoming works can be found in The Journal of Popular Culture, Virginia Woolf Miscellany, Modern Language Studies, and Chiasmi International. Amy's research interests include transnational modernism, architecture, phenomenology, and contemporary fiction. She also writes fiction. Amy would like to thank Dr. Stephen M. Barber at the University of Rhode Island, for his advice and contributions to this interview.

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