Colm Tóibín is a powerhouse of energy. Since his arrival at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival on Thursday morning, the Irish novelist has been in multiple sessions, visited a local school to speak to students, and is moving from one interview to another with ease. The writer of over 10 novels, including the Booker shortlisted The Blackwater Lightship (1999), The Master (2004) and The Testament of Mary (2012), and several works of non-fiction, paused to chat about Brooklyn, a moving immigrant’s tale that has charmed Hollywood, lessons learned from a stint in journalism and why coming out is easier today. Excerpts:
You didn’t start reading till you were nine years old. What took you so long?
I had two older sisters who were reading to me and for me. When a new comic book came, I would find a sister and get her to read it to me. I just wouldn’t read, I didn’t like teachers. In class, I’d think about something else and dream, and I presumed the rest of the class hadn’t been listening either. But all of them had!
I liked listening to people, listening to what anybody was saying. If anybody came to the house, I would try and stay in the room to see what was going on because I was interested in real conversation, real stories, real news. I think reading is a natural thing in a way and I eventually learned to do it. I had probably known how to, all along, but just did not practice reading.
What did you start reading then?
I hated children’s books, Enid Blyton and all that rubbish. Even those boys’ adventure stories didn’t interest me. I discovered poetry when I was 12. By the time I was 13, I was seriously reading poetry like Ariel by Sylvia Plath and Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney. I went to boarding school at 15 and wrote poetry but it wasn’t good enough. I kept writing till I was 20 and I still wasn’t good enough. So I went to Spain and wrote a few bad short stories that nobody would publish. When I was about 25, an idea for a novel came to me — The South.
Soon after The South was published, in an interview with writer Lynne Tillman, you talked about a personal Irish history. What did you mean by that?
Writing about things that are lost or gone is a way of recovering them, of reclaiming them. When you look at 16th century England and the flowering of English drama, you have some utterances in print but it’s very little. A whole lot of the experience of being Irish just disappears.
If you look at Ireland, there’s so much poverty, suffering, immigration — it’s a broken place. There are places in Ireland that find no mention anywhere. The poet Edmund Spenser lived in Ireland and he mentioned Irish places in The Faerie Queene and other poems and it’s fascinating to watch a Gaelic name given its rightful recognition.
You were also a journalist for a few years, and worked as the editor of Magill, a monthly news magazine. What did you learn from that trade?
It was a good training for me as a writer. The idea that you’re writing for an audience, the awareness is really important for a novelist. I think it keeps self-indulgence away. As an editor, I was putting together the structure of the magazine and I would have loved to continue in journalism but I chose to try and write novels.
With Brooklyn making its way to the big screen and now a contender for Best Picture at the Oscars, you’ve got a new readership. Were you happy with the adaptation?
Yes, it’s a very sensible adaptation. They added something to the end of the film that isn’t in the book, and I found it very moving. I couldn’t have done it in the book. I wanted Nick Hornby to write the screenplay and he didn’t need me looking over his shoulder and annoying him. The people who work on the film need to put their stamp on it and it doesn’t help if authors go “no-no-no” to everything. Somebody came and told me that up till recently, I’ve been known as a writer’s writer and now I’ve got readers.
You’ve been openly gay for many years now. But when you had to come out, how difficult was it for you in conservative Ireland?
Oh yeah. The Republic of Ireland is mostly Catholic and conservative. The idea that you were sexually different was really not on the agenda and everybody was very close to their families, so it was very difficult. A lot of people did what I did — all my friends knew, then there were people who felt they knew. It’s not the American system where you come out on Monday, throw a party and say ‘I’m gay’. But things are not difficult in Ireland now. I think the women’s movement made a big difference, where women began to say that they wanted people to treat their gay son or lesbian daughter as equals. Once more, it became a family thing.