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Arts Q&A: Novelist Colm Tóibín on Van Morrison, Beethoven and Jack Nicholson

Jenny Lee puts performers and artists on the spot about what really matters to them. This week, novelist Colm Tóibín

Irish novelist Colm Tóibín is appearing at the Belfast Book Festival

1. When did you think about a career in writing and what were your first steps into it?

I never thought about it as a career, and it isn't really a career. When I was twelve, I started to write poems. I wrote too many too quickly, but it interested me more than my studies did. I began to read poetry obsessively, copying out poems I liked. I came early to T.S. Eliot and liked the sound of the words before I understood much. By the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I was reading Seamus Heaney and Sylvia Plath. In university, I put more work into the poems, but by twenty I stopped. Then about five or six years later I thought of a novel. And I began to write novels, not as a career, but one by one.

2. Best gigs you've been to?

The Rolling Stones in Slane 1982 - it was pure excitement.

Van Morrison in Belfast in the late 1980s - he made the songs more powerful and dramatic.

Wagner's Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York 1989 - it lasted six hours and I wanted it to go on through the night.

3. Fantasy wedding/birthday party band?

The Danish String Quartet. I have seen them play a good few times and have their CDs. I especially like their playing of Beethoven.

4. The record you'd take to a desert island?

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. It's very powerful and passionate and solemn, but also uplifting and beautiful.

5. And the book you'd take to a desert island?

In 1974, when I was nineteen, I picked up The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and was riveted by it. This was not a world I recognised. It was a century earlier, an atmosphere filled with wealth and style. That is one of the pleasures of reading - you enter fully into a place not your own and you inhabit that place as though by right. I have read this book many times since, and on a desert island I would like to read it again.

6. Top three films?

Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. A brilliant script, wonderful musical score and cinematography. It is a film about money and power; innocence and evil, made more exciting by the idea that Nicholson, despite his knowing tone, is the innocent one.

Cries and Whispers. This is one of the Bergman films that I love - the others are Persona, Autumn Sonata, The Magic Flute and Fanny and Alexander. This film is darker than the others, more relentless in its images of illness and death. I love the use of the colour red in the film, but I also love the film's pace, how the camera lingers and then moves on.

Hester Street. This film, directed by Joan Micklin Silver, shows Carol Kane as a Jewish immigrant in late nineteenth century New York. It is sumptuously shot, allowing slowness and silence and lingering camerawork on Kane's face to make this not only a great movie about immigration but about a clever woman's way of managing the world.

7. Worst film you've seen?

Jaws 2. Surely enough trouble was caused by Jaws.

Colm Tóibín will be discussing Queer Love: An Anthology of Irish Fiction at the Belfast Book Festival

8. Favourite authors?

Henry James, George Eliot and Jane Austen.

9. Sport you most enjoy and top players?

I play tennis and I watch tennis on TV. I love the current stars - Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

10. Ideal holiday destination?

Anywhere in the Mediterranean, or the Adriatic. But also anywhere in Catalonia, especially the Catalan Pyrenees.

11. Pet hates?

Pomposity, bad manners and passports. I think the world would be a better place if there were no passports and people could go wherever they liked.

12. What's your favourite:

Dinner? Prawns/lobster.

Dessert? Chocolate mousse.

Drink? Sparkling water.

14. Is there a God?

I wouldn't think so.

Colm Tóibín's 10th novel, The Magician, will be published in September. He will be appearing at the Belfast Book Festival with Shannon Yee and Paul McVeigh to read from and discuss Queer Love: An Anthology of Irish Fiction on Saturday June 12 at 8pm. Tickets from Belfastbookfestival.com.

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