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Colm Toibin vowed to never write a sequel. Until 'Long Island'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Colm Toibin's new novel opens with a heartbreaker of a dilemma. His main character, Eilis Lacey, opens her front door to a stranger who accuses Eilis' husband of having an affair with his wife, an affair that has resulted in a pregnancy, and the stranger threatens to leave the baby once it's born on Eilis' doorstep. What would you do? The novel is titled "Long Island," and it follows what Eilis decides to do and not do when this bombshell turns her life upside down. Colm Toibin, welcome.

COLM TOIBIN: Thank you.

KELLY: So alert listeners will recognize the name of your protagonist, Eilis Lacey, 'cause she was at the center of "Brooklyn," your celebrated novel that published back in 2009. Were you always planning to return to her?

TOIBIN: Never. I really never thought of it. I don't like sequels, and I didn't think I should do one. What happened was about 10 years after I wrote the original novel, "Brooklyn," that image - that initial image that you've just mentioned - came into my head. And I thought, I know who that is, and I know what I could do now. And then just without thinking really, I set about seeing if I could write the first sequence, the second sequence. And so the book began, but it wasn't deliberate. It wasn't strategic.

KELLY: But she'd obviously been somewhere in the back of your mind...

TOIBIN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...And had grown up from a young woman in her 20s to now a middle-aged mother in her 40s, who has built a mostly happy life in America with her Italian American husband, Tony. Why throw her such a curveball? And we're giving nothing away. This is on page - you know, the very first chapter of the book.

TOIBIN: I wouldn't have written the book without it. In other words, I wanted a moment of pure terror for her, of what was the worst thing that could happen at that moment - and just to see then if I could dramatize that. Obviously, if after a few pages, it didn't work, I would have dropped it. She's so self-contained, so unself-conscious in so many ways. She's an outsider still in America, even after all the years - that her domestic life is the life that matters to her. And so this became for me a subject, I suppose, of drama, and it's drama I'm interested in.

KELLY: Yeah. And I have learned from reading several of your books - this is typical of some of your fiction - but so much of what happens between these characters goes unsaid. You leave us as readers to fill in, you know, what is really going through their minds. There's just so much restraint to the point where I sometimes wanted to shake Eilis and say, just yell at him (laughter), just let him have it.

TOIBIN: Yeah, she doesn't - she isn't like that. And I can get much more if she restrains herself, if she holds back with the reader watching her, the reader wondering, how can she manage this now? So in her efforts to let him know that she knows, I have to find an image rather than having her simply shout at him, which really, I won't get any drama from. You know, that will be an obvious thing to do. I will have to find one other way.

And so I keep coming up with ones, and then I reject them - eventually find one that I think might work. But it's a constant sense of making sure that you're not writing a sort of - I suppose a soap opera or - sometimes soap operas can be good. But, I mean, the obvious response would be, yeah, to let a big shout at him as soon as she sees him. But if she doesn't do that, then I think you can get much more from that.

KELLY: So Eilis is - she grew up in Ireland. She's an immigrant to America. I don't think it gives too much away to share that. As she wrestles with what to do about what her husband has done, she finds herself back in Ireland in the small town where she grew up, Enniscorthy. Did I say that right?

TOIBIN: You did.

KELLY: I did. You would know because you also grew up in Enniscorthy.

TOIBIN: I did.

KELLY: She's wandering around. She discovers people and things that have changed beyond recognition and plenty of things that haven't changed. And as I read, I found myself wondering if you were drawing on personal experience. You would know what it is to wander down memory lane in that specific town.

TOIBIN: Yes, I think I was - that 1976, the year the novelist said, it's about the last year where I would have lived in Enniscorthy and been - you know, know what bars people went to, the names of shops, the names of shop owners. So I was, yeah, using very much that year, but yes, also using that sense of returning to my mother's house and spending a night there and being in my old bedroom. And yes, all of those experiences, I think I know, particularly know from that particular town, those particular streets.

KELLY: And Eilis, as she is wandering that particular town, those particular streets, does she find herself a different person? Does she move through the world in a different way back in Ireland than she did in America?

TOIBIN: She doesn't think about herself. She's not self-conscious in that way, but it's clear that she has developed a sort of style without knowing it, that she's extremely articulate, for example. She's - you can see her intelligence working, but she misses the point of certain things that have happened at home. For example, she thinks her mother needs a new kitchen. And instead of asking her mother, in that funny - any of us who have had this know it - the funny days of jetlag coming in from America where you get an idea and it's wrong, and you follow it. And so she decides to buy all this white goods (ph) for her mother who just is really insulted at the idea.

KELLY: (Laughter) Yeah.

TOIBIN: Have I been waiting all these years for you to come back so that I could have a fridge?

KELLY: It made me laugh 'cause it's a very American thing to do - to think, my problems will be solved if I can just get some new kitchen appliances.

(LAUGHTER)

TOIBIN: Yeah.

KELLY: Let's get a new dishwasher, and it'll be fine. I mean, plenty of your Irish characters do find ways to reveal their views of America. I wonder if you would read a few lines from the scene where Eilis' former lover, Jim, is watching her.

TOIBIN: (Reading) If anyone were to meet them now, he thought, they might be a local couple taking a walk. But when he stole a glance at her, he saw that this could not be true. She did not look like a local woman. Her dress could not have been bought in Ireland. And the natural way her hair was cut, accentuated by the wetness, set her apart as did the smoothness of her skin. But more than anything, it was the ease and confidence she had.

KELLY: Speak to that last line you just read about the ease and confidence she had that was visible apparently. I mean, there are plenty of people who have self-confidence in Ireland. Is that something that you were - I mean, I wonder why you wanted to put that out there.

TOIBIN: She doesn't know what she looks like when she has come back after all these years. She doesn't know that - how she's being watched. She's being watched for the quality of her dress, but she's also being watched for something else - for a sort of way of walking and moving that may not even exist, but Nancy, her old friend, sees it. Immediately when she comes to the door, someone foreign has come to my house. And, of course, Eilis is not aware at all that she's foreign in that way. So it's a funny mixture of illusion and something that's real.

KELLY: The ending leaves things not quite settled for Eilis and for other key characters. You've now revisited her in a sequel. Are you done?

TOIBIN: I don't know. I mean, it's 15 years since the novel "Brooklyn" appeared, and I'm now 69. So I suppose maybe when I'm 84 and hobbling around...

KELLY: (Laughter).

TOIBIN: ...I'll come up with some new idea, but I wouldn't bet on it.

KELLY: So trilogy, watch the space, TBD.

TOIBIN: (Laughter).

KELLY: Colm Toibin's new novel is titled "Long Island." Thank you.

TOIBIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE SONG, "SITTIN' BY THE RADIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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