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Guest Host: Susan Page
Author Colm Toibin was 12 years old when his father died. He watched his mother struggle with grief but they rarely spoke of it. Toibin grew up to write award-winning stories and novels, including the best-seller, “Brooklyn.” But it was not until his mother’s death that he found a way to write about that painful period in his family’s life. His latest novel tells the story of a middle-aged widow living in a small Irish town in the 1960s. Music gives her solace and allows her to create an independent life. In her grief, however, she’s blind to the suffering of her young sons. Guest host Susan Page talks with author Colm Toibin about his new novel, “Nora Webster,” and the ways it echoes his own childhood.
- Colm Toibin Author of five novels, including "Brooklyn" and "The Last Testament of Mary."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín, published on October 7 by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on a station visit to WCPN in Cleveland. Colm Toibin's return to his native Ireland in his first full-length novel since the award-winning "Brooklyn." It's titled "Nora Webster," and it tells the story of a middle-aged woman struggling toward independence after her husband's unexpected death in 1960s small town Ireland.
MS. SUSAN PAGEColm Toibin joins me to talk about his latest work of fiction and how it echoes his own mother's experience. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. COLM TOIBINThank you for having me, good morning.
PAGEI should say, welcome back, because you've been a previous guest with previous works.
TOIBINI have, yeah.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email, email@example.com, is the address or find us on Facebook or Twitter. So I was noticing that just two years ago you wrote a book of essays that was titled, "New Ways To Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families." You've talked about how mothers get in the way of fiction and yet you've made a mother modeled on your mother as the central figure of this new novel.
TOIBINYeah, I was writing in that essay about the way in which in, say, Jane Austen or in the novels of Henry James, often the protagonist, if she's female, has to really invent herself and the mother gets in the way of that. In this case, I'm actually still writing about a woman who really has to invent herself, but the invention now is that her husband's dead and her husband has been her anchor. And she's, as it were, unmoored in a small town.
TOIBINSome people want to help her. Some people want to interfere with here. Everyone wants to advise her. She's not sure, because she went everywhere with him, where to go. Her friends, you know, her husband really was her world and her four children so now she has to find new friends, a new world. So the novel is a way of just seeing -- and she has no money so she has to get a job.
TOIBINShe also has to sort of rediscover herself and she has to go inwards as well as outwards to find that.
PAGEAnd this small town, it's now clear whether it's walling her in or supporting her. You know, there are these -- it's around her and it's interested in her, knows everything about her from where she was born to where she's gonna be buried, but in some ways, is it helping her or is it constricting her?
TOIBINYeah. I mean, teaching has been a great help for me in the sense that I now have to start practicing what I have been preaching to students, which is, look, if you have an idea, like, that a small town is restrictive, that -- why don't you also include the opposite idea, that sometimes it's nourishing and also that if Nora Webster is, in some ways, a very good mother, loyal and really serious, other times she sort of forgets about that and thinks more about herself, that she's quite an ambiguous figure.
TOIBINShe's prickly. She's difficult. Other times, she's really interesting and so intelligent. But I was interested in creating as much shade, as much ambiguity and as much unpredictability as I could in the book.
PAGEIt's told entirely through her point of view, right?
PAGESo we don't see her how others see her, except through indirection almost. And we don’t get inside, we don't hear from the point of view of her children, especially her two sons who are still living with her.
TOIBINYes, but you slowly realize that she's not seeing them as you're seeing them, that you're seeing them as two boys who've really been affected by the death of their father and they can't really handle some things because of that. I think the reader sees that and sometimes Nora doesn't. So even though it's all done through Nora's eyes, sometimes the reader learns more by something that Nora sees, but doesn't notice.
TOIBINAnd also, towards the end, well, it's several times in the book, you realize her sisters, Nora's sisters, are really afraid of her, that she's that sort of older -- she's the oldest of three girls and she's the bossy one and that they really live in terror of her sometimes. But that once she met Morris, who's the man she married, he was the love of her life and that that changed her a great deal and now, she's got to work out -- basically, what she's got to work out is who she is and what she's going to become.
PAGEThere are so many parallels between this fictional story and your own life story. Lots of similarities between Nora Webster and your mother. Tell us about that.
TOIBINYes. The novel is a tapestry, I suppose, using two sorts of wool. And one wool is memory and the other wool is invention and I use both. But yes, I was 12 when my father died and myself and my younger brother who was four years younger were in the house for a few years with my mother in the aftermath of my father's death and so I know what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about a strange silence that descends where you just cannot bring the subject up every day.
TOIBINIt's too sad. It's too much. So you don't bring it up every day. By not bringing it up every day, you then internalize it. You don't -- you're living it, you're thinking about it, it's coming up in your mind, but you don't think it's appropriate to raise it every day. So you never get it right. And my mother went out to work and my mother began to find new friends. And, of course, we're watching her.
TOIBINMyself and my younger brother are watching her so closely, more than we're watching ourselves. And, in a way, a novel, when you sit down to write, the page is not a mirror, it's blank. And it was easier for me to write about a woman in my mother's position than to write about a little boy in mine because I really wasn't watching myself. I wasn't self conscious. There was an awful lot of silence, absence, things not there in me, things sort of hollowed out in me, but I became very skilled at looking, at listening, at noticing, and indeed at remembering.
TOIBINSo, yes, that house in Nora Webster is emphatically the house with the rooms because I find it very difficult to make up rooms. But Nora, herself, is partly my mother and partly not. The job she goes to is invented. I mean, some of the things are made up, but the job -- my job is to make the reader just read the book and get involved with the character, but sometimes I use memory and sometimes I used imagination.
PAGESo I would like to ask you to read a passage from early in the book, one of the first things that happens in the book, which involves a home, a second home that the family had owned. Tell us about this before you read that.
TOIBINYes, this is the Wexford coast in Ireland and they've had a beach house there or what we would call it -- we wouldn't call it a beach house, but it's there because we don't use beach, a house beside a strand there. But it's where, because her husband was a teacher, Morris was a teacher, that meant they could have longer holidays. So the children really spent the whole summers there.
TOIBINFor her, it's where happiness resided and now, of course, A, she can't afford it anymore, but B, she doesn't want to go back there again. So this is her now visiting with the realization that she's gonna have to make a big decision about this. "Nora sat back into the car as the wind from the sea howled around her. The house would be cold. She should've taken a heavier coat with her. She knew that wishing friends were with her or allowing herself to shiver in the car like this were ways of postponing the moment when she would have to open the door and walk into the empty house.
TOIBINAnd then, an even fiercer whistling wind blew up and seemed as though it would lift the car. Something she had not allowed herself to think before but had known for some days now came into her mind and she made a promise to herself. She would not come here again. This is the last time she would visit this house. She would go in now and walk through these few rooms. She would take with her whatever was personal and could not be left behind.
TOIBINAnd then, she would close this door and drive back into the town and in future, she would never take that turn at the bowl alley on the road between Blackwater and Ballyconniger. What surprised her was the hardness of her resolve, how easy it seemed to turn her back on what she had loved, leave this house on the lane to the cliff for others to know, for others to come to in the summer and fill with different noises.
TOIBINAs she sat looking out at the blue sky over the sea, she sighed. Finally, she let herself feel how much she had lost, how much she would miss. She got out of the car, steadying herself against the wind."
PAGEThat’s Colm Toibin, the award-winning author of eight novels. This new one that he was just reading from, it's titled, "Nora Webster." Now, your mother has passed away? Your mother has passed away.
PAGECould you have written this book if she were alive?
TOIBINOh, you know, I began it when she was still alive. I began the book 14 years ago in the year 2000 and I've been adding to it ever since, often in the summer, adding a chapter and then in the last few years working a bit harder. But no, I don't suppose I could've published it in the sense that it would've been, I think, too difficult for her to read, but it's not as though, you know, it is a sort of homage to her, how she managed, how she found her own world again, things she did and said and ways in which she was always interesting.
TOIBINI mean, she didn't smother us. But at the same time, everything she said, we enjoyed her company and so did everybody else. And she was tremendously intelligent and she made a great effort and she also didn't become the grieving widow of the town, dressed in black, you know, wandering the roads. She was strong. So, yeah, all of that is there.
TOIBINSo if she's listening now, just I think it might be okay for you to read. I think there are bits that you would really enjoy laughing at, especially what all your sisters have to say about you.
PAGEWe're talking to Colm Toibin. He's written a new book. It's called "Nora Webster." We're gonna take a short break and when we come back, we're gonna go to the phones. We'll take some of your calls and questions. Our lines are open, 1-800-433-8850 is our toll-free number. You can always send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook or on Twitter. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Colm Toibin. He's talking about his new novel, "Nora Webster." This novel is set in small town Ireland in the 1960s, something you know so well. What was it like in Ireland in a small town like this one at that time?
TOIBINWell, I mean, one of the things that began to change was the economy. And the whole idea of a single politician who was brave, making decisions and affecting our life really did happen. I remember we were watching the television -- I couldn't haven't been watching it because it was the annual budget speech by the minister for finance and it was on the news. And my mother suddenly said, stop, shh. What did he just say? And we listened again.
TOIBINHe said he was going to increase the widow's pension by some enormous amount and back date the increase. So the increase would come and this word is etched in my hard, called a lump sum. Meaning, about a month later, a big check arrived, you don't have to pay tax on or anything that was just at the back dated increase. They back dated it by six months. And he did this three times.
TOIBINSo the following year, we were glued to the TV for the minister's budget speech and he increased it again. This -- this politician was much vilified later on. He was called Charlie Haughey and he became prime minister and there was a lot of controversy about him. But in those few years in our hearts you couldn't say anything bad about him. I mean, my uncle did try. But I mean, my mother just said, well, he looked after widows when he had the chance. And so, that happened. The moon landing happened.
TOIBINAnd I suppose there was a general sense -- I mean, the '60s are coming late to Ireland. The daughter here -- and this happened with my sister. She went to London to work for the summer. She was training to be a teacher and she came back. And she was sort of ashamed for -- she had an extra suitcase. And mother didn't even notice, but eventually when my aunt came to house, it was filled with Carnaby Street clothes, with all those loose gypsy clothes, light cotton that you could buy in London in those hippie years.
TOIBINAnd she had brought them back to this small town. And I remembered, all looking, we've never seen anything like it. So that sort of thing is happening. And also, people are watching the TV and paying attention to, you know, chat shows and feminism is on the television. But no -- and, of course, the other things that's happened is northern Ireland, from '68, from October '68, northern Ireland is coming to us on the television as riots, as burning of houses, as the beginning what begin known as The Troubles.
PAGEAnd The Troubles are something that the characters in your novel are aware of and concerned about. But there's a sense that they seem pretty far away.
TOIBINThat's a thing that, I think, belongs to these years in Ireland that people don't -- outside maybe don't fully realized that the Republic of Ireland moved away from the north as soon as the north began to burn. In other words, it was both remote and close. But it was on television -- at first, it was as remote in a way as the civil rights marches in United States, but it was in our country. We were puzzled by it.
TOIBINIt wasn't happening in our streets or streets near us. So, slowly, it became a thing that was happening in this other place called northern Ireland. And the two societies, in a way, moved apart. And it took a long time, in a way, for the Irish government, the British government to learn to trust each other and get -- you know, all of that took a long time partly because of that -- of that strange business of it being both our country and not our country at the same time.
PAGEAnd you talk about the '60s being a time when feminism began to be a big factor here in the United States. Is that something that you think affected Nora Webster?
TOIBINNo. She doesn't know she's a feminist. She sees feminists on the television and they're talking about things like contraception or women's rights. She doesn't understand that she, in her own way, in the way she's managing the house, in the way she's running things and the way she's reinventing herself is actually becoming, in her own way, a sort of feminist. But she doesn't -- she doesn't connect to the movement. She doesn't -- in other words, the political for her does not become personal.
PAGEAnd yet when her husband dies, she -- there's a line in your book where she realizes her freedom is over because she has lost the ability to have this person who's supporting her and enabling her to stay in the home and take care of her children and have a certain kind of life. But by the end of the book, she has a whole new kind of freedom.
TOIBINYes. I mean, I took that from life. It was something my something said that, you know, we have to remember, being in an office -- and they worked -- you know, it was a five and a half day week. A half day on a Thursday and half day on a Saturday and in an office for very low wages. And suddenly when she was married, she had a house to herself. I mean, my mother didn't spend the whole entire day making bed.
TOIBINYou know, children made their own beds. But she always said it was a great -- being married and being at home was a great freedom. And she used the freedom very creatively. In other words, she read books. In other words, she just had her own life. You know, and once the children went to school and her husband went to work, she had the house to herself in the day and she always said she never understood what these women were talking about.
TOIBINThe idea of having the house to yourself all day with everyone gone, knowing they were coming back later, was -- was a wonderful gift. Now, we use to say, hold on a minute, wouldn't it be much better if you had your own career? And she'd say, no. No, it wasn't. You don't understand what that was like. And by 10 o'clock with you all gone knowing you're coming back was a lovely freedom. So I put that into the book because that's what was so strange.
TOIBINIt sounds very strange now and sort of unfashionable now. But she -- it was something she often remarked on as being, for her, in her particular case, true.
PAGEYou avenue for her to find her way. Music plays such a big part in her story. Was that also true for your mother?
TOIBINYeah, I come home once and she told me that she had borrowed a stereo record player from a neighbor. I believe that, it seemed likely. Later on, she told me, no, in fact, she'd bought it. And, of course, having -- you know, people were watching who was buying what. A woman with a new coat would be noticed, especially a widow. So that, yes, the going to Dublin and coming back with a record, the joining of gramophones aside, it was just very likely a book club now where people would gather in the town, in the hotel one evening a week and they would sit around listen to music.
TOIBINIt's so innocent. You know, they would bring in a stereo. They would -- it will be one person's choice each week. And my mother did gain a lot from that and slowly began to have her own taste of music and music really began to matter to her. And she does this also as a way, in the novel, as a way of forming a bond or friendships with other women who really, really care passionately about music so that they don't -- I mean, Nora Webster is not interested in cooking, for example.
TOIBINThere's very little about cooking in this book or homemaking. You know, she likes her children, she looks after them. If there's a crisis, she's fiercely loyal. But actually, the music becomes her way of becoming herself.
PAGEAnd I would like you to read a passage that goes to this because she not only joins the gramophone club, but she also discovers that she herself is quite a good singer.
TOIBINYeah, that she hasn't sung for many years. And what's happened is that her voice has deepened. That she -- she was a soprano in school in the choir, but now she's a mezzo. And this has happened without her knowledge, which is something that can happen. It happens to the American soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She's Lorraine Hunt soprano on some CDs, then later she's the great American mezzo, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
TOIBINBut, anyway, she meets this wonderful, eccentric singing teacher who's called Laurie O'Keith (sp?) who's been a nun. And so this is where she's getting -- beginning to lessons. I mean, she -- she gets roped into this. I mean, she doesn't really want singing lessons, but everybody is always trying to get her to do something, you know, out of kindness or out of just general need to interfere in other people's lives. So this is Laurie teaching her.
TOIBIN'Now, this is bad for your voice,' Laurie said. 'We should do exercises to warm it up and not go straight into a psalm. There's something about you now that might not be there in a while. I saw it when you came in the door. You have, 'What,' Nora asked. 'You have been closed to the other side, haven't you?' 'What do you mean?' 'Don't talk now, let me hear your voice. Let me go through the melody first.'
TOIBINIt was only after a month when she had had four or five lessons that Nora realized that the music was leading her away from Morris, away from her life with him and her life with the children. But it was not nearly that Morris had no ear for music, but that music was something they have never shared. It was the intensity of her time here. She was alone with herself in a place where he would never have followed her, even in death."
PAGEThat is Colm Toibin reading from his new book, "Nora Webster." Let's go to the phones and let our listeners join our conversation. We'll do that in just a moment. I want to ask you about the character of the older son. Based on you, right, a 12-year-old son whose father dies. He develops a stutter. Did you -- did that happen to you?
TOIBINYes, it did. And it was very difficult. I had particularly -- I had particular difficulty with my own name because it begins with two hard consonants. And it came -- and I did what I could myself with breathing, with working on words, with working at a whole new way of speaking. I just did it myself. But when I went to learn Spanish, you know, it didn't strike me it was going to come up again in the class and the teacher was going to have to take me aside to say, you know, you have a speech impediment.
TOIBINI mean, there's something wrong with your voice and because I couldn't -- I would try and say, you know, you would try and say -- like the word for where, donde. I couldn't get the word out. And all I have to do was I had to learn Spanish twice. The first time silently with the words, and the next time I had to learn a new way of saying each word, like donde. I could get into it. But just concentrating a bit more than breathing.
TOIBINOf course, one of the things about a stammer is it makes writing such a pleasure. You can't stammer when you're writing. You write in silence. You have such control over the words. You don't worry for a moment. I mean, I'm not sure that made any great difference. But it was to me becoming a writer, but it certainly was something I noticed when I was writing.
PAGEThe -- you know, there's not anger toward the mother, there's not anger by her son's toward Nora Webster. But she does seem, in some ways, pretty disconnected from them or emotionally distant from them. And someone would say why isn't she doing more to help these kids who are obviously struggling with their own grief?
TOIBINYes, I mean, this in part it comes out teaching as well for, you know, if a student is writing a story about mother, the first thing I will say to the student is, get me a mother who isn't motherly all the time. Because if you don't do that, you're going to bore me, you're going to do me a cliched mother and, you know, a novel won't bear that. So therefore -- but also, don't give a really bad mother day in, day out, you know, who goes drinking with her friends, leaving the children home with no food.
TOIBINI mean, don't give me that. That's too easy. Why don't you chart a course in between where sometimes she's self-absorbed. She really doesn't notice them sometimes. She just thinks they're okay, they're going to school, they're well fed, they're well clothed. That they seem to be all right. And at other times when there's any crisis, she's like a tiger. I mean, when there's trouble at school and she goes down to the -- she gets her hair done.
TOIBINI mean, my mother did do this, by the way. It was -- you know, she would get her hair done before she went down to the school and she would attack a Christian brother over some small issue sometimes, and come home in triumph having done so.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." In fact, there is -- it's one of the few times we get a description of her when she has her hair dyed and it sounds like it looked kind of bizarre. But it's one of the few times when we actually get a sense of physically what she must look like.
TOIBINYes, I think that in those years for a woman this is -- this is in Ireland in the 1960s, you know, the -- having your hair go gray and then making a quick, you know, a few times because her husband's dead and they always made decisions together or he made them slowly after a lot of discussion. She has to make decisions like will she join a trade union. She decides too quickly to do so. And then one day she's in the hairdresser's and the hairdresser just says, I have this that would really change you. You'll look great.
TOIBINShe suddenly decides to do it. And it's in the middle of the day and she realizes that it can't not be washed out. She's going to have to walk through the town and people are going to go, oh, my God, look. And so, I mean, I just thought this would be a dramatic subject, the whole idea of moving from gray hair to dyed hair.
PAGELet's talk to Georgia. She's calling us from Houston, TX. Georgia, thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
GEORGIAHi, good morning. I am enjoying this conversation you're having immensely. When the author that freedom that he found weird or odd of this mother being at home, it just reminded so much of myself right now. It's very interesting. It is odd, but it's true. I am a professional woman who has worked all my life. I'm 38 now and I am able to be at home and a mother. And it's just -- there's a freedom there that is very bizarrely refreshing. And it -- I'm enjoying what the author is saying so much. I'm really looking forward to reading your book.
PAGEGreat. Georgia, thank you so much for your call.
TOIBINYeah. I mean, the thing is that I had to -- when I was writing the book -- think about that because it would have been so easy to have her joining, say, the feminist movement in Dublin and go up on a march. And I thought, you know, that's too easy. But also, historically, I mean, just to get her saying something unusual for a woman -- I mean, while she's quite independent, quite assertive in certain ways, I also wanted to have her not be so.
TOIBINBut I also thought it was an interesting thing my mother used to say, that idea that instead of being in an office and other people telling you what to do and your time not being your own and pushing a pen and adding up figures, suddenly you're in this space you fully control, that's your domestic space where you're perfectly happy. I thought it was just worth putting into the book as an interesting idea.
PAGEShe's very decisive as it turns out, makes quick decisions. And there's a point where her son is moved to a different class at school. She thinks this is wrong. She protests in the fiercest possible way and she threatens the teachers with something called a widow's curse. What is it that she said she would do?
TOIBINIn Ireland, there's a thing called a widow's curse. I mean, I think it belongs to the 19th century. And she really knows it's quite wrong and it really is inappropriate. But she just says to the -- she says to the teachers that, you know, she says she's going to put a picket on the school. She's going to put a lone woman outside of school with a big banner saying put my son back into the A class. And they -- and said if anyone passes me, if any teacher walks by me, I will curse -- I will put a widow's curse on the teacher.
TOIBINAnd Ireland is a funny country. People just would be fright, you know, it's not -- people wouldn't take that lightly. Although nowadays maybe, but I'm talking even in the '60s her threatening them. They say, oh, here now, that's very extreme, you know, a widow's curse. But there was a thing in Ireland, it's never here, called a widow's curse.
PAGEI'm unaware of the widow's curse.
TOIBINWell, a widow's curse would have particular power simply because it would arise from sheer powerlessness from pain, from some deep place. And once offered a widow's curse, you would run away if a widow began to threaten you with a widow's curse.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation. We'll go back to the phones, 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email, email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio is the author of "Nora Webster," it's Colm Toibin. He's the author of "The Master" and "Brooklyn." Let's go to the phones and take another caller. Peadar, I'm not sure I'm saying your name right, from Charlottesville, Virginia, thanks for calling us.
PEADARYeah, thank you, yes. My name is Peadar. It's a Gaelic name for -- version of Peter. And listening to Colm talking there today, it brings back a whole lot of memories because my mother, too, was widowed and outlived my father by five years. And I'm actually the oldest of 10 children so she had, like, five school-age children under her feet at the time my father died. And, you know, that was a very, very difficult time in our family's life.
PAGEAnd do some of these stories remind you of your own stories?
PEADARWell, indeed, we didn't go to a Christian brothers school, though. We didn't have quite the difficulties that some students did, but we went to a Jesuit school so we were very well looked after by the priests. In fact, at that time, what -- my own best friend had gone back as a Jesuit scholar -- teacher at that very school and looked after some of my younger brothers as they went through school.
TOIBINI mean, I think the issue for a woman who has lost her husband and has young children is very difficult as to how much you talk about it. Nowadays, I suppose, people have counselors and they have a whole maybe help system that would come from the community. But this is a recent thing. I mean, in the 1960s, people really had no idea what to do, I mean, how often to bring the subject up, how often to ask the children if they were okay, how to notice signs, for example, a stammer that they were not okay.
TOIBINAnd so what happens is a sort of extraordinary disconnection between what was being talked about and what was being felt. And the novel is a very good forum for that in that the reader can sort of know all the time how much they're feeling and then can notice how little they're saying about what they're feeling and the drama becomes that sort of distance between the two things, which I think -- I mean, maybe an Irish thing more than in other countries, but it's certainly something that happened, I think, to anyone who lost a parent in childhood, that they kept a lot of things in and that that affected the rest of their lives in various ways.
PAGEPeadar, thanks so much for your call.
PEADAR(speaks foreign language)
TOIBINHis name is Peadar.
PAGEPeadar, I'm sorry. My apologies. My mistake. There's not a lot of big catastrophic events. The death of the father, of course, but big turns, big plot turns in your book, a tornado never strikes, a child is never kidnapped. It's all offhand. It's subtle. One exception, toward the end of the book there is a vision that Nora Webster sees. Tell us about that.
TOIBINYou know, I realized that I needed to get something that would change her now. What I'm doing is I'm adding detail after detail after detail through her eyes so the reader is living within her and that is the drama, in a way, between things she's feeling, things she's saying, the inner life, the outer life. But as you say, it's not an adventure novel. You know, she doesn't suddenly fly off to America or win the lottery. I mean, nothing like that happens. It's a sort of slow way of -- what you're doing is a portrait of a sensibility in the same ways you could see a portrait in oil of a person and feel you knew them.
TOIBINBut to get her out of the book, to get -- to feel that something now has released her from these years where she still lived with this pain or this loss. And so I realized that one day, it was a Saturday, I was going to write it on the Friday night and I thought, no, you don't do that now. You go to bed early 'cause often writing at night, you put too much in. The morning is a more cold and severe time for work. Get up early and work all day. And it was August and I thought, and when you finish, the sea is down there, you can go down for a big swim, but not until it's all done.
TOIBINAnd it was where -- in some way or other, Morris was going to -- after the absence in the book, he's not there. You don't see him in the book. He's merely a palpable absence. He was now going to almost come to her. Almost speak to her. At least she thinks he's there and she keeps saying, Morris, can you stay a while and asks him questions about, will we be all right, will the children -- and he sort of half answers and half doesn't.
TOIBINAnd the thing is about writing something like that is even though, with the rest of the book, you can rewrite passages and you can add things, subtract things, you can erase things really. With this, you have to get it right almost the first time as though it's wet paint and it will dry and when it dries, it will be there forever like a fresco and therefore you have to really concentrate. This has to be happening in real time.
TOIBINIt's something you -- really, really takes a lot out of you. And so I did it that day and, of course, it started to rain outside and I realized it's Ireland, you know. I will never be able to swim now. But when I finished it, I went down in the rain to the beach and I walked about a mile in the rain and I said, I've done that now. That's done. I won't have to do that again in my life, write that passage, 'cause it was the most painful thing, you know, after all the years, they almost meet each other again.
TOIBINHe almost comes back to her. And I swam out. I mean, I didn't swim out into dangerous waters, but I swam out and stayed in the water for as long as I could and dried myself and came back home and thought, that's done now, you know. But, you know, sometimes you can, as I said, you can -- technically, you can work over a passage and sometimes some passages -- get them right the first time, concentrate, do it right.
PAGEEspecially a passage like that, such an emotional center. You know, one of the things -- and I did not realize that this happened with novels was Susan Casey, the producer of this hour, and I were reading an early version of the book, you know, galleys that the publisher sent us in preparation for this show, and some of the passages were different when the final book came out.
PAGEAnd there was one passage, in particular, that we had noted and then couldn't find in the final version of the book and I'm just going to read it and then you tell us what happened to this passage. Here's the passage that was in the review copy that we were sent. She says -- let me just find it here. "When the playing stopped and the song had ended, Lori did not move. Nora stayed still, too. In the silence of the room, it came to her how they would all take their turn in the world. Shadows within shadows, as mother had done and her mother had done, as all who came before her had done.
PAGEAs she had just now moved from breath to breath, from one sound to another."
TOIBINI thought it was too poetic and too easily, you know, philosophical. I wanted a much more concrete image there. And my editor in America, (word?) Graham, has a particular ear for that and we looked at that passage and realized, you know, it reads great. Leave it out because if you leave it, if you put it in, it's just too openly poetic and philosoph -- it's too easy. Put in a more concrete image instead of it.
TOIBINSo I mean, we did that a few times in the book. If something just looked like, you know, that looks like writing. It looks like a writer writing. Oh, my god, you must be very deep. Let the reader alone with your philosophical views on what life is and give them something that Nora did, said, thought or felt, something more concrete.
PAGESo show us, don't tell us.
PAGEBut is it hard having written that poetic verse...
PAGE...to then take it out?
TOIBINNo. It's ruthless. It's lovely. You feel just -- you can do it in one second. Just get a pen and just say erase and the minute you've done that, it's over as though it's never been there. No, it's not hard.
PAGEAnd even very late in the process, do that.
TOIBINWell, yes, between -- you see, the great thing about having a proof copy like that is that you're reading it as a book now. It's not on a screen. It's not a paper printout. It's actually like a book and you can see -- if I was reading this as a reader, I would object to this passage as a reader. So it's almost the first time you get that feeling of being a reader and yet you can make pretty interesting cuts at that point.
PAGELet's talk to Justin. He's calling us from Dallas, Texas. Justin, you're on the air.
JUSTINHey, Colm, good morning. I really enjoyed listening to your very accurate depiction of Dublin in the '60s. I grew up in (word?) in Dublin. But my question to you is how do you feel with in Ireland that the church and the state were so closely connected that -- how that might affect how people were treated, especially single mothers at that time.
TOIBINOh, I think that -- I mean, that has been the big change almost since then, the sort of separation of the church and the state. I mean, in this novel, "Nora Webster," because she's middle class, she has a very easy relationship with the church. But a nun, there's a nun in this book who spends her time, you know, getting things for Nora. When Nora has trouble at work, the nun goes over and deals with the whole problem. The nun gives her advice.
TOIBINThere's a whole sense of the church watching over everybody. And, of course, that can be nourishing and, as we know, that can also be really destructive. So it has been, I think, the big change between the Ireland of then and the Ireland of now, the way in which the church, in a way, has gone back into its own space. And, you know, for example, the idea that the church, whatever, it'd get involved with legislation or with interfering with government is really something that couldn't happen now, but certainly could happen then.
TOIBINAnd it blighted our lives, to a large extent, because we couldn't vote for them. We couldn't put them out of power. They just had this eternal power that they said came from God so you couldn't even argue with them. And it made for a very repressive society in those years.
PAGEJustin, thanks so much for your call. Let's go to Houston and talk to Brett. Brett, hi. b
BRETTHi. How are you?
BRETTGreat. I just have a comment. The widow's curse that you speak of, I've never visited Ireland. I don't know what the traditions were then, but it's biblical, it's from Deuteronomy, chapter 17, and it says something to the effect of whoever denies justice to foreigners, orphans or widows shall be cursed. So that probably was a very powerful thing not only in Ireland in the '60s, but, you know, in any Catholic country.
TOIBINThe good old Old Testament. God, that -- I didn't know that. Thank you very much for that.
BRETTSure. Enjoying the conversation, thank you.
PAGEBrett, thanks for your call. Let's go to Leann calling us from Miami, Florida. Hi, Leann.
LEANNYes, good morning, and to Mr. Toibin. I would like to challenge the gentleman on his statement that the republic of Ireland had really no interest or nothing to do with so-called troubles in Northern Ireland, which, of course, was a very gory, messy situation. The people who committed these terrorist acts simply walked across the border and were safe in Dundor (sp?) , north of Dublin, (unintelligible) no extradition for 70 years. The police in northern Ireland couldn't get these terrorists because the Republic of Ireland wouldn't have extradition.
LEANNAnd it didn't come in until the 1990s. And I think it was that that brought down the government in the republic because when they tried to get this priest, Brandon Smith, where he had people claiming of abuse, young people, he escaped down there. And when the (unintelligible) the paperwork, the government sat on it for seven months and the other side saw their chance and knocked down the government.
PAGELeann, thanks very much for your call.
TOIBINYes, you're absolutely right about that. I wrote a book where I walked along the border between the north and the south in 1986 and it certainly wasn't policed on the southern side as much as it was on the northern side. And in those border counties there was a great ambivalence, as you say, which, of course, lead to atrocity about the campaign of violence being conducted by the IRA and that lead, of course, to difficulties the Dublin government had over issues of extradition, as you say.
TOIBINSo I think everything you say is absolutely correct. Of course, eventually, the Dublin government, of course, did put great numbers of IRA people in prison. You know, there were prisons all over the Republic of Ireland for that, but it was never, ever as exact, in a way, as the British response.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've gotten an emailer. Here's Michael's question. He says, "I've read several of your novels and admired them. I'm from Northern Ireland. My question is this, you're gay and have been open about that for many years, which was a taboo in Ireland, north or south, until recent years. Did you come out to your mother? And if so, what was her reaction?"
TOIBINShe asked if I was happy, which is a really lovely thing to ask. Isn't it? Instead of saying how she felt, she asked if I was happy. And that's a hard question to answer. Happy. I said, well, I'm happy enough. And we looked at one another. But, you know, it really was, in Ireland, the entire gay movement came almost as part of the women's movement where women said, look, we have gay sons and we don't want our sons to be discriminated against in this way.
TOIBINSo the law, it took a long time for the law to be changed. It was changed by a woman minister for justice and she used, as her advisor, a woman whose son was gay and they really had to railroad this group parliament. I should say the debate in parliament wasn't long. She simply cleared the parliament building out of anyone with prejudice and just railroaded it through. She was a wonderful woman and from a very conservative constituency in the west of Ireland, you know.
TOIBINIt would not have been a natural thing for her to do. It was a very brave decision and that was done by women in Ireland and it made a difference to all our lives.
PAGEIt's so difficult to lose a parent when you're young as you did, as the characters in this book did. Did you feel this novel gave you a sense of closure about your childhood, about your own relationship with your mother?
TOIBINNo. It's not therapy. It's strange because your manipulations of material, you're putting structure on it, you're using it in a way. So it's not like getting it out of you so that you can get on and do other things or, you know, live without the memory of it. But I don't think I will go back to it again directly. I mean, this time around, I said, look, get it right this time exact as it was for those three years for you.
TOIBINMake up what you need to make up because you will not be able -- this is not the first novel of a trilogy, you know. In other words, this is the story, get it right. And so, but when I finished it, I didn't feel, oh, I have really now, you know, personally and emotionally finished with that. No, I didn't feel that.
PAGEColm Toibin, talking about his new novel "Nora Webster." Thanks so much for being with us this hour.
TOIBINWell, thank you very much, Susan. Thank you.
PAGEI'd like to note that the music we've been playing during the breaks, including this break, they're all songs that are used in the story as Nora Webster uses music to find freedom and independence. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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