Colm Toibin's books include the novels The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, Nora Webster and Brooklyn, the short-story collections The Empty Family and Mothers and Sons, and several works of non-fiction. He is a three-time finalist for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the International Dublin Literary Award. His latest novel, House of Names, a retelling of the myth of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, was recently published by McClelland & Stewart.
Why did you write your new book?
I like the idea of the blurred figure in the photo, the person at the edge of a story. Although I thought I knew the story of Electra, I simply had not read a late play by Euripides called Iphigenia in Aulis. When I did, it gave me a new way of looking at Clytemnestra, Electra's mother. I began to work on a version of the story, told from Clytemnestra's point of view. Once that was done, I saw it was not enough. The figure of Orestes, Electra's brother who killed his mother, remains shadowy. He returns from somewhere in the plays, but where has he been? I began to imagine a life for him, a childhood, a way of being in the world, oddly passive and uneasy, watchful, easy to manipulate. I became fascinated by him then as I set about building a character who is not a psychopath but who is willing to murder his own mother.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
I would like to be Joseph Conrad in about 1894, my years at sea all done, many stories in my head, wanting only peace and quiet to write them. I know he's not fictional, and if I can't be him then I would like to be Marlow, his salty alter ego.
Which book got you through the darkest period of your life?
Some poems: one by Rilke called Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes, which sees death as a sort of completion; Byzantium and Cuchulain Comforted by Yeats, which also deal with death; Obit by Robert Lowell; North Haven by Elizabeth Bishop; On His Deceased Wife by John Milton; This Living Hand by Keats.
Which books have you reread most in your life?
Hamlet; Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady; James Joyce's Dubliners; Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier; Conrad's Heart of Darkness; Sylvia Plath's Ariel; Wallace Stevens's Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.
What's the best death scene in literature?
The death of Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady manages to be fully secular and worldly while also allowing for the possibility of soul and spirit. It is filled with a longing for love and for life, and seemed to see death almost as a part of that.