“A lot of things interest me,” says Colm Tóibín, the critically acclaimed and bestselling novelist, journalist, essayist, playwright, professor of English literature, and librettist who lives in Dublin, in a bold understatement. The image of the writer as contemplative loner tucked away with fingers tapping all day does not fit Tóibín, who says, “Some writers are nourished at home, quietly listening to music. I get nourished by doing things, seeing things.”
His years in Barcelona in the 1970s produced the award-winning novel, The South, and Homage to Barcelona (both published in 1990), while his journalism from Africa and South America was collected in The Trial of the Generals. Brooklyn and The Master, two of his most acclaimed and best-known novels in the United States, are about the expat and emigrant experiences writ large. This summer he is spending time in Boulder, Colo., where The Master will be produced as an opera with a libretto that he has written. But for his newest novel, Nora Webster (Scribner, Oct.), the peripatetic writer has returned to the place of his birth, County Wexford in Ireland.
Tóibín’s seventh novel introduces Nora Webster, a fiercely compelling young widow and mother of four. Running short on money and grieving the loss of the love of her life and the man who rescued her from the stifling life to which she was born, Nora is blind to her young sons’ needs as she struggles to overcome sorrow and find hope and solace. Tóibín has an almost uncanny ability to portray women, evidenced in Brooklyn and the collection of stories Mothers and Sons. Tóibín attributes this to being brought up by his mother and surrounded by women. His father died when Tóibín was only 12 and his mother had a sister who didn’t marry until much later in life, so Tóibín lived in a home with “women talking, women watching over me.”
The publisher’s jacket copy for Nora Webster calls Tóibín “a writer at the zenith of his career,” and indeed, with the triumph of The Testament of Mary, a bestselling novel and Broadway play that offers a bold interpretation of the mother of Jesus, Tóibín is attracting ever-increasing rave reviews and multitudes of readers. Asked if he himself noticed the uptick in attention, Tóibín is adamant in his response, saying, “If a writer starts thinking about his career rather than the next sentence, he is doomed.” He insists, “Books must be written in silence, in a sense of modesty.” And he adds that a writer must be able to laugh at himself.
Perhaps this humility allows him to be undaunted by the prospect of participating in this morning’s Author Breakfast, where he will join the stage, television, and screen stars Alan Cumming, Lena Dunham, and Martin Short (8–9:30 a.m., Special Events Hall). Tóibín believes that the organizers “sensibly wanted to mix it up with voices from there and there and there.”