Self-annihilation: necessary and productive

The rainy Monday morning was salvaged by the BBC World Book Club, again. Irish author Colm Tóibín was discussing his novel Brooklyn with Harriet Gilbert and the invited audience. The moment I started listening to the programme, I immediately forgot that I had slept too little, woke up too late, that it was raining and my small umbrella did not exactly protect me from the rain.

What remarkable wisdom people have in them, and how splendidly they spell it out for us simpletons.

Let’s take Tóibín’s thoughts on writers and background research for example.

When you start writing, the first thing you do is an act of self-annihilation. Your duty as a writer is to fill the pages with stories, not to create a reflection of yourself. Writing is only about the characters: their lives, hopes and dreams. The text has nothing to do with you. Even though, of course, in Brooklyn the author used his own, personal history, those almost inexplicable childhood feelings and later experiences of immigration to create the atmosphere that feels very genuine (supposedly, have not yet read the novel myself). But everything is filtered through the characters, especially protagonist Eilis. Surely it is not a coincidence that the name of the Irish immigrant protagonist is pronounced like Irish with an L. Her name is an old Gaelic version of Elizabeth, if I heard it right.

I already knew all of this, but Boom. It’s so great to be reminded. I’m afraid I could never do that. If I was a writer, surely at some point I would lose the character/s and start a sad, lamentable self-analysis. How to build a character and make them a slave for the story, without losing an inch from the character’s secrets, thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears?

And then. About background research. Colm Tóibín has received a lot of praise for his depiction of Brooklyn in the 1950’s. He says he read pretty much one book that covers Brooklyn and its oral history. To a non-native non-historian that might sound borderline naughty, but it really refers to spoken history: stories, anecdotes and descriptions. In the book Tóibín was using, people from Brooklyn talk with their own voices about how life in Brooklyn was at the time. For the novelist, this pretty much provided all the background research he needed. Can you imagine?

Tóibín says: take half a sentence, and turn it into a chapter. It sounds so bloody easy.

Boom, again.

Is there a song about wanting to become a writer, something similar to the empty-headed one on wanting to be a hippie by Technohead?

♠ In the meantime: Sadly, I am not surprised of what is going on in London and elsewhere in the UK.

♠ Song of the day: La oreja de Van Gogh, 20 de enero

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