meditation Posts

‘Jane Austen has mattered more to me than Irish folktales’ : Colm Toibin ( 26 Dec 2015)

Colm Toibin

‘I like the idea of creating a fictional landscape’ PHOTO COURTESY: COLM TÓIBÍN WEBSITE

(I interviewed Colm Toibin for The Hindu. The original url is: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/colm-toibin-in-conversation-with-jaya-bhattacharji-rose/article8026101.ece. It was published online on 26 December 2015 and in print on 27 December 2015.)

Colm Toibin, author and playwright extraordinaire, talks about how his writing is not a conscious decision but comes from some mysterious place.

He is the author of eight novels, including Brooklyn and Nora Webster and two collections of stories, Mothers and Sons and The Empty Family. His play The Testament of Mary was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 2013. His novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times. His non-fiction includes ‘The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe’ and ‘New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers & Their Families.’ He is a Contributing Editor to the London Review of Books, and the Chair of PEN World Voices in New York, and His books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of Humanities at Columbia University. Toibin will participate at The Hindu Lit for Life 2016 in Chennai. Excerpts from an interview:

 When did you start writing fiction?

I was writing poetry. Then, at 20, I stopped and for a few years wrote nothing except letters home. Then I wrote a few bad short stories. Then when I was about 26, an idea came to me for a novel. Really, from the moment that happened, I was writing fiction.

Did training as a journalist help you as a writer?

Yes, it gave me a relationship to an audience, a sense that work is written to be read, is an act of communication.

Your fiction has strong women characters who lead ordinary lives. But it is the tough choices they make that mark your fiction as remarkable. Is it a conscious decision to create stories around women?

I think it’s 50-50 men-women. Some novels like The Heather Blazing and The Master are written from the point of view of men. I think writers should be able to imagine anything. I was brought up in a house full of women. Writing never comes from a conscious decision, but always from some mysterious place.

Does writing about women with such sensitivity require much research?

I listened a lot to my mother and her sisters and to my own sisters when I was growing up.

An aspect that stands out in your fiction are the constant discussions you seem to be having with Catholicism and the Church, almost as if you are in constant dialogue with God. It comes across exquisitely in the moral dilemma your characters experience. Is this observation true?

I think that might be a bit high-flown. I work with detail and I often let the large questions look after themselves. But it is important not to be banal, so I allow in some images from religion but I try to control them.

The tiny details that enrich your fiction are very similar to oral storytelling. Has the Irish literary tradition of recording and creating a rich repository of its oral folktales in any way influenced your writing?

Not really. I am a reader, so I have a sense of the rich literary tradition that the novel comes from. When I was a teenager, I was not interested in reading any Irish fiction, so I was devouring Hemingway, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Henry James. I think Jane Austen, with all her irony and structural control, has mattered to me more than Irish folktales. But I like Irish folktales too.

Who was the storyteller at home and from literature who influenced you the most?

All the women talked a lot, but it was not storytelling in any formal sense.

Your fiction at times feels like a meditation on grief exploring the multiple ways in which people mourn. Why?

My father died when I was 12 and I think this has a serious effect on me. I didn’t think about it for years, almost repressed it. So then it began to emerge in the fiction, almost despite me.

Your characters reappear in your stories like Nora in Brooklyn becomes Nora Webster. Is this part of your attempt at creating a literary Wexford landscape or is it at times convenient to work with characters you are already comfortable and familiar with?

I like the idea of creating a fictional landscape that is slowly growing or becoming more complete. Thus in Nora Webster, there are characters from The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn and some short stories, most notably The Name of the Game.

6 January 2016

Helen Macdonald, “H is for Hawk”

H is for HawkThe archaeology of grief is not ordered. ( p.199)

Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is about her relationship with her goshawk, Mabel. Grieving for the Mabel on her first day at homesudden loss of her father, a well-known Fleet Street photographer, Helen Macdonald decides to buy a goshawk for eight hundred pounds sterling and train it — in the hope it will help her deal with her sadness. Her love for the bird stems from a lifelong passion for the wild birds of prey. As a child she scoured bookshops with her father to buy books on the subject. It is during one of those missions she came across T.H. White’s The Goshawk. With time and repeated readings, her understanding of the book and of the writer evolved too. Helen is an experienced falconer but never an austringer. Yet, she decided to buy Mabel and train her on the outskirts of Cambridge but as she discovers, “the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” ( p.218)

According to her literary agency, Marsh Agency, Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, and naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, where she teaches to graduate level. Over the years she’s also worked as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, as a professional falconer, assisted with the management of raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia, and bred hunting falcons for Arab royalty. She’s also sold paintings, worked as an antiquarian bookseller, organised academic conferences, shepherded a flock of fifty ewes and once attended an arms fair by mistake. Helen’s blog Fretmarks contains short essays on subjects as various as wild boar, Brighton, pop culture, World War II, golden orioles, solar eclipses, travels in Central Asia, falconry, and many of her experiences with Mabel. www.fretmarks.blogspot.com Helen can be found on twitter as @HelenJMacdonald. (http://www.marsh-agency.co.uk/authors/?id=3513)

New_H-and-mabel-wa_2987055cH is for Hawk is a beautiful meditation on nature, loneliness and mourning.  The exquisite manner in which it is written, making extraordinary use of the English language is breathtaking. Helen Macdonald deservedly won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014 and Costa Book of the Year 2014. Many  reviewers have commended it for it being a memoir, albeit a misery memoir. For me, H is for Hawk, H is for T.H.White, H is for Helen, and H is for her father. If it is the only book you  have time for this year, read it. It wont be time or money wasted. It will be an enriching experience.

Read an extract from her book:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10989164/H-is-for-Hawk-Helen-Macdonalds-intense-relationship-with-her-goshawk-Mabel.html .

Some reviews

1. Janette Curie, “Grief and the goshawk” TLS, 29 Oct 2014 ( http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1476820.ece )

2. Kathryn Schulz, “Rapt: Grieving with your goshawk.” The New Yorker, 9 March 2015 ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/09/rapt )

3.   Nick Willoughby “You can’t tame grief”: Helen Macdonald on her bestselling memoir “H Is for Hawk” Salon, 10 March 2015 (http://www.salon.com/2015/03/09/you_can%E2%80%99t_tame_grief_helen_macdonald_on_her_bestselling_memoir_h_is_for_hawk/ )

4. Marck Cocker,  “H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald” The Guardian, 23 July 2014 ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/23/h-is-for-hawk-helen-macdonald-review )

A few notable meditations on Nature published in recent months:

1. George Monbiot ” Back to Nature” http://www.bbc.com/earth/bespoke/story/20141203-back-to-nature/index.html

2. George Macfarlane “The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape”, 27 February 2015 (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/27/robert-macfarlane-word-hoard-rewilding-landscape?CMP=share_btn_fb )

3. Anand Vivek Taneja, ” A city without time: Anand Vivek Taneja remembers a dead river in a Delhi that has turned its back on it, just as it has on a language that was its own” March 2015 (http://indianquarterly.com/a-city-without-time/)

4. Ruskin Bond A Book of Simple Living Speaking Tiger Books, New Delhi, India. Hb. 2015

( Note: The images used in this blog post are off the internet, discovered using Google images. I do not hold the copyright to these photographs.)

Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk Vintage Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2014. Pb. pp.300 £8.99