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The Writing Life: Colm Toibin

The Origins of a Novel

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Marie Arana talks with the Irish novelist and journalist Colm Toibin, most recently the author of Brooklyn. Edited by Mike Schmuhl/The Washington Post
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By Colm Toibin
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

In the summer of 1967 when I was 12, my father died. For a month or more the house in the evening was filled with people, but by September, when I had gone back to school, things were quieter. People called in ones, in twos, to express their sympathy to my mother. They usually came in the evening, stayed for an hour or so, then left. My brother and I wanted this to stop because the television was in the room where they sat talking. I hardly ever went into that room while there were visitors. But one evening I did, and heard an interesting story being told.

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A woman was talking to my mother, talking on and on, about Brooklyn where her daughter had been. I began to listen. She'd never been to our house before and was never, as far as I remember, a visitor again. I saw her on the street sometimes; she was a small, stout, dignified-looking woman who always wore a hat. It was almost 40 years later before I took what I had heard, just the bones of a story about her daughter who had gone to Brooklyn and then come home, and began making a novel from it.

A novel never begins simply, or just from a memory. It starts much more slowly and sometimes it seems to come almost by accident.

At first I didn't know I was writing a novel about Brooklyn. In the spring of 2000 I was staying outside Florence in Italy. It was then that I wrote the first chapter of my novel about Henry James, The Master, but I also wrote a story set in my home town in Ireland called "House for Sale." The two pieces could not have been more different.

Although I published the story about Ireland in a magazine, I did not include it in my collection Mothers and Sons. I thought it might go on to make a novel. I wanted to add to it, and I thought about it a good deal over the next six years. It was the story of the atmosphere in our house in the few years after my father died. It had included, almost as an aside, the story of the woman who came to our house and talked about her daughter and Brooklyn

During the next few years a few things happened which would make the novel Brooklyn come into being. I began to spend time in the United States, first on a fellowship at New York Public Library and later teaching in Texas and California. Also, I built a house overlooking the sea in the south-east of Ireland. The house was close to where our family had spent every summer until my father died.

When I was away in America, I dreamed about that house. I imagined filling it with books and furniture, and I imagined spending time there walking the beach or sitting, looking at the sea.

Also, in 2001, I joined the choir in my local Catholic church on New York's Upper West Side. It had once been an Irish church, but now was used by congregations who included very few Irish. On Fridays as we practiced, I could sense the old ghosts, the Irish immigrants who had used this building as their home away from home in America. And I began to think about the Irish priests who had served them.

By that time, the east village in New York had ceased to be the trendy place to live; if you were young and talented you lived in Brooklyn and made a virtue of it. I started going to parties in Brooklyn and I also went to Mass there a few times on Sundays. Once more, I was aware of an older city, a place inhabited by immigrants -- Italians, Irish, Jewish people -- which had slowly changed.

When The Master was published in 2004 and my collection of stories Mothers and Sons followed two years later, I thought I would return to that story "House for Sale," written so long ago. It seemed fresh enough in my mind for me to write a second chapter to it, slowly making it into a novel. I have a vivid memory of a night in the house in Ireland, coming back from America. The new house was not only a great place to write, but it also brought back memories of childhood and thoughts about loss. That night, before I settled down to work again, I thought that I should read that story "House for Sale" again, to make sure that the chapter I was working on would fit in seamlessly.

In the first two pages of the original story, I had used that scene when a woman visited my mother and told her a story about her daughter and Brooklyn. I had put what she had said into a single paragraph, thrown it away. Now, I realized that the story of Brooklyn, and this story alone, was what I was looking for. It had everything I needed, or rather over the previous years since I had experienced the constant business of leaving Ireland and coming back, I had everything it needed.

I had the emotions my principal character would need. I had some of the experiences. And then I knew to forget myself and begin imagining her. I gave her a sensibility, a way of seeing the world, very far from my own.

For background purposes, I read a history of Brooklyn in the '40s and '50s, and some books about the culture of baseball there. I looked at old photographs. I walked the streets my heroine would walk. I went to Coney Island.

But mostly I dreamed. I dreamed the fierce cold of the New York winter. I dreamed a women's boarding house and Irish dances in New York. I dreamed New York in a postwar moment. I dreamed an Italian family whose fate would cross with all the characters I had imagined.

And I made up a plot, adding to it slowly, using what I had learned from Henry James about the power of secrets and the need to control point of view. I was careful not to do too much research, because what I needed more than anything was to imagine a psychology rather than a topography, a character rather than a time and place. And I was careful to keep my opinions out, and put a deeper part of myself -- my dreams, experiences, a sense of what had happened to me over the previous decade -- hidden darkly in the book as metaphor or emotional ballast. I wrote down a thousand, or two thousand, details and tried to make them true.

But I never stopped thinking how strange it was that a stray anecdote told almost a half century earlier could stay in my mind that long, linger there and grow. If those two women had known I was listening so intently, I am sure my mother would have decided that the story shouldn't be told until her 12-year-old had left the room. I was lucky that she didn't.



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