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Colm Tóibín on Writing His Long-Awaited Sequel To Brooklyn

Posted on 16th May 2024 by Anna Orhanen

In 2009, Colm Tóibín's novel Brooklyn captured the hearts of countless readers with its story of Eilis Lacey – a young Irish woman who emigrates to New York City – and the same year the book was crowned as the winner of the Costa Novel Award. Now, in Long Island, Tóibín continues her story, and in this exclusive piece the author meditates on the role of a plot in fiction and the experience of writing his new novel. 

Before I wrote Long Island, I had started to wonder about plot. What is plot in a novel? Why have my novels, in general, no plot? Why do they concentrate more on creating an atmosphere using rhythm and understatement, with much left out, much implied?

I am interested in character, but more concerned with a configuration of characters and the drama that can be wrested from that. But would it not make sense if I added plot?

In Edward Mendelson’s book Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers, there is an essay on William Maxwell, who was a fiction editor at the New Yorker magazine from 1936 to 1975 and author of short novels such as They Came Like Swallows and So Long, See You Tomorrow. The essay begins: ‘In the nineteen-forties and fifties a new style of novels and short-stories – plotless, undramatic, quietly nuanced, faultlessly phrased – became dominant in American literary fiction.’

There was often a sadness about these works of fiction. They worked by implication; sometimes they ended oddly, with an ambiguous image, a moment calculated to suggest the sheer strangeness of things.

There was one single paragraph in Edward Mendelson’s essay on William Maxwell that stayed in my mind and that I returned to again and again: ‘All of Maxwell’s novels have a story but no plot. A plot is the means by which fiction portrays the consequences of actions, but it is not like a pool table; one event never mechanically causes another. In a plot each event provokes other events by making it possible for them to happen – possible but not inevitable, because human beings are always free to choose their response to provocation. Maxwell succumbed to an error common among writers who organize their work for the finest possible rhythms and textures: the error of thinking of plot as mechanical and therefore trivial. As he explained to John Updike: “Plot, shmot.”’

What can be done with plot? What novel has the best plot? What novel has the most exciting opening that will have serious consequences? What about chapter one of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge? It opens: ‘One evening of late summer, before the present century had reached its thirtieth year, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors on foot.’ By the end of the chapter, the man has put his wife up for sale and she has been bought by a stranger.

No matter what else happens in the novel, this will have consequences, but ones that are not inevitable. The longer the novel goes on without dramatizing these consequences, the more compelling the consequences become. Thomas Hardy loves fate and chance, but he is also intrigued by oddness, by willfulness, by what his characters cause.

And then there is Joseph Conrad’s Victory, his last great novel. In a small island in the Malay Archipelago, Axel Heyst is living in isolation with only a servant for company. But once his detachment from the world erodes even slightly, there is an opening for the novelist. Part of the richness of the plotting of Victory is not merely its story – the things that happen – but the way in which the same events are described from several perspectives, as though perspective itself is a kind of consequence, the result of an action, but also, of course, the cause of another action.

In the winter of 2005 I wrote a piece of fiction that had a plot. Someone had told me a story. It was about a woman in the high Pyrenees who, one day in the early 1950s, walked out of her own house having had a row with her husband. She began to walk to her own village, where she was born. It was a mild winter day, the sort of day that can be dangerous in the high Pyrenees. Snow can fall fast, coming as if out of nowhere. The woman got lost in the snow. Her body was not found until the spring.

That was all I knew, all I was told. It was enough, because it would have consequences and I could imagine them. That was my job, if you can call being a novelist a job.

As I worked on the story – it was called ‘A Long Winter’ and is included in my book of stories Mothers and Sons – I knew that it would not be enough for me just to evoke an atmosphere, describe the woman’s marriage or that landscape. I would need to finish the story, tell what happened next. How did they find her? Who went to look for her?

Rhythms and textures would not do on their own. The woman went missing in the winter; she was found in the spring. It was like a ballad. I thought of keeping the story – it is 25,000 words long – close to a folk tale and then making sure that the consequences of the woman going missing would not be predictable. I left my human beings free to choose their own response to provocation. But everything that happened led to something else. At times, the most important thing was to slow down, let creation of pure atmosphere – what William Maxwell is so good at – work at keeping the reader in suspense.

Keeping the reader in suspense? Can you really do that still in fiction? The Mayor of Casterbridge was published in 1886; Victory in 1915.

As I was musing on all this, unsure as usual, and was walking along the street – this was just as the pandemic was descending – I got an idea for an opening few pages of a new novel. And the image that came into my head was an action, and the novel would be its consequences. I would be writing a book with a plot. It would be called Long Island.

When I finished writing the novel in January 2023, I felt the same as I did when I finished ‘A Long Winter’ almost twenty years ago. I felt: I will never be able to do this again; I will never get a plot like this again; soon, I will go back to creating an atmosphere, working on rhythms and textures.

I don’t know why a novel with a plot you have invented from scratch seems like something lucky. All I could do was take it when it came.

And all I can do now is accept the sad fact that it is done. The time I was working on it won’t return. But maybe that feeling of sadness is a feeling that will go away. Or maybe it will even have consequences. Who can say?

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