Colm Tóibín: I started Nora Webster in 2000 and finished it in 2013. I thought about it every day in between

Authors and Editors: Sarah Bannan talks to Colm Tóibín and Mary Mount about their 20-year working relationship – from bullshit detecting to keeping an eye on the logistics

Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy in 1955. He is the author of eight novels including Blackwater Lightship, The Master and The Testament of Mary, all three of which were nominated for the Booker Prize, with The Master also winning the IMPAC Award, and Brooklyn, which won the Costa Novel Award. He has also published two collections of stories and many works of non-fiction. His most recent novel is Nora Webster, which is now out in paperback. He lives in Dublin.

Mary Mount has worked in publishing for 20 years, first at Picador and then at Viking. She lives in London.

Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus)

Mary, how long have you worked with Colm? And what attracted you to his work?


MM: In 1994 I was just starting out in publishing as a secretary at Picador when Colm delivered the manuscript of The Story of the Night. It was the first novel of Colm’s I had read and his writing was a revelation – he was a writer who seemed to say everything whilst never declaring his presence. I went back and read his backlist non-stop: The Heather Blazing and Bad Blood particularly stand out for me from that time. Then came The Blackwater Lightship, one of my favourite novels by Colm – I can still picture scenes from that book. It would be a few years later when I would get to work with him.

Peter Straus (the then head of Picador and now a literary agent who represents him) commissioned The Modern Library, a survey of the best 200 novels written in English since 1950, from Carmen Callil and Colm, and handed it over to me to be the editor. Carmen and Colm were supposed to choose a hundred novels each and write essays on every title. It was a mammoth project (involving hilarious conversations on the phone, particularly with Carmen who would insist that she was working much harder than Colm). It was in the days before email and I can still picture the short, perfect essays typed on weirdly thin paper that would arrive from Colm through the post. Exactly 10 years later, as an editor now at Viking/Penguin, I had the opportunity to offer for Colm’s novel, Brooklyn. It is a breathtaking novel – rendering so beautifully and vividly questions of exile, loneliness, duty and the place of romantic love. Since Brooklyn’s publication I have published three more works of fiction by him – The Empty Family, The Testament of Mary and Nora Webster, and one collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother.

Colm, I’ve read that you spend a long time thinking and planning novels before actually sitting down and writing them. And then the writing happens relatively quickly. At what stage do you share your ideas with Mary? And are there any other people you’ve grown to rely on as early readers?

CT: It usually takes a few years, sometimes longer, for a novel to get going and I am never sure about it. I started thinking about the novel I am working on now about four years ago. Recently, when I was really uncertain about it, I sent Mary the first 14,000 words. If she had said stop now, I don’t know what I would have done. But that is not her style. Had she said, on the other hand, it needs a new beginning, or there is a problem starting on page 10, I would have paid real attention.

Mary, how do you prefer to work with writers? Do you like to thrash through ideas in advance or just wait until you can see a very developed draft of a manuscript? Or bits and pieces along the way?

MM: Unsurprisingly, writers work in different ways and ask for different things from me. Some writers hate talking about their work when they are in the middle of writing, some like to talk more about the process they’re going through, particularly if they’ve reached a crossroads and need to make a decision about the direction of the narrative. When editing fiction I sometimes find it harder to edit a script if I have seen bits and pieces along the way – that first reading experience is impossible to recreate and you will know a character in a different way when you approach her or him the second or third time around.

Colm, you began Nora Webster 15 years ago, around the same time that you began The Master. Did you let Mary know that you were planning to return to this material, or did you wait until you had something more substantial? What made now the right time to go back to this story?

CT : There is never a right time. I wrote the first chapter of Nora Webster in the spring of 2000 and finished it in September 2013. I thought about it every day in between and wrote sections of it every year. I was uneasy about it, because I did not think it had the immediacy of Brooklyn, and some of it was very personal. I think I might have started by telling Mary that I was writing a version of Madame Bovary, but with no Madame and hardly any Bovary. What is great about her is that for her literary value comes before anything else. That is what she cares about. It doesn’t mean that she isn’t razor-sharp when it comes to selling and marketing books. But the initial impulse, her whole way of thinking, comes from her taste and her judgement and the sense of pleasure and excitement she gets from the literary text. Even though she is younger than me, younger than everyone I know, she is an old-fashioned, serious publisher.

Mary, how do you approach your edits with Colm? Do the two of you meet? A long letter? Drinks or lunch or a little of all of these? And where do you feel your strengths lie? In the line? Structure? Voice?

MM: I will always send editorial notes rather than meeting first (even if the author lives in the same city). I prefer them to be able to read and think about my suggestions without their editor’s overbearing presence! In my notes I will always explain why something doesn’t work for me or why there needs to be more or less of it. As I’ve said, each author’s work is so different, a different editorial response is required with each writer’s work. A writer like Colm, for example, would never over-explain or would rarely linger too long on a scene, while others will do just that. It might sound pretentious but I think editing can be like listening to a piece of music – you are there to spot the moments that jar, that don’t connect, that feel overdone or underdeveloped. In some edits I’ve asked Colm to bring out a relationship a bit more so that the reader really understands the connection between characters. In The Testament of Mary I remember a different process – when Colm sent me the script he asked me to “take out any of the bullshit”. As you will know, from that novel, it is incredibly controlled but whenever I felt Mary had gone too far, I said as much.

Colm, so much of the beauty and power of Nora Webster – and in all of your writing – comes from its restraint, in the prose and in the depiction of your characters’ inner lives. Did you begin with that intent when writing Nora Webster - or was it something that emerged through the writing? And why was it important for you to pursue this?

CT: By the time I start, I have the character fully in my head. As I work, I aim towards moments in which they operate out of character or begin to move away from the easy systems I have made for them. I don’t notice the style, it is not deliberate. It is, just then, the best way to write down whatever it is I need for the book.

Mary, what was the most difficult part when it came to editing and publishing Nora Webster?

MM: In Nora Webster Colm knew his central character, Nora, very well and knew what he wanted to do with her in the novel. That sense of certainty is the engine of the book. As Colm had such a personal connection to the main character the edit on Nora (which I very much shared with Colm’s terrific publisher in the States, Nan Graham) was very different to other books. It was more about logistics. That doesn’t sound very romantic or intellectual but it is important – I think one false note in a novel like this and the reader feels it very strongly. Most of my questions were about time, repetition, ages of the children, even questions about Nora’s financial situation. I think something that was tricky for Colm in this novel was how to write about a life that feels utterly right but is also not, as Colm would put it, “thin”. If you wrote about anyone’s daily life it would be full of repetition or the very ordinary and Colm is very good at talking about this problem in fiction – how to make a life “full” on the page without sacrificing a sense of reality. If there was ever a moment when the details overwhelmed the narrative or weren’t contributing enough to our sense of Nora’s character, Nan or I would suggest a cut here and there.

Colm, what’s the hardest part of the editing process for you?

CT: The big moment with Mary was an email I sent close to the time of publication of The Testament of Mary, which she’s mentioned…I thought some of the passages in the book were too flowery and stylistically contrived. I asked her to do a bullshit read, ie identity passages or sentences in the book that were pure bullshit. I got slightly more than I was bargaining for. But she was right, and I took her advice down to the letter. Nora Webster did not have any bullshit in it, so that was different.

Mary, in Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary and, now, Nora Webster, Colm has created extraordinarily real, complex and compelling female characters. And – as many like to point out – Colm is not female! How does he manage to get it so right? And has he ever gotten a detail outrageously or amusingly wrong?

MM: This is something Colm is often asked about: he has said that the worst thing to have in your house is a young novelist, sitting in the corner of the room listening in on conversations. He has also said that women are much easier to write about because they talk more – that men are just impossible! I would add to that that Colm is incredibly curious and that curiosity pays off hugely in his fiction – he asks questions and observes people intently (and often with great amusement). I don’t remember any howlers in his portrayal of women in his books but in Nora Webster I did question his knowledge of washing machine installation.

Colm, what’s the best thing about working with Mary?

CT: Mary is really funny and very good company. She is a mixture. On one hand, she is knowing and worldly, and on the other she has a sort of inwardness, a private life, which she keeps quite guarded. I like that. I enjoy watching it. She has read a lot and noticed a lot – she is a good noticer– and I like spending time with her and listening to her even if it seems that I am doing all of the talking.

And same question for you, Mary…

MM: Well, quite simply, I think he is a quite extraordinary writer and his novels mean a huge amount to me. He is also one of the few people in the world I can imagine being stuck with for hours in a very crowded, very cold, broken-down waiting room, having got off a broken-down train, in the middle of the night on the way back from a literary festival in the West of England with only a packet of salt ‘n’ vinegar crisps between us. It was lovely and I ate most of the crisps.