Edinburgh Book Festival: Colm Tóibín

Colin Griffith is the Publishing Director for Tethered by Letters. He received his undergraduate degree in 2012 from Kenyon College, where he studied English with an emphasis in film. Focused on fiction and nonfiction alike, he’s especially fascinated by science fiction, horror, and cultural commentary. In addition to editing and publishing TBL’s quarterly journal, Colin writes fiction reviews for the TBL website.

Edinburgh Book Festival: Colm Tóibín

by Colin Griffith

Tethered by Letters kicked off its Edinburgh Book Festival experience Tuesday with a talk by acclaimed Irish author, Colm Tóibín. Tóibín has been awarded or shortlisted by a variety of literary prizes, bringing to Edinburgh no shortage of prestige. Neither is he short on literary insight, as demonstrated by his talk on Tuesday.

Tóibín’s appearance comes on the heels of his newest novel, Nora Webster. The novel follows an Irish woman through the process of bereavement as she attempts to deal with the recent loss of her husband. Tóibín openly recognizes the novel as autobiographical, recounting his own experience of the loss of his father at the age of twelve.

Nora Webster represents something of a return for Tóibín, a reclamation of Ireland as setting and Colm Toibinbackdrop that recalls his brilliant 2000 novel, The Blackwater Lightship. Tóibín again finds his subjects dealing with loss, grappling with the memories that inhabit the Irish coastline like stubborn and unmoving ghosts. He describes his settings as being “filled with absences,” and one feels the substance of each loss dripping from his steady prose.

Tuesday’s talk was lead by Hermione Lee. Lee expertly guided the conversation from Tóibín’s new novel through the writing process and elements of style and structure rarely discussed by authors of Tóibín’s stature.

Listening to him speak, Tóibín strikes me as a deliberately thoughtful writer, someone who considers the implications—both emotional and universal—of every idea and every sentence. The English major in me was delighted by Tóibín’s eager exploration of theme and language, and I felt myself wondering at his earnest descriptions of the frustrations of writing.

In particular, I appreciated a moment near the end of the talk when Tóibín attempted to describe the inherent problems of incorporating historical and political elements into his narratives, which are otherwise deeply personal. He claims that he can only write about history once it’s finished, that a measure of perspective is required to adequately observe events as monumental as the Irish Troubles. This struck me as a rather unpretentious way of recalling James Joyce’s struggles with his nationality and sense of place.

As an editor, I also enjoyed Tóibín’s reflection on the process of writing and the limitations of language. He described writing sentences as the process of solving a problem that you create with each previous sentence. At Lee’s prompting, Tóibín explained the sparseness of his prose, stating that the idea of writing eloquently on purpose is a great way for a writer to get into trouble.

Writers, take heed.

Tóibín’s talk was a great introduction to the festival for me, especially as a former student of Irish literature. Check back for more updates from the Tethered by Letters staff as the festival progresses.

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