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Colm Toibin wraps up Galway’s literary affair

Colm Toibin, at GAF 2011

The final literary event as part of the 2011 Galway Arts Festival was certainly a resounding way in which to draw a truly amazing Festival to a close. The IMPAC award winner and Booker prize nominee Colm Toibin did not disappoint the sell-out crowd that filled the Meyrick Hotel on a sun-filled Saturday on the final weekend of the Galway Arts Festival. While the thousands were enjoying the festivities on the thronged Galway streets, those with a ticket for Toibin certainly would not swap for any prize.

Toibin was in warm and open form as he took to the lectern on stage in the Connemara Suite of the Meyrick. He started into a story recounting his experiences of regional arts festivals in Ireland. Toibin outlined how the Gorey Arts Festival , founded by his late friend Paul Funge, opened up such opportunities throughout the early 1970’s and onwards as it afforded the locals to see amazing works of theatre, hear great writers read their works and to see the works of great artists.

He talked in particular about visit to the Gorey Arts Festival by Patrick MaGee and Jack McGowran, both renowned acquaintances of Samuel Beckett and also famous actors of his work, so much so that Krapp’s Last Tape actually had a working title of ‘Monologue for Magee’. Toibin spoke of these characters, Beckett, Magee and McGowran as if he was with old friends sharing a drink and a story. This affability, genuine warmth and connection with his readers as well as with the people he is writing on paper about makes Toibin one of Ireland’s most loved and successful of contemporary writers.

Toibin read from his latest work, his collection of short stories the Empty Family (Read my review of this here ) Reading the story Two Women, Toibin presented one of the most memorable stories from the collection. Set in present-day Ireland, a divorced and middle-aged TV producer who has put all of her strength and passion into her career is brought to relive her past lost love when she encounters a woman from the past: a woman she has never met but with him she shares so much experience and people.

The Empty Family

Following this the floor was opened up for questions for Toibin. No shortage of willing volunteers as question after question were ably taken by the guest of honour. When asked about his setting out to write his IMPAC-winning work, The Master, Toibin answered he wanted to really get to know the man, Henry James, and not the outward character which people may have known. To Toibin, James was a mysterious character, often proving to be the opposite of what you thought. James was gay but loved the company of women as well as men, he was often reclusive but ate out every evening in large company. James’ writing, Toibin, described, is full of winding and snaking sentences, full of sub-clauses. You don’t get to know the Henry James, the man, from his writing, as you would be able to know James Joyce from reading his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Toibin was also asked about his inspiration about his Costa Prize-winning novel, Brooklyn. Again delving into his rich personal memory, he talks of the scene at his father’s wake. Colm Tobin is a twelve-year-old and bewildered by the streams of people calling to the house, stayed so long and talked and talked with his family. One woman in particular stood out, even after all these years. She had a pile of letters in her hand, all from Brooklyn: not from U.S.A., not from New York, but from Brooklyn. “That’s the woman whose daughter went to America but came home”, Colm heard people whisper. He never forgot this woman, even over the following forty years or so, and so Brooklyn came to be.

Speaking about the books ending (no spoilers will be given!) Toibin simply outlined how he ended the book the way he wanted to end it but crucially, he got their convincingly. He had conceived other endings but would do a disservice by inserting radical changes that would arrive at a contrived ending.

Finally, Toibin was asked about what contemporary writers he is currently reading. His first response was an American writer who actually also read at this year’s Galway Arts Festival – Willy Vlautin. Vlautin (nearly if not fully) stole the show when he shared the bill with Roddy Doyle. (read review here ) Upstaging Doyle is no easy feat but Vlautin made a new home from home for himself in Galway with his fantastic writing and engaging and humorous personality. Toibin hailed Vlautin as “a real discovery. He writes in beautiful American tones and with an absolute knowledge of rhythm, coming as no surprise that he (Vlautin) is an accomplished musician. Also singled out by Toibin were the Austrian short-story writer, Tim Wenton, Welsh writer Tessa Hadley and of course Canadian Alice Munroe.

It was a fascinating evening and a great if also rare opportunity for an intimate evening with the one and only Toibin. Evening like these are exactly what Arts Festivals are made for –probably along the lines of what Toibin felt like attending the Gorey Arts Festival all those years ago.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2011 in Books, Culture

 

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Willy Vlautin & Roddy Doyle kick off GAF’s literary side

The Meyrick Hotel overlooking Eyre Square in the heart of Galway City played host to an evening with acclaimed writers Roddy Doyle and Willy Vlautin. In front of a crowd of some two hundred people both writers took to the stage and chatted interestedly to each other while waiting for proceedings to get underway. It was this genuine bon-homie between Doyle and Vlautin that made this such an enjoyable evening.

Vlautin was first to read, choosing to take a piece from his latest and award-winning (the 2010 Ken Kesey Award for Fiction) Lean on Pete. Published by Faber, the book was received to widespread critical acclaim and looking at the crowd tuned intently to Vlautin’s stories told in his endearing North Western US accent. Vlautin outlined how he developed his love of writing and thanked the influence of his English- teacher grandmother. Describing himself as a horrible student, Vlautin’s grandmother used to read him The Count of Monte Christo and presented him with his own copy of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, which set him on course to be a dedicated follower of Doyle’s work. In fact, Vlautin genuinely did seem star-struck to be sharing the stage with one of his literary idols.

Vlautin and Doyle. Pic by Sinead McKee

As Vlautin introduced the character and narrator of his book Lean on Pete, the 15-year old Charlie Thompson, Vlautin explained how he did connect with Charlie as someone who took to the road to travel on the American highways and experience life as he would find it and as it came to him. Lamenting never having a pick-up truck or anything as ‘typically’ suitable to such driving, Vlautin never the less took the road in his ’82 Honda Civic and didn’t look back.

In his book, Charlie is a left to fend for himself by his wayward single-father and takes to the road in search of life, acceptance and also a sense of family normality. He ends up tracing the dirt-tracks of Portland, Oregan and gets work at the local racetrack. Here Charlie tends to a less than thoroughbred horse of the title name of the book. The story is rightly noted as being one of the reads of the year and sets out Vlautin as an author as credible and talented as he is a musician. His band Richmond Fontaine have released their tenth album and they played a sell-out concert at the Roisin Dubh last night, also as part of the Galway Arts Festival.

Roddy Doyle was introduced to rapturous applause. No stranger to reading at Galway’s Festivals, Doyle read at the 2010 Cùirt international Festival of Literature in Galway. Noticeably pleased to be on the bill at this year’s Arts Festival, he explained how we wanted to take a break from touring this year following the extensive promotion of his novel last year The Dead Republic, but simply could not turn down Paul Fahy’s offer to attend the Festival on the bill with Willy Vlautin. With tongue firmly in cheek he declared to the crowd he was delighted to be back in Ireland’s second best city! Doyle read a short story from his recently published collection, Bullfighting. The story, Animals, is a charming, funny and touching story of family life that can resonate with people from any background or place within the family. Mother, father, son or daughter, it matters not your age as all have those cherished, funny or even heartbreaking moments with those additions to the household: the family pet.

In the following Q & A with the audience both writers spoke candidly and indeed gave more time than you would expect to make sure everyone who wanted one got their books autographed and a few words of good wishes to boot. When asked about his writing style Doyle thoughtfully admitted he didn’t have strict guidelines he stuck to when it came to his novels or his short fiction. Simply stating he stayed at his desk in his converted attic “for as long was needed or until it is done, whichever came first”. He did however say he was much fussier at the drafting phase at least, with his short fiction, often writing a paragraph at one sitting, leaving it be and returning to it later. With his novels he would write feverously with the most work coming down the line at the editing phase.

The final question of the evening was put to both writers but fielded by Doyle. It asked where is the place of literature and writing for teenagers in teaching in Modern Ireland, which is faced with ever-growing technology, social networks and computer games. Doyle, himself a former teacher, suggested not to worry so much and outlined he has a lot of faith in today’s youth. He sees them reading a lot more than they used to. Their reading may not be big novels read from cover to cover or newspapers from front to back page, but today’s youth are extremely clued into the world and should be trusted. At his writing club for young people in Dublin, Doyle sees so many teenagers coming in and sitting and simply reading and writing for hours at end. Whilst perhaps less the norm it is still proof the desire for great stories is alive and well in today’s younger generations.

It was a fitting end to what was a truly great evening. As the crowd wandered from the Meyrick, Doyle could be spotted relaxing and chatting with a pint. It was off to the Rosin Dubh for Vlautin and a concert with his band Richmond Fontaine. It just shows there are few spare moments to be had at the Galway Arts Festival. I have enjoyed catching up with his music as much as I have with his writing and here is one of many great tracks by the four-piece alt-rock/country band based out of Portland, Oregan. Enjoy!

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2011 in Culture

 

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