There's an immense dramatic possibility in describing that universe. The books, for me, were an enormous relief in that sense of how they were written to allow primary emotion, elemental emotion, to matter enormously but to give the thing an extraordinary flow so you don't notice at what point that you're actually overwhelmed by this. There's no showiness, at all. It's the opposite of showiness. I think, if it was a painting, it could be very grey abstract, almost, with some lines and very, very beautiful. But you wouldn't have a notion of where the beauty was. (Talking about the short stories of Alistair MacLeod, who he discovered while working on The Modern Library.)
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There will always be reservations, things one must leave out, events one can't explain without handing over a full map of one's life, unfolding it, making clear that all the lines and contours stand for long days and nights when things were bad or good, or when things were too small to be described at all: when things just were. This is a life.
A novelist's job is almost to be a stupid as possible, except in the cunning moment when you need to structure something, when you need to be very intelligent indeed. The rest of the time, you need almost an empty mind, where you can let any image in, follow it along, and allow an emotional charge, almost the way actors and singers can work. The more instinct you have as a novelist, and the less intelligence, the better.
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." [Colm Toiben, Novelist - Portrait of the Artist, The Guardian, 19 February 2013]
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He had grown fat on solitude, he thought, and had learned to expect nothing from the day but at best a dull contentment. Sometimes the dullness came to the fore with a strange and insistent ache which he would entertain briefly, but learn to keep at bay. Mostly, however, it was the contentment he entertained; the slow ease and the silence could, once night had fallen, fill him with a happiness that nothing, no society nor the company of any individual, no glamour or glitter, could equal.
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None of them could help her. She had lost all of them. They would not find out about this; she would not put it into a letter. And because of this she understood that they would never know her now. Maybe, she thought, they had never known her, any of them, because if they had, then they would have had to realize what this would be like for her.
But he also knew that, as much as he wanted to aid and console the soldier, he wanted to be alone in his room with the night coming down and a book close by and pen and paper and the knowledge that the door would remain shut until the morning came and he would ne be disturbed. The gap between these two desires filled him with sadness and awe at the mystery of the self, the mystery of having a single consciousness, knowing merely its own bare feelings and experiencing singly and alone it own pain or fear or pleasure or complacency.
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She has gone back to Brooklyn, ' her mother would say. And, as the train rolled past Macmire Bridge on its way towards Wexford, Eilis imagined the years already when these words would come to mean less and less to the man who heard them and would come to mean more and more to herself. She almost smiled at the thought of it, then closed her eyes and tried to imagine nothing more.
His consolation was that at least he had known her as the world had not, and the pain of living without her was no more than a penalty he paid for the privilege of having been young with her. What once was life, he thought, is always life and he knew that her image would preside in his intellect as a sort of measure and standard of brightness and repose.