Colm Tóibín & Colin BarrettThe shared pursuit of Irish literary laurels

Published in January 2020icon-clockTime to read: 1m30s
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Irish writer Colin Barrett and his mentor, fellow Irishman Colm Tóibín acclaimed author of a dozen books, spent their mentorship discussing the mechanics of writing. Tóibín’s encouragement helped Barrett to complete his first novel, The English Brothers.

by Sarah Crompton January 2020
  • Colm Tóibín
    The Mentor
  • Colin Barrett
    The Protégé

“We’ve been able to talk in a way that you just can’t even with your loved ones,” says the writer Colm Tóibín of his mentorship with young Irish writer Colin Barrett. “If you start talking to them about the way you use the pluperfect tense in a novel, then they’re going to say, ‘Can we actually have a bit of peace in this house, without you going on about the technique of writing?’ So, to have another writer around, for whom these are also pressing matters, was great. I could talk to him in a way that I couldn’t talk to someone else.”

Of all the disciplines in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, the literature partnership is the most delicate and elusive. Writers write alone; they don’t collaborate on putting on a show; you can’t watch them making a work of art, or a film or designing a building. But the bond that has developed between Tóibín and Colin Barrett over the past two years has grown, says Tóibín, into “a literary friendship... How you deal with style, how you deal with structure, those are the things we’ve talked about, but there’s been an awful lot of laughter, gossip and fun as well, the way some guys might talk about football.”

Barrett agrees. “It’s a friendship as much as anything else,” he says. “I’ve got more than I could have expected out of it. Colm is just an intuitively good teacher, and he understood what space to give me, but at the same time, to be there, to be attentive.”

When the mentorship began, Barrett, who is now 37, had completed a prize-winning book of short-stories, Young Skins; he had also begun writing a novel. “Colm just helped me focus on it,” he explains. “I was just bogged down, in the middle of nowhere with the book, which is a completely typical thing that happens. It was an outside injection; he really helped me, gave me confidence, validation. It made me feel: ‘Well, someone sees some merit in my writing and in this book’.”

From the outset, Tóibín was very clear about what he could and could not do. “I wasn’t editing his book for him, that’s not my job. I wasn’t teaching him, either. I didn’t say ‘That’s wrong, or I think you really need…’ We were just hanging out to see what would happen.”

Colm is just an intuitively good teacher, and he understood what space to give me, but at the same time, to be there, to be attentive.

Colin Barrett, 2018-2019 Literature Protégé

Their relationship was interrupted when Tóibín unexpectedly had to undergo treatment for cancer. But even then, they stayed in touch by email and since his recovery, have managed to see each other regularly. Barrett is based in Toronto and Tóibín teaches at Columbia University in New York, so they spent time together there as well as in Ireland. But their most memorable spell was when Tóibín took Barrett to the international artists retreat at Centre d’Art i Natura in the Catalan Pyrenees, which he tries to visit every year.

Over a fortnight, they talked through the business of writing, perhaps when they were driving to pick up provisions, or in the evenings over dinner. Barrett was working on his novel, but Tóibín was also deep in a major new project inspired by the life of Thomas Mann. “This is my 10th novel, my 12th work of fiction and I am still uncertain. That’s why I thought I might make a difference, without showing off, or boasting, but just by letting him see someone older who is still as worried about the novel I am working on as he is about his.”

In his own early career, Tóibín had a similar relationship with the great Irish writer John McGahern who shared his doubts as he was writing his famous novel Amongst Women. “I’ve just dug out a letter in which he wrote to say: ‘This is killing me.’ And I believed him. So that was useful to me, realising that you can never ever settle down and think ‘I know how to do this’.”

The discussions were just as useful to Barrett. “He’s just very practically minded about it and writing is nuts and bolts, it’s trying things, using techniques you’ve learnt and found, and sometimes it lands and sometimes it doesn’t, and you do get periodically lost in stuff. He was always very open about that. But of course, that only comes from being competent and assured and knowing you can do it. It’s the honesty of someone who knows what it takes to admit they are not infallible. That was inspiring to me.”

We are talking in Dublin, where Tóibín has a home and where Barrett, who was born in County Mayo, began his literary career, studying for an MA in creative writing at the university and getting his first stories published. They are there to lead a workshop, give a talk and launch Tóibín’s new play Pale Sister, at the Gate Theatre, now under the artistic directorship of former Rolex theatre protégée Selina Cartmell.

Simply observing the breadth and enthusiasm of Tóibín’s commitments has also been an example for Barrett. “It’s good to see someone show you how to incorporate art and the process of making art into your life,” he says. “How do you live as an artist? I see Colm keeps working, keeps producing stuff. Seeing him working across disciplines, being open to trying different things and to giving things a go, reminded me that you can’t get too consumed in one project because you need to be part of a wider community. If you are going to try to make a living out of making art, you have to build a network around you to support you.”

For Barrett, the fact that the Rolex mentorship is now extended over two years with no conditions attached has also been valuable. “What you need is just the time to experiment and try things,” he says. “There’s an arc to it. It doesn’t just feel like it stops and starts. It can evolve. I talked to some of the other former protégés and they said all they took from the scheme had fed into their subsequent work. The creative repercussions of it stay with you.”

The two men may both be born in Ireland, but they are separated by the difference of the eras in which they grew up, by a changing country and by their very different personalities. Yet it is partly those differences that have made their relationship so fruitful; seeing them together the generosity and warmth of their relationship is clear. Tóibín says that there would have been moments when “you wondered who was learning more from whom… Watching Colin’s determination to get it right, talking about rewriting, talking about moving slowly, I was inspired by that,” he says.

For Barrett, it was Tóibín’s ongoing and infectious curiosity that was so uplifting. “There is nothing complacent about him at all, even though he has achieved all he has achieved. He absolutely could rest on his laurels and he doesn’t. He still has that passion and that energy. I’d love to be like that.”

Sarah Crompton is one of Britain’s most respected writers and broadcasters, commentating on all aspects of culture and the arts. Her work appears in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Times and The Observer, among others.

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