DAY 2: Colm Toíbin – Dalkey Book Fest
“I was getting up at half three in the morning, Leo [Varadkar] would’ve been really proud of me!” Colm Toíbin tells the packed marquee.
So begins one of the highlights of Dalkey Book Festival – one of Ireland’s greatest writers in conversation with one of Ireland’s treasures, Miriam O’Callaghan.
The book he is talking about getting up for in the middle of the night is his latest work, House of Names.
It was a swift process for him, working on his latest novel. “Once the idea came to me, I really worked fast. It was there all along in the back of my head” he says.
The book tells the story of sacrifice and violence.
On the day of his daughter’s wedding, Agamemnon orders her sacrifice. His daughter is led to her death, and Agamemnon leads his army into battle, where he is rewarded with glorious victory. Three years later, he returns home and his murderous action has set the entire family on a path of destruction.
Miriam asks is it disturbing to write such violent scenes as the one in this book. Colm replies “You can’t write violence in my view without feeling it. or use so many metaphors or soft language and then think the readers should feel it. you have to go through it.”
“Feel it first” he commands. “Feel it, see it, do it, be with it. Write it only then when you’ve done that.”
When Miriam inquires whether Colm enjoys writing, the pleasure of it, he quickly responds “There’s no pleasure in it at all!” He then paints a vivid picture inspired by a boat he just saw passing through Dalkey Sound, right next to the Seafront Marquee.
“Imagine doing that, swimming around… having a big lobster in restaurant in a Dalkey restaurant.” That, is pleasure, Colm says.
But “sitting, trying to pull things up for yourself, that’s called work. There’s no moaning about it, I mean it’s not coal mining. But it’s not leisure.”
But for Colm, it’s a worthwhile pursuit. “I push myself as far as I can go but what I really wouldn’t like is to have an unwritten book.”
When it comes to writing those books and making a success of them, “I think talent is about half the equation and the other half is some sort of drive or some sort of need.”
Rather humbly, Colm believes “There were people who were much more talented then me. I pass them on the streets and its not easy! They make me shudder and I give them the creeps.”
A great belly of laughter ripples through the marquee at this.
Moving on to recent political events, Miriam asks Colm what significance, as a gay man, does he think there is in the appointment of Leo Vardakar as Taoiseach?
Colm replies by charting the birth and origin of Leo Varadkar – Taoiseach in waiting.
He paints a wicked picture of Tonight with Vincent Browne being an key part of this development.
“You don’t know what mood Vincent might be in. He could either shout at you or laugh at you. But leo started to say yes [to being invited on the show] and no matter what Vincent said to him he would just smile or say something clever or not that clever… he could just hold his own.”
“Leo would just smile and reply in a nice rational way… he was sort of invented by that program… kind of how The Late Late Show invented Garret Fitzgerald” Colm explains with great animation, much to the delight of the audience.
As soon as he’s finished, quick as a flash, Miriam replies “But as I would say to a politician, you didn’t answer my question – with respect.”
As the subject moves along to the marriage referendum, Colin gives some astute observations. “In any referendum… you have 30% who will vote no and 30% who will vote yes and you have the 40% in the middle. You have to be very careful. Don’t patronise or tell them how to vote. It’s why we succeeded [with marraige ref] and Brexit failed.”
The success lies in thinking of a story to tell them.
“What gay people were told was :don’t talk about civil rights, human rights, as a marginalised group that needs to be looked after. If you could get your aunty who’s really nice to go with you to the door and you just smile and she goes ‘He has a really nice boyfriend and I really wanna go to his wedding… it would be just great if you could just think about us and lend us your vote for him…’ – that works.”
Que more gales of laughter.
“That idea of full inclusion in the thing that matters in Ireland… I think that’s why the campaign meant to much. we could talk about what really matters to us… the people we love most and people who love us most and what we would do for them, its why it was such a moving event.”
Colm then adds “The Leo event is a culmination of this… [but] he has right wing tendencies and i just think he should get therapy for that!”
It’s turning into a comedy gig here the laughter is coming so often.
When picking his cabinet, Colm says “I thought he was gonna do a night of the long knives… Leo go to Simon Harris ‘I’ve been waiting for you!'”
But switching gears again from funny to serious, Colm says “We didn’t make one big decision, we made about fifty small ones to create a different society… a strange set of almost shadowy moments that were suddenly there.”
Colm is a man who has a natural, beautiful way with words. To listen to him speak is a pleasure.
When Miriam asks him what he thinks determines how all our lives turn out, his answer has more than one head nodding along in agreement.
“I think drift is [what determines life outcome]… I think people often drift into a relationship which becomes the most important relationship of my life. You drift into talking to them, seeing them again, falling in love with them… you drift into a career… so other than luck, I don’t know anyone who’s ever had a deliberate plan set out aged 20 who they were going to become, who they were going to meet, the plan that their life was going to enfold.”
Is there anything wrong with drifting, Miriam asks?
“There’s no alternative” Colm replies.
Do you think 15 year old Colm would be happy, Miriam inquires.
“Oh yeah. There’s nothing to complain about which is sort of sad in itself.”
“What I think is true is that years ago I was in portugal to do a thing like this [book festival] and Sue Townsend [author or Adrian Mole diaries] was there and she looked at me and said ‘What did they do to you to cause you to become a writer?
“There’s this phrase – in the lost childhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed. A part of you gets formed [by pain] in childhood that you can never actually get rid of. It’s a gift for you if you want to do certain things like novels…. you can emerge from any difficulty okay in reasonable shape.”
He then gives us all a piece of advice. “When writers get together and you look at them really carefully, you can almost see the hurt, see the pain, the sense of displacement, of loss.”
What writers want, is “other people to feel what you have been feeling, to make something of it. That is something you don’t drift into. It comes from somewhere that you can’t fully control. But if it’s not there, you can’t do anything. You need an initial sense of hurt, of loss, of darkness.”
As the conversation begins to wind down, an audience member asks what Colm thought of the adaption of Brooklyn – in particular, the ending.
He begins the answer by explaining how he chose who he gave the film rights to – the woman producing has worked on An Education.
“I just said one thing to her… Can you get me Nick Hornby [who wrote the screenplay for An Education]?”
She did get him and Colm says “Then I knew what to do – leave Nick Hornby alone.”
“There was no meeting between me and him. He wrote the second draft and there were a few tiny things – words that I felt were wrong in my ear for Irish usage…[but] in a novel and in a film I think you make a different contract. The reader in a novel is imagining and imagining, filling in all that. You can leave the ending slightly unneeded and open and leave it to the reader.”
“But film is full disclosure of every colour and every moment. I’ve seen the film seven or eight times. I cry at the last bit every time… god I just know they’re going to be really happy… I’m not one for happy endings but I loved that ending… I understand exactly what they were doing. If you left her sitting on the train and didn’t give her her moment, you would say hold on can you finish the film!”
Colm Toíbin is a character himself, one more splendid than any writer could create. In the fantasy dream dinner, he would place high on your guest list. For those who spent an hour in his company at the Seafront Marquee, it was a special experience.