Toibin Tip on Writing at BC Forum: ‘One Detail Should Get You Started’

For award-winning Irish author Colm Toibin, writing is often about trying to distract readers from a story’s true destination, only to catch them off-guard when it is finally revealed. Toibin did just that last month at a reading before a packed Boston College auditorium, transporting his audience to the world created by his stories.

For the better part of two hours, Toibin had the members of the audience listening intently as he read from his story Two Women, a tale about a domineering set designer who is abruptly reminded of a past lover as she runs into a woman whom she never expected to meet.
The renowned author of Brooklyn, The Master, and The Blackwater Lightship, among other works, Toibin captivated his listeners with his decidedly Irish prose style and his bright, animated wit, drawing the occasional chuckle or reaction from a particularly intriguing passage.
Toibin laid out the origins of Two Women, which stretched all the way back to when he was 16 and first saw the work of Samuel Beckett. “It was sour, it was hilarious, it was meaningless,” Toibin said of seeing Beckett’s work acted out for the first time. “That was my introduction to Samuel Beckett, but it was also my introduction to that sort of acting.”
At the time, an Irish actor by the name of Jack MacGowran played one of the lead roles in the Beckett production. Years later, when Toibin overheard MacGowran’s widow speaking about her late husband, he was struck with the idea for Two Women, which was published this past January along with a number of Toibin’s other short stories in his book, The Empty Family: Stories.
“It’s a funny process,” Toibin said of turning a singular idea into a story. All it takes, he said, might be one abstract detail, one random event, or in this case, one snippet of a conversation.
“One detail should be enough for you,” he concluded.
For Toibin, the most important thing when writing is first to be able to grasp onto an emotion, and then “you turn it into something that you think will interest the reader.”
In response to a questioner asking if he ever became caught up emotionally in a plot, Toibin said, “The emotion is all mine. All I’m trying to do is communicate that to the reader in a way that is interesting. It’s there for me as I’m working and it’s going to emerge in the story.”
Asked how he first started writing Two Women, Toibin said that before he even sat down to outline the work, he would go around telling the story of MacGowran’s widow to friends of his.
“What happened was, I found myself telling people the story [prior to writing it]. What I did then was I worked on it over a long period. I wanted that last part to creep up on you.”
Toibin’s appearance was sponsored by the Irish Studies Department at Boston College as a part of its Irish Writers Series. Prior to launching into his reading, Toibin commended the department for keeping alive the bond between the university and Irish writing.
“The connection that exists now – a real connection between Boston College and Irish writing – it’s a very important connection and it matters enormously to us writers,” he said.