Colm Tóibín at NYPL

1. Colm Tóibín in conversation with Paul Holdengräber, Director of LIVE from the NYPL 2. Tóibín signing The Empty Family for adoring fans.

It’s so cool to be at the New York Public Library after hours! Everything echoes off the marble, like when the guard yells at me to say the library is closed. I explain I’m here for the reading, so he points me to a line thirty people long waiting to get into the auditorium. The thing about readings by Irish authors in the states is that the audiences are — generally — older. I don’t think they’re all nostalgic Irish-Americans or that all these events are so dear they’re the only people who can afford tickets. And I don’t think this is the case for all international writers; it just seems to me like the Irish aren’t particularly ‘in’ at the moment. Anyway, I know a lot about Colm Tóibín because when I lived and worked in Ireland, the man was inescapable. You should know about him too!

Tóibín is a big deal: his new collection of short stories, The Empty Family, is his 20th book, or something ridiculous like that. He’s just taken Martin Amis’ job at the University of Manchester, he teaches at Princeton and Stanford, and he has these amazing red glasses that open in the middle. They’re impossible to describe, you’ll just have to google them.

1. Eugene Downes, Chief Executive of Culture Ireland, and Belinda McKeon, Literary Curator of Culture Ireland, are bringing Irish writers to the US with the power of a thousand horses. Also, Belinda’s debut novel Solace will be published by Scribner in May of this year.2. Visual artist Katie Holten, Bob Sullivan (author of Rats), and Dillon. Bob had a personal story about meeting Mr. Tóibín: “In1999–2000, I read all his books. I told all my friends to read his books. Then my friend Matt Sharpe met Tóibín while he was a Cullman Fellow at NYPL and said to him, ‘Oh my god, you have to meet my crazy friend who’s reading all your books. He loves you.’ Then he introduced me to Colm.” According to Bob, Tóibín is also an incredible singer. And don’t get him started on Joni Mitchell.

Tóibín is a formal writer with an informal manner of speaking (once you get past the sort of posh accent). Which is why it’s so wonderful to listen to him speak. At the discussion with Paul Holdengräber, part of the LIVE from the NYPL series, Tóibín was very open about his writing process. He delivered some of those little nuggets of writing wisdom that MFA students despise hearing in succinct, quotable forms, but which the rest of the world finds enjoyable (why am I in a writing program if all this ‘knowledge’ can be delivered via Twitter???). He told some great stories. He was laid back, funny, sharp and honest; it was a wonderful discussion.

1. Montana, Columbia MFA in non-fiction graduate, not only has a great name, but she loves Colm Tóibín! 2. Paul Holdengräber is the Director of Public Programs at NYPL. His favorite Tóibín book is “All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James,” especially Chapter Three. “You must read this.”

Some highlights:

Tóibín listened to a lot of Leonard Cohen as a teenager: “I don’t really care about smells, but music does everything for me.”

He saw The Social Network recently and was reminded that he was in Palo Alto during the time that the movie takes place. He wasn’t invited to any of those parties and seemed kind of bitter about it.

Tóibín enjoys teaching because he likes being bossy. In one semester he banned penises and flashbacks (which he called “the laziest thing ever”).

Yer man, Colm Tóibín. I asked him what he liked better, being in the states or in Ireland. “I work all the time, so I only see the interior of rooms. It doesn’t matter where I am.”

He doesn’t take notes. “Notes are no use — if you can’t remember it, there’s no point. Writing a note destroys the idea by solidifying it.” This sounds insane to me, he must have the best memory of any one ever.

When people introduce Tóibín, they often note that he was shortlisted for the Booker twice. “No, I lost it twice,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of drink beforehand. You have to wash yourself and put on clothes. They’re all terribly polite — ‘I loved your book, I loved your book’ — when they haven’t read the thing… There are six cameras filming you while you eat… Then all the short-listees go up and get an envelope, like you’re in school. And no matter what, you think it’s you. Even if your book is shit. And then they call someone else’s name. The lights go off you, instantly. You go the men’s room and the man pissing next to you turns his back. And you think, ‘What did I do to cause this?’ Of course the last flight to Dublin is already gone so you have to stay in London with all those polite Englishmen. So, the art of losing isn’t hard for me master.”

Tóibín ended the talk with a recitation of “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath. It was fucking intense. And awesome. And terrifying. From memory! A man who can do that, impromptu, is a man you should read. For serious.

–Emily Firetog is working towards an MFA at Columbia.

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