You Call It the Fall; We Call It the Autumn

by Jeanine Walker, WITS Program Manager

 

“What I want in a novel is for every character to have more than one characteristic,” Irish author Colm Tóibín told a room of sixty rapt 10th graders at Roosevelt High School this morning. He clicked his red glasses closed, which connected and separated in the middle to allow them an easy hang around his neck. If a character is mostly “bad,” he said, he should have a moment “of extraordinary kindness,” and if a character is mostly good? “I want them to steal.”

Supporting in his person what he demands of his characters, Mr. Tóibín gave a talk that highlighted opposites, the surprising side: the well-lit, filmed disappointment of not winning a prestigious literary prize he’d been nominated for; how a writer should do the cutting of words as he’s writing, not after; because there are too many novels already, no one will notice if you don’t work—but “no one else will write the book you will write.”

Responding to students’ questions, Tóibín revealed that his experience in not winning the Man Booker Prize—his first nomination, in 1999—heavily informed the first chapter of The Master, which the students, under the tutelage of their teacher Adam Karl, had read in preparation for his visit. In that section, the writer and protagonist Henry James learns that the opening night of his play has been a failure. “The build up of excitement,” Tóibín said—“I was using that experience of not winning the prize, and I gave it to Henry James.”

Further into the topic of how to create memorable and realistic characters, Tóibín used the example of a house. Instead of inventing a house, he said, use your own house or that of a friend, which will help you think about where the car is parked, what the doorknob looks like. And what are you doing when you do this? According to Tóibín, “You are anchoring emotionally by using details that are real.”

Due to Tóibín’s details—his comical imitation of an English accent, his story about finding the opening for The Master in a walk up the street in Italy, and even that he “still write[s] with one of these. It’s called a pen.”—the room of 15 and 16-year-olds became emotionally anchored. They asked questions about his inspiration, about how he structured a novel, about his daily routine, and about writer’s block.

To the last question, he said, “I think writers’ block is a kind of laziness…. It’s an invention, and there’s a way out of it: just simply describe yesterday and give it to your character.” Sometimes, half way through a book, Tóibín said, he’ll feel himself lagging. No one else will write the book if he doesn’t, though, so he has to, and sometimes deadlines, even self-imposed deadlines, work to that end.

At that point, he told the 10th graders, it can often feel like finishing a paper for school. “You can actually under pressure do an immense amount of work if you have no choice.” He adds, laughing, and with affirmation that this is easier said than done: “I just finish everything I start.”

Colm Tóibín will finish an inspiring day at Town Hall tonight, 7:30 p.m., as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Literary Arts Series. He will speak on the subject of the Irish Renaissance. Tickets are $15, $5 for students, and will be available at the door.

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