Colm Tóibín (born Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, May 30, 1955) is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic and poet.
Tóibín’s first novel, 1990’s The South, was partly inspired by his time in Barcelona, where he had moved in 1975; as was, more directly, his non-fiction Homage to Barcelona (1990). His work explores several main lines: the depiction of Irish society, living abroad, the process of creativity and the preservation of a personal identity, focusing especially on homosexual identities – Tóibín is openly gay – but also on identity when confronted with loss. The Wexford novels, The Heather Blazing and The Blackwater Lightship, use Enniscorthy, the town of Tóibín’s birth, as narrative material, together with the history of Ireland and the death of his father. An autobiographical account and reflection on this episode can be found in the non-fiction book, The Sign of the Cross. In 2009, he published Brooklyn, a tale of a woman emigrating to Brooklyn from Enniscorthy.
Two other novels, The Story of the Night and The Master – a fictionalized biography of Henry James – revolve around characters who have to deal with a homosexual identity and take place outside Ireland for the most part, with a character having to cope with living abroad. His first novel, The South, seems to have ingredients of both lines of work. It can be read together with The Heather Blazing as a diptych of Protestant and Catholic heritages in County Wexford, or it can be grouped with the “living abroad” novels. A third topic that links The South and The Heather Blazing is that of creation: of painting in the first case and of the careful wording of a judge’s verdict in the second. This third thematic line culminated in The Master, a study on identity, preceded by a non-fiction book in the same subject, Love in a Dark Time. In his 2012 essay collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, he takes biographical study to the nonfictional sphere with biographies of James Baldwin, J. M. Synge and W. B. Yeats, among others.
Tóibín has said his writing comes out of silence. He does not favour story and does not view himself as storyteller. “Ending a novel is almost like putting a child to sleep – it can’t be done abruptly,” he is quoted in a 2013 portrait published in the Guardian.
Tóibín is currently Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and succeeded Martin Amis as professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester. He is the winner of numerous awards, including the 1991 Irish Times Literature Best First Book Prize for The South, the 1993 Encore Award for his second novel The Heather Blazing, and the 2004 Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year, 2004 Lambda Literary Award and 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Master, which the New York Times also listed as one of the ten most notable books of the year. He was elected Fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature in 2007 and hailed as a champion of minorities as he collected the 2011 Irish PEN Award. In 2011, he was named one of Britain’s Top 300 Intellectuals by The Observer, notwithstanding his Irish nationality.
Major Awards and Honors
Irish PEN Award for Literature
International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (Ireland)
- 2006: “The Master”
Irish Times Literature Prizes
- 1991: First Book – “The South”
Society of Authors Awards (Ireland)
- 1993: Encore Award – “The Heather Blazing”
Royal Society of Literature (Great Britain)
- 2007: Fellow
Costa/Whitbread Awards (Great Britain)
- 2009: Novel Award – “Brooklyn”
Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (France)
- 2005: Novel – “The Master”
American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 1995: E.M. Forster Prize
Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year (USA)
- 2004: “The Master”
American Library Association (ALA)
- 2005: Stonewall Book Award for Fiction – “The Master”
- 2012: Booklist Editors’ Choice Award: Fiction – “The Testament of Mary”
Lambda Literary Awards (USA)
- 2005: Best Gay Men’s Fiction – “The Master”
- 2012: Best Gay Fiction – “The Empty Family”
Ferro-Grumley Award for Gay Fiction (Publishing Triangle – USA/Canada)
- 1998: “The Story of the Night”
Novels and Novellas
- The South (1990)
- The Heather Blazing (1992)
- The Story of the Night (1997)
- The Blackwater Lightship (1999)
- The Master (2004)
- Brooklyn (2009)
- The Testament of Mary (2012)
- Mothers and Sons (2006)
– The Use of Reason also published as a stand-alone story in 2006.
- The Empty Family (2010)
- Beauty in a Broken Place (2004)
Collaborations, Compilations, Anthologies
- Soho Square: New Writing from Ireland Book 6 (1993)
- The Guinness Book of Ireland (1995)
– Coeditor, with Bernard Loughlin.
- The Kilfenora Teaboy: A Study of Paul Durcan (1996)
– Editor; with contribution from Derek Mahon, Ruth Padel, Eamon Grennan, Edna Longley, Brian Kennedy and Fintan O’Toole.
- Finbar’s Hotel (1997)
- The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999)
- The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950 (1999)
– Coeditor, with Carmen Callil.
- Walking Along the Border (1987)
- Martyrs and Metaphors ( 1987)
– Letters from the New Island, vol. 1, no. 2.
- The Trial of the Generals: Selected Journalism 1980 – 1990 (1990)
- Homage to Barcelona (1990)
- Dubliners (1990)
– Revisiting James Joyce‘s short story collection and its lociations; with photographs by Tony O’Shea.
- Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border (1994)
- The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (1994)
- The Irish Famine: A Documentary (1999)
- Love in A Dark Time: Gay Lives From Wilde to Almodovar (2002)
- Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush (2002)
- A Guest at the Feast: A Memoir (2011)
- New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families (2012)
A Selection of Quotes
Colm Tóibín, Novelist – Portrait of the Artist, (The Guardian, 19 February 2013)
“The only time I’ve ever learned anything from a review was when John Lanchester wrote a piece in the Guardian about my second novel, The Heather Blazing. He said that, together with the previous novel, it represented a diptych about the aftermath of Irish independence. I simply hadn’t known that – and I loved the grandeur of the word “diptych”. I went around quite snooty for a few days, thinking: “I wrote a diptych.”
“Ending a novel is almost like putting a child to sleep – it can’t be done abruptly.”
- Colm Tóibín’s official website
- Colm Tóibín at Irish Writers Online
- Themis-Athena’s select bibliography of Irish literature