Carlo Gébler interviewed Colm Tóibín at the Arms Hotel on Thursday.
Carlo: You said once the that one of the positive things about the internet was that it allowed people who were marginal, people who were regarded by society as sexual miscreants, to contact each other.
Colm: Oh my god did I say that?
Carlo: Yes you did.
Colm: Oh dear!
Carlo: And I’m sitting here thinking if I’d been asked the question I would have said that actually the worst thing about the internet is that it allows drones and the invasion of privacy. So the I thought that the importance of what I remember is that you are fundamentally an optimist and I’m fundamentally a pessemist. Is that true?
Colm: That’s a very big word – optimism. It’s hard to be asked the question, ‘What’s the greatest invention of mankind?’ and my tendency if asked a mysterious question is to find a flippant way of answering it. Ok? I didn’t mean it.
Carlo: But it is true what you said.
Colm: I think it is if you compare it to the ‘word’. Is the word a human invention?
Colm: Is the image a human invention?
Colm: Well I think compared to the word and the image, the internet is a very small thing, and I don’t care much about it at the moment.
Carlo: Tell me a little bit about where you came from.
Colm: My mother left school at fourteen and that gave her an edge, because she cared about books and about school and about studying more than anything else and more than any other mother around really. One of the things she liked about my father was that he had won a university scholarship. The first time she saw him he was going around giving a university grind in Latin to somebody and she loved that – a man who could give a grind in Latin! She was terribly interested in poetry and some of it was published in the Irish Press newspaper and later on in her life she found poetry that suited her. My father was more interested in facts and we children were in the middle. It was a house where books mattered.
Carlo: When did you discover Hemmingway?
Colm: I got a job as a barman in the Grand Hotel in Tramore. It was during that boom time when people discovered vodka, and bar extensions till two in the morning. So I was free during the day and I took a book called The Essential Hemmingway down to the beach in Tramore aged about sixteen or seventeen, and I thought if there is any possibility that there is a world like this, I wanted to be in that world and part of it, and I could imagine myself in it and as soon as I could I did, I went to Spain and got invovled in raffish behaviour.
Carlo: Was it the way he wrote or what he wrote?
Colm: Hemingway’s great adventure in prose was that if you had an emotion, the first thing you must do is not say anything about it. He offered a halo within the rhythm of an ordinary sentence that lifted the sentence way beyond and threw the reader into the next sentence thinking that nothing much was happening. You knew something was happening, but you weren’t sure what. So no, it wasn’t just the story or the characters – it was something in the style itself that mattered more. And that made a big difference to me. It pleased me it gave me an enormous, almost physical pleasure.
Carlo: Can we read from The Testament of Mary?
Colm: I’ll do anything for excitement. When you’re writing fiction you just sit in a room. The idea of working in the theatre, the idea of going to Galway and watching the work of Garry Hynes, Marie Mullen and to work with them was such a great pleasure and also later in New York.
I recognised that I was moving within a society that is almost religious, almost secular. I’m not sure which it is at the moment but I felt that I could work with absolute ease and freedom. Somtimes things begin with an image. For example, there’s a priest who comes to a house and he looks at his sock and he pulls it up, and then he pulls another the other one up, so some mad image comes up – like the one with the rusty chain around the fridge. Sometimes you have an image or a memory, or someone tells you something and it doesn’t go away. And one day, for no reason it moves into the real. You get a sound, a sentence, and then you must work, but if you don’t get it, it remains in the frozen zones of the mind, and if you deliberately try to unfreeze it, it will remain forced and you end up not finishing the story or abandoning it.
We do not have a duty to like or dislike characters. We do not have a duty to decide who is good or who is bad. We have to look at fiction in another way – as a set of patterns. We in the business of using images and using sentences and so we don’t have a responsibility to create moral patterns. We have a responsibility to create verbal patterns.
Carlo: Do we have a responsibility to create morally correct writing?
Colm: We do seem to have a pressure to make things morally simple. I remember during our recent history that Charlie was bad and Gareth was good and it made life so simple at the time.
Carlo: Yes! I completely agree and the great problem nowadays is that writers, well all sorts of people, but we’re writers and they are the only sort of people I care about really. We’re under more and more pressure to live a more morally and sometimes politically correct version of events and we have to resist it, but capitalism is very good at bending people to its will.
Question from the audience: Can you tell me about being brave and writing the truth?
Colm: I don’t think that anyone writing fiction now within Ireland or the European Union needs to be brave. There is so much bravery needed to be an novelist for example in contemporary China, not to speak of Iraq for example, but you do not need to be brave to be able to write in Ireland.