Colm Tóibín: you have to be a terrible monster to write

With a mind as formidable as his features, Colm Tóibín is now firmly a part of Ireland’s literary landscape. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

‘Listen,” Colm Tóibín says. I listen, though there is nothing to hear. “And it gets even quieter at night,” he adds, “because nearly all the properties around here are used as offices.” We are standing in the upstairs study of his four-storey Georgian house in Dublin, the place where he does his writing in a hard-backed rattan chair, at night.

The 57-year-old author shows me a work-in-progress on his desk, written in longhand in a notebook. “I have to write a first draft with a fountain pen before I type it up as a second,” he explains. “John Lanchester and Philip Hensher do the same. I bumped into them the other night and we were all doing our pen talk.”

Tóibín talks in a strong but ponderous voice — which is, by the way, as Irish as whiskey with an “e”. The deliberation, he reckons, may be a compensation for a childhood stammer. He avoids starting sentences with hard consonants. In conversation with him you have to hold your nerve and not rush to fill the long silences, as he is probably half way through a thought.

“I was waiting to get money out of a machine last night,” he tells me, “and there were these two lads who were slightly drunk messing about in front of me in the queue. The cheekier one looked at me and said: ‘So you’re busy at the moment?’ I must have been looking quite severe and was about to say ‘Yes I am, and I want to get home’ when he added ‘with the writing?’ and I had to smile. I took out my ink pen, held it up and went ‘Yeah’.”

His manner, if not his appearance, is friendly and humorous. It’s his formidable bald head that makes him look, as he puts it “severe”. That and his dark clumps of eyebrow and the deep, ventriloquist’s dummy creases that frame his mouth. Given that he describes things for a living, I ask him how he would describe himself. “I have no sense of it at all. None. None.” He must have read some of the descriptions others have given of him, though; how his appearance seems at odds with his smiling demeanour?

“Yes I can see that. I have a psychiatrist friend who tells me that my melancholy in print is the opposite to me in person. I asked him if it would be possible for me to have an integrated personality and he said ‘which would you like to be?’ and I said ‘I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘Well, there’.”

Tóibín’s last novel, Brooklyn, about an Irish woman who emigrates to America in the Fifties, won the Costa Prize and is being made into a film by the people who made An Education, again with a screenplay by Nick Hornby that Tóibín describes as “really very good”.

His latest novel, which is novella length, is called The Testament of Mary. That’s Mary as in the Virgin Mary. In old age she is giving her version of the life of Christ. Having spent a lifetime listening to everyone else’s versions, she is angry. “They appear more often now,” she reflects at one point, referring to two of Jesus’s disciples. “Both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them. A brutality boiling in their blood.”

It may seem like sacrilege to some, but Christians are more tolerant than Muslims when it comes to having their sacred figures fictionalised, I say. Indeed, I bet Salman Rushdie wishes he had written about Mary rather than Mohammed.

“Yes, I wonder if that is more true in Europe than America, though,” Tóibín says. “Here we have a history of putting words into Mary’s mouth. George Moore and DH Lawrence did it. Monty Python did it! The issue with Salman was people believed what his characters were saying was what he thought, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of how a novel works, how a writer works. Most of the protesters hadn’t even read the book.”

Tóibín sees his book as “a pure act of empathy. Trying to imagine what it would have been like for Mary, and in doing that I found myself in a difficult space I didn’t want to go into again, ever. Even reading it over was disturbing.”

We have moved into another study further down the house, and he is sitting in a shadowed corner, on a long black sofa. His thinking sofa. As he talks he rubs his head in an elaborate, two-handed massage. For the most part he avoids eye contact, as he is articulating a thought, but when he comes to the end of it he will level a direct look at me.

When not writing he teaches English literature at Columbia University, two days a week, for one semester a year. He used to teach the creative writing course at Manchester University, taking over the post from Martin Amis.

Tóibín explains that he once told a class that “you have to be a terrible monster to write. I said, ‘Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have told you, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you. You’ve no right to be here. If there is any way I can help you get into law school then I will. Your morality will be more useful in a courtroom.’”

In The Master, Tóibín’s Booker-shortlisted novel based on the life of Henry James, he describes James being at his sister’s bedside as she lies dying. James has never seen anyone die before, yet that hasn’t stopped him imagining in his fiction what it is like. But as he watches his sister he realises the limitations of his own imagination.

It is one of my favourite scenes in the book because the death is so vividly described, presumably because, unlike James, Tóibín had witnessed a death. “I had, I had. Texture, all of that. I don’t think you can make that up. James had written that wonderful death scene in Portrait of a Lady before seeing anyone dying. It is beautiful but it doesn’t seem to capture the physical business.” Does that make Tóibín, to use his own term, a “terrible monster”?

“I think it does actually, where you know something and you think this is none of anyone’s business, so private…Yet here you are now using it in small details that are unmistakable, by necessity, almost because you have to once the image comes to you. You can’t leave it out.”

Tóibín was 12 when he started writing, the year his father, a teacher, died. I ask if that was the “death bed scene” he witnessed. “No, I didn’t see that. And I think it makes it harder not seeing. People still think 12 year-olds should be spared certain experiences, but I’m not sure it is true.”

But not all description needs to be anchored in personal experience. Tóibín is gay yet that didn’t stop him writing a convincing heterosexual sex scene in Brooklyn. “Yes the challenge there was to avoid all forms of simile and metaphor. I wanted it to be almost a manual of what they did next. The reader could fill in the feelings. I did check that scene with a woman. She told me things I didn’t know.”

During the Queen’s historic visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, Tóibín was given the job of introducing her to 10 writers and editors. “The level of her politeness was great. Before her visit I was consulted by the British Embassy about what [the visit] would mean and what it should look like. It was interesting to sit with them and say, ‘Look, there is no downside in this. This is as good as the British are going to get. Her visit is not a problem, it is a solution.’”

Was he comfortable with her decision to bow her head at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, given that it is dedicated to the memory of “all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom”, in other words the IRA?

“We are embarrassed about that place here. It is ugly because it is used to commemorate people of violence. We came to like the garden less than the people in England did because it had more potential to destabilise our society than yours. You don’t have a problem with having members of Sinn Féin in your parliament. We do.” He was glad she wore gloves for her handshake with Martin McGuinness this year and he hoped she had the fingers of her other hand crossed. “But at least Martin McGuinness doesn’t deny he was in the IRA, unlike Gerry Adams. Which is a strange thing for him to do, because no one believes his denials.”

Some of Tóibín’s own forebears were in the IRA and took part in the Easter Rising of 1916. Did he grow up with a romantic view of the IRA? “My uncle [who was in the IRA] died in 1994 so I was very close to him. As a kid I was always amused by the story that he couldn’t eat cabbage because his stomach was affected by his hunger strike. I thought he was getting away with not having to eat cabbage.

“But I always say, in America, I was brought up by terrorists and that it was never a problem because they always become very conservative in the end, when they get certain things given to them. They become fine upstanding members of the community. They also become good Catholics.”

Ah, yes, the Catholic church in Ireland. What is Tóibín’s take on its shattered reputation? “Priests are in a very difficult position here, now, because the church has said that, to make up for all that has happened, if there is a single accusation against a single priest he must be suspended. What happened to innocence until guilt is proven?

“Of course, the real difficulty is that, wherever they could, the priests just did their worst. Their worst! Give them an orphanage, an opportunity, and they did their worst. There isn’t one best-case scenario.”

When I ask if he is in a relationship at the moment, he says he lives here alone, emphasising the word “here”, but declining to elaborate. He has other properties, after all: a flat in Barcelona, a shared house in the Pyrénées and a house in Enniscorthy, Ireland.

“Solitude is good in the evening,” he says. “Dublin is a quiet city when you get to a certain age, when your friends settle down and have kids. Nothing much happens here. There are few book launches and if you don’t have a pub where you go to, which I don’t, then it can be quiet. If I scream no one would hear me.”

When I ask him what he makes of the literary tourists who flock to his city, he rolls his eyes. “It’s Joyce and Beckett they come for mostly. One year I forgot it was Bloom’s Day [when people dress up as characters from Ulysses]. I had a shopping bag in each hand because I had just been to Marks & Spencer and people kept asking me: ‘Which character has two bags?’”

After signing his new novel for me, he leads the way downstairs past a Francis Bacon print in the hallway towards two unpacked cases by the front door. One is open and has his toothbrush and toothpaste sitting on top. “I got back from a trip yesterday and still haven’t got around to unpacking,” he says with something approaching bohemian pride.

There are, it seems, little unexplained narratives wherever you look in Colm Tóibín’s life. Halfway through our conversation I got up for what Americans call a comfort break, leaving my tape recorder running. When I play my tape a few days later I listen to the few minutes of silence in which Tóibín sits alone, only to discover that after a minute he says a word under his breath, as if just remembering something. The word is four letters long and begins with “F”.