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Colm Tóibín: ‘Boris Johnson would be a blood clot … Angela Merkel the cancer’

In June 2018, Colm Tóibín was four chapters into writing his most recent novel The Magician, an epic fictional biography of Thomas Mann that he had put off for decades, when he was diagnosed with cancer. “It all started with my balls,” he begins a blisteringly witty essay about his months in hospital; cancer of the testicles had spread to his lungs and liver. In bed he amuses himself by identifying the difference between blood clots (a new emergency) and cancer: “Boris Johnson would be a blood clot … Angela Merkel the cancer.”

He has seen off both Johnson and Merkel. In the month when he hopes he will have a final scan, he has just been awarded the David Cohen prize (dubbed “the UK Nobel”) for a lifetime achievement in literature. The author of 10 novels, two short story collections, three plays, several nonfiction books and countless essays, Tóibín has been shortlisted for the Booker prize three times and won the Costa novel award in 2009 for Brooklyn, about a young Irish woman who emigrates to New York in the 1950s, made into an award-winning film in 2015. He is surely Ireland’s most prolific and prestigious living writer.

Broodingly striking in appearance – in a movie he would be the gangster with a kind heart – he is animated, gracious and gossipy in conversation: we are on a video call from Los Angeles, where he spends part of the year with his boyfriend, editor Hedi El Kholti. He is very much alive (he played tennis yesterday). Meeting Tóibín in person (in more normal times) is to be struck by the disconnect between this ebullient, expansive raconteur and the spare, mournful fictional worlds for which he is famous. His short stories, in particular, are as steeped in gentle misery as his native Wexford is in rain.

“I’d love to have an integrated personality,” he once told a psychiatrist friend (he has a way of telling stories that sound like the beginning of a joke). Tóibín said: “The books are so filled with melancholy and I wander about like some sort of party animal.” “Well, which would you like to be?” his friend asked. To which he replied “I don’t know.” “Oh go away!” the psychiatrist said. “I have serious patients with serious problems.”

For a man who can plough through a weighty biography in a day (preferably in a hammock in the California garden he shows off when he angles the computer) or turn out more than 20,000 words, when he is “on the flow”, one of the hardest things about his illness was that he was unable to read or write. This is something known only to “the chemo club”, he says. “How could it be that you couldn’t even turn on Bach? It would sound like noise! You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t read, you can’t listen to music.”

The steroids, however, would give him a boost, “a false energy” like a “chardonnay rush”, which would last no longer than an hour, during which “grinding time” he was able to write a couple of poems. He hadn’t seriously written poetry since his teens. Then, during the pandemic, at seven o’clock almost every evening, a line would come to him out of the blue “like a melody”. The rest of the poem would materialise quite quickly and in the mornings he would get up and cut some lines, or abandon them altogether.

And so, at the age of 66, early next year he will add his first poetry collection to that impressive list of publications. The day before we speak, he received one of those “recommended new releases” emails from Amazon – recommending his own book. Really. “Oh my Gaahd, this book actually exists!” he says, with the longest God I’ve ever heard. “It was a big shock yesterday,” not least because the cover is a painting by his mother. The title Vinegar Hill refers to the battle during the Irish Rebellion, but the collection is not all about the motherland, with poems set in Barcelona and LA. “Anywhere I’ve ever been there’s a poem”, including the hospital in Dublin, which coincidentally was built on the site of the fictional house of Joyce’s Blooms. “How very strange to be in this space where Leopold and Molly once were,” he would muse in bed. He will be doing Ulysses when he returns to Princeton, where he teaches a semester each year, in January.

To finish The Magician he switched from his customary longhand to a computer. “If the treatment worked, or if it didn’t kill me, I needed to get the book done before a recurrence,” he says. “The recurrence didn’t happen. I got the book done.”

Like The Master, Tóibín’s acclaimed 2004 novel about Henry James, The Magician is another portrait of a sexually repressed artist. “I don’t have a third,” he says of this trick of inhabiting the inner-worlds of great writers to explore his theme of creativity driven by thwarted desire. Both writers were hugely important to him during his late teens and early 20s. Growing up gay in a small town in Ireland, “where homosexuality was unmentionable”, left him “fascinated by figures who had lived in the shadows erotically”. As always he was drawn to secrets, to lives lived between the lines, to the sense of James and Mann as being “like ghosts in certain rooms”, a distance created by their “uneasy homosexuality”, he says. “Mann’s was more self-aware than James, but you can never be sure with James. James’s work is filled with sexual secrets.”

Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in the 2015 film adaptation of Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn
Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in the 2015 film adaptation of Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn Photograph: Lionsgate/Allstar

Tóibín’s life has parallels with both authors (he shares James’s unapologetic sociability), most strikingly with Mann, one of five siblings, the artistic son of a widowed mother, who ends up in exile in LA; he even taught at Princeton. “You end up exploring the things that interest you,” Tóibín says. “Obviously there were things I had to imagine: the money and the power, the rise of Hitler.” Mann doesn’t emerge as an heroic figure either privately (he didn’t attend his son Klaus’ funeral because he was on a book tour) or as the most influential writer in Germany during the interwar years: a willingness to write morally ambiguous, complex or unlikeable characters is “essential” in fiction, Tóibín believes.

From his first novel The South, published when he was 35, he has returned repeatedly to the stretch of Wexford coast of his childhood. He would never have believed that this “very mild place, where in summer there is more drizzle than rain, more cloud than sun” could have provided him with “enough expression or felt life or drama” as the backdrop for so many novels, he says. “Going back to it over and over has been rich and surprising.”

But, like so many of his Irish literary forebears, he also needs to escape; each novel he says, is a reaction against its predecessor. After his fourth, the Booker shortlisted The Blackwater Lightship, in which three generations of women and three gay men are stuck in a crumbling house on the coast for seven days – “there’s a lot of rain and a lot of making of tea and a lot of recriminations” – it was a relief to absorb himself in the sophisticated milieu of Henry James, “to write those longer sentences, more elaborate dialogue and to have a lot of duchesses”.

But then he was done with duchesses and wanted to go back home. So he wrote Brooklyn, which returns to Enniscorthy and the lives of small-town Irish people. “Oh thank God, a book of yours we can finally read,” someone told him. After Nora Webster, an austerely moving fictionalisation of the aftermath of his father’s death, he felt “I never ever want to go back to that house again, I never want to go back into that sort of slow-burning grief.” And so it was a pleasure to turn to the cosmopolitan, wealthy Manns, “after writing another Irish novel in which no one has a penny.”

While he might be in sunny California right now, he is also deep in Wexford once more, working on his next two novels, one of which, thrillingly, is a sequel to Brooklyn, and a collection of short stories. “So it is coming up again big time.”

Another constant in his fiction is the longing for an absent mother (when his father was taken ill suddenly he didn’t see his mother for three months), and it is there again in The Magician, when the young Thomas is left alone for a year in Lubeck. “It won’t go away!” Tóibín whispers theatrically. He credits his reputation for convincing, complicated female characters – Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn, Nora Webster – to a childhood spent in a houseful of women, listening to his mother, aunts and sisters speak. “It’s more about voices,” he says. Also his fascination with the gaps between what is said and what is felt, especially the unspeakable.

Of all his work, he is most proud of the novella-length (25,000 words) short story, A Long Winter, which ends his collection Mothers and Sons. Written after the deaths of his mother and brother, he found in the story of poor Miguel searching day after day for his mother in the Pyrenees, a metaphor for his “very raw and difficult feelings,” he says. “That’s when I felt that everything came right.”

On a good day, he will do nothing but write. “You need to immerse yourself in it, because you want the reading process to be immersive in the same way,” he says. “It is a question of being in your mental pyjamas all day.” He is back to writing by hand – holding a neatly written notebook with early pages of the new Brooklyn to the screen – making corrections and additions when he types it up.

“What will happen if you get writer’s block?” a bank clerk once asked, when he was looking for a loan. ‘I said, ‘Will you stop that nonsense!’ Writer’s block for God’s sake! It is one of those things that other people think writers have.”

Despite his prodigious output and boundless curiosity, he feels himself to be “lazy as sin”. It must be a Catholic thing. “I think I’m a big slouch, that there are other people who are out there working really hard and that I’m not one of those people. And that I need to buck up,” he says. “That’s a funny thing and it’s true.”

For Tóibín, writing is a form of self-erasure: “the page is not a mirror, it is blank”, he reminds himself constantly. As a novelist, you “need to disappear,” he says, waving his hands like a magician, “to hand over the feelings to the character and to make sure they are not yours. This is for a reader, it is not for you. You are not here,” he says covering his face with his hands. “And when you look there’s NOTHING, except what’s blank and you have to fill it.”

The Magician by Colm Tóibín is published by Viking (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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