Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe
Describe your latest book.
I have written a novel called House of Names
. It is, to some small extent, a retelling of The Oresteia
, but it also uses as source material work by Euripides
. It is mainly, however, a work of imagination. I set about seeing and re-creating the figures of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their two children, Electra and Orestes. It attempts to graft the systems of a modern novel on to one of the most ancient Greek stories. It is a story of murder and revenge, of spirals of violence and treachery, all within one family, and then stretching out into the wider world.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I couldn’t read until I was nine and then I wasn’t interested in reading. I have never read any children’s books. The first books I liked were by P. G. Wodehouse
and Agatha Christie
When did you know you were a writer?
When a box with my first novel came from the U.S. and I had to go to the post office to collect it.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I work anywhere, and move around a lot. I usually begin in longhand. I am very untidy.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
That no one should be able to guess what is really going on in my mind.
Share an interesting experience you've had with your readers.
A lot of Americans took exception to my novel The Testament of Mary
, and some of them wrote me very rude letters, calling me names.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Ford Madox Ford is a marvelous writer. I think The Good Soldier
would be a good book to start with. Also, George Moore, and his Esther Waters
is a great book. And also Somervile and Ross (yes, there were two of them, and they wrote together) and their best book is The Real Charlotte
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I have a pretty good collection of classical CDs. But never enough!
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I worked in the Motor Taxation Office of Wexford County Council in Ireland in a time before computers, when each car in the county had a personal file.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Yes! To W. B. Yeats
’s tower in Galway, Ireland. To Lamb House in Rye, where Henry James
lived. To the house where Elizabeth Bishop
was born in Nova Scotia. To Hemingway
’s house in Cuba. To Emily Dickinson
’s grave. To Mark Twain
’s house in Hartford, Connecticut. To James Joyce
’s tower in Sandycove, Dublin. To Sylvia Plath
’s grave in Yorkshire.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Getting it wrong from the start.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Dear Words, Cheap Thrills: The Life of a Sad Irish Boy.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
This is Gertrude’s speech about the death of Ophelia in Hamlet
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
"Slowly, they grew used to the old woman’s house."
(from House of Names
These little sentences are often the hardest to write.
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
I am me now, but I must go back to my old boarding school, with all its rules, and spend a year there as though I were 16.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I am a sweet, easy-going guy. Don’t do peeves.
Do you have any phobias?
I don’t like marmalade.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
None, I’m afraid. I don’t have a TV and wouldn’t know a celebrity even if she/he/it came and bit me.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
'Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'"
(opening of The Great Gatsby
How did you go bald? Was it gradually or suddenly?
Gradually and then suddenly, or so it seemed, or maybe I just wasn’t looking enough and had other things on my mind.
My all-time favorite novels:
The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
by George Eliot
by Joseph Conrad
The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton
Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of seven novels, including The Master
, winner of the Los Angeles Times
Book Prize; Brooklyn
, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary
; and Nora Webster
, as well as two story collections. Three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.