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Colm Toibin
Did you feel the need to write a novel about emigration because it is so central to the Irish experience?
A novel comes very gradually and slowly. It is led by character much more than by a set of social or historical phenomena. So I was interested in the character of Eilis and began building her in my head very slowly. Some of the emotion and the background in the story was fuelled not so much by the history of Irish emigration as by the arrival of large number of immigrants into Ireland over the past fifteen years.
Is it fair to say that, given your obvious admiration of Henry James, there might be a nod to that author in BROOKLYN? Eilis is, after all, a young, innocent woman crossing the Atlantic on her own like many of James’s heroines.
Yes. But more than anything, it was the use of the third person intimate, the idea that everything known by the reader comes through the eyes and experience of Eilis. I was also interested in the figure of Catherine Sloper in ‘Washington Square’, someone who seems quiet and passive, but whose emotions are very deep.
Some readers have typecast Eilis as a rather meek, passive young woman but to start a new life, alone in an unknown country seems pretty brave to me - and she stands up to the formidable Mrs Kehoe! How do you see her?
Sometimes, she is shy, she does not put herself forward or say what is on her mind. She does not confront experience. This means that her inner life is very interesting. But other times she does assert herself. She is a mixture, oddly unknowable, and I was interested in dramatising the life of a figure like that.
It was such a relief that Father Flood didn’t turn out to be yet another predatory priest. Do you find that the recent exploitation of the transgressions of the Catholic Church for literary and cinematic effect is becoming rather tiresome?
It’s a big subject and it has loomed large in Ireland over the past 20 years. But for my novel it would not have been any use. There were many priests who worked all their lives for people, maybe they don’t appear in fiction because that is not a very dramatic or colourful subject, but it was a greater reason why I should put someone like that in the book.
The passage where Eilis decides whether to stay or go is highly emotional (it made me cry) and her mother’s reaction is extraordinarily unselfish and loving. You could have had a very different ending, but like the rest of the novel it is quiet and meaningful. How did you make the decision? Was it there from the start?
Yes, she was always going to go back. The episode in Ireland is merely an interlude. But it is an interlude which forced her to question everything, including things such as loyalty and love.
What does “home” mean to you?
I don’t like abstract words. I suppose home is a few rooms in Dublin and a few rooms in the house I have in Wexford.
Finally, our readers always like to know, who are your literary inspirations?
For this book, Jane Austen and George Moore (a novel called ‘Esther Waters’) and of course Henry James.
Colm Toibin

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