Saturday, January 23, 2016

Colm Tóibín / How I wrote Nora Webster

Colm Tóibín: how I wrote Nora Webster

The novelist on thinking about the book every day for a decade and how listening to Beethoven helped him capture a widow’s loss

Colm Tóibín
Friday 22 January 2016 14.59 GMT

wrote the first chapter of my novel Nora Webster in the spring of 2000, in the same season as I wrote the first chapter of The Master, my novel about Henry James. Both books dealt with a protagonist over four or five years. Alone in the world, both James and Nora Webster attempted to find a way out of failure or grief or loss. Although The Master required a great deal of research and Nora Webster almost none, I found The Master easier to work on, and easier to finish.
In Nora Webster, I was dealing with memory. The novel is set in Enniscorthy, in the south-east of Ireland, where I am from. Nora’s husband Maurice died in the same year as my father died. Maurice barely appears in the novel, but his loss lies between the words; he is there as a palpable absence. Our house and the streets of the town and the coast nearby operate in the novel almost as characters. I did not have to do any research to establish them. It was their resonance, their emotional contours, that interested me. I found as I worked that putting in the real name of a street, or the real configuration of a room, allowed me to release some set of coiled or contained emotions that would then anchor some scenes or passages of the book.

Memory, we are told, plays tricks, is filled with shadows and uncertainties. The problem for me, however, as I remembered those few years in that small house with my newly widowed mother and my younger brother, was that memory for me seemed exact, stable, sharp. That might be useful if I had to give evidence in a courtroom; it was pure hindrance, at least most of the time, when it came to writing a novel. I had to sift and distill what I remembered to find a shape for the novel.
The book came as the result of a battle between the night and the day. At night I would think of a scene that might work in the book. By the time I went to sleep I almost had it ready for the morning. In the morning, however, it did not pass the unforgiving test called the hard light of day.

For a decade I thought about the book at some point every day. I worked out a structure. Slowly, the character of Nora Webster herself began to emerge for me more clearly. I wanted her to be both brave and difficult, to be someone fiercely loyal to her children when there was a crisis, but oddly nonchalant in the ordinary course of events. Her sisters were afraid of her. There is a sense of her as trapped by her circumstances, in a small town.
In 2006, as I read over the first chapter, I found the story that became the novelBrooklyn in a few sentences in the first few pages. I stopped writing Nora Websterand wrote Brooklyn. A few years later, I wrote The Testament of Mary, both as novel and as play. I also wrote a short book and then a play about the Irish playwright Lady Gregory, also a widow in her 40s with an only son. I completed two collections of short stories – Mothers and Sons and The Empty Family. It seemed in all these books that I was circling the story that was Nora Webster’s, working out ways of writing about family and loss and trauma.
Colm Tóibín
Illustration by Triunfo Arciniegas

I noticed that there was very little fiction written from the point of view of a widow. I found two short stories about being a widow – “Happiness” and “In the Middle of the Fields” – by the Irish writer Mary Lavin, whom I had known when I was a student in Dublin, helpful, enabling. I found something also in the last section ofThomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks that interested me – the use of music as a way to inhabit loss, or to allow loss to have its full weight. I remembered my mother, who had very little money, getting a stereo and gradually buying classical LPs. There was one record that she played over and over – a recording of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio with Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukerman. I remember the sleeve of the album with a photograph of all three players. I found a recording of it and began to play it.
What I needed to do in the end was simply finish the book, try to merge ideas I had at night with work I did during the day. There was a scene I began to picture that would come in the last pages, because it allowed Maurice’s ghost into the book, would be the most difficult to do. I stayed on my own in Wexford, in a house near the sea, and began to prepare for it, reading the scenes where the ghost of Hamlet’s father appeared, and also the ghost scene TS Eliot’s Little Gidding. One Saturday in September 2013 I finished the book. I knew that while I had perhaps opened up this world for readers, I had closed it for myself. I would, I imagined, not come back to it again.
 Colm Tóibín will be in conversation with John Mullan at the Tabernacle, London W11, on 4 February, 7pm. Tickets £15.

Colm Tóibín / How I wrote Nora Webster
Colm Tóibín / Nora Webster / Reniew by Sebastian Barry

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