“She never said ‘America’ or ‘New York.’ she always said ‘Brooklyn’ like it was a country all by itself”
An Interview with Colm Toibin, Author of ‘Brooklyn’
To read a book by Colm Toibin — any book, and he’s written many — is to lose all sense of time and responsibility. Doctor appointments, grocery shopping, doing the dishes, picking up the kids — all can wait. (Well, perhaps not the kids.) Toibin is a wizard; his stories are spellbinding. Filled with heartbreak and hope, loss and recovery, exile and return, his themes are epic and timeless in scope, heartbreaking and bittersweet in detail. When reading Toibin, you feel as if he’s written only for you. Everything feels right, nothing is out of place. He is a storyteller of prodigious gifts.
In no book are these gifts on more abundant display than in “Brooklyn,” Toibin’s 2009 novel about a young Irish woman immigrating to 1950s Brooklyn. (Simon & Schuster has just published a new paperback edition timed to coincide with the Nov. 4 release of the Fox Searchlight film, starring a radiant and unforgettable Saoirse Ronan.)
The Brooklyn Eagle spoke recently by telephone with Toibin:
Eagle: Did you know from the beginning that your protagonist would be a young woman?
Toibin: My father died when I was 12. We were living in a small town in the southeast of Ireland. An old woman came to our house to pay her condolences. She told a story about her daughter, who had left Ireland to live in Brooklyn. She never said “America” or “New York.” She always said “Brooklyn.” Like it was a country all by itself. The way she talked about her daughter’s experiences there — working in a big department store on Fulton Street, marrying an Italian boy — there was something magical about it. I knew even then that one day I would tell that story.
Eagle: Even though she’s from a small Irish town (Note: In fact, Enniscorthy, Toibin’s own hometown) Eilis displays poise and purpose; she’s remarkably self-sufficient and resilient. Did these qualities always reside in Eilis, or did the circumstance of her going to America on her own bring them out?
Toibin: In a lot of Irish families, confidence in oneself is a given. Eilis is not afraid of people. In fact, she’s fearless in the face of most obstacles. Everyone who meets her in the book is aware of this fearlessness. And you’re right, she is self-sufficient, but what she doesn’t possess is self-consciousness. She’s not fully aware of herself.
Eagle: Eilis’ and Rose’s [Rose is Eilis’s sister, and a major character in the novel] leave-taking before Eilis’ crossing to Liverpool, then America, is low-key and played down to the extreme. Why?
Toibin: Because I realized that kind of scene wasn’t needed. It would have been so clichéd; we’ve seen it in so many immigrant-to-America stories. What’s left unsaid and undescribed is far more powerful.
Eagle: In your dialogue you capture beautifully the lilt and cadence of Irish speech. Did this come naturally?
Toibin: I was very conscious of not wanting to overdo it. I felt like my first readers would be the people of Enniscorthy, and I wanted them to feel I respected them. I didn’t want caricature. Just as a Southern author wouldn’t want to have his characters constantly saying “Y’all.”
Eagle: So you didn’t want Barry Fitzgerald in “The Quiet Man”?
Eagle: Finally, how did you become so familiar with Brooklyn in the ‘50s? What were your research sources?
Toibin: I read a book called “Brooklyn: An Oral History,” which was invaluable. For example, an Italian fellow in the oral history says, “I always wanted an Irish girlfriend. Because I knew my mother would approve; an Irish girl would be Catholic, she’d speak English, she’d be assimilated. Which would help me be assimilated.” I used this in my story with the character of Tony, Eilis’ Italian boyfriend. The other thing I got from the oral history was how much Brooklyn loved their Dodgers; it was almost BD and AD (after the Dodgers left for the West Coast in 1957.) That’s why I make Tony and his friends so crazy about the Dodgers. And why he insists on taking Eilis to Ebbets Field as a rite of initiation.
Eagle: Do you know, when Pete Hamill was once asked who were the three greatest villains of the 20th century, he replied: “Hitler, Stalin and Walter O’Malley.”
Toibin (laughing): No, I hadn’t heard that. But it sounds right coming from a Brooklyn man!
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