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  • NYS Writers Institute

Colm Tóibín, interviewed by Jack Rightmyer

Readers of the Sunday Times Union were treated to a wonderful interview with widely-acclaimed Irish writer Colm Tóibín.

Tóibín will be our special guest at an event at the University at Albany:

7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3 Conversation with UAlbany’s Lynne Tillman Page Hall, 135 Western Avenue Downtown UAlbany Campus, Albany NY 12203 Free and open to the public. Masks required.

With permission of the Times Union, here is the Jack Rightmyer-written story.

Colm Tóibín on 'The Magician,' other authors' influence

Tóibín will speak in Albany on March 3 as part of the Writers Institute's spring program

By Jack Rightmyer

“Starting out as a journalist where I learned how to research and build a story based on facts has served me well because so much of what I’ve written evolves from my research and not just my imagination,” said Irish-born writer Colm Tóibín, who will be appearing on Thursday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. in Page Hall of the University at Albany downtown campus. The talk is presented by the New York State Writers Institute and is free.

He has published 11 novels, two short story collections, numerous essays and poetry. Two of his most famous novels have covered the lives of great writers: Henry James (“The Master,” 2004) and 1929 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann (“The Magician,” 2021).

“I had to be careful with the book about Mann. There was so much public turmoil going on during his lifetime in Germany with the first world war, the rise of Nazism, and the second World War. I wanted to keep the book intimate but with so much going on it could have turned into a blockbuster.”

In his research Tóibín discovered many similarities between the two writers. “They both lived secret erotic lives and were attracted to men. James lived during a time of peace, but Mann didn’t have that. It wasn’t possible for James to ever live an open life as a homosexual. If he had stayed in Paris it might have been possible, but when he returned to England in the 1870s, he was destined to be a bachelor. There was no other choice.”

Mann grew up in a conservative family in a conservative part of northern Germany. “Like James, Mann lived a life of caution. They were also bourgeois people and Mann liked his domestic life, being married and the father of six dynamic children.”

Tóibín wrote much of “The Magician” in Los Angeles where he lives part of the year and does much of his writing. In 1933 Mann went into exile from Germany and refused to ever go back, and after living for a time in Princeton, New Jersey, he eventually moved his family to L.A.

“L.A. is and was a city of foreigners filled with many people of different accents. When Mann and other Germans moved there in the late 1930s they discovered it was also cheap. These German immigrants fell in love with the weather, and the views of the ocean. They weren’t looking for another Germany.”

The years in L.A. were some of the happiest for Mann, Tóibín said. “Around 1941 Thomas Mann became heroic in this country because of his friendship with Franklin Roosevelt. He also went on tour throughout the country sometimes speaking to over 5,000 people about the importance of freedom and democracy and why America needed to defeat Germany, his onetime homeland.”

According to Tóibín, Mann’s speeches gave America the sense that the war was not just about defeating the Nazis but also about spreading the idea of freedom. “No one from Japan or Italy was going around the country speaking about winning the war. Mann’s books were also selling very well at this time. Most families in America had at least one Thomas Mann book in their home.”

Tóibín believes that Mann would have been content to live out his days in America and write, but McCarthyism began in the late 1940s and once again he was thrust back into politics. “He had gone back to Germany to speak, and the Americans didn’t want him to visit the Eastern Zone. Mann thought if he didn’t go, he would be perceived as a puppet of the United States. He told the government officials that German was spoken on both sides of the wall, so he went, and once he did that his days in America were numbered.”

The Thomas Mann Tóibín wrote about was a bit of a loner, but he was surrounded by six children with strong personalities and an independent wife in Katia Pringshem Mann, the scion of a wealthy and cultured Jewish family. “The book is really the story of a marriage, a strange and successful marriage."

Tóibín’s most well-known book was “Brooklyn” (2009), which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film. “Sometimes you can get a lot out of a little. That story came about from an oral history of Brooklyn when an old Italian guy said casually that back in the 1950s a lot of Italians were looking for Irish girlfriends. That wasn’t known in Ireland. If it was, every Irish girl would have left for America.”

Once Tóibín heard that statement much of the story began to come into place. “I thought I was writing an Irish book because the main character was the Irish girl, but I didn’t realize for so many Americans they’ve heard stories of their ancestors coming to this country with one suitcase and not knowing where to turn. That immigrant story seems to be imbedded in the memories of so many Americans, and I’ve had many people come up to me and say how their father is Italian and their mother is Irish.”

He was very happy with the film and felt it all came together perfectly. “I had the right screenplay writer in Nick Hornby and John Crowley was the perfect director who found those wonderful Irish actors. Saoirse Ronan was the perfect age to play the lead part.”

He is currently teaching two classes at Columbia University: One on Henry James and another on James Joyce. “I have no time to write, but I find teaching these two writers sharpens me in many ways, and I always get a lot of good ideas.”

Thank you to Jack Rightmyer and the Times Union.


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