Late in the afternoon on Feb. 23, as the students filed into Liza Wieland’s graduate-level creative writing class, Colm Tóibín didn’t have the same, serious expression as seen in the publicity posters for his talks on campus.
Instead his smile was inviting, he was shaking hands with students, introducing himself as they said their names. It was if as he didn’t want to assume that they all knew who he is. But they did.
They’ve been reading his works for weeks, studying the words, phrasing and story construction. And now they had the opportunity to speak to him about the craft for which he has been recognized numerous times in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Irish author Colm Toibin spoke on the importance of using memories in his writing during his three-day visit to campus.
"It’s been really important for them as young writers to see that living, breathing people actually do this,” said Wieland, an assistant professor in the English department, who recently published her own collection of stories, “Quickening.”
Award-winning Irish writer, Tóibín visited the East Carolina University campus for three days in February, leaving campus readers and literature students charmed -- from English graduate students who met with Tóibín and discussed the importance of voice and place in works to readers who are simply fans of his engaging storytelling.
Students in two of Wieland’s graduate classes read multiple works by Tóibín, including his novels, “The Master” and the “The Blackwater Lightship.” Both were short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. They also read “Brooklyn,” which was long-listed for the award and which was named the Costa Novel of the Year.
Born in County Wexford, Ireland, Tóibín explained to the students how he used a memory from his childhood as the basis for the latter novel.
“You go into your memory and see where that takes you,” Tóibín said.
“It’s about being a little boy who can’t stop listening to everyone talking and who remembers everything. And eventually when they discovered this, I was sent out. If anyone came to the house at all, I would remember everything and repeat regularly to anyone else,” he said, smiling. After his father died when Tóibín was 12 years old, a woman came over to visit his mother and she told the story of sending her daughter to Brooklyn.
After she left, “they began to talk about the woman, of course, and they told the story of how the daughter had come home and not told anyone she was married. But I had to add to it to give her a job, give her a romance,” he said.
Tóibín said his additions to the tale of the girl sent off to Brooklyn to find a better life didn’t mask the story for her family, who still live in the area where they grew up and where some of Tóibín’s siblings still live.
Talking with students about the craft of writing seemed to come easily to Tóibín. At Princeton University, he is the Leonard Milberg Lecturer in Irish Letters, teaching Irish literature in the English department since 2009.
“It’s a thing that’s sort of growing as a concept in the same way as say post-Colonial or African-American literature. In the same way, women’s studies in the 1970s grew. Increasingly, Irish studies is being taken as a separate module,” he said.
However after this semester, he’ll leave Princeton for the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing.
Colm Toibin hosts a book signing for fans of his work on campus.
Dominique Marshall, who is pursuing a master’s degree in English with a concentration on creative writing, said after the class that having the chance to speak with Tóibín was “absolutely helpful.”
She asked Tóibín how he builds upon the initial idea as he writes.
“I visualize the internal spaces so that the house, how the rooms are configured and where the light switches are so I have all that in my head. And sometimes I work from memory, using a real house, a real view from a window so that I don’t have to make that part up. It’s hard enough to make up the rest of it up,” he said. The students laughed.
Marshall said, “There are always things in the literature that you speculate about when you’re reading, so when you get to talk to the author, you don’t have to speculate anymore you get to know the thought process behind the writing. As a creative writing student, you get to glean from the writing process for that.
She added, “I think it helps in that when you understand that a paragraph that goes by quickly for you (reading) or that you spend a little bit of time on, then to know that there was some difficulty to get something across to the reader. It helps to know behind that thought process behind it.”
Tóibín enjoys working with students but admits it can be challenging.
“Sometimes when something works it’s great,” he said. “I know from my own point of view when I was a student, sometimes you’re so bored and other times you’re so excited. A funny mixture of loving a class and dreading a class, and it’s your job is to make sure they don’t dread you all the time.”
Tóibín encouraged the students to write in the voice that they know, using Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty as examples to questions about dialogue and dialects.
“My mother had two younger sisters, who didn’t marry until I was a bit older, so I was brought up with the three of them talking. A visitor would come to the house, and there would be four or five of them talking and I would be listening,” he said.
“You have to know (the voice) so well that you don’t have to think about it,” he said. “For example, if I set out to write an American character and I tried to get that, you’d think it was the funniest thing you’d ever read because it would be inauthentic. You’d say, ‘No one has ever talked like that. You’ve been watching the wrong television programs.’”
Tom Douglass, associate professor of English, said Tóibín was a wonderful choice as the first writer to visit campus through the new Contemporary Writers’ Series, sponsored by the ECU Office of Graduate Research and the Department of English.
“Colm Tóibín is a quiet writer of immense power. Things in his fiction walk up to you quietly and announce themselves in your heart and conscience with startling force,” he said.
“It is a notable event for ECU to have him visit us. He is a writer’s writer in the tradition of the Jane Austen, and Henry James, and the Irish champion, James Joyce,” Douglass said.
In addition to speaking to English classes, Tóibín also spoke on “The Art of Fiction” in an open lecture and presented a public reading at the Greenville Museum of Art. Several students gathered with faculty and staff at Joyner Library for a tea reception held in his honor.
“’The Master’ stole my heart,” Britney Smith, a graduate student in the creative writing program, told Tóibín.
Erin Warren, a graduate student in the English department, also praised the author.
“Your writings capture solitude so aptly, so honestly,” said Warren. “They capture loneliness so well. I’m just grateful to you for your writing.”
By Jeannine Manning Hutson, ECU News Services
Karen Shugart contributed.