‘I can’t do thrillers or spy novels or genre fiction. I just get bored'
The author Colm Tóibín discusses female Irish novelists, families, and when he wishes he had a TV
Colm Tóibín: ‘I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Colm Tóibín, award-winning writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and professor of the humanities at Columbia University, New York, was born in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford – the setting for several of his books – and educated at University College Dublin.
His novels include The Master, Nora Webster and The House of Names. The film adaptation of Brooklyn, about a young Irish emigrant to New York, earned three Oscar nominations in 2015. His latest book, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, is published by Penguin this week.
When did you get the idea to write a book about the fathers of Joyce, Yeats and Wilde?
It began with an invite from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to give the 2017 Ellmann lectures, which are in honour of Richard Ellmann, the great American critic and biographer of Joyce, Yeats and Wilde. I started to think about all three writers, and because I had loved that book of Yeats’s father’s letters [Letters to His Son WB Yeats and Others, 1869-1922 by John Butler Yeats]. I started to think of them in relation to their fathers and decided that would be my subject. By the time I had written the lectures, I found myself having nearly written a book.
Fathers and mothers are often at the heart of your work...
I am interested in families and what family does. It’s not as though I make a deliberate decision to write about it, it just comes up in book after book. Even in the novel I am writing, it’s just coming in again.
'You could have a lot of fun thinking of books for Clinton and Obama, but you can’t really do it with Trump. It’s not as though he could be improved in any way'
Is there a connection with the death of your father when you were 13?
I think it’s about not having had those arguments that anybody of my generation in Ireland would have had with their father about nationalism, about Catholicism. I suppose that was something I missed, and I’m always exploring what it would have been like.
What is your take on the new wave of Irish novelists such as Sally Rooney, Anna Burns and Eimear McBride?
I think they come straight out of Irish modernism. With Eimear McBride, you can see how much she’s taken from Joyce and how much nourishment Joyce can still offer a writer. If you look at Sally Rooney, Anna Burns, Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack, there is an extraordinary struggle with form and language and it is a sort of miracle that this has come around again. It seems to be continuing even in nonfiction with writers such as Sinéad Gleeson in her extraordinary collection of essays, Constellations. You could attribute this to various things, but I suspect the explanation is more personal than political or national. You can’t rationalise it; it’s mysterious and fascinating, rather than being the direct result of a set of political events.
You spend much of your time now in the US. If you could require Donald Trump to read one book, what would it be?
I think Trump is beyond that. You could have a lot of fun thinking of books for Clinton and Obama, but you can’t really do it with Trump. It’s not as though he could be improved in any way. No, I would suggest to him to leave books alone now.
'I’m really, really predictable. I probably have more poetry than I do prose. That’s because I’ve been reading poetry to try and figure out what’s been going on in the world'
Which books are on your bedside table?
Asghar and Zahra by Sameer Rahim – it’s a novel set in London about one of those tight-knit, African Muslim communities. Because I liked Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, I am totally interested in the idea of somebody actually writing about what’s going on in England now in relation to outsiders.
There is also Joseph O’Connor’s Shadow Play, which is a seriously fascinating story of Bram Stoker leaving Ireland, going to work with Henry Irving and creating Dracula. And Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations.
Do you have a favourite literary hero?
Isabel Archer from Portrait of a Lady; she would be up there with Madame Bovary. I also really, really love Fanny Price from Mansfield Park. She enters that household utterly displaced. Then we see how she creates a space of her own. For anyone who has left their own country and gone to live in a new one, for anyone who has moved to a new school and had to walk into a classroom knowing no one, Fanny Price is a patron saint.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I didn’t read until I was nine, so I didn’t have any books by Enid Blyton or Just William. The first time I paid attention to a book and found it interesting was The Four Fifty from Paddington by Agatha Christie. It’s about choking somebody on a train and I thought it was tremendously good. I also think it’s the most marvellous title of any novel in English – it couldn’t be better. The other author I loved at around 11 was Jean Plaidy, who wrote marvellous novels about the Tudors. I remember The Captive Queen of Scots, about Mary Queen of Scots, which was very, very dramatic.
'I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose'
People might be surprised to see Agatha Christie on your bookshelf. Are there any other books we might not expect to see there?
No, I’m really, really predictable. The only thing I suppose is that I probably have more poetry than I do prose. That’s because I’ve been reading poetry to try and figure out what’s been going on in the world.
Does poetry help with that?
I find it does. If you think about it, English poetry over the last 20 years, with figures like Alice Oswald, Don Patterson and Lavinia Greenlaw, has been going through an equivalent period to what’s happening now in Irish fiction. I think there’s been some great poetry.
Which books do you feel are most overrated?
I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.
Is it true that you don’t watch television?
I don’t have a TV. Everyone talks about the golden age of American TV but it’s done nothing for me. The only time not having a TV is a pity is during Wimbledon, because I really wanted to watch the tennis. That 15-year-old, Cori Gauff: I’d have loved to see her play.
Apart from Henry James, whom you wrote about in The Master, is there an author that you always return to?
There are a few Irish writers I go back to. Eugene McCabe – his Death and Nightingales is an astonishing book, dark and ingenious. Also John McGahern and John Banville, especially The Book of Evidence. They were the generation that made a lot of space for the rest of us. They opened up what you could do in Ireland as a novelist.
If you could choose who would write your life story, who would it be?
Lyndall Gordon wrote a marvellous book on Henry James and a wonderful book on Emily Dickinson. I’d like her to do it. She’s very good at finding out the real mystery behind someone.
You wrote recently in London Review of Books about having testicular cancer. How is your health now?
Chemo ended in late October. Eight months on, I am in good shape, more or less back to how I felt before the cancer.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats & Joyce by Colm Tóibín is published by Penguin and out now