Irish Writer Colm Tóibín With Eleanor Wachtel

The Blue Metropolis Literary Festival has grown tremendously in popularity since its inception in 1999. Not only have pre-festival ticket sales soared, but so has the festival’s ability to draw internationally acclaimed writers. On Thursday night, the Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix was presented to Colm Tóibín before a sold-out crowd at the Bibliothèque Nationale. The prize and $10,000 purse are awarded each year to a world-renowned author in recognition of a lifetime of literary achievement. The Irish writer is no stranger to literary awards, having won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Man Booker Prize, among many others.

Best-selling Canadian author and jury member Claire Rothman Holden told the audience how the jury had selected Tóibín over the other illustrious contenders, which included Barbara Kingsolver, Orhan Pamuk and Rohinton Mistry. It was in part the writer’s versatility. In addition to being a novelist and short story writer, he is an essayist, poet, literary critic, playwright and journalist. “It was also the ease with which he writes, and the fact that he has accomplished all of this before the age of 60,” said Rothman Holden.

After the formal award presentation, Tóibín was joined on stage by Eleanor Wachtel, the host of CBC Radio’s “Writers and Company.” It might be assumed that a man named one of Britain’s top 300 intellectuals would be a snob, but this was not the case. With a keen sense of humour, he spoke frankly with Wachtel about his recent work, Broadway play, religion and family.

Although the Enniscorthy native is best known for his novels The Master and Brooklyn, it was his most recent work, The Testament of Mary that seemed to most interest Wachtel. Tóibín chose to breathe new life into the tale of the mother of Christ, something he was surprised no one had tried before. Instead of the meek and mild version we’re all familiar with, Mother Mary is imbued with a fierce intelligence, in spite of being illiterate. In addition to being incurious about what her son is doing, she refers to the disciples as a group of misfits and leaves his crucifixion before he dies. The premier performance of the Broadway production of "The Testament of Mary" was performed last Monday night in New York, and as can be expected some religious groups were up in arms. Nevertheless, the author showed genuine enthusiasm for the standing ovation his play received, the instant reaction a novelist never sees from someone reading his book.

On the topic of religion, the audience learned that Tóibín had once entertained the thought of joining the priesthood. “My family thought it was funny,” said the writer. The second youngest of five children had even considered something grander. “If I’d joined the Church then I wanted to be a Bishop,” said Tóibín. He admitted, however, that in spite of being a sucker for stained glass and enjoying Bach’s religious music, he just couldn’t bring himself "to believe any of it.”

A recurring theme is Tóibín’s work is family. His university-educated father was a teacher, local journalist and historian. His death when the writer was only 12 was devastating. “It was one of the first things to surface in therapy,” said the author. “After a death, everyone acts as if nothing has happened, life goes on and the whole issue becomes unmentionable. It’s like having half your face bitten off, but still having to smile.” The author made a number of thought-provoking statements about the truth of our interior lives, our secret selves, and how these thoughts can sometimes only be validated through reading experiences similar to our own.

His wise words were more than worth the admission price. As I walked up the steps of the auditorium listening to other people’s excited chatter about what they had just heard, there was a rush to get out of the doors, but it wasn’t to go home. A larger than usual crowd was milling around the display tables with Tóibín’s books, smiling and looking exhilarated.

This has been cross-posted at Rover Arts.

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