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  • Last post on Brooklyn

    February 26, 2010 @ 3:15 pm | by Rosita Boland

    Hi folks. This is the last post about Brooklyn, as from Monday we’ll start discussing Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which is the book for March.

    If you haven’t read Colm’s terrific replies, they are in the post directly below this one, and an edited version will be in the books pages Saturday 27th. 

    Early in February, Colm did an interview with Warwick TV, whom I think are American, judging by the way the questions are framed.

    YouTube Preview Image

    It’s in two parts (You Tube only loads nine minutes of video at a time), so the second one is below. Colm talks about Brooklyn, writing, and answers questions about Ireland. It’s a good wrap to the month’s discussion. I look forward to our next one – kicks off Monday.

    YouTube Preview Image
  • Colm Tóibín replies to your questions

    February 23, 2010 @ 1:26 pm | by Rosita Boland

    All weekend, Colm has been writing replies to some of the many questions posted on last week’s thread. Here are his responses, in no particular order. If you want to remind yourself of the full text of the questions, look back at the thread ‘Questions for Colm Tóibín.’ We will run an edited version of this post in Saturday’s Irish Times Books pages.

    On q’s about the ending of the book, as asked by Poppy, Emer, Bernadette, Marie O’Leary, and myself 

     ”I don’t want to give the ending away, but I need to say that it was always there as the ending. To some extent, I was inspired by the ending of Portrait of a Lady but I was also using the story as I heard it in the first place. I think it’s important in a book to allow the reader’s imagination do as much work as the words themselves. Therefore, there are feelings you have to guess, and scenes that are deliberately omitted (such as her first parting from her mother; such as her arrival in the United States), and there are other scenes that are described at some length so that a picture of her psychology can emerge, or that the reader can be lulled by detail without realising that detail becomes character, that there is any other way to denote character. (In film or on the stage, you can have the characters appear.) Thus the ending would have to come not as pure completion, which you get say in Middlemarch, with every loose strand tied up and the future dealt with. This book ends in the middle of things, or at the point where life begins, or at the point where the story ends. And the reader’s task is to fill in the rest. I think it’s important for me when I am working not to know anything more about the characters than I narrate in the book, and nothing more about what happens to them after. These means that each detail has to be precise.”

     On  the q’s as to what inspired Brooklyn and if it is based on anything, as asked by Mary Comer 

    “The book was inspired in one way by my reading, especially Jane Austen and Henry James. The scene at the dance in Enniscorthy early in the book with George and Jim is based on a scene in Pride and Prejudice when Mr Darcy is rude. One of the last sentences in the book is based on one of the last sentences in Portrait of a Lady. But it was also inspired by the changes which took place in Ireland in the twenty-first century, by the arrival of immigrants, by watching the Chinese, the Nigerians and the Poles and trying to imagine how they felt about Ireland and about home. The plot, such as it is, was inspired too by a story told in Enniscorthy when I was twelve which I heard and which stayed in my mind, but that was very little because it did not include the psychology of the protagonist or any sense of her inner life. But nonetheless, it gave the book a cleaner structure which it might not have had otherwise.” 

     On the characters of Rose and Miss Fortini, as asked by Eleanor and Barry Cook

      ”The novel is patterned and most things happen twice or happen with echoes of each other. There are two tall houses with stairs. There are two older women who run those houses. There are two bossy/ sisterly figures. There are two beaches. There are two men. There are two dance halls. There are two families. I did not set out to create these patterns, they emerged as I worked, and if I found them satisfying I put them in, but I tried not to make them too obvious or the connections too clunky.”

     On the character of Father Flood, as asked by Niav and Frank Bouchier-Hayes 

    “I was interested in creating the figure of a priest who worked with emigrants. He has a great deal of energy and in Brooklyn in these years his congregation is dwindling, people are moving out to Long Island, not many emigrants are arriving. He likes being a fixer, but there is nothing else to him. He wants nothing in return. There were priests like this in every large city in North American and Britain. I realise that if you put the figure of a priest into a novel now, readers might feel that there is something coming, but not in this book.” 

    On the q of his visceral description of the rough sea-crossing, as asked by Emer

    “I used a number of sea journeys I have been on myself, one especially from Fishguard to Rosslare when I was sick all the way and other to the Aran Islands. The business of the bathroom being locked happened on a boat going up the Red Sea from Port Sudan to Port Suez in 1986.” 

    Is Eilis Lacey Fanny Price, as asked by Dotsy

    “In the few years before I wrote the book I gave a number of seminars on Jane Austen and began to read the novels over and over and try to work out how the characters were built, especially the female characters, but also the comic ones. I became interested in the idea of someone like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, oddly powerless and seeming to be gentle and self-effacing, but having a very powerful interior life and having feelings that were very deep and complex. I also became interested in the figure of Catherine Sloper in Henry James’s Washington Square and in George Moore’s Esther Waters. The novel is uniquely suited to capturing an interior life which does not display itself, which conceals more than it discloses.” 

    The process of how he writes a novel, as asked by Gerry, Lorraine A and Padraig MacDonnchadha

    “I work very deliberately. In other words, I have everything in my head before I begin to work – the structure, the plot, the characters. The only thing I don’t have is the rhythm. I can begin the book when the ideas male their way into rhythm. But things like endings or characters are firmly embedded in my mind before I begin. I discover nothing much as I work except detail.” 

    On the setting of his novels, as asked by John Henderson

    “Some of my novels – The Heather Blazing, The Story of the Night, The Blackwater Lightship - and some of my short stories are set in the contemporary world. Others are set in the past. I write whatever most strongly comes to me. I have known writers who were forced to ignore what Stalin said they should or should not write about and others, indeed, who had to do the same with John Charles McQuaid. I think it doesn’t much matter when novels are set or what they are about. I notice that Ulysses doesn’t deal with the Irish War of Independence or the First World War. And I notice that there is no description of the Battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma. In fact the hero of the latter was not sure whether he was at that battle or not, but he was so in love that it hardly mattered. I think it is important for writers to pay no attention whatsoever to anyone who wants them to write about one thing or another.” 

    On the questions about the story being cliched and containing stereotypical images of Ireland, as asked by Emmet and Ruth.

    “I realise that the story of an exile returning is an old story. It is what happens at the opening of Electra, for example, and, it is to some extent the story of Hamlet. It has been handled by many Irish writers – notably Daniel Corkery in a wonderful story called Nightfall and by Tom Murphy in a number of plays which would have had a huge influence on me. I suppose if I thought about that too much I might not have written a book at all. My job was to make every detail true, or to seem true, and to work on the rhythms of the sentences so that I am hitting spaces within the readers’ nervous systems. It is a book filled with silences, and I was manipulating those silences and trying to integrate them into the style of the book, so in that sense I was working too hard and concentrating too much to be bothered about anything at all other than the next sentence and the last one.” 

    On the writing style of the novel, as asked by Bernie Q.

    “ I was trying for a sort of simplicity which would hold the reader. No elaborate sentences or tricks in the narrative. Just write it down, the story and try and make it true. I may have failed. I’m sure I failed. But it was something I would never have tried when I was starting – my first two novels, for example, play with time.Brooklyn does not play with time. There are no flashbacks. It moves forward without display. I would never have had the confidence to try that years ago.

    “I was trying to find a subdued rhythm for the book, one that the reader would barely notice. I wanted to reflect the protagonist’s powerlessness in a sort of powerless prose, but the job also was to hide enough energy in the sentences to avoid complete greyness. I was working as though making drawings in pencil, with a lot of sharp detail, but also with a good deal of shading and a good deal left blank to be filled by the reader’s imagination. The American poet Louise Gluck has spoken of ‘sentences that are clear, communicative and unshadowed’ and I was fascinated by the possibity of writing ‘unshadowed sentences’. I realise that I did not do this in my previous novel The Master, where every single sentences has a shadow and a style on display. This time I wanted to reduce the music to close to zero and see if I could still get the range of expression and emotion I wanted for the book.”

    On why the book ended in Enniscorthy, not Brooklyn, as asked by Conor McCloskey

    “I was interested in the idea that distance in space can equal distance in time, and that being away and returning is not an easy or a light experience. Therefore it was essential that Eilis return to Ireland in June when the weather was good and days were long. I wanted the familiar life to take over so that the old life, the one in Brooklyn, which has seemed so rich and full of novelty, to crumble.” 

    On whether there might be a sequel to Brooklyn, as asked by Marie O’Leary

    “The sequel has to be in the readers’ imagination, just as we don’t know what happened in the Portrait of a Lady when the novel had ended, although I for one long to know.” 



  • Answers from Colm Tóibín – and next month’s book

    February 22, 2010 @ 5:20 pm | by Rosita Boland

    Hi folks. Colm has been working his way through your questions over the last few days, and I will post all his replies tomorrow – Tuesday. I can promise you some really interesting, thoughful responses on his part.

    The book we’re reading for March is The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (and currently in the cinemas starring our own marvellous Saoirse Ronan). So get your hands on that, or dig it out if you already have it. Discussion will kick off on March.

  • Your questions for Colm Tóibín

    February 13, 2010 @ 11:40 am | by Rosita Boland

    We’re halfway through February now, and while there’s plenty more discussion ahead about Brooklyn, we’re at the stage when I’m asking you to post questions for Colm Tóibín. 

    Colm has agreed to answer questions about Brooklyn, so let’s keep this thread for that purpose. You have one week from today, Saturday 13th Feb, to start posting questions here, or to be thinking about what you’d like to ask him about Brooklyn. What’ll happen is that Colm will then look at what everyone has posted and give some answers and responses online, which will be sometime during the final week of February.

    Meanwhile, be thinking about what you’d like to ask Colm! (Please keep the questions focused on Brooklyn, though, since that is the book we’re looking at this month.)

  • How Important Are Awards When Buying Books?

    February 10, 2010 @ 11:48 am | by Rosita Boland

    You do not hold back, Book Club readers. Several of you have had some quite hard things to say about Brooklyn. Some of you wondered why it had won the Costa Novel of the Year last month. That’s the job of the judges, and I’ve never known any award that wasn’t contested afterwards from some perspective.

    What I am wondering is, as readers, how important are awards when it comes to buying the books you want to read? Many of you have commented on how much you enjoyed Colm Tóibín’s The Master (disclosure – my favourite novel of his). It won the €100,000 IMPAC prize, the LA Times Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Booker, among many others.

    When the Booker longlist was announced last summer, I wondered did being on a list make a difference to the books people chose to buy. I wrote this piece about what I found when I visited some Dublin bookshops the week the longlist was published, a longlist which included Brooklyn.

    Are you influenced by prizes when it comes to reading books? Do you deliberately choose books to read because they have won a prize? How useful are prizes as a guide to a good read? If a book has won a prize and you don’t like it, are you annoyed? Feel like you must have missed something? Do you think – as some of you have already noted – that you are harder on a book that has won a major prize because you have more expectations either or it, or of your response to reading it?

  • Colm Tóibín’s Writing Room – and Robert Frost’s bed

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:53 am | by Rosita Boland

    The creative process is an endlessly fascinating one. How does the book emerge from the head and onto the page? Nobody really know that, apart from the individual writer. This is the study where Colm Tóibín works. He writes long-hand, which is highly unusual these days when most writers of novels opt for computers – however, lots of poets still write longhand.

    Speaking of writers’ homes, I once spent a month as writer-in-residence at The Frost Place in New Hamphire in the US. Robert Frost had lived there from 1915-1920, and it is now a museum and a foundation for poetry. My rooms in the musuem were downstairs – where Elinor’s (his wife) piano and stove still remained – and outside were the woods that inspired both the poems, The Road Not Taken and Stopping by the Woods on  a Snowy Evening. Among the upstairs rooms was Frost’s bedroom, with his large brass bed.

    Downstairs was also Frost’s armchair and a piece of wood that fitted across the two arms of the chair, which was how he liked to write. He used to take the armchair to the veranda, which overlooked the glorious White Mountains, place the wood over the arms, and write. His study, if you will, was outdoors.

     I had the run of the place for a month, and the museum items became as familiar to me as the table I ate at each day. They became absorbed into my daily routine. Each evening, I too sat in Frost’s chair, with the piece of wood in place, writing my diary and looking at the view he had seen. There was a skunk under the verandah, a bear in the woods, and strange sounds in the basement where the boiler roared, other noises thrummed from, and where I dared not venture.

     On my final night, there was a mouse in my bedroom. I fled. Fled upstairs to the museum rooms, where I spent the last night of my first visit to the US sleeping in Robert Frost’s bed.

  • Father Flood – His Motivation?

    February 5, 2010 @ 5:38 pm | by Rosita Boland

    So what’s in it for Father Flood to be so helpful to Eilis? You remember that just prior to disembarking the ship in New York, Georgia – who we know is a very savvy lady, so we can believe her – looks at Eilis’s passport and is surprised that she has “a full, rather than a temporary, work permit. She did not think it was easy to get such a document any more, even with the help of a priest.”

    So he gets her the full work permit. He finds her somewhere to stay. And when Eilis later asks him why he is helping her with accountancy classes – tuition fully paid – (page 77 of the book I have) – he answers “I was amazed that someone like you would not have a good job in Ireland. When your sister mentioned that you had no work in Ireland, then I said I would help you to come here. That’s all. And we need Irish girls in Brooklyn.”

    Do you believe him, that it was as simple as that? It’s clear Eilis had a special work permit, a place to stay organised, a contact to a job – and he arranges for her education. Why would he do that? Do you think there is a back story of history with him, some connection to Enniscorthy?

  • Is Brooklyn a “female book”?

    February 3, 2010 @ 3:20 pm | by Rosita Boland

     Hi to all

     For those of you who might not have heard Colm Tóibín reading from his work, here’s a 10 minute video of him reading a piece from Brooklyn – it’s the part where Eilis helps out at the Christmas party. Even if you haven’t got that far in the book, there are no spoilers in there! YouTube Preview Image

    One of the more recent comments was from O Cuin, and he asks: “I’m about halfway through Brooklyn right now and while I’m engaged with it and will finish it I’m getting slightly irritated with Eilish and worry that as time goes on she is going to find it hard to win me back. She’s just having too easy a time of it – decent job, home, social life, support, studying, seems to have met a man, but she’s not terribly happy… Am I not being sensitive enough? Maybe this is a “female book”? (I’m male). I’m not convinced such a thing exists but would like to know what people think.”

    What do you think, readers male and female? We’re not talking about genre fiction here, ie something that is definitely chick lit (some of which is very good indeed).

    Do you think -male readers – that Brooklyn is a book for all, or do you think – female readers – that it appeals more to female readers?

  • New York in the 1950s – your own families

    February 1, 2010 @ 12:58 pm | by Rosita Boland

    Hi to all, and thanks for all your contributions to the discussion on Brooklyn.

    We have a few weeks to develop the discussion, and this is very much a learning experience for me – so I would really welcome your feedback as we go along on what you’re enjoying, what elements of the discussion are working, and by all means suggest topics you’d like to see discussed.

    For the next few days, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the social history element to the novel: being Irish in Brooklyn or New York in the 1950s. Did you have relatives who lived there at that time? What kinds of stories do they tell about that time? Why did they go? Did they stay, or did they return eventually? What did they work at? Did they marry within the Irish community, or outside it? Have any of your relatives who lived in New York at that time read Brooklyn, and how believable do they think the social history is?

    For instance, Rosemary M commented that her aunt thought it was unlikely that Eilis would have come home at such short notice from Brooklyn (I won’t say why she came home – spolier alert). “It was entirely unrealistic – hopping on a boat home because her sister died! People didn’t come home from America back then; when you were gone, you were gone, and there was neither the money nor the time for home visits.”

    So let’s discuss the social history of the time in Brooklyn for the next few days, and let’s hear your stories of your own families and their experiences in New York in the 1950s. Pitch in!

    PS Look in archive on right hand side to see comments from first post

  • Welcome to our new Book Club

    January 29, 2010 @ 5:16 pm | by Rosita Boland

    Hello to all, and welcome to the Book Club! First of all, a bit of housekeeping. You don’t have to be in a book club already to join in, it’s free, and you just have to sign up below to be able to contribute your comments. We’ll be reading a book a month, and when we’ve been going a while and got the hang of things, you’ll get a chance to choose the book you’d like to read and discuss. We’ll announce March’s book in mid-February, to give you a chance to get it in advance, and so on, to that time-scale after that.

    We’re kicking off with Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, since we figured a lot of you would already have read it, or have it in your stash of “to-read” books. Readers are pretty divided on the way it ends, which has to be good meat for discussion, yes?

    Here’s the interview that Belinda McKeon did with Colm when Brooklyn came out. And here’s the review Bernard O’Donoghue wrote, and the one from the New York Times – with a weird and quite cheesy accompanying illustration. And here’s a link to a terrific site with photos of Brooklyn in the 1950s, which is when the book is set – there’s pictures of ships like the one Eilis would have travelled on, pics of streets and shop fronts, pics of Dodgers games which Eilis went to with Tony and his brothers, and lots of other evocative images. 

    How about getting the discussion going with a straightforward question for those of you who’ve already read the novel – what do you think of Eilis’s choice that she made at the end of the novel?

     And for those who are just starting to read the book, it struck me that for a novel in which departure is such a potent theme, why do you think it is that we never get a description of Eilis saying goodbye to her mother, sister Rose or brother Jack, before she sets sail?

    I’m on Twitter too, @RositaBoland and I’ll let you know via Twitter whenever there’s a new post here. 

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