Colm Tóibín | “If you do the feeling before you write the sentence then the emotion will be in the sentence”

Colm Tóibín | “If you do the feeling before you write the sentence then the emotion will be in the sentence”

Nora Webster (Viking, October), Colm Tóibín’s seventh novel, returns to the provincial Irish town of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, familiar to readers of his Costa Novel Award-winning Brooklyn as the town from which Ellis Lacey departed. The events of Nora Webster take place 10 years after Brooklyn; it is now the late 1960s and at the beginning of the novel Nora, mother of four, has become a young widow.

Nora Webster unfolds, in deceptively simple, uncluttered prose, to tell the story of a woman as ordinary as she is extraordinary. As she rebuilds her life and gets on with the business of raising her children after the death of her husband, Nora faces the challenges, petty irritations and triumphs of life in a small town. Nora discovers that for financial reasons she will need to return to work, to the same company she left with relief when she got married. In every way her life is now different to how she thought it would be. Amid the narrow scope of her life imposed by the times and domesticity, she is striving for something more.

When we speak—on the telephone from Barcelona, where his most recent novel, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted The Testament of Mary, has been adapted for the stage—Tóibín explains that Nora Webster has been a long time in the writing. Back in 2000 he wrote the opening chapters of two novels: The Master, which was published in 2004; and Nora Webster. Over the next 13 years he would return to the latter periodically—“there wasn’t a year when I didn’t work on it”—until last year, when he realised he needed to finish it before it became “unwieldy”

One of the challenges was, Tóibín explains, that a novel set 50 years ago, in a provincial town in Ireland, telling the story of a family “required an enormous amount of concentration because it doesn’t have a natural excitement or colour to it.

“I didn’t write a great deal that I erased but I did think of a great deal that I put aside because everything had to, in some way or other, have a drama in it,” he says. “I began to trust [the novel], so I felt that if I put enough detail into this, especially in the opening chapters, that I will build up a relationship between her and the reader where the reader will become interested in even the smallest thing that happens to her, or that she remembers.”

Inspired selection

Two early 20th-century novels provided literary influences for Nora Webster: Sons and Lovers (1913) by D H Lawrence; and Buddenbrooks (1901) by Thomas Mann, the story of a wealthy German family over four generations. From Sons and Lovers Tóibín took inspiration from the domestic setting—a small house with fires being lit and meals being cooked—but also the idea that, “the woman would seem much more potentially rich than she had been given a chance to be in her life. She was living in these small rooms with the sense that she could be doing much more; the distance between who she was sensuously or who she was intellectually and who she was socially was quite great.”

Tóibín’s prose is simple, even spare, and his aim is that the reader shouldn’t be aware of the style at all, let alone be dazzled by it: “There’s no sentence where you could say: ‘Oh my God, this guy really knows how to write’. There might be something going on underneath—and I hope there is—but all I wanted was simple declarative sentences that say one thing. Not me going on a Tour de France downhill with no hands on the handlebars saying ‘look at me’.”

Tóibín’s theory is that “if you do the feeling before you write the sentence then the emotion will be in the sentence. And if you don’t, it won’t. So if you just write the sentences without anything going on within yourself, they will be flat and the reader will get nothing from them. The mystery is, if you feel the thing, and see it, and it’s absolutely clear to you and you write that down, then the emotion will come through in some way or other.”

No research was needed; Tóibín says he remembers the late 1960s vividly—especially the moon landings, which fascinate Nora’s boys Donal and Conor, and also the Troubles in Northern Ireland with the British Army shooting into the crowd during a peaceful demonstration in Derry.

“The issue was to try to make sure that the public events were in the background and that the private events were in the foreground. And that a small thing happening in the private realm had as much power as a big riot on the television, if not more. That was the aim. It would have been so easy to have let all those public events become the novel, and the aim was to hold on to private space.

“There was almost an ideological thing involved—of me trying to insist that the novel itself has a power in the private realm, that it doesn’t always have to focus on public events in order to exist.

What’s the story?

Ever since his début novel The South (1990), shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award, Tóibín has been critically well received, with subsequent novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (three times altogether) among other awards. But Brooklyn (2009) took his sales and his career to another level entirely

Fascinatingly, he found the kernel of the story that would become Brooklyn when re-reading the first chapter of Nora Webster at some point during its long gestation period (in the first few pages Nora receives a visit from May Lacey paying her respects, who mentions her sadness that her daughter Eily hasn’t returned home from New York).

He is at a loss to explain the huge commercial success of Brooklyn (although winning the Costa undoubtedly helped in the UK, it was also a big hit in the US, with no prize win behind it). “I did know when I was working that I had found a story, which you don’t find often in your life, which had a sort of symmetry to it, and a beginning, a middle and an end that I wouldn’t get again easily.”

Brooklyn has now been adapted for the big screen by Nick Hornby. Tóibín read the screenplay and gave his blessing—“he really found the drama in the book”, he says. Filming began in March this year, starring Saoirse Ronan, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters—and Tóibín himself, dressed in full costume for a cameo role. “Unless they cut me out for overacting, or underacting . . . or for playacting,” he says, with a sudden, delighted laugh.


Publication 02.10.14
Formats HB (£18.99)/EB
ISBN 9780670918140/ 9780670918218
Rights US (Scribner), Canada, Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, Sweden
Editor Mary Mount, Viking
Agent Peter Straus, RCW


1955 Born in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, Ireland
1975 Graduated from University College Dublin with a degree in History and English
1990 Debut novel, The South, published
1999-present Booker Prize shortlistings for The Blackwater Lightship (1999), The Master (2004) and The Testament of Mary (2012).
2009 Sixth novel, Brooklyn, wins the Costa Novel Award

Main image by Steve Pyke