Writing Wisdom from Colm Toibin

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the annual Birkbeck Man Booker lecture, this time featuring the highly acclaimed novelist Colm Toibin. In conversation with Professor Russell Celyn Jones, Mr Toibin spoke mainly about the processes of writing his latest novel, The Testament of Mary. My appetite is thoroughly whetted to read it now, and there were many moments of beautiful anecdotes, reflection and wisdom Рboth on writing and the creative life in general Рthat I will try to distill now, and add to if relevant. Mr Tobin is a wonderful raconteur and philosopher, with a great deal of Catholic learning; full of warmth and wit. I highly recommend hearing him speak where possible.

  • There is no such thing as a truly historical novel. There will always be some anachronisms, and contemporary concerns will always end up creeping in. That is not to say you should not strive to be convincing, but to forgive yourself if you find out retrospectively that you ‘got it wrong’.
  • Don’t worry (too much) about offending people with what you write. Someone is always going to be offended, potentially, and you can’t let that put you off.
  • When writing violence or scenes intended to evoke horror, simplicity and precision are often much more effective than simile and metaphor. Toibin gave the example of his depiction of the crucifixion – do you really need to compare the driving of nails through a man’s wrists to something else?
  • The same goes for sex. Make the reader feel/see/experience what is happening. Let them know what is happening, not tell them how it feels [for the character] – they should be able to work that out for themselves.
  • ‘Every sentence is a way of solving the problem the previous sentence has given you.’

Right, I’m off to buy my copy of The Testament of Mary. Over and out.