On Leaving, Love, and Country: An Interview with Colm Tóibín

February 25, 2016   •   By Greg Londe

THE WORD “GLAMOUR,” our best expression for the ineffable sparkle of celebrity, comes into the English language in the early 18th century — a Scots word that the Oxford English Dictionary says, perhaps dubiously, is a corrupt form of the word “grammar.” “Glamour” is a part of the broader Celtic enchantment of the ordinary, in a moment when regional voices began to swirl in the high literary sphere. Grammar cares for spelling, glamour casts spells — both require immense technical precision to earn their dazzle. In an essay called “Magic,” written a few years before Joyce opened the first cinema in Dublin, Yeats marveled at apparitions on screens; he maintained, from across the centuries, this sense that “glamour” is a charge acquired by language and performance as they move between urban glitter and rural silence, or move across the Atlantic: “If I can unintentionally cast a glamour, an enchantment, over persons of our own time who have lived for years in great cities, there is no reason to doubt that men […] can still do so where the old order of life remains unbroken.” 

Both Colm Tóibín and the filmmakers behind the Oscar-nominated adaptation of his novel Brooklyn possess this technical precision, conjuring the joys and frustrations of an ordinary girl making her way on new shores. “Having parents who had lived in America singled you out in Ireland,” writes Tóibín. “Even the idea of living there until you were 3 [as did the star of Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan] gave you a sort of glamour, a glamour that was often belied by the sort of work that Irish immigrants did in New York in the 1980s and by their living conditions.” In a recent appreciation of Saoirse Ronan’s award-winning performance as Eilis Lacey, Tóibín remarks on Ronan’s mastery of the subtle glamour that accrues around the emigrant’s experience of going there and back: “She invites envy, she lives in light, she loves glamour, but she also moves easily into the shadows.” Before director John Crowley recreated the Enniscorthy of Tóibín’s youth on the very streets where he grew up, Tóibín’s sensitive and subtle novel was born from such shadow play.

While he was traveling between Los Angeles, China, and South India — shortly before Brooklyn was named Best British Film at the BAFTAs — I had the chance to chat with Tóibín about films and books over email.


GREG LONDE: It strikes me that in a fairly short span of time, you’ve been blessed with a remarkable number of the finest actors in the world bringing your characters to life: not only Saoirse Ronan, but Fiona Shaw and Marie Mullen performing in Testament of Mary, plus Meryl Streep doing the audiobook of Mary. How do these experiences compare? What have all of these performances brought to your life or your work?

COLM TÓIBÍN: It has been oddly nourishing. I worked closely with both Marie Mullen and Fiona Shaw (and indeed the directors Garry Hynes and Deborah Warner, and also the producers Anne Clarke, Loughlin Deegan, and Scott Rudin), and I found the collaboration useful. I am not sure what I learned; it was more that I got an energy from watching them and being close to them when they worked. It gave me a sort of determination also to go back to the silence, return to a place where I had full autonomy, and work there away from collaboration. With Saoirse Ronan and Meryl Streep, it was different. What I got from them was the raw emotion I had put into the books handed back to me even more raw and more forceful. Once more, it made me want to work. It solidified something and also opened it emotionally at the same time. It is hard to pinpoint what this was like, but it was powerful and it made me feel that what I was doing was important. Writing is so tentative and slow. It begins as not there at all, and then gradually appears. You always remember how close to disappearing it was, how frail. Watching performers making it solid has a strange and almost inspiring power. It seems to have survived.

When I was your teaching assistant, we showed some clips occasionally — from Man of Aran in particular — but never taught a full film in seminar. Do you teach film or find yourself using filmic language in your teaching at Columbia? If you were to teach a film class, what’s the title and what’s on the syllabus?

I have very little interest in film now. I don’t go much, although every so often some film hits me hard, such as Sokurov’s Faust. I am happier reading books and poetry. But there was a period between 1973 and 1983, say, when I went to films obsessively. What I took away were the films of Bergman and Fellini, Rohmer, Almodóvar, Saura, and a few American films, mainly Chinatown and The Godfather films. I would be happy just to watch those films over and over. But I am almost like that with novels now — Jane Austen, George Eliot, Conrad, James. I don’t need anything new. So the course I would like to give, I think, would be: “Face, Mind, and Voice in the Films of Bergman.”

Do you see Brooklyn as a political film? Or, perhaps, are its politics different from the novel in any subtle or significant ways? I’m thinking of the difference between 2009 and now in terms of an increasingly virulent anti-immigration rhetoric in the US and across Europe. Brooklyn’s release at this moment seems a plain reminder of what immigration looks and feels like for someone making her home in a new country.

I wrote the book at a very particular time in Ireland. I was not thinking about global migration, but about immigration into Ireland. Ireland became, in ways that were official and unofficial, very uncomfortable about people arriving in Ireland looking for work and a better life — people from Nigeria, China, Poland. I, on the other hand, believed that we could afford to welcome outsiders for many reasons, including economic ones, but also cultural, and also historical. In fact, I came to the view that we could not afford not to have outsiders in our country. That was the shadow impulse behind writing Brooklyn. I wanted people to know what it was like to move to a new country.

I’m sure you’ve now seen the film in a number of different contexts. What was the best audience? What do you think the best way to watch it is? (I’ve now seen it twice, once with a packed house that was laughing and weeping constantly, and once with a mostly empty theater except for a group of rapt older women behind me who were gasping for air every time "that handsome boy" Tony came on the screen.)

The best audience that I witnessed was in Leicester Square in London. I simply did not think a simple story about an Irish girl immigrating to America in the 1950s would matter much to what I thought was a cosmopolitan and sophisticated London audience. When I saw how moved the audience was, I realized that the story of leaving home and falling in love and then falling in love again might matter to everyone, irrespective of the country.

I wanted to give you a quotation from Max Frisch, from his interview with The Paris Review in 1989, and see if you have any thoughts about it:

Just now I think — I don’t know if it’s right or wrong — that if you describe emotions, or the hero describes his emotions, as in the work of Dostoyevsky, for instance, or Melville, or other great writers, the danger that you will fall into the conventional is very great. It was Goethe who told us how we feel if we are in love with a girl — there are forms for that. But suppose you try to establish a situation, a movement, to show gestures and faces, and not talk about it. This is closer to film than old literature was. We have learned a lot from movies about what can be expressed without words. 

Was Brooklyn filmic before it ever became a film? What had you, or maybe Eilis, learned from movies by the time you came to write it?

There is a movie called Hester Street made by an American filmmaker, Joan Micklin Silver, in 1975. I probably could not have written Brooklyn, the novel, without it. And also maybe Jules et Jim and also maybe Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s film December Bride. But I think the bigger influences were Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Washington Square. These are great books about the interior life — they show gestures and faces, as Frisch would have it, and they let those things imply a great deal.

Can I ask about the screenplay of Frisch’s novel Montauk that you’ve done with Volker Schlöndorff? Where does that project stand? Did Hornby’s adaptation of your novel change the way you thought about the project of adaptation, or did your work on the Montauk screenplay illuminate aspects of Crowley and Hornby’s work?

It is, I think, scheduled to begin shooting in April. When Volker and I wrote it together, I was aware that I was dealing with one of the great film artists. He had directed many brilliant films. He was assistant director for Last Year in Marienbad; he had been married to Margarethe von Trotta, with whom he had worked closely; he had directed The Tin Drum; he had worked closely with Louis Malle; he was one of the directors of Germany in Autumn, which is an essential film for me. We were trying to do something hard, which is make a film about a man who doesn’t have to pay or learn anything from his crimes or his misdemeanors. No Faust here; no Don Juan. Just a modern European man, post-Christian. Sometimes we worked in the same room, at the same table, interrupting each other, agreeing eventually on every line. Sometimes, I went away on my own and worked and sometimes he did. I had not worked with Nick Hornby at all, so this was all new to me.

I loved seeing your cameo in the film as the fellow before Saoirse in line to enter the US, with the customs agent waving you through. What’s going through your head when you’re in costume, walking through Ellis Island and your own fiction?

I was trying not to be noticed. And I also almost wanted to be noticed.

How much did you allow yourself to picture what the novel would be like as a film once it had been optioned? Were there parts of the book that you thought would be impossible to adapt? Parts of the novel that you knew needed to be on the screen in order for the filmmakers to get it right? What would the "author’s cut" of the picture have looked like?

I really didn’t have a clue what it would look like. I hadn’t visualized it. I didn’t get involved because I wanted Nick Hornby to do it. When John Crowley came on board, I was delighted, as I think an earlier film of his — Intermission — is one of the best Irish films ever made. It is an ingenious film, hilarious, outstanding. I also knew him slightly and thought that I could trust him.

Any dream adaptations of your writing, given no constraints regarding budget or mortality? Bergman’s A Long WinterThe Street, director Pedro Almodóvar?

Yeah, A Long Winter is the best thing I have written. But Bergman is dead.

What is your preferred way of seeing movies? Alone? Popcorn? Home? Drive-in theater?

With my boyfriend in a cinema.


Greg Londe teaches at Cornell; his research and teaching explore 20th- and 21st-century transnational literature and culture.