This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 28, 2012.
In his novel, The Testament of Mary, Irish writer Colm Toibin imagines Mary's life 20 years after the crucifixion. She is struggling to understand why some people believe Jesus is the son of God, and weighed down by the guilt she feels wondering what she might have done differently to alter — or ease — her son's fate.
Toibin grew up Catholic and, for a time, considered joining the priesthood. This changed upon his arrival at university, however, when exposure to new people and ideas soon led him to lose his faith. "I suppose I had been moving toward it without knowing," Toibin tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "but, yeah, it went very quickly."
It was around this time, too, that Toibin acknowledged his homosexuality. Growing up, he says, "there was no word for it," and he describes his feelings as "absolute confusion." It was after meeting an openly gay friend at university, he explains, that "I moved very gingerly from between being a very conservative boy from a small town and being out with some friends."
Toibin replaced his faith in God with faith in music and art and poetry: Leonard Cohen, T.S. Eliot and "some writers like Joseph Conrad," he says. But losing his faith did not mean losing interest in Christianity. The idea for The Testament of Mary grew from both his concerns with high art and the lasting influence of Catholicism on his life.
For years, Toibin had been preoccupied with Titian's masterpiece, Assumption of the Virgin. But it wasn't until he was walking down the street from that favorite painting to see another Venetian work — Tintoretto's depiction of the crucifixion at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — that the germ of the novel developed. Tintoretto's painting, he says, is untidy and chaotic. At its center is the crucifixion, but surrounding that central scene is "every form of ... human activity as sort of odd and strange and random."
It was this realization of the distance "between the ideal and the real" as illustrated in the differences between the two paintings that inspired Toibin — who is also the author of Brooklyn and whose novel The Master was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Lambda Literary Award — to want to tell the story of how real people who had known Christ might have remembered his death and the time leading up to it.
Imagining such violent events as the crucifixion, he says, "is really, really serious work. In other words, you have to go in and pretend ... it's happening now and go into absolute detail, so you're almost working in the same way maybe a painter is working ... [except] that it's occurring word by word, sentence by sentence."
On imagining what the real life of Christ might have been like
"Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist, has written a book called The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, in which Jesus has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, so it's not as if it hadn't been done before. Even if it hadn't been done before, I would have felt an absolute right as a novelist to see this character as my invention and to work with that as truthfully as I could within the terms that I had set myself. And I suppose the second issue is that I am a citizen of the European Union, in which such freedoms are allowed and absolutely accepted by everybody."
On death by crucifixion
"Death on the cross is the strangest thing because you die of sunstroke, where you're just held up in that way and you can't faint and you can't fall. But obviously, if you have nails in your hands and in your feet, then there's a question of blood ... if you've already been sort of tortured, so that it can go quicker, but some crucifixions were in fact very, very slow, which made them extremely cruel. ... [A]lso, the fact that they were done on hills meant that crowds in the distance could see them, that ... as I say in the novel — they were silhouettes against the sky — and that that was part of the cruelty."
On how he approaches writing in order to bring the characters on the page alive
"I felt that I was Mary. In other words, I was her voice, I was her eyes, I was her soul, I was her consciousness watching the thing happening and wondering what to do and thinking about it years later, 'Did I do anything right? Was ... there anything more I could have done?' and then going into the next paragraph, describing in the next paragraph exactly what she saw. For example, I tried to think very precisely and exactly, 'If you're wearing a crown of thorns ... ,' and I'd never thought about it before, of course. She sees that he puts his hands up to try and pull the thorns out and by doing so manages to seal them further into the skin, and she's watching him doing that, and she's watching him doing that thinking, 'Stop. No, no, you're actually not helping. ... '
On his introduction to beauty through the Catholic Church
"The cathedral, both in my boarding school — the church — and the cathedral in my town, were both designed by Pugin, which was a great English 19th-century neogothic architect, and he created really beautiful spaces. ... [S]o I suppose [that was] my first connection with beauty, of seeing stained glass, of seeing soaring architecture, came from the church and also the choir in Enniscorthy where I'm from, they would have always sung Mozart's Ave Verum, so that the idea from a very early age [of] hearing religious music, and also the smell of incense and the vestments of the priests and the fact that the priests themselves were figures that people had enormous respect for. So yes, all of that was so much a part of life that you never even thought about it."
On losing his father at an early age, how his family dealt with the loss and how it shaped him as a novelist
"[T]he funeral took place and a lot of people came to the house, and what I noticed was everyone was talking about everything else — no one was talking about him. And then people didn't come as much to the house, and then we didn't quite know what to do, and my older siblings had gone by that time, so it was just my mother and my younger brother and myself. And my father, I can't think that his name was mentioned, and there was no photograph of him on the wall or anything like that. ...
"[W]e simply got on with our lives and that seemed normal, and you lived with that and, you see, if you're a novelist, that becomes a very interesting subject for you in a way. I think if that hadn't happened I might not have bothered with the books because that lived in me so, so fundamentally and so powerfully — that distance between what you are thinking about and what you are saying — and the silence that lingered all the time around serious emotion, that I could deal with in the books because I could of course enter people's privacy, which is one of the things you can do in a novel — you can write about what people are really thinking, how they're suffering, how they're feeling, and then look at what they're actually saying."