Colm Tóibín and Belinda McKeon discuss writing about Ireland, living in New York, and the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger
Although the novelist Colm Tóibín spends part of the year living in Manhattan—the author of Brooklyn has no interest in moving to the writers' borough—in fact, speaking last night in Midtown, he expressed little affection for the city, instead projecting benign and cheery indifference.
"I don't really notice New York," he said. "I'm sure it's nice. I saw it in one of those Woody Allen films; it looked tremendous."
Tóibín, a two-time Booker Prize finalist, is well known to American audiences for novels like The Master, his celebrated fictionalization of four years in the life of Henry James, a favorite for book groups everywhere.
Noreen Tomasi, the Center's executive director, had introduced the writers to a crowd of perhaps 75 who filled the building's second-floor reading space, which resembles nothing so much as a fairly opulent private library.
To get to the Center, you walk through the heart of the Diamond District on 47th St, where in the evening the area turns over, tries on its evening clothes. Hasidic men close up their shops while a few shoppers linger, hoping perhaps for an end-of-day deal.
The Center would be easy to miss amid the bustle, save for a couple racks of discount books outside and the narrow, eight-story pale-gray stone building, with "Mercantile Library" carved high above the doorway in antique script, which is arrestingly beautiful.
McKeon, who has lived in New York with her husband for several years, is a generation younger and is less well-known, though she has earned notice for her debut novel, Solace, which charts a Ph.D. student's life in Dublin dealing with writer's block. (Like Toibin, she is a playwright, and is currently under commission to Dublin's Abbey Theatre.)
Both writers split their time between Ireland and New York, and so the evening's discussion flicked between some of those writerly perennials: homeland, how a sense of place influences work, the dislocation of travel and living abroad. (Both said they find it easier, even necessary, to write about a place when they're not there.) McKeon, who pronounced her counterpart's name (correctly, though it's not often heard correctly) "Col-um Toy-bean," opened with a joke about the two comparing their visas in the green room. Tóibín quickly picked up on the remark: "Who has the biggest visa?" he cracked.
Toibin stipulated that, owing to his profession, which keeps him indoors much of the time, he observes little of New York's fabled glamour. This is, in part, a function of opportunity, but it also appears to reflect something in Tóibín's nature, which comes across as good-humored, a touch self-deprecating, but wizened and not easily bowled over.
In fact he had a monkish aspect, with his long face, his bald head encircled with a crown of silver-grey hair, and his tendency to settle into expressions of ponderous solemnity. Sitting in front of a microphone on the dais, his thin black tie pulled loose (if it was ever cinched tight at all), a pair of red-frame reading glasses hanging around his neck, he looked like an exhausted college professor.
Tóibín read from a novel-in-progress, one that he seemed determined, and even a little desperate, to finish. Set in 1968 and centering around some teachers (the scene he read described a music lesson but didn't offer a sense of the overall work), the book has been long in gestation: Tóibín began it in 2000, around the time he started The Master. At the time, he wrote the first chapters of both books. But the 1968 story "was too personal," he said. He set it aside and went on to finish The Master, which, after being published in 2004, earned a raft of awards and shortlistings, becoming something of a breakout book for the author, despite being his fifth work of fiction.
"I've been adding to it regularly," he said. "And now I'm going to finish it. I better get it right this time because I've been at it all my life." Tóibín also has a volume of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, arriving this summer.
Quick-witted and speaking fluently about her work, McKeon effected an air of someone who, with a few laurels under her belt, is settling into the rhythm of an established writer's public life. She had close-cropped, wheat-colored hair, a slight overbite, and wore a black blouse, black knee-length skirt, brown ankle-boots, and a tailored gray jacket. A string of silver dangled from each ear. When she read from her novel, she did so with verve and the subtle modulations of someone who's spent time around the theater, despite a few stumbles.
Their conversation frequently traced back to their Irishness, not only what it means to be an Irish writer but to be one today, in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, Ireland's spectacular '90s economic boom and the accompanying bust of 2008. McKeon spoke about renting a writing house in "a ghost estate," an unfinished development. It seemed, she said, like a charming idea at first, but one that quickly turned out otherwise.
"Nothing about being home in Ireland at that time was comforting or familiar," she said, adding that the sense of alienation made for darker work. (John Jeremiah Sullivan recently wrote about Ireland's abandoned housing developments in The New York Times Magazine.)
"Now we're disgraced," Tóibín added, but tempered, saying "everyone's more content in an odd sort of way." The two writers went on to joke about how, during the boom years, Dubliners became known for their fascination with champagne and designer clothing—an interest that made them the subject of satire, while also earning some hostile admiration for their trendsetting.
The boom years were a bit too unreal, both agreed. Still, the disaster that followed has prompted sober reflection, and both writers indicated that it will influence their future work (even though Tóibín has never written about Dublin, where he lives part of the year).
"Ireland looks at itself now," McKeon said, "and people try to figure out what happened."