Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Week three: Colm Tóibín on the influences that shaped his novel Brooklyn

Late one night in the winter of 2006 in Ballyconnigar on the Wexford coast I went back to look at a short story called "House for Sale" I had written six years earlier. I had not included it in the volume of stories Mothers and Sons because I thought there was something hidden in it I could still explore. It described the atmosphere in our house in the autumn and winter of 1967 when my father had died and my younger brother and I were alone with my mother. It opened with a visitor coming and included a story the visitor told, put there for flavour, to create an ordinary, casual few moments, to make time pass. Now, six years later, this single story in the opening pages of "House for Sale" jumped out at me and became the basis of my novel Brooklyn.

The visitor was someone I actually remembered. I can picture her now quite precisely – her coat, her scarves, her hat, the expression on her face. I don't think she actually told the story that became Brooklyn, but someone else told it when she had gone. It was about her daughter. I remembered what was said enough to put it in the story. For it to become a novel, however, more had to happen.

I realise now that what happened to me in the six years between writing the short story and beginning the novel made the novel possible.

First, I had started to teach, which I had not done before. I had been two semesters at Stanford and one at the University of Texas at Austin, and each time had taught a literature class as well as creative writing. Teaching forced me to read very closely and to study structure and tone in fiction with slow deliberation.

I used novels such as Pride and Prejudice, George Moore's Esther Waters and Conrad's The Secret Agent and became interested in how the drama in each of those novels arose from ways of varying the tone, using solitude, say, and then a single encounter and then a crowd to build the story, display character. And how almost imperceptibly these books drew an arc and allowed this arc to govern emotion and plot.

Teaching creative writing was also helpful. It allowed me to see how much tiny decisions about detail could matter. It caused me to understand more fully how sentences were either dead or alive, that there was something in rhythm, even the simplest rhythm, that gave a sentence force. If it was missing, then there was nothing. A story could declare war, but if the rhythm were dead in the sentences, then you did nothing but hope the war would be over soon.

Also, I missed home. This was something I had not put much thought or feeling into before. At times I found America a strange, alien, hostile place. In the mornings I could feel desolate, abandoned. While this was not much fun at the time, it became useful when I started to write Brooklyn. I could not have written the novel – I would not have bothered – had the emotions surrounding exile and loss not been close to me at that time.

The third thing that happened was I built a house on the Wexford coast and started to imagine that I would spend most of my time there. The house was being planned and then built while I was teaching in Stanford and Texas. Now that I was back, I could start living there.

This was the place where we had spent two or three months each summer throughout my childhood, but we never went back after my father died. Much of Ireland has changed, but this place hardly at all. The same narrow lanes, the same cliffs overlooking the sea, the same smells, the same shape of the fields, the same wind at night. The strand as empty as it always was.

It was in this house that Brooklyn came then almost unbidden. It was as though the close study of novels in which life was restricted, and women, whose intelligence was apparent to the reader, were forced to make decisions, or had decisions made for them, had affected me deeply as experience. It was as though my own being away in cities that were new and strange to me, and my own dreaming about coming home to this landscape of childhood, had made its way to the very centre of how I see things and imagine things.

In any case, very quickly that night, I had the character and what would happen to her clearly and urgently in my mind. I saw a structure for it, and a tone, and a rhythm that I thought might do justice to it. All I had to do then was work.

Next week John Mullan will be looking at readers' responses.

Colm Tóibín

The GuardianTramp

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