15 Questions with Colm Tóibín

The film adaptation of Tóibín's​ 2009 novel ​Brooklyn ​has been nominated for three Academy Awards.
By Miranda L Ryshawy

“You learn, no matter what age you are, to keep things to yourself,” Irish author Colm Tóibín writes in his most recent novel, Nora Webster. The book is based in large part on Tóibín's own experiences in his native Ireland. The film adaptation of Tóibín's 2009 novel Brooklyn has been nominated for three Academy Awards. Fifteen Minutes managed to catch up Tóibín over e-mail in the midst of the mad rush of his book tour. He mused on memory, emotion, Machu Picchu, and banana sandwiches.

Fifteen Minutes: This issue is all about travel. How has living abroad — in a variety of different cultures and countries — influenced your writing?

Colm Tóibín: I think living in Spain affected me in every way, but after that I was probably too old to be influenced by anything much. I don't thinking living in the United States, for example, has made any difference to me at all.

FM: In a similar vein, how have your ties to your home country, Ireland, influenced your writing and reading life? Several novels of yours are even set in your hometown.

CT: I am not sure about Ireland. I come from Wexford and Wexford matters to me. It comes in dreams. I like it there. I suppose I am from there.

FM: When and why did you begin to write?

CT: I began writing poetry when I was 12. I don't know why.

FM: What do you find the most difficult stage in the writing of a novel?

CT: Every book is different, but I think each book has moments when the emotion becomes pure. You are almost working towards that all the time. It is important to release emotional energy, but also keep it under control.

FM: Are there any books you can’t travel without?

CT: No.

FM: Who are your favorite Irish authors?

CT: Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, John McGahern, John Banville.

FM: Is there a particularly comforting food, song, and/or memory that reminds you of home?

CT: Food? Cheaply made banana sandwiches. Song? Maybe some opera.

FM: What is your preferred method of travel?

CT: I like walking, but most places are too far away to walk.

FM: What have you found most enriching from living on college campuses and working as a professor?

CT: The library, the students, the general atmosphere of seriousness about learning.

FM: Can you describe one of the best vacations you’ve ever taken?

CT: I went to Peru when I was in my late twenties and I enjoyed that. Especially Machu Picchu.

FM: As you’ve aged, has your approach to writing changed? Your process?

CT: No, it remains the same. It requires concentration. That doesn't change.

FM: Many of your books feature Ireland. Through the years you’ve been a writer, have you found that your descriptions or portrayals of the country have changed?

CT: I don't think I have ever written about Dublin. Maybe in one or two stories. But the rest is set in Wexford. Because I have a house there now and spend time there I think I see it more clearly.

FM: Your most recent book, Nora Webster, has been a long time coming — you’ve said previously that it took you an exceptionally long time to write. Why?

CT: A lot of it is based on memory, on things that happened. So it took longer to find a shape and a structure.

FM: What was the experience of seeing your novel Brooklyn reinterpreted by Hollywood?

CT: What happens is that the emotion which gave rise to the book comes back to you raw. It is an interesting experience, probably enriching.

FM: Are there any characters, from any of your novels, to whom you feel a particularly strong attachment?

CT: The best thing I have written is a story called 'A Long Winter'. I like the protagonist in that story.

Fifteen Questions