Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Colm Toibin

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photo credit: Steve Pyke

Internationally acclaimed author Colm Tóibín talks to Open Book about writing short stories and creating emotional resonance in just a few pages. His newest short story collection, The Empty Family, was just released in Canada with McClelland & Stewart. Read more about The Empty Family in a recent Globe and Mail review.

Open Book:

Your second collection of short stories, The Empty Family, was recently released in North America. While you write in many different genres, you are most well known as a novelist. Will you describe how your experience of writing a short story differs from your process for writing novel?

Colm Tóibín:

For me a novel needs a sweep, like history. And a story is closer to a song, or a poem. It depends on rhythm and really depends then on one single scene, one moment, a holding of breath. I was always too nervous before to write stories, but I am trying more now.


The stories in The Empty Family have diverse settings, from present-day Ireland and Madrid to 1970s Spain or nineteenth-century England, yet there is a definite resonance between each piece. As you are writing a short story collection, how conscious are you of wanting the different stories to hang together and work off one another?


With Mothers and Sons, half way through it I had a title for the book, and then that title helped me to find a way out of some of the other stories or a way to focus them better. For example, in the long story "A Long Winter," I knew once I had the title that I could tell it from the point of view of the son. With The Empty Family, I had a theme for the book from the beginning, and it was about exile and return, and solitude and middle-age. The title came late in the day.


Writers of short stories must establish a strong sense of character in a brief period of time. Many of the characters in The Empty Family continue to haunt even after their stories are finished. What are some of the techniques that you use to make your protagonists so rich?


Some of the stories have been with me in one way or another for a very long time. Others are very personal. So there was a sort of intensity in the creation of them. I was working with as much emotion as I could gather and control.


"The Street," the final and longest story of this collection, is about a young Pakistani immigrant working in Madrid. Will you give us some background about this affecting piece?


I was using some of my own life in Barcelona when I went there at the age of twenty and was alone there; I was also using my own general uselessness and interest in being left alone. And I walked that street every day when I was in Barcelona over a few years and went to get shaved in one of the barber shops. And I talked to friends who filled in some of the detail. And I worked slowly on the story — it took a few years. I was also concerned at the view being taken of immigrants from an Islamic background — that they were somehow alarming. I suppose I wanted to show, dramatise, another aspect of their lives.


Short story collections don't sell as well as novels, and as a result publishers may be unwilling to take them on. Do you feel that the short story genre suffers in a market that favours long fiction?


I like that. It means when you are working on a story you are working on something which has no commercial value. You need to make it very good because it is only for the special few, the chosen ones who care.


Ireland has long been known for its writers. Is there much support for emerging and mid-career writers in the country? How do you think that inevitable cuts to granting programs will affect Irish writers and literature?


I’m not sure it will affect writing at all. There were schemes in place to help writers, but they are being slowly dismantled. I suppose some of us will leave the country, tip-toe out, and maybe that will be no harm.


What can you tell us about your next writing project?


I am writing a novel set in provincial Ireland in the late 1960s.

Colm Tóibín is the award-winning author of five novels: The South, winner of the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize; The Heather Blazing, winner of the Encore Award for best second novel; The Story of the Night; The Blackwater Lightship, which was a finalist for the Booker Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and, most recently, The Master, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

His non-fiction includes Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border; Homage to Barcelona; The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe; and, most recently, Love in a Dark Time. He is also the co-author, with Carmen Callil, of The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950.

He lives in Dublin, Ireland. Visit him at his website,

For more information about The Empty Family please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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