REVIEW: The Wisdom of Adders

BY ALAN MULLER

Adders by Dan Wylie

Addo, Adder, Addis. To Shawn Xaba, the protagonist of Dan Wylie’s The Wisdom of Adders, these places may just as well be one and the same. In 2170 South Africa, places have been stripped of their historical weight by an ecological cataclysm, rendering most of the country’s landscape barren and largely unpopulated except for a few isolated communities and freeway bandits. Set in (what used to be) Grahamstown, and the Eastern Cape, the young Shawn, after abandoning her work post and missing curfew, is sentenced to collecting coal from the “Coastal Line” near Port Alfred some 60km away. In a world where motorised travel has become a thing of the past, this is, of course, easier said than done.

To add to the arduous journey, Shawn, accompanied by the mysterious Mali, must navigate the Atomscorch – a landscape ravaged by radioactive fallout from a malfunctioning nuclear reactor some 100 years prior. Additionally, after global capitalism and industry had ravaged the planet, there had been the “Millennial Mission of Twenty-One Hundred”; a failed mission to colonise Mars that resulted only in the eventual death of the cosmic colonisers on the planet. Between the reader’s present and 2017, there has also been a near total loss of historical context and knowledge as places and institutions take on new names that are mere homophones of the places they used to denote. Port Alfred is reduced to Palfred which has since been overcome by rising sea levels while national highways like the N2 and N10 have become the Entu and Enten and home to bandits and are traversed only by brave merchants who scour the Atomscorch for “trinkets and techno-baubles”.

Wylie’s post-apocalyptic novella is at once both an emptying out and filling up in terms of its ecocritical approach to such a disaster. While the landscape is initially all but emptied of its flora and fauna (humans included), nature proves resilient and increasingly intrude into the narrative as it progresses. The novel begins and ends with the elusive adder while a jackal proves omnipresent yet is only as visible as it chooses to be. More striking though, is the discovery that Shawn and Mali make in Adder (an area west of what was Grahamstown); a species long thought eradicated by humans and the Atomscorch. Nature, it seems, has a way of bouncing back from the most aggressive assaults.

Although nature and acological crises come to the fore in The Wisdom of Adders, the novella’s plot and setting are not entirely emptied of their political baggage. A centralised government may be something of the distant past and is not even mentioned but racial politics does rear its all-too-familiar head. While South Africa has become “a country of browns”, there are rare racial exceptions in the form of ‘Throwblacks’ like Mali and even rarer ‘Whitebacks’ like the Tharfields. While the backstory of why Mali’s lineage remained black is unclear, the Tharfields openly boast about their 1820 settler roots and how they remained ‘pure’ by resisting what they saw as shameless miscegenation as the population shrank.

The Wisdom of Adders is a stylistically slick novella that incorporates poetry into its already lyrical prose. Before embarking on her journey, Shawn is befriended by the mystical Stormchaser who gives her a collection of his poetry to take along. She and Mali read some of these to one another along their journey and the reader is able to glimpse a flash of Wylie as a poet also. Having published seven collections to date, his poetry is able to stand on its own but complement the novella well in their ecocritical themes. Wylie’s seventh collection, Slow Fires seems to function as a poetic genesis for this novella with its focus on the lives of animals and inevitability of the cycle of birth and death (read Finuala Dowling’s review of the collection here). The novella also mirrors a scene from a poem titled “Even a darkness which may be felt” as people run to scoop up locusts, making the best of an approaching swarm.

The Wisdom of Adders joins a growing body of outstanding ecocritical speculative fictions to emerge from South Africa in recent years such as Henrietta Rose-Innes’ novels Nineveh and Green Lion, Cain Prize-winning story “Poison”; and Nick Wood’s “Thirstlands” and “Of Hearts and Monkeys”.

The Wisdom of Adders can be purchased from Amazon.

WORK/LIFE: Paige Nick

Paige Nick

Paige Nick’s novels include Dutch Courage, This Way Up and A Million Miles from Normal (which is also the name of her popular Sunday Times column). A copywriter who has worked on brands such as Santam, BMW and Nashua, over more than two decades, she’s also is one third of the Helena S. Paige trio, whose first choose your own adventure erotic novel, A Girl Walks into a Bar, launched in 2013.

What does “writing” mean?

Sitting down and beating off every other distraction to get your words down for the day, every day. Whether they’re for a book, column, or an ad for coffee beans.

Which book changed your life?

When I was 11, I took The Never Ending Story, by Michael Ende, out of my library. It was the first “proper” book I ever read, because it had so many pages. I was completely absorbed by it. That was when I first discovered that I had magical powers, and I could make the whole world disappear, and a new one form in front of my eyes. All I had to do was open a book.

Your favourite fictional character?

Ooh tough one, so many to choose from. It’s somewhere between Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished my ninth novel, Unpresidented. It’s a political satire, set in the future. The president of South Africa, Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza, has just been released from prison early on medical parole for an ingrown toenail. Entirely fictional of course.

Describe your workspace.

Whereever I am at any given moment.

Paige Nick's Workspace

The most important instrument you use?

Easily my laptop, closely followed by my brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I think the best author preparation, has been spending the last twenty-three years with a full-time job as a copywriter in ad agencies. I’ve learnt mental toughness, a resilience to feedback and criticism, and most importantly, I’ve learnt how to be productive at any given moment, and how to squeeze in an hour of writing anywhere I get a gap in the day; whether it’s morning, noon, night, or later that same night.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

A run almost ALWAYS helps me untangle a plot knot. I also rely heavily on a handful of really amazing (and patient) writing friends. We discuss mental traffic jams, which often unloops me too.

How do you relax?

I don’t think I’ve been properly relaxed since my first novel came out in 2010. But to partially unwind, I run, travel, hang out with friends, have sex, and watch the most disgustingly brain-dead TV series, which I’d be too embarrassed to name in public.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Sarah Lotz, international author, and powerhouse of inspiration constantly influences my work, because I’m constantly picking her brain. There are others to add to the list too; my amazing editor Helen Moffet, and other writer friends, Edyth Bulbring, Rahla Xenopoulos and Yewande Omotoso. But I know that’s not what you’re asking.

I read widely, or rather, as widely as possible, given the time-drought we find ourselves in. But I don’t know who influences my work. Of course Sex & the City influenced my early colums, but my novels seem to be coming from so many different places right now that it’s hard to pinpoint any specific influence.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

“Nobody cares that you only had the weekend.”

It’s the headline from a print ad from the 70s or 80s for an advertising awards show, and I need to dig it out of my archives again. The copy went to talk about how excuses don’t matter. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the work and how good it is.

This was reitterated by writing coach Sarah Bullen who once told me that you can watch a TV series/go out/sleep/read OR you can have a novel. It’s your choice.

These thoughts play over and over in my mind while I’m mired in a draft of a new novel.

Your favourite ritual?

Probably making tea, sharpening pencils and checking social media and my email obsessively. I do that several times, then get down to work.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Other than the self-hatred and angst when you’re in the middle of it? It’s got to be the market. It’s so freaking flat, I can’t stand it. You work yourself to death to sell a couple thousand books. For what? I can’t stop doing it, but I know I probably should.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

God, how long do you have? We may need a longer page.

What are you afraid of?

Again, I think I need more ink on this one. I have a lot of fear and anxiety. Mostly to do with failure and death, in that order.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

It’s the most boring advice in the world. Write.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Dutch Courage (Penguin SA, 2016) was the hardest book I’ve ever written, because it was so far out of my comfort zone and realm of reference. It took me four years and two overseas trips to research and write, while all my other books have come out of me in six months to a year. But more than that, I’m proud of where I am. I’ve worked really really hard for this life, and it’s one thousand per cent the one I want to live, and I think there is much merit and some luck in that.

WORK/LIFE: Mark Winkler

Mark Winkler

Mark Winkler grew up in what is now Mpumalanga, and studied journalism Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He has spent most of his working life in the advertising industry in Cape Town, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is currently creative director at a leading advertising agency.

His first two novels, An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything)  and Wasted were both published by Kwela Books. His third, The Safest Place You Know, was published by Umuzi earlier this year.

What does “writing” mean?

Different things to different people, I suppose. Writing could be a corporate email, a legal contract, a WhatsApp to your BFF. To me it’s an opportunity to play with language, to mould it the way I want, and my challenge is to deploy it unusually, to make it sing. The writer is the lens between the reader and the story, so it’s the responsibility of the writer to reward both the reader and the story in the telling.

What book changed your life?

The Little Iron Horse, one of the Bobbsey Twins adventures. I was six, in bed with mumps, and it was the first “novel” I read on my own. It was my first experience of disappearing into a written story, and it also made me aware that there must have been someone who wrote it.

What are you working on at the moment?

Trying to make time, mostly. When I do, I’m working on my fourth novel, Theo & Flora, and on a collection of short stories, which for now I’ve called The Theatre of Obscurity.

Describe your workspace.

Depends. It can be a coffee-shop table or an airport. Best, though, is sitting at my old knee-hole desk in my study at home, where the walls are a deep Venetian red, the backdrop to framed copies of my books and photographs, and where I get to choose the music.Mark's Workspace

The most important instrument you use?

Observation. Without it the pantry would be bare. I’m a serial eavesdropper and people-watcher. I steal and hoard, and then Frankenstein bits and pieces together as it suits me. So second to observation is interpretation – how do you take what you’ve witnessed and make it make sense?

What’s your most productive time of day?

I have a demanding day-job, and actively exclude my private writing from my office hours. This means I need to be productive in the evenings and on weekends and holidays. I do best in darkness, though, and when it rains.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I’ve come to believe being stuck is the brain’s way of begging for a rest, so I no longer try to force things when I’m stuck. Instead, I read, or try to do something I’ve never done before, or at least do very seldom.

How do you relax?

I spend time with my family, or jump on my mountain bike. Movies. I used to watch rugby, but recently it began having the opposite effect.

Who and what has influenced your work?

My high-school English teacher was hugely influential, lending me challenging books that weren’t part of the curriculum, such as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist etc and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Authors who’ve influenced me include Carey, McEwan, Bellow, Gordimer, Coetzee, van Heerden, Rushdie, Okri, Marquez, Barnes, and so on and so forth, as well as poets such as Eliot, cummings, Pound and Owen. Also, the many years I’ve spent as a copywriter have been invaluable in learning about the importance of concept, craft, language and voice.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Don’t try to edit while you’re writing, or you’ll spend a year crafting Chapter One instead of building momentum and getting to the end. There’ll be more than enough time to rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite) once you’re done. So: start, go, and don’t stop.

Your favourite ritual?

Don’t really have one, other than to put on classical music – lyrics distract.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding the time for it – and then realising that an idea you loved is stillborn after you’ve spent weeks trying to take it somewhere.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

That I seem to have a ceiling of around 75k words, many of which are then necessarily pared away in the editing process. I’d love to write a great big door-stopper, like Wally Lamb or John Irving, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.

What are you afraid of?

Spiders, tequila, and running out of ideas. And being dead, of course.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Don’t start at all if it’s something you’d “like” to do. Start only if you cannot stop yourself from writing.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

An obvious answer, I suppose, but it was probably having my first novel published. I’m sometimes asked how long it took to write it, and while the technically correct reply is less than a year, the real answer would be closer to twenty-five years – that’s how long it took to figure out how to do it.

“Pulling things up and out”: an interview with Colm Tóibín

On a recent visit to New York, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS sat down with the renowned Irish author Colm Tóibín.

Colm Tóibín

It’s almost 5, an April afternoon. I stride into Columbia’s nearly deserted Philosophy Hall, and climb the stairs, heart thudding from exertion, or nerves, or both. Colm Tóibín is on the sixth floor, waiting for me behind a big desk in his little office. Ahead of my New York visit, a mutual friend put us in touch, and he’s agreed to an interview.

His bibliography bulges with reportage, essays – but it is his fiction that has enthralled me the most. I’ve been a fan for years – ever since I read the Dublin IMPAC Prize-winning The Master about Henry James when I was at school.

Did he always know he was going to be a novelist? I ask.

“No,” he replies, explaining that throughout his teens, he wrote poems. When he moved to Barcelona at the age of 20, this stopped. Not only had the feedback he’d received from readers been less than effusive, the city itself “just didn’t lend itself to anything other than just being out. It was all too exciting.”

He remembers feeling “very clearly that the mechanics of fiction seemed to be so close to the mechanics of journalism – and clunky and not worthy of my attention. In other words, the images were always burdened down by having to connect things and explain things.”

He did attempt a few short stories, however – “which were no good. I couldn’t find a tone for [them]. I was so nervous that I couldn’t get the open, clear rhythm that was like somebody breathing naturally in my opening paragraphs.” He would cram in too much information or insert too startling an image. “It just didn’t work, so I stopped altogether.”

Out and in.

Back in Dublin after three years of teaching English in Spain, he became a journalist, writing for, among others, The Sunday Tribune and In Dublin. He remembers telling friends in 1981 the outline for what would become his first novel, The South. He started working on it tentatively the following year.

Tóibín says many Irish journalists were writing novels, but they were mostly based on their work as journalists. “Mine was the opposite: it wasn’t about that at all. It was about painting, exile, Spain, civil war – it was as far away from what I was doing in the day as possible, really.” He was drawn to that story because of “the poetry”. “Whatever was there first was image-based or language-based rather than about exploring the society or attempting to write a novel that was about the real world. Things came to me as sounds or as as melodies or as images. I couldn’t have gone on writing sentences that were really informative or indicative.”

The South was published in 1990; his second, The Heather Blazing, about an Irish judge, came out two years later. He recalls having dinner with the editor of his first book, who announced to him that she had only just discovered that he was gay, pointing out that homosexuality didn’t feature at all in his novels.

“It just would be unthinkable that you’re going to go on writing novels and this thing that is at the very centre of your being is not going to be explored,” she told him.

Why hadn’t he broached it in his early work, I ask.

“It would’ve been very difficult in Ireland – and indeed in England… the idea of being put into a category and not being able to get out of the category,” he says – especially when he “was interested in history, in many other things”.

“But also my own homosexuality was something that I hadn’t come to terms with in many ways. Although I was having probably a whale of a time, I was doing it the way that many gay men did.” He was, he says, “out and in” – out to his close friends, but closeted to the rest of society. “It wasn’t as though there was a huge gay community in Dublin who were all friends of mine and we could all hang out together – it wasn’t like that. So I didn’t have a sense of how I could write about it, what it would look like if I wrote about it.”

“The problem is that once you let the genie out of the bottle, trying to get it back in is hard… so writing [The Master] was one way of navigating that – where I could write about a character whose homosexuality was something hidden and present. And I knew about that, so I could write that book.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before 2004’s The Master – long before it – was the exquisitely erotic The Story of the Night (1996) about a gay man living in 1980s Buenos Aires. Tóibín remembers reading an excerpt at a literary event in London, where the editors and writers present expressed surprise that he was gay. “There was a certain pleasure in that,” he says.

He was reassured by a friend who told him shortly before the book was published: “You cannot be assaulted in this country because of the books you’ve written now and the way in which you’ve presented yourself in this society. You could say anything and it’ll be OK.”

The novel was partly inspired by his time covering the trials of the generals who had ruled over Argentina’s military dictatorship. After a day spent in court, he would drift through the narrow streets of Buenos Aires’ El Microcentro, which was “filled with guys looking at shop windows pretending to be very interested in some suit or other – but actually they were just using the window to see who was stopping and who was coming by. It was the cruisiest place I’ve ever been because there was nowhere else you could go.”

The novel was also, he says, “set in a version of Ireland – in the sense of a society where homosexuality was almost unmentionable”. In 1985 Buenos Aires there were no gay bars; the gay guys he did meet would tell him that no one knew they were gay, that they had a girlfriend they were going to marry.

“I had a pretty good time of it because I was Irish… no one worried about having sex with me since clearly I was going home. I just took full advantage of that situation,” he smiles.

Where the CDs are.

“I can work anywhere,” he says. “I’ll work in a hotel room. Often I’d love to make this room into where I’d live. Put in a top floor with a little ladder and a desk up there and a bed and a little kitchen and a little bathroom and just live here.”

He sometimes goes to Spain or California (where his boyfriend lives) to write. And then there is Dublin. “I always think someone of my generation, home is where the CDs are,” he grins. “My CDs are in Dublin.”

I can’t resist asking him about the uncomfortable chair he apparently writes at when he’s in Dublin. He groans before I’ve barely phrased the question – it’s come up with painful frequency in interviews over the years.

He explains anyway: “If you think of writing as a form of self expression – a form of pleasure, a form of comfort, a way of comforting yourself, a way of even amusing yourself – I think you’re missing the point. For me, it’s a way of pulling things up and out – guts. Things that have not been spilt before. It depends on memory, on imagination. It depends, for me, on things that are very difficult,” he says. Sitting on “one of those master-of-the-universe swing chairs that are made of some extraordinary fabric that’s soft on the bones – well, I don’t think that would be good for me.”

So, does the chair make him focus? I ask.

“It’s one thing that focuses you. The other thing that focuses you is just not looking up. Just settling down to the fucking thing and doing it.”

If it’s so difficult to do, why does he bother?

“I think that I have some basic urge to communicate levels of feeling – things from the nervous system, and from memory, to other people,” he replies. “It’s a basic urge, it seems to have always been there – that somebody wishes to record or set down feelings or things of what they were like on a given day,” he says. “In the same way as when people went hunting many thousands of years ago, someone stayed behind to paint the hunters on the walls of the cave. It’s a mysterious thing because it really has no material value.”

He says his answer “sounds slightly metaphysical and precious; but there it is, there isn’t any other answer.”

Pulling out.

Is there a particular time of day he writes?

No, he answers: “If you have to finish it, finish it.  The urge to finish sometimes is a big one, that you’ve really got to try and develop. I can do a lot in a day, but only when I’ve got everything in my head.”

“If you have the character, if you’re me you have everything then because you can work around and you can build up the story. You always will know what they would do, or what they must do in a given situation. Then you can work from that.”

While Brooklyn (2009) developed quickly, his novels typically have a long gestation period – he admits to having four in various stages of development currently. 2014’s Nora Webster, his most recent novel, he started working on in 2000. It’s closely based on his childhood, on the aftermath of his father’s death. “That was the big one that I couldn’t get an arc for. And also, the material was so personal – giving it up was going to be difficult.” He dreaded “not having that story to tell anymore” – “because once I finished it, I realised I can’t really revisit this material – I have to sort of let it all go”.

The hardest part of the book was a passage where the title character (who was inspired by his mother) sees a vision of her late husband. He grabs a copy of the book from his bookshelf, and reads it, the words emerging so quietly that my voice recorder barely catches them.

He closes the book. He tells me about how he went alone to Wexford – the setting of the book, where he grew up – specifically to write it. He spent the whole of Saturday at his desk.

“The reward was going to be a big swim. And it started to rain – being Ireland, of course,” he smiles. After writing it, he went swimming anyway. “I stayed in the water for quite some time just thinking, ‘I will never have to do that again; I will never have to do that again.’” Afterwards he packed up the car and drove back to Dublin – he didn’t want to be in the room where he wrote it.

“With that, you can’t do a second draft of it. It’s one of those bits that you write down as though it’s happening in real time to you, now, and you can change words or make little cuts but you can’t rewrite it – you can’t start again; you do it once.” It’s not a vision, he emphasises – “you’re in full control over it. You’re concentrating fiercely; it’s an act of will.”

I ask him if writing something so personal results in catharsis.

“No – you’re manipulating, pulling out and you’re using, you’re not releasing. It’s funny – if anything it hardens it.”

A recent story Tóibín wrote for the New Yorker he based on his experience of hypnosis with one of Ireland’s top psychiatrists. I ask him if therapy has influenced his writing.

“It’s been useful,” he replies. “It gives you a sort of knowledge so you can see things more clearly. So if you’re dramatising things you actually know why you’re dramatising them – or you can see the conflict; you can know why, as you turn a page, you’re suddenly going into this territory – without doing it blindly or foolishly.”

Value for money.

I ask him how time away from Ireland influences writing about his homeland.

“My problem is that I don’t have any real sense of contemporary Ireland. A few times in short stories I can do it, but I don’t have any real sense of the society.” He thinks that’s because “I haven’t had children there and lived in the suburbs and watched them going to school… I’ve been very solitary and I have not had a job [there] for a long time.”

“I think when you get to a certain age it doesn’t really matter where you live. I know people disagree with that – I talked a lot at one point to your compatriot Nadine Gordimer about that. She was very intent, very emphatic about the idea that if you missed the small daily, businesses of a society – not even one that’s changing, but just one that’s there – then you lose a flavour for your book, the things you just won’t know. But in my case, I’m not that interested in societies anyway – as she was,” he says. “The flying in and out has been good,” because returning after time away results in “a sudden re-familiarisation – a smell, the look of something, the sound of someone’s voice, when you’re not used to it”. “If you’re there all the time, you might not feel that as sharply, it wouldn’t seem so stark or oddly interesting.”

“I didn’t plan to start living in America,” he says. “I just got offered jobs and suddenly sort of drifted into it.” He loves “everything about” Columbia. Instead of teaching in the creative writing faculty, he lectures for one semester in the English literature department. Surrounding him are theorists, academics who have written serious critical books. “I’m the writer in the department. I think there was a bit of suspicion to begin with that I wouldn’t know what I was talking about, and that the students wouldn’t be getting value for money,” he says.

On Mondays, he teaches to postgrads a course called Ordeal and self-invention: the heroine from Jane Austen to Edith Wharton; on Tuesdays he gives one on Irish prose to undergrads. Instead of looking at literature through a theoretical prism, “I’m looking at the thing as it’s being made, as though it not been made yet – and looking at what the strategies are to create something.”

Today he explored with his 15 students that sometimes “a novel is a way of rescuing a novel – meaning that half-way through a novel you realise that if I don’t get involved in the rescuing of this book, then I’m going to lose the book. And often it’s because you’ve given characters too much definition, and they’re now only going to live in character for the rest of the book. We talk a lot about not having settled characters”. Henry James realised “he had to soften characters or make characters seem more foolish or give characters moral agency they didn’t have before.”

“You’re talking book all the time,” he says. “It feeds its way back into the books some way or the other. But it also keeps me alive – in the sense that you really fucking worry about these classes before you go into them.”

Alarming in some odd way.

One of several books Tóibín has edited is the Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999). I ask what the common threads tying together the tapestry of Irish literature are.

“We can’t really do domestic bliss, and we can’t end a novel in a wedding,” he says. “There is always a bit of a propensity to break up any peace that’s been had… There’s a problem always with chronology: many novelists feel you cannot handle time directly, that time has to be the first thing you play with – you usurp, you turn around. There’s a lot about death, and dwelling on death and dwelling on solitude and grief.”

“Irish prose fiction tends to be poetic,” he adds. “The sentences are constructed for their sounds, their melody as much as for what they might signify. And so you’re always listening to a rhythm.” This stems from “an aboriginal set of feelings” – “the impulse itself comes from the same impulse as to sing and make music.”

There is something discordant, uneasy about these stories – because “nothing was communal or politically agreed”; “everything was disputed or broken or ready to be burned down – or ready to be erased, including memory.”  He can sense the contrast between Irish and English writers “very emphatically” when sharing the same platform. “Their thinking and their speech and everything they’re doing is entirely different.”

“Being in New York is much easier for me than being in London,” he says. In the Big Apple, “nobody has any preconception that if you’re Irish you’re one of two things” – the English either perceive you as “alarming in some odd way, or that you also have a natural talent with words that the entire society has – that words are sort of pouring out of all of you all the time.” The English think “you’re always storytelling and your grandmother must’ve told stories… I hate storytelling,” he says, defining the form as “arising from an oral tradition which is unmediated by a literary tradition and which makes its way unstructured onto the page as though it’s a sort of form of flowing water”.

“You’re constantly trying to get them to stop fucking making a cliché out of you.”

Nora Webster is published by Penguin in the UK, and Scribner in the US, who will be publishing Tóibín’s next novel, House of Names, next May. Steve Pyke took the portrait at the top.