Colm Tóibín Q&A: “I’m not sure I think at all – it doesn’t get me anywhere”

The novelist talks Mary Tudor, Jesus and America’s foolishness.

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Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Ireland, in 1955 and began writing aged 12 after his father died. His first novel, “The South”, was published in 1990. His novels include “Brooklyn” and “The Master”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Summer dresses; women’s voices.

Who was your childhood hero, and who is your hero now?

My childhood hero was Jesus. Now? How do you replace Jesus?

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

I am not sure I actually think at all. I mean, I try, but it doesn’t get me anywhere. So I don’t read books to change my thinking. For something I am working on, I have been reading some German philosophy – Hegel and Schopenhauer – but often find that I like a phrase or a sentence for its poetry or its shape and lose interest in its meaning. I know this is very wrong.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

I used to like Juan Carlos of Spain, the king, because he slyly introduced democracy and saved a lot of mayhem in his own country. But then he went to the dogs.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Mary Tudor. I know that she burned too many heretics and got bad press for being dour. But it must have been no fun witnessing the arrival of Anne Boleyn and the destruction of the monasteries and the horrible treatment of her mother. If she had lived longer England might have returned to the one, true church, and that would have been a good thing. The idea that the monarch is also the head of the church in England must be one of the craziest ideas ever. I am sure that it does no good either to God, such as she is, or man, such as he is.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Who would not want to be an Edwardian? Think of all those long journeys by ship.

What TV show could you not live without?

I live without all TV shows and intend to continue like that. Imagine watching TV!

Who would paint your portrait?

Lucian Freud would have been fun. Especially if I was big and really fat.

What’s your theme tune?

“Ich Habe Genug”, sung by Hans Hotter.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

A friend told me to write comic novels. Oh, I tried. But they got all sad very quickly.

What’s currently bugging you?

What is happening in Poland and Hungary.

What single thing would make your life better?

If America got more sense. I don’t just mean Trump. Why is America not smarter about guns, social welfare, equality of opportunity, race, police, wars? Who gave it permission to be so dumb?

When were you happiest?

Last summer on the beach with my boyfriend.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I would like to have worked in the Irish civil service – department of education or department of justice, prison reform. Or maybe department of transport, trains and road safety. Or policy on islands or cities.

Are we all doomed?

Well, I am. And so, for that matter, are you. 

Colm Tóibín’s “House of Names” is published in paperback by Penguin. He will be in conversation with Tom Gatti at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 1 June.

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman