Colm Tóibín on enabling the reader to "enter the spirit" of Eilis in his novel 'Brooklyn'

Colm Tóibín seems to me like a writer at the top of his game, with every book in the last decade or so -- The Testament of Mary, Nora Webster, The Empty Family, and Brooklyn, being released this week as a film -- a real stunner.

He dismissed that idea with a laugh in today's interview in The Washington Post, timed to coincide the film adaptation starring Saoirse Ronan.

"You can say that," he told me, "but I’ll have to say to you: Those sentences are written one by one."

I asked him about how he creates the quiet intensity of novels such as Brooklyn, in a segment that we didn't have space for in The Post.

Brooklyn, while suspenseful and a page turner, is also a very quiet book, too. How do you manage that?

"I suppose I found a style for the book very early on which were pretty simple sentences, and I was also interested in being in her mind all the time, but not having her reflecting on herself. Merely allowing her to notice a great deal. So she has a real intelligence in the way she notices, sees things, looks, misses nothing, but I don’t give her huge powers of analysis. She doesn’t tend to analyse things as much as notice them. And I moved very carefully with that, so it looks as if you’re moving in on a surface, but what you’re doing is you’re entering as the reader into her spirit, into her mind or her imagination, and almost sort of becoming her. Therefore, if you give her a dilemma – it seems at first as if it’s going to be very simple, that her life in exile will comes right very quickly, but once you set things wrong for her and you give her a dilemma, the reader comes very close to that dilemma because of the way I’ve tried to keep the reader very close in to her.

"For example, if you write in the first person singular, you have this voice, and the reader feels distant. If you her constantly analysing and going over things that have happened, you have the reader thinking, well that’s who she is, I’m not that. But if you have her noticing and seeing only, and you get to know her via how her eyes work, and what she sees, then the reader can get very close in, and start to see, too. That’s would be the theory of it."

I think it's more than a theory, at least when Colm Tóibín does it.

The full interview ran on The Post Web site today.

Erica Jong on 'Fifty Shades':
Cinderella With Bondage

The author of the 1973 bestselling book, Fear of Flying, famous for the concept of the "zipless fuck," a no-strings-attached sexual encounter that its protagonist, Isadora Wing, fantasizes about, should know a thing or two about sexy novels.

And in my recent Washington Post interview with Jong about her latest novel, Fear of Dying, I was somewhat delighted to discover she is not a fan of Fifty Shades.

Here was a fuller response to my question than I included in The Post.

Why do you think Fifty Shades of Gray has been such a phenomenon?

I have no idea. It’s a Cinderella story. It’s an old-fashioned story. Many young people haven’t read The Story of O, Justine and Juliet, all the pornographic books. The Story of O is written like Shakespeare compared to Fifty Shades. I think the reputation of the book sells it, rather than the book itself.

People kept asking me about it, so I had to read it. It has nothing to do with anything I wrote, ever. It’s a Cinderella tale. A man who’s much wealthier gives a young woman who’s 18 all kinds of goodies. She can’t afford a computer, he buys her one. She can’t afford a car, he buys her one. In return, she signs a contract to be submissive. She’s a virgin – very realistic for 2015 (that’s irony by the way). He’s a rich billionaire at 25. Very few people become billionaires at 25 but forget that. She’s able to get the Prince because she’s willing to be submissive. He brings her to orgasm, and of course, she being a virgin, he’s the greatest lover she ever had. That’s the story. It’s a retelling of the Cinderella story, with bondage. It is not even copyedited. Shocking to me who is meticulous with publishers. This book, she has an orgasm and she says, “Holy Cow!” or “Holy Shit!” And one on page she’ll say “Holy Cow” or “Holy Shit” five or six times. It seems to me that there has never been a woman in the history of the world who said “Holy Shit” when she came. Also, the book is so poorly edited – it’s not edited at all – that’s it’s an embarrassment to the printing press. It isn’t even spell-checked! I rest my case.

Rita Mae Brown's 'Cock-Eyed Gaze'

Rita Mae Brown, author of the classic lesbian novel “Rubyfruit Jungle” (1973) and the ongoing Mrs. Murphy mystery series, had some provocative things to say about her upcoming Pioneer Award from the Lambda Literary Awards: "I’m not even remotely interested in being gay," she said.

But another part of our conversation for a Washington Post interview might have been my favorite, when we veered into talking about Latin and the subjunctive tense.

"Subjunctive tense: Do you remember when you first had to learn the subjunctive tense? It’s almost vanished in English. I love it. It’s such a fabulous tool. If I say, 'I wish I were you,' you know perfectly well I cannot be well, but we’re going to an area now where I don’t have to prove anything, you don’t have to prove anything, and we can be imaginative and completely free with one another. I just find that one of the greatest intellectual gifts possible, as well as an emotional gift. I’ve been rereading my Lucretius, and whenever he flips into the subjunctive tense, I know I’m in a magic zone."

She receives her award June 1.

Poetry: The Antidote to Fundamentalism

To those who say poetry means very little to people nowadays -- a "tiny side niche," as the award-winning poet recalls people saying to her -- Jane Hirshfield has an altogether different idea: poetry can transform the world.

In our conversation for an article for The Washington Post, which ran online last week and in BookWorld today, we talked about whether poetry has a role in addressing the spate of killings by police of African Americans (yes! Hirshfield says); whether literature has replaced religion as the place some people go in time of struggle (maybe); and her two new books: Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, (Knopf, $24.95) and her new book of poems, The Beauty (Knopf, $26)

She also read to me this poem from her new collection: an answer, I think, to our recent divisions over race.

Our conversation begins like this:

Q. Your book has a very heady subtitle: Can you explain how poems transform the world?

I think we know the world needs changing. Things are going awry left and right. I firmly believe that in our very practical, technological, and scientific age, the values of all the arts, but of poetry in particular, are necessary for moving the world forward. I’m talking about things like compassion, empathy, permeability, interconnection, and the recognition of how important it is to allow uncertainty in our lives.

One of the current great problems in the world is fundamentalism of every kind – political, spiritual — and poetry is an antidote to fundamentalism. Poetry is about the clarities that you find when you don’t simplify. They’re about complexity, nuance, subtlety. Poems also create larger fields of possibilities. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is there is always a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom.

The full Washington Post article appears on the Washington Post blog, "Inspired Life."

Hilary Mantel: Is Cromwell 'a hero for our times'?

There was so much to talk to Hilary Mantel about! Thomas Cromwell as an historical figure, Thomas Cromwell as a character, politicians today, politicians yesterday, Holbein's portraits, her collaboration with actors...

Here's what she said about Holbein, and whether politicians today are as smart as Cromwell. The rest is in my interview for The Washington Post.

Did Holbein’s portraits of these historical figures influence your characterisation?

It’s a source of very good evidence, and sometimes if there isn’t a Holbein portrait you’re lost. The interesting thing in Cromwell’s case, though, is the disjunction between Holbein’s portrait and what his contemporaries say about him. The portrait is of a still, watchful, vigilant, narrow-eyed, pretty unattractive man. Cromwell’s contemporaries describe him as having a great deal of charm. It’s something I work away at, that contradiction.

Are any politicians now as smart as Cromwell?

I think there are very few people in the history of the world quite as smart as Cromwell. He’s a combination of brains and audacity and a kind of visionary capacity as well. What happens usually in politics if you have the visionaries and you have the men of action, and they don’t usually coincide in one person. But Cromwell could see the big picture, but he was also intensely practical. He knew how to make things happen I don’t really like though these comparisons. Cromwell and his contemporaries weren’t there to act as a kind of rehearsal for us. They have to be seen in their own light. So although there are all sorts of contemporary resonances, my stories aren’t a disguised way of writing about the present. They really are about the past.

Roz Chast on Being Funny

Perhaps best known for her New Yorker cartoons, Roz Chast published a memoir last year, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? about her elderly parents’ illness and death. While she found writing her latest children's book, Around the Clock, comic relief, it isn't, Chast says in our interview today in The Washington Post, all so different from writing for adults.

Chast spoke about using humor in the memoir, in this section below which adds to today's Post story.

In your memoir, you describe a complicated family life with a lot of humor. Is that your coping mechanism?

I don’t know. I’m not objective enough. For me, this was what it was like. I wanted to describe my relationship with my parents, including how complicated it was. This wasn’t going to be some BS-y thing, -- it was difficult but we all embraced at the end and we all learned lessons about life. I didn’t learn any lessons about life. I wanted to tell it how it was. And we’re all going to experience this. Our bodies are going to give out.

Are you still holding the desire to “make it right” with your mother?

Yes. I think I probably always will, probably because I have kids and I get so much joy from those relationships. Sometimes it seems there’s a whole part of life that my mother missed. But my parents were proud of me, and I know they cared about me. And I imagine they knew I loved them. If I didn’t care about them, I wouldn’t have written the book.

A panel from "Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"

Donald Hall on 'Essays After Eighty'

What a privilege to be able to talk to Donald Hall last month. It felt like having talking to him over a glass of wine, maybe some cheese and olives. The former poet laureate is now 87, says he can no longer write poetry -- and so instead, is writing essays, made into this book, "Essays After Eighty."

Here's a more complete transcript of one of our exchanges about writing, which didn't make it into today's interview in The Washington Post.

CB: It sounds like you take as much care with each sentence and word in these essays as you did with your poetry.

DH: Yes. There was one poem -- only one -- where I went to 400 drafts –

CB: 400 drafts!

DH: But many of my poems took 90 or 100, more like the prose now. I’ve always been slow. I’ve known people, poets, they’ve written too many poems but they write very quickly. Robert Creeley is a poet I admire, I saw him once sit across the room, and write a poem – and it was pretty good! It wasn’t one of his best ones. But I was amazed! Well, I knew other people did it. There’s no telling. There’s a million ways to work at writing, and nothing is better than the other: It’s what suits you. It’s what you can do. I don’t think my revising made me a better poet than Robert Creeley. We both found our way of doing it. I knew a few poets who probably took more drafts than I did. WD Snodgrass, and Donald Justice – they may have even taken longer. But I know many who took less time. I didn’t mind taking more time. I’d heard of writers who say they hate to write. Not me. I love to do it. I would do it every day. To make sure I could write about that, I always wrote at least a little bit on Christmas Day.

CB: So which poem took 400 drafts?

DH: That was a poem I probably thought was good but now I don’t like so much. “Another Elegy.” It was more about the death of my friend, James Wright.