Colm Tóibín: I start and I finish
He loves long nights, sing-songs and money but is deadly serious about his writing, his teaching and learning to live with his ‘demons’
Photograph: Frank Miller
He bestrides the literary world, a writer who sparkles and sings in company, then goes home to one of his rather nice bases in Dublin, Wexford, Florence, the Pyrenees or New York, to write some paragraphs of a novel, or an essay for the London Review of Books, or to do a little work on a libretto, prepare a tribute to Lorca for Radio 4, or a lecture on Henry James, perhaps, for his Columbia University students.
As he approaches his 60th birthday, next May, Colm Tóibín is that writer who appears to have it all. A devil-may-care type – apparently – who hangs out, “falling around laughing” with a rather starry, intercontinental roster of friends and acquaintances.
This is the charming, chatty, public persona, the lover of endless nights, of a glass or two of decent wine and sing-songs about Boolavogue and Catalonia. “I wouldn’t get drunk or anything, but I would enjoy company a lot. I wouldn’t want the night to end.”
When he is on, he is on, radiating curiosity and mischief with a slightly wolfish grin in that extraordinary head, described as “meaty, like a policeman” (Guardian) or “like it was sculpted by someone with enormous powers of expression but fairly rudimentary chisel skills” (Telegraph).
Then he fastens his huge, hazel eyes on the subject of his attention and engages in everything from local intrigue to esoteric South American writers, the nuances of Bach and the Archduke Trio, or the state of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (which should merge, because “it would be a lovely way in which Fine Gael could clean Fianna Fáil up”) or whether Labour should have entered government (strategically misguided).
His sole plan for his 60th birthday – apparently – is to stay in the bed the following day. The main event of his 50th-birthday celebrations at his Dublin home, when the playwright Tom Murphy allegedly smashed a plate of curry on the head of the theatre impresario Michael Colgan, is still arts-circle gossip fodder.
“There wasn’t that much blood. A small amount,” he says resignedly. Right. “Michael Colgan was just wandering around Dublin, and he thought it was – well, I suppose it was – okay” to wander into the party. “It wasn’t curry, it was some messy Indian stuff, and Tom did just the right thing. They just had a discussion about the theatre in Ireland, which as you know can get people more excited than Syria – and Tom smashed the thing down on his head. But he had finished his dinner, so there was no curry” on Colgan’s head.
Ten years on, there are many more cosmopolitan milieus to delight in: a shared stage discussion with the film star Jake Gyllenhall at Columbia; having the laughs and giving, “yah, some very good bad advice ” to Saoirse Ronan, during the filming of his novel Brooklyn (scripted by Nick Hornby, in which a betweeded Tóibín has a cameo); having Meryl Streep read the audiobook of The Testament of Mary.
“Yah, having the divas on your side – women like Meryl, Fiona and Deborah and Garry and Marie – there’s nothing like it, really,” he says.
On work: ‘No lunch with anybody. And never drink in the day. Ever’
The party persona is real. But it is rare. Tóibín pretends to drink more than he does. He delights in “this great American rule” of wrapping up dinner parties at 9.30pm. His extraordinary output can be explained only by ruthless, austere discipline. “It’s a question of finishing everything you start. It’s as simple as that.”
He operates a strict self-incentivisation scheme. “Breakfast? No! None of that eating rubbish. You get down with an empty stomach. So you create this system of rewards – if you do this, you can have that. Otherwise you’d never get any work done.”
The way he speaks about food – “coleslaw is great, coleslaw lasts forever” – suggests that his larder is no cornucopia.
“I found this thing,” he says slowly, as if describing a laboratory breakthrough. “It’s called granola, and I mix it with yogurt and squeeze an orange . . .
“I take an hour off and work for an hour. And I work until late, six days a week. The other general rule is, no lunch with anybody. That’s an awful waste of time. And I would never drink in the day. Ever.”
As he is a role model to aspirants, we should talk about money, perhaps. “Yah, I like money. I think you’d want to be an awful fool not to be interested in money, especially as a novelist, where money becomes not having it and writing about not having it. It’s a very dramatic subject, not having money.” It permeates his latest novel, Nora Webster.
“I think if you have to worry about money and shelter, that that energy is precisely the same energy as the energy that goes into imagining. The worry at night over – Jesus Christ, the mortgage – is the same part of the brain that, if you’re free of that, allows you to think, Oh my God, that’s it, I can do that in my last chapter.”
So is there Prada footwear? He gamely offers his shoes for inspection; dustyish three-year-old Campers. The spectacles are red plastic Clics. His cool, loosely woven jacket may be from an outlet outside Florence. “Every few years someone takes you to this outlet and everything is a quarter of the price. As far as I know, Japanese people fly into Pisa airport and they go there and stock up and fly back on the same day.”
On Ivy League teaching: ‘I have some of the smartest people in the world. I want them not to go to law school’
Nora Webster was germinating for 14 years, so literary fiction is not the route to Tom Ford originals, clearly.
“I knew I was going to have to take my time with it. It’s very difficult to deal with domestic life in a small Irish house, because your enemy is tea.” Tea. “The reader will not tolerate vast amounts of the making of tea – which may be the only thing that occurs. This is not a House of Troy or Madam Bovary.”
But the reader does anticipate some terrible revelation. A grim, simmering build-up to sexual-abuse revelations, perhaps? “You see, you’re always waiting for the abuse thing now, and that’s just not happening [in Nora Webster]. I didn’t do it in Brooklyn, either. It’s too easy in a novel now, almost lazy – and there’s something about it that’s wrong as well, to use it in that way.”
But a living must be made and a breathtaking range of interests satisfied. Tóibín turns out short stories, poetry, travel books, anthologies, librettos, 12,000-word essays, journalism, even a local history.
Before Obamacare, any writer who could did some teaching, because US universities covered their healthcare. Plus, “there is a lovely thing under the American constitution where it’s illegal to make someone retire in a university, so I can go on and on telling people about Somerville and Ross. Yah – there’s a big Somerville and Ross movement coming,” he says with an uproarious laugh.
But he takes his teaching seriously. “I have some of the smartest people in the world reading the same book as I’m reading. All I want to do is try and encourage them maybe not to go to law school. Because they’re so smart, that’s where everyone thinks they should go.”
On awards: ‘The first Booker I was disappointed. By the third it was funny’
For Tóibín, even now on his secure literary podium, nothing is predestined. There was a properly starry night last year, which even he concedes was “another level”, when his stage version of The Testament of Mary, starring Fiona Shaw, opened on Broadway for a scheduled 12-week run.
“You’re looking around and everyone in New York is there, and it’s as good as it gets. It was an extraordinary moment. And I was there, in the moment. Myself and Fiona falling around laughing . . . Yah, that was a big occasion.”
Eight days later, at about 8am, after much inept faffing on the computer, he discovered his play had received three Tony award nominations, including for best new play.
“There it was. And I looked and thought, ‘I’ve been nominated for a Tony award. So I phoned home, and a few others, and then it was half-nine and I thought, Jesus, I’ve got to go to work, so I’ve got to wash myself. I got into the shower, and the phone rang. And I thought, This is somebody ringing to congratulate me, and that hasn’t happened yet, so I’m going to take this call. And it was Scott Rudin,” Tóibín says, referring to the producer of The Testament of Mary.
“And he said, ‘Did you see the news?’ And I thought he meant [the awards]. He said, ‘We’re closing the show.’ ” As he speaks he is back there in his head. “And I’m proud of what I said. I said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘Sunday’. I said, ‘I’ll see you there.’ ”
Tóibín went to work as scheduled that morning. “They were all full of talk about the Tonys, and I said, ‘We’re closing on Sunday.’ ” That must have been quite the conversation killer. “Well, just in case you thought you were great, it’s very good for you,” he says wryly. The Just in Case You Think You’re Great award. Colm Tóibín has had a few.
The no fewer than three appearances on the Booker shortlist, for example. “That’s a tonic for ‘just in case you think you’re great’,” he says, hooting laughing. “The first Booker I was disappointed. By the third I honestly thought the whole thing was funny.”
He bounces back, his shrink once told him. It probably helps that he is a deeply loyal friend and a social animal when steam needs to be blown off. He confirms almost coyly that he has been in a happy relationship for a couple of years.
Nothing makes him angry, he claims, after musing over some self-chosen topics. “Ryanair? No, I like Ryanair. I like Michael O’Leary. Charlie Haughey? I never minded him. Fingers [Michael Fingleton]? I always thought he was a chancer and I always liked him. He was kind to me personally. I got my first house loan from him. He just said, ‘Yah, I’ve known you for years.’ ” This after “Dunphy or PJ went in before me, to say you’re to look after him.”
In fact, the broader answer permeates Tóibín’s work.
There, the essence of humanity, its ambiguities and tedious complexities always lie towards the grey middle, never in easy extremes or in prosaic caricatures of goodies and baddies.
On family: ‘I think you have a duty to be immensely polite to your parents’
Tóibín could, if inclined, lay slabs of recrimination at various doors. At his mother’s, for example, for dropping him and his brother (aged eight and four) with relatives a long way from home, while Bríd vanished for months to be with their ailing father in a Dublin hospital, during which they never heard a word from her.
That and his father’s death, when Tóibín was 12, were life-changing. The emotionally distant mother who virtually abandons her small children with relatives became a recurring character in his fiction; now she re-emerges as Nora Webster.
In the new novel the hauntingly silent, watchful older brother does badly at school, learning late to read and write, and develops a bad stammer.
“I have it still, yah,” Tóibín says quietly. “I still couldn’t say my own name, for example. But I wouldn’t try. I would think carefully and get around it in some way or another. Or I could breathe and try and find a way into it. All of that is in the novels in some way or another.”
Rather a lot, in fact? He laughs and recalls someone who said he had “a very limited palate. I thought it was true, and I was delighted with the remark. Oh yes, I’m absolutely limited; I’m very limited. If I were a painter I’d make a few lines or use a few colours, but I wouldn’t use many.”
His returns to childhood scenes around Enniscorthy are not only literary. His central Dublin home is a four-storey Georgian town house, but 10 years ago he bought a plot of land at the scene of long childhood summers near Blackwater. He had an architect friend design a warm, comfortable house with a tin roof – “something that didn’t look like it had been imported from Mexico; galvanise is sort of the local style” – with timber walls and whitewashed interiors, and huge windows to capture the changing seascape beyond the fields.
“There are demons back there, and I’m aware of them. And, in a way, not going back there would be not to deal with that, to keep away from it. The demons are simple: the family. Everything changed when my father died. I could never really manage that. I suppose every kid is different, but I could never handle that.
“I worked it out in long sessions with Ivor Browne, ” he says, referring to the psychiatrist. “It’s hard to tell the distance between denial and recognition, or what that does, but it has to do something – at least being able to know it rather than pretend it’s not there. It preoccupies me. It’s why I wanted to have an anchor in Wexford, so I could walk that strand, look at that sea.”
Did he ever have it out with his mother ?
Tóibín’s trademark nonjudgmentalism and long hours of Browne’s therapy are encapsulated in his answer. It was best said by Thomas Mann’s daughter, Elizabeth, Tóibín says. As a father Mann was a monster, but Elizabeth saw the futility of blame.
“She said, the idea of going on and on after the age of 30, blaming your parents for anything at all, is outrageous and poisonous and gets you nowhere and – and stop it. The idea of [Bríd’s] son going down there looking for what – pity? – and poisoning the air with your grudges when you’re just there for a few hours . . .”
He sighs. “I think you have a duty to be immensely polite to your parents, especially when they’re getting older and you’re getting older and you won’t have them forever.”
Although his fiction suggests that Bríd – a thwarted literary writer herself who found her son’s writing style “too slow and sad and oddly personal”, as he has put it – remained emotionally distant and nontactile to the end, they navigated a lively, rewarding adult bond through literature and classical music and good manners. And by never mentioning the unmentionable.
“The unmentionable is a country we should all travel to more than we do. Isn’t it a lovely word? I think if a subject could be very difficult and cause a lot of pain, then it would often make sense not to raise it at all.”
On clergy ‘There was one priest who liked one of my friends’
Tóibín could also, as a boy sensing an unnameable difference within himself, rail against his childhood religion. At St Peter’s boarding school in Wexford in the 1970s – to which he went from a silent family home at 15 – “everything was open for discussion. Everything except one thing that could not be mentioned: homosexuality”. Yet he remembers St Peter’s primarily as “an enormous relief and so stimulating intellectually”.
The precocious boy who spent his book vouchers on works by Sartre, Camus and Kafka (whom he discovered in the literary page of The Irish Times) was led towards Conrad and TS Eliot by Fr Larkin, the same “nice, absolutely dedicated man”, who had taught John Banville a decade earlier. Fr Larkin is the only character given his real name in Nora Webster.
It is probably why Tóibín never makes sweeping condemnations, puzzling instead over individuals and their deep frailties. He knew the priests and seminarians at St Peter’s who later became notorious in the Ferns report and talks with regret of the men who were “seriously brilliant teachers. That was such a shock. I had to rethink everything.”
It is tempting to speculate that some such events emerge in sessions with Ivor Browne. But he saw nothing untoward, he insists. “There was one priest who certainly liked one of my friends, but there was no question of that moving into the sexual realm. It would be unthinkable.”
Then again, he says, the boys whose lives they ruined “were guys who were often a slight social level down, who couldn’t stand up for themselves, who weren’t particularly articulate”.
His sense of God now is “greyer than agnosticism”, although his connection with the natural world is deeply spiritual. He swims in all weathers in Blackwater, amid the scenes of his summer childhood before his mother withdrew and his father died, and there is poignancy in his description of a seal he encounters there. “I never know if it’s the same seal as last year, but I sort of think it is. I come to the edge of the cliff, the seal puts his nose up, and when I go for a walk along the beach he swims along.”