The author keeps the Belfast crowd entertained
‘I can’t believe it’s a full house,’ the sound engineer confesses, peering over his desk at the auditorium below as the 132 audience members edge toward their seats. ‘We had another one of these on Monday night. God, it was boring.’
Fortunately, Colm Tóibín is anything but. As his adoring public fill up the Baby Grand he’s already on stage, chatting freely with tonight’s interviewer, the BBC’s Marie-Louise Muir, who’s lucky to get a word in edgeways. No melodramatic entrance for Tóibín. No drum roll. No need for it.
As for Muir? There’s almost no need for her either. Tóibín takes almost 25 minutes to answer the opening question - ‘Where did the idea for this woman and her story come from?’ - and he could happily, effortlessly fill up an hour without interruption. ’Brooklyn: discuss,’ and Muir might have gotten an early night.
We’re in the Grand Opera House for an insight into the writer's mind, an exploration of Tóibín’s latest novel, the Man Booker-nominated Brooklyn, and the requisite question and answer session to allow the fans their say.
Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman torn between a new life in NYC and the inescapable obligations of family in the 1950s; ‘an intimate portrait of a sad life,’ said the Times Literary Supplement, and ‘Tóibín's most beautifully executed novel to date’.
Reading from a passage wherein Eilis fails to keep her dinner down on a stormy voyage across the Atlantic, Tóibín acts out the parts, pulling faces, shifting in his seat, even assuming accents. The sight of such an imposing brute of a Wexford man playing a diminutive, pocket-sized heroine even raises a chuckle from our otherwise inattentive sound engineer. It’s apt that we’re in a theatre space - Tóibín has a knack for dialogue.
Recalling his time teaching English Literature in Austin, Texas (a ‘flat’, uninspiring place for the younger author), Tóibín reflects on the literature student’s ill-founded reliance on description and flashback.
‘In order to illustrate this I showed them the opening of Pride and Prejudice, with Mr Bennett and Mrs Bennett. You don’t say, "Well, where did they meet?" Or "Who is Mrs Bennett’s father?" You just have the two of them talking. You get no description of what they look like. By the end of that opening chapter you get a full picture of them, because of their voices.’
Perhaps the most interesting of Tóibín's ruminations concerns the literary inspiration for Brooklyn.
‘I became interested in the idea of taking the romance back from chick-lit to actually try to work it back into the novel in a more serious and dramatic way. In other words, you could draw a line from Jane Austin to Maeve Binchy ... We have a lot to learn from that line, because it’s a line which has interested people for 200 years now.’
A slight disappointment on the night is Muir’s peculiarly Northern Irish interview technique - at times frustratingly sombre and academic. Not that Tóibín would ever notice, of course. He’s away with the fairies, a chatterbox digressing back and forth as if he’s passing the time with a friend by the fire - never really getting to the root of any particular problem, but entertaining nonetheless and anything but boring.