Readersforum's Blog

October 29, 2012

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.

By Nigel Farndale

‘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.”

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