A Q&A with Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is a bestselling Irish writer, known for his works of fiction. He is the winner of a swathe of literary awards and has long been a favourite with Readings customers. He often uses his home, County Wexford, as the setting for his novels, but his work covers some wide terrain, from an intimate portrait of the novelist Henry James, The Master, to a retelling of the legend of Oresteia, House of Names. Joe Rubbo, Readings managing director, asks Tóibín about his latest novel, Long Island, which returns to the story of Eilis Lacey, the protagonist from his acclaimed 2009 novel, Brooklyn.

What compelled you to return to Eilis’s story?

I had no interest in writing a sequel. The novels I love best depend on having no sequel – Pride and Prejudice or The Mayor of Casterbridge or The Portrait of a Lady or Ulysses. As a reader, you have to imagine the aftermath, or let it float away undescribed.

But then I got an image, an idea, a sort of rhythm, for an opening scene. And all my scruples faded fast.

How do you think life in America has changed her?

I think motherhood has changed her. And slowly, almost without noticing, she has become more interested in finding out how the world works. She reads the newspapers and enjoys voting against Nixon.

Brooklyn is told exclusively from Eilis’s perspective. Much of the tension and energy from the novel lies in the dichotomy between her thoughts and her actions. Whereas in Long Island the point of view oscillates between a few of the characters. I was wondering how and why you settled on this structure for Long Island?

There are things in Long Island that she doesn’t even guess. I cannot dramatise this if I have everything from Eilis’s perspective alone. Also, I felt that the idea of homecoming was understood by the reader and I wanted some variety in the narrative.

Without giving too much away, the novel begins with a scandal that sends Eilis back to Enniscorthy. Aside from a new chip shop, how has the town changed in the 20 odd years since Eilis’s departure?

Yes. Nancy’s daughters, especially Laura, might be a new kind of generation, with more opportunities and more confidence. The idea that teachers in a town would socialise in an old bar might not seem like change, but it was. You see at the wedding the distance between one side which is old-fashioned and the other that is more modern.

Through your novels, you have become a great chronicler of County Wexford. Just like Eilis, you have spent many years living abroad. Is it easier to write about, or understand, a place if you have spent some time away from it?

1976, the year of Long Island, is the last year, I think, when I have a full and complete view of the town. So, I am working from memory and from observation. By now, I have five novels set in Enniscorthy or on the Wexford coast about 10 miles away – The Heather Blazing (1992), The Blackwater Lightship (1999), Brooklyn (2009), Nora Webster (2014) and Long Island (2024). In Long Island, Nora Webster makes a cameo appearance, as does Lily Devereux and her mother from The Blackwater Lightship, and there is a glancing reference to the judge in The Heather Blazing.

Your characters are always so well drawn, driven by feelings they themselves don’t fully understand. What was it like to return to them after all this time? Did any of them surprise you?

Yes. The mother, Eilis’s mother, has become angry and almost devious. Twenty years earlier, she was more gentle.

Like in Brooklyn, Eilis is confronted with a choice that would change her life irrevocably. What is it about the alternate life that is so intriguing to readers?

In this case, one of the other characters has to make choices too. I think all of us wonder what might have happened had we made different choices. It is one of the great subjects.

Lastly, have you been reading anything that you can recommend to our readers?

Two brilliant new Irish novels – Soldier, Sailor by Claire Kilroy and Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan.

 Read review
Cover image for Long Island

Long Island

Colm Tóibín

In stock at 8 shops, ships in 3-4 daysIn stock at 8 shops