New York, Noo Yawk for Killings

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I wrote a piece for Killings (the blog of literary magazine Kill Your Darlings) on my eventful trip to New York City. It begins:

Like Loco, Pola and Schatze I was drawn to New York City to find a millionaire playboy. Wait, that’s not right. But in my nine days in NYC I did sometimes feel that I was acting a part in a movie. The island of Manhattan itself feels elevated somehow, surreal. In my photographs taken from the Brooklyn Bridge the city has a certain cardboard cut-out effect. I ran into the cultural ghosts of Ninja Turtles in Chinatown, Dana Barrett on Central Park West, King Kong on top of the Empire State Building, and Joe Buck next to a neon sign.

But the city is not elevated, isolated, a movie set. While I was there, very real events were occurring, and had occurred. People were affected by these, not just in New York, but around the world. So the city to me was both a hyperreal version of itself (and a trip often glosses over like a dream afterwards, too) and a place where, of course, people breathe and bleed.

I hope you’ll enjoy the rest by clicking here.

New York, New York

It’s election day in America and I’m about to go spend the day at MoMA. People seem a little anxious; here on the east coast they’ve just been through Sandy and New York City is only just beginning to get back to normal. Last night it was very loud on the Lower East Side when I woke up in the middle of the night, but it was kind of soothing since my first couple of nights were so quiet. Even though I’ve never been here before I knew it was unnatural.

I’ve had an amazing few days in New York. I might write about Georgia and the conference later, but ‘I’m in a New York state of mind’ right now. On Sunday I went along with the woman I’m staying with (who is awesome) to help clean up an artist’s studio in Brooklyn that had been flooded. It was devastating. She works with wood so there was a lot of warping, and mould. The water was brown and stinky so we had to wash and dry out everything. She’d been working on it for a couple of days and by the end of Sunday the studio was beginning to look like a studio again, with the help of many people. Her equipment was ruined, though. So sad. She wasn’t the only one in the building, either. Or, of course, in the suburb.

Anyway, I was glad I was able to do something, since I arrived just after the superstorm. I started my tourism proper yesterday by:

1. eating a cream cheese bagel where Harry met Sally
2. walking from LES to Times Square and buying MAC lipsticks (thanks to my friend Kate Middleton, who has made me determined to be a ‘lipstick-wearing person’)
3. ate at a Seinfeld-style diner and overheard many post-Sandy catch-up conversations
4. did an aerial yoga class
5. caught the subway, a bus and a yellow cab
6. saw Argo at the gorgeous Village East Cinema
7. went to The Strand bookstore (amazing)
8. celeb-spotted Jeff Daniels in dark glasses

Being in New York is not really like the abstract, piecemeal idea I had of New York. Yes, I relate almost everything to something in the cultural memory bank, but I never had a grasp on the grandeur of the place; actually being among those tall buildings. Also, the city belies stereotypes (so far) just as Paris did for me, in that the people seem very friendly: saying hello, smiling, talking, having a joke. I would say that the stereotype about New Yorkers always being in a rush, however, would be true. I don’t understand why there aren’t more traffic accidents! But it’s like a game you have to learn. As soon as you understand the logic of when to cross the road and how to react to a bike zooming past you, you can just fit right in.

Gerard and I were discussing the city the other night on the phone (he was here for a few weeks in 2010) and we agreed that there’s something surreal about it. When you’re in Manhattan it feels as though you’re apart from the world, almost like the island were floating a little above. Gerard said it’s a bit like one giant movie set, and I’d agree. The feeling doesn’t seem to be simply related to seeing the streets in films, but then maybe it is. Who knows how that accumulation of pop culture might affect your reactions? The film Metropolis was one of the first to enter my head when I arrived coming over the Williamsburg bridge. Then I’ve had flashes of Woody Allen (of course), the Nolan Batman films, Ghostbusters (especially with all the military vehicles in the street due to the relief efforts), King Kong and more. 

So on my list still is art deco (including the Empire State Building), seeing this David Hyde Pierce-directed play featuring Sigourney Weaver (and as my sister suggested, I should combing this activity with a trip to Dana Barrett’s apartment building in Ghostbusters), lots of art, and maybe some comedy…

Exquisite restraint for maximum expression: an interview with Colm Tóibín (part two)

toibincolm01Brooklyn
Colm Toibin (Aus, US)
Picador
9780330425612

Part one of this interview can be found here.

Tóibín has, to date, written or edited 21 books. I asked him which had been the most difficult to write, and which had been the most joyful. He said: ‘There’s a long story in the collection Mothers and Sons which I think is the best thing I’ve done, it’s called “A Long Winter”. And there’s a second story in that called “A Song”. “A Song” is probably only about six pages. And “A Long Winter” is probably 80 to 90 pages.’ The last time Tóibín was in Australia was when he wrote ‘A Song’. He would have a commitment, an interview like this one, ‘then I would go back upstairs, I would write another paragraph… it was on my mind so much and it came as though someone had opened a sluice gate and some water got out, and it kept coming out. And it was effortless, it was unbidden… I didn’t need it or want it, and I had an absolute compulsion to do it. And there it is.’ And ‘A Long Winter’ was possibly the hardest for Tóibín, as he ‘had to go back up into that landscape – the high Pyrenees in Spain, and really study it, trying to get all the details right. It was a very hard story. It also required an awful lot of work to make sure that it wasn’t tedious. Because it has all the ingredients of tedium.’

So does each story come in a different way? I asked. ‘Very much’ Tóibín nodded, ‘also in terms of how quickly it gets done or how lazy you get about it, how much you delay and don’t do it. All those sort of things.’ And Tóibín’s work has a lot of range, in terms of the setting. The story ‘The Night’ is set in Argentina. The novel The South is set in Spain. And then there’s The Master. But Tóibín said he thinks that’s now his territory, in those works. ‘There are a few recent stories that are set in New York, but they’re very much about outsiders in New York, Irish people in New York, people who don’t belong. I think that’s it now, I don’t think I’ll get any more places.’

In many interviews Tóibín does get asked about being an Irish writer, or a gay writer. I asked him how much he feels those aspects are integral to his work. ‘Well they’re fundamental, but then the page is not a mirror. So you don’t think about them.’ Tóibín said, in some ways, ie. if you’re a man or a woman, it has an effect on the way the world deals with you, but it isn’t as though it’s what you think of as you wake up in the morning. ‘It mightn’t effect how you deal with the page,’ he said, ‘if you’re writing a sentence.’ In a way it’s the writer’s job, according to Tóibín, ‘to get involved in areas of self-suppression and self-annihilation… whereby the page matters and you are the least burden on the page. But nonetheless, of course those things are important.’ I mention, for example, how Kafka’s context was important to the production of his work, it can’t be left out (writing in German in Prague, Jewishness) but knowing the context isn’t imperative to the reading of his work – it resonates through the internal states of his characters and the situations they navigate.

Of course, the writer has a life outside of literature – and literary influence. Art and music have both played a part in Tóibín’s creative life. He was an art critic for Esquire for three years, with a monthly column. You can find Tóibín speaking on Cezanne’s Route Tournante in the Guardian series ‘writers on artists’, here. Regarding art, ‘that business of looking very closely’, Tóibín said: ‘my eye has changed a lot in the last 20 years, so that I’m now terribly interested in a certain sort of minimalism. I’ve become fascinated by it. And there are a few painters especially – a Scottish painter called Callum Innes. There’s also Russian constructivist drawings, or even paintings, especially Mondrian. I mean, just the business of the line. And what the line can do.’

In terms of music, Tóibín was so pleased, when he got to Melbourne, to find the room had a CD player in it. ‘I’m coming from New York, New York to Auckland, so I had some CDs… I’ve been listening to Bach in the room, on my own CD. The radio is fine, even your iPod is fine, but it’s not the same as just putting on a CD.’ Tóibín listens to a lot of Bach, but no longer to any orchestral. ‘I can’t listen to Beethoven symphonies or Schubert symphonies but I listen to Beethoven chamber music and Schubert as well.’ He also listens to Irish ballads. But when writing – absolute silence is necessary.

Has writing changed for Tóibín at all, say, in the past ten years – with the internet, and the cult of the author? It sounds as though Tóibín steers clear of computers. He writes his books longhand, in an A4 size. And he thinks he was just getting started around the same time as the ‘cult of the author’. His first novel was published in 1990, ‘and I remember Ian McEwan said that when he published his first two books there was nowhere where authors were interviewed. And prose writers didn’t do readings. So you simply published your book and it was up to your publisher to market your book. But then somehow or other publishers got it into their head that a way of marketing a book was by the author.’ I wondered aloud at the authors who are naturally private or introverted, and how this part of the job (which is really quite contradictory to being in a room alone, writing) might affect them. As, I suppose, they have the right to just be their work. Tóibín agreed, to an extent. ‘You should havethe absolute right to become grumpy-boots, silent, difficult, combative.’ But it’s ‘become so normal’ to ‘do what your publisher used to do for you, which is sell your book.’

Tóibín really had the opposite problem, when he began: ‘when I published first, the book was published by such a small publisher in such a small way that everyone else was doing it except me. I watched what it’s like, if you’re on the other side of that, where your book and you are not at festivals, but everyone else is, and you’re certainly realising… no-one’s reading my book’. Tóibín never really recovered from that initial feeling of ‘oh wow, that’s a bandwagon actually I should get on’. If you’re not on it, he said, ‘you’re actually losing an awful lot, in that you’re not being read.’ Overall, Tóibín says, ‘I’m not sure it does any harm’. It’s part and parcel in the professional literary world, now. Tóibín also had the privilege, early on, of witnessing Irish writers who were ‘really superb readers of their own work’. Notably, Patrick McCabe and Anne Enright. ‘Therefore if you were on a platform with them, you were watching things they were doing with their voice and the audience – almost as actors, as performers. … you became much more skilled than you would have by being in that very good company’.

I felt very privileged to be in ColmTóibín’s informative and very pleasant company for an afternoon. Brooklyn is published in Australia by Picador.

Exquisite restraint, maximum expression: an interview with Colm Tóibín (part one)

Brooklyn
Colm Toibin (Aus, US)
Picador
9780330425612

Acclaimed Irish novelist Colm Tóibín was recently in Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival as well as events in Melbourne, including one for the Wheeler Centre. I caught up with Tóibín at his Melbourne hotel to ask him some questions about writing and his latest novel Brooklyn, which I recently had the pleasure of reading.

Brooklyn is a quiet and moving novel, about Eilis Lacey, who has to opportunity to move from her small Irish town of Enniscorthy, to Brooklyn, New York, leaving behind her mother and glamorous older sister. The book charts her journey – her adjustment, her job, relations to others, and romantic interest, Tony. Eilis is a memorable character, partly because she is unremarkable. Tóibín said part of the source for her character was literary: ‘there were a number of characters from the nineteenth century who interested me in terms of how they were created, one being Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, who seems the one always left behind, and the one who no one really thinks anything of. And yet because the reader is asked to concentrate on her, because the story is told through her eyes, then her desires become quite detailed, and absorbing.’

The other, he mentioned, is Catherine Sloper, in Henry James’ Washington Square, whose father doesn’t even think anything of her: ‘she seems a sort of dull girl’, and yet, Tóibín said, when you realise ‘the extent of her feelings,’ the novel gets interesting. So, too, then, is Eilis the girl who is more inclined to observe, than to sally forth. And this is very interesting, Tóibín told me, ‘because it’s the creation of a certain sort of consciousness in fiction … this is the girl who really wants to stay at home and be left alone’. So Tóibín prefers to ‘put the pressure’ on a character like Eilis, as opposed to her more confident and outward sister, Rose. ‘Her sister can go out and do all the brave things, but that business of inwardness of the self, the self alone, the self registering experience, the self as a noticer – all those things become her.’

‘Fiction lends itself to the powerless,’ Tóibín said, ‘in funny ways, so that if you were writing a novel about Napoleon … you’d certainly put it in his years of failure. You know, you’d have him on the island alone. Similar with Henry James, you have him on the years when there’s nothing much going on.’ And this is what Tóibín did, with his novel The Master, which has Henry James as its main character. ‘Fiction doesn’t really deal with triumph,’ Tóibín said.

I told Tóibín that this reminded me of a documentary I’d seen about a bullfighter, whose brother had given up his life to basically go on the road with his big-name brother, and look after him. I was so intrigued by the brother, how he’d come to his decision, what he felt – much more so than the bullfighter, who was the film’s focus. The brother would be that character in a novel. Tóibín said: ‘Yeah, I think if you’re a novelist and you look at a news photograph, you can’t really deal with the people in the main body of the photograph, but the blurred figure is the one you can most bring into focus.’

So does character generally precede the story for Tóibín? And does it differ, depending on the work? Tóibín had the story for Brooklynfirst, so he had to ask ‘what sort of character would she be?’ And *spoiler alert* ‘it all centred on the idea that she would be afraid to tell them when she came home that she was married. So that would mean then that she had to be someone who was timid, because if she wasn’t … she’d write home and she’d be open about herself.’ So Eilis had to be rendered the way she was, to make the story as poignant as it is. In this case, the plot dictated the character, for Tóibín. *spoiler over*

Tóibín’s writing style is highly praised. The Spectator said, on Brooklyn: ‘the writing is so transparent, so apparently guileless, that I kept wondering what trickery Tóibín had used to keep me so involved, so attached, so unaccountably warmed’. Tóibín prefers to think of it as being like ‘drawing in pencil’, or ‘listening to chamber music rather than just trying to “keep it down”’ (he whispered this last bit). But does that kind of writing come naturally? Or does it evolve through years of writing practice. Tóibín thinks style ‘is a DNA’. ‘I mean you can’t really change your style,’ he said, ‘you can try and make sure you don’t go into violent self-parody, by being seen to be so minimalist that you couldn’t read it because you’d think “this is just, someone being minimalist”.’ What he’s trying to do, he said, is make sure the reader doesn’t notice the writing, ‘so that after a page you think “what was it that hit me there?” And you wouldn’t really know.’

Tóibín is interested in poetry. He’s been reading two particular poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn, since he was 18 or 19, and has been thinking about them a lot recently: ‘I think both of them are really figures who are able to exercise an exquisite restraint on their material, while getting from that a maximum amount of expression,’ he said. A recent (but important) interest and influence is the American poet Louise Gluck. As a teacher, Tóibín is able to choose texts he likes to put on the course, and recently this has been Samuel Beckett’s Company, which he loves for the ‘absolute precision of it’. He’s also enjoyed and been inspired by the Irish novelist John McGahern, and ‘everybody, really’ from the nineteenth century – and also Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I asked Tóibín about Kafka, one of my personal favourites, as I’d read somewhere he liked him too: ‘Kafka’s a huge liberation when you’re a teenager, just the fact that the world is a sort of meaninglessly hard place, and you never know what’s going to occur next.’

When Eilis, in Brooklyn, is getting to know Tony, the Italian, the warmth toward him, along with the fear and fascination, is beautifully portrayed. From the novel:

‘The word that came to her as she looked down was the word “delighted”. He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but make that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow and nothing else.’

Tóibín said: ‘I think that she’s somebody whose affections would be won very, very slowly. She would not fall head over heels in love. But she would slowly realise that the attachment she felt was very deep, but she’s quite cold in other ways, so she’s complicated in that sense. But the thing about Tony of course is that he amuses her so much. And also, he’s so one dimensional. It isn’t as if there’s a complex character that takes loads of getting to know. It’s the opposite – as soon as she meets him he’s exactly who he displays. That for her is very unusual. He keeps no secrets. He makes it absolutely clear what he wants. And he’s funny. And he’s charming. And she thinks, surely, there’s something wrong.’ So often when they meet, Eilis is trying to locate something, a layer, that isn’t there.

You realise, though, Tóibín said, through their interactions, and even without seeing the world through Tony’s eyes, that ‘she must be attractive. You never know that up to then. Up to then you think she might actually go unnoticed, but you realise in the way he deals with her that he really, really wants her.’

Part two of this interview can be found here.