There’s usually a moment or two, at least, of interest or emotion to be garnered from Desert Island Discs, but, for me, the recent edition featuring Colm Toibin was riveting pretty much from start to finish.
How refreshing it was, for instance, to hear him say – when Kirsty Young raised the issue of his being short listed three times for the Booker Prize, but never winning – that on the first occasion he hadn’t minded, but when The Master, his novel about Henry James, didn’t win in 2004, he was both dazed and surprised. Clearly, he thought it should have won, for he would have been aware of the momentous challenge he had set himself in writing about – inhabiting – James in the way that he did; aware even, I suspect, that with The Master he had written what might yet prove to be his own masterwork, the fullest and most complete of his novels.
As it was, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty won the prize.
Either side of that confession of disappointment, if that’s what it was – honesty, certainly, rather than false modesty – Toibin said more that was useful about the business of writing during thirty or so minutes than might be gained from one of those lengthy and expensive courses you see advertised.
You need a lot of silence and time on your own. Things happen of their own accord but only if you give them, I suppose, peace.
But if you’re a novelist [rather than worrying over a philosophy of life] well, you just think, tell the story, get on with the business of what he did next, what did she think then, who did she see coming in the door? You’re always working with small images, small details, where the bottle was on the table the second she sipped water, or almost did. So it’s almost as if you’re making drawings or storyboards all the time, trying to see things.
And the book Colm Toibin would most like to take to his desert island? Why, James’ The Portrait of a Lady, of course.