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Keeps Me Off the Streets
An interview with Colm Tóibín

(Issue 29, Summer 2017)

Colm Tóibín is currently touring the United States, promoting his new novel House of Names, a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra. The success of the 2015 film adaptation of his novel Brooklyn, which was nominated for three Academy Awards and won a BAFTA Award for Best British Film, has opened up his audience that side of the pond. ‘I thought Brooklyn was an Irish story, but they thought it was an American story and so it did very well at the box office over there …’
Tóibín, who was born and grew up in Enniscorthy in Co. Wexford, was urged in part by his love of Ernest Hemingway in his youth to take his first trip abroad – to Barcelona. This was in 1975, directly after graduating from University College Dublin.
‘Every single thing was new to me – from the way people looked at you in the street. In Ireland people were always ready to look away, but in Spain people just look at you as they’re walking by you, without meaning anything, you know. And the taste of everything was different. I think at the time there was one coffee machine in Dublin. But that constant sound and smell of the coffee machines … And the way the heat worked, the garlic and the beauty … There was a sense of old money in Barcelona, an haute bourgeoisie. And because I was teaching them English I was seeing that. People living in houses where the paintings have been collected by their great-great grandparents, where you could go into a house and look at the wall and think, oh, that is a museum piece. Every single thing was new, unimagined and exciting.
‘There was a certain way you spoke to somebody when you met them, you know, you greeted people, you kissed people, instead of sort of slouching in somewhere and sitting down. And the classical music, that was really extraordinary. There was a Sunday concert which was very cheap, and a kiosk would sell you records which were much cheaper than here in Ireland. I would have gone to one or two classical concerts a week and I would have seen a lot of the great singers. Montserrat Caballé and Victoria de los Ángeles, Christa Ludwig, Plácido Domingo.’
‘I tried with poetry and that sort of fizzled out, so I wrote nothing in those three years. Nothing. Letters home, that’s all.
‘It was very difficult to come back here because by the time I left I’d quite a good job and I could travel everywhere by taxi and eat out all the time. And then to come back here without anything. It was miserable really. It was before gas came, so you’d light a fire if you wanted to be warm. But I felt there was no future in teaching abroad. And I couldn’t vote in elections. I was an outsider no matter where I went.
‘I had a few friends I caught up with when I came back, but everyone else had moved on. I remember one day walking up Grafton Street and seeing people I’d been very close to in college. I was just back a few weeks. They were going off somewhere and they said, “When are you going back to Spain?” And I said, “I’m not going back.” But nobody said, “Oh, well, shall we get together …” I remember just walking away from them thinking, oh, they’ve just moved on.
‘I went back and tried to do an MA. I thought I should educate myself a bit more, maybe get another qualification. I never finished it. I should have. I regret not finishing. The journalism took over.’
Tóibín was working for the monthly news magazine Magill by then. ‘We had no respect for anybody and there was no reason why we should. There was something particularly unpleasant about that first Cabinet of Charlie Haughey’s. This whole abortion thing beginning, and, you know, the Catholic Church.
‘It was all the rage just then to write short stories. There were a lot of books of short stories coming out. And the Irish Press published one every week. And so I tried to write short stories. And I just couldn’t do it.
‘So there I was. I’d tried poetry. That didn’t work. So now I had tried short stories and that didn’t work. And I remember I tried to write a play, but I didn’t even get very far with that.
‘I was going home to Wexford – I would still go home a lot on the weekend like people did then, and still do – and that journey down became for me sort of an interesting thing. And so I got an idea into my head about someone which became the first novel. But that took a long time to write. It seemed an enormous effort to put in night after night … I had a character and then I got a story around it and it was all about Spain in the 1950s and Franco and exile and Ireland … This wasn’t like the other things. I was getting sound and getting paragraphs that I was really surprised with. Working on a manual typewriter. I went back to longhand eventually.
‘I realised that the journalism wasn’t fully for me, that I wasn’t as committed to reporting and commentary as other people around me were, that I tended sometimes not to take things as seriously as other people did. I had a good job by then as editor of Magill and I was well paid. But the thing was I could always make a living as a journalist.
‘I finished the novel, but I had a lot of trouble getting it published then. It was turned down by everybody. So I wrote a book about the border – I walked along the border and wrote about it – and then slowly my life changed.
‘Serpent’s Tail was doing a book about Englishness called So Very English, and the agent who couldn’t sell my novel asked me if I had anything on this subject. So I wrote a piece about staying with a nice English couple I’d met in a hotel in Egypt. They were rich and they had an Irish maid in their house in London and, seemingly, when I spoke to her my accent changed.  I would go back into Enniscorthy. And when I spoke to them my accent changed back. They thought this was astonishing. Whereas in Ireland it would be quite a common thing. So I wrote about that. Anyway, they published that piece and they asked who’s this guy and the agent very cleverly said, oh, a wonderful new novel by him has just arrived on my desk. And so they published it. It took two years to find a publisher and then 18 months for the book to come out. I was 35 when it came out.’
The South was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus First Fiction Award.
‘Every novel has been sort of an emergency. It isn’t as though you say I’m a writer and I write. You know, you try and write another novel and then try to finish it, but there’s no being a writer involved in this. You just have to finish the book, and it’s an emergency if you don’t.
‘And the problem with a novel, if you’re used to journalism, is that instant business of this is going to be in print next week. The novel really requires a huge amount of keeping a lot of things in your head as you’re moving. The idea that finishing it is going to be a long-term project is very far away from journalism in that respect.
‘There’s no stability. I mean, you don’t have any if anything goes wrong. But also if you go wrong. Which did happen, and still does, to people, where you just lose the drive and you stop turning up, or you stay in the bar after everyone else has gone home. Or, you know, you find marijuana has got so much going for it …
‘But I always had a goal, and I was always with people who had that too.’
Next up? ‘I’ve a novel that I’m working on set in contemporary Germany and New York. I’ve got to do some work on it. And I teach in New York for one semester, for Columbia. That keeps me off the streets.’