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.”