Colm Tóibín’s truth in fiction, and fiction in truth

Colm Toibin credit Brigitte Lacombe

Colm Toibin © Brigitte Lacombe

I first discovered Colm Tóibín through his voice, listening to him read one of his stories on some literary podcast. Of course, I fell at once in love – that cadence, that accent paired with his humour and intellect! Who could resist?

He visited my home town last week, appearing at Watershed for Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, to talk about Nora Webster, a novel drawn from his own childhood experiences, yet told from the point of view of a woman loosely based on his mother.

This is not memoir – but it is deeply wound in with Colm’s own memories, and his desire to capture the feel of the time and place he grew up in as well as the feelings he witnessed his mother go through following the death of her father.

He’s an extraordinary man – as comfortable with an audience’s gaze as he is with the quiet he must seek out to actually write. He speaks with wry amusement and a seductive generosity. Even those he finds baffling he regards with interest rather than anything like scorn.

He is uncommonly candid about his thoughts on almost any matter, from his susceptibility to suggestions of places to visit, which he blames for the fact he’s lived and loved so many places, to his time as a journalist “causing trouble in Ireland” by gleefully asking GPs for prescriptions for condoms (“it’s a young man’s game”) to the referendum taking place in Ireland the day after his Bristol visit, which will decide whether the constitution should be amended to allow gay marriage.

He describes a novel as “a thousand details”, and it’s a trait I’ve noticed in his short fiction too – layering telling details gently around his characters so that the world they move through becomes real, and their thoughts and behaviour becomes real.

Nora Webster coverWhen asked why he wrote Nora Webster from the point of view of the mother rather than the young boy based on himself, he says it’s because he didn’t want to write “one of those sad Irish stories, where a sad boy walks home from school and looks at a puddle and thinks it looks sad…”

The excerpt he reads from the novel is actually very funny, relaying the moment when the grieving mother decides to get her hair dyed and instantly, even before she leaves the hairdresser’s, regrets it. He talks of this being his way of capturing the beginnings of change in a small Irish town during the 1960s. They may not have had the fashions or rock and roll, but “the way women dealt with their hair changed.”

The book took him 14 years to write, which he puts down to the fact that “Putting shape on things that actually happened is very difficult. Every year I would add something, put in another scene, then step away.”

One of these scenes sowed the seeds that would become his bestselling novel Brooklyn, soon to be released as a film, so those 14 years weren’t solely devoted to the mulling and dithering required for Nora Webster.

He speaks of the time after his father died, explaining how he and his brother were constantly watching and listening, trying to figure out “how things would be now.” It meant he soaked up a mass of moments which seemed unnaturally heightened, and which crop up throughout Nora Webster. As a result the book is shored up by truths that offer up the  impression of real life unfolding on the page, though he does admit to one rather wonderful, entirely fictional, flourish. “I needed to lift her out of it,” he says of her despondency, “It couldn’t just carry on, page after page, so I got her to sing. And that never actually happened. I just needed it for the story.”

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín is available to buy from Amazon.

Gossip, literature and cocktails

Arnos Vale twisted treeI don’t believe a birthday should last just a day – I think it should be at least a week-long celebration. So I began my birthday week yesterday, with two very different revelries. 

Gossip From The Forest coverThe first was an event at Foyles bookshop in Bristol as part of Bristol Festival of ideas. One of my favourite authors, Sara Maitland, was there to talk about her book Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales, which she described as part natural history, part a history of forests and part an examination of her theory that we have the kind of fairy tales that we do because we have grown up surrounded by forests.

It’s a gorgeous idea, and utterly plausible – in woods things are often heard and sometimes glimpse yet not seen fully – the perfect measures for fertile minds to make something from. They hold in atmospheres that reflected and deepen our moods, so that if you enter warily you can become properly afraid, and if you enter contemplatively, you can sink deeper into yourself.

They’re places where wildlife rustles all around you, and whose to say that those creatures springing and pausing unseen overhead really are nothing as innocuous as squirrels or birds?

I’ve yet to read Gossip from the Forest, but utterly loved Sara’s previous book, A Book of Silence, which I’ll review here on Monday.

I was sooo overdressed for this event, to the extent that one of the book sellers crossed the room drawn by the twinkles sewn into my dress! The reason for this is that the next chapter of the night was speakeasy The Milk Thistle. I hadn’t been there before, but had head many enticing things about the place, not least its lengthy cocktail menu, but its house rules, which seem like a list of etiquette from yesteryear, with favourites including:

  1. Name dropping is very much frowned upon.
  2. No fancy dress, except of course for period attire
  3. Swearing, hooting, shouting or shrieking shall not be tolerated; there are other people here too
  4. Gentlemen will refrain from approaching ladies they are not previously acquainted with, unless of course they are invited to do so

Even gaining entry is something of a game, as there is no sign and you have to ring a doorbell then wait for a member of staff to open the door to you. The menus are printed in the form of a newspaper (presumably in case the police burst in searching for prohibition infringers).

We broke one rule by having more than 10 people in our party, but were very well behaved considering. I did wonder if we might get chucked out for an overuse of bubble mixture.