It's no secret that brilliant writers can be a bit unhinged. But Colm Tóibín's essay collection, "New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families" (Scribner, $26), delves into the direct impact of domestic torment and tragedy on the writer's art. As the author of award-winning novels, plays and story collections with titles like "The Empty Family" and "Mothers and Sons," Irishman Tóibín is primed to connect the dots between the work and home lives of some of our most celebrated writers, from Jane Austen and W.B. Yeats to Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Mann. In a recent telephone interview, Tóibín -- best known for his novels "The Master" and "Brooklyn" -- discusses the new book.
The book is divided into two parts: Ireland and Elsewhere. Are the Irish predisposed to thornier family lives?
No, we aren't! Every writer comes to their own inheritance or invention with a fresh eye, and therefore each one does something very different.
Your book's title deals with mothers, but many of the essays focus on fathers. And the first piece, surprisingly, focuses on aunts.
I was giving a lecture at Amherst and trying to work out some theory of the 19th century novel connecting Jane Austen and Henry James. I saw that in their stories there were no real effective mothers at all, but both use aunts to do loads of things -- they are a real civilizing presence. In order to get your heroine to be alone a great deal, to have no guidance and to look inward, she had to grow up in a house without a mother. She had to grow up alone. This isn't necessarily autobiographical, but James did have an aunt he was very close to and Austen was an aunt and took it very seriously.
Many of the other essays here dig into dark domestic stories involving incest, abuse, abandonment and competition. Yet you're remarkably nonjudgmental.
I think it is up to the reader to work that out. With Cheever and Mann and Yeats, the reader may be thinking, "This is monstrous! Why isn't he saying so?" But it's because I find human vagaries absolutely absorbing and fascinating, so much so that I find it difficult to make judgments because I'm so interested. I was brought up Irish Catholic, where there is permanent judgment over everybody, day and night. There is a certain freedom to not making them!
Like a lot of people, as that campaign began I read "Dreams From My Father," an extraordinary book that just happens to have been written by the president. There were so many points of connection between Obama and James Baldwin: the way in which religion formed them, the distance from their actual fathers, and the way they used other countries -- Baldwin used France and Turkey in the same way Obama used Kenya -- as a place where they realized they were actually Americans. They became two of the most distinguished men of their age, and I was interested in the strategies they used to take power in their worlds -- as a prose stylist and as a politician. What would have been absolutely the best is Baldwin writing on Obama.
Why are we so fascinated by the domestic intimacies of writers?
People do strange things, and through the amount of evidence that writers leave -- diaries, letters, stories -- you get a picture of a human person that you don't get the same way you might with an engineer, even though the engineer could be having the same thoughts and doing worse things. I think that's why writers are so interesting, mainly because of the amount of evidence we have.
Ultimately, did you find a difference in the way writers relate to their families?
Writers will use their family in the sense that you use whatever material is available to you. In certain ways, maybe you could generalize and say family has a funny way of nourishing a writer in relation to the work, but not nourishing the writer in other ways in relation to his life. Each writer in the book came to a dilemma with his family, as each of us do, and in this way writers again are no different from engineers in that sense. There is always a moment where you have to outgrow your family.