House of Names by Colm Tóibín is Hay Festival's Book of the Month for August. First published in 2017, it retells the classic Greek tales of the house of Atreus, the stories of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, their son Orestes and daughters Iphigenia and Electra. Here, the acclaimed Irish novelist answers our '10 questions' and talks about the process of writing, his favourite books of the moment, and what he's working on now...
1. You wrote House of Names after Nora Webster and Brooklyn, both of which are partially set in Enniscorthy, what made you want to travel to Greece, and ancient Greece at that, for House of Names?
Nora Webster took me thirteen years to write. I wrote other books, including Brooklyn while I was working on it, but I thought about it all the time and added to it every year. When it was done, I did not have any more images left of Ireland or of Enniscorthy. I had used them all up. A friend suggested I look at the story of Clytemnestra and that caused me to read Euripides’s play ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’. The story told from Clytemnestra’s point of view excited me. Slowly, I began to write the first section, unsure what I was doing with it. Slowly, also the shape of the whole novel came to me.
2. What drew you to retelling this particular story and not another set of myths?
The dynamic between mother and daughter and son. The sense of innocence that Oreste, the son, exudes, which comes matched with a kind of danger.
3. How did the process of writing this differ from your other works? What were the challenges in turning myth into novel?
The novel is essentially a secular form. It is happier dealing with human urges than with the gods. I had to make what happened in the book psychologically credible. I had to allow the myth in as undercurrent and give more weight to the human.
4. Why were you drawn to writing the novel from Clytemenestra’s, Orestes’ and Electra’s points of view and not someone else's?
I thought I could find an interesting texture if I had competing points of view in the book. The first section is pure voice. I wanted to get a sense of someone speaking, someone who gets one chance to tell her own story. So the tone is urgent and immediate. But Orestes is a much more passive figure, much less self-conscious, so I dealt with him in the third person singular. If he were given permission to speak, he would not know what to say.
5. When you were first reading the myths, which contemporary parallels struck you most?
We live in a time of civil wars, gang wars. Violence tends to spiral. Once killing begins, it is as though people have developed a taste for it. The story in ‘House of Names’ begins with a woman on her way to a wedding; it ends with the most appalling violence. It is as though violence cannot be contained. Anyone who covered the Troubles in Northern Ireland or the war in the former Yugoslavia can recognize the pattern.
6. What do you want readers to take away from the book?
I don’t think the book has a message. I would like the reader to inhabit the characters in all their complexity and ambiguity.
7. For readers who loved House of Names, what other books would you recommend?
I would recommend the Greek plays, work by Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus.
8. What was the first book you loved?
A Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.
9. What was the last book you read?
Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. I hadn’t read it for about ten years. I like it better every time.
10. What are you working on now?
A novel set in America, among the European war exiles, in the late 1930s, early 1940’s.
House of Names is Hay Festival's Book of the Month for August, available online now, or from all good bookshops and libraries.
Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy in 1955. He is the author of nine novels including The Master, Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary and Nora Webster. His work has been shortlisted for the Booker three times, has won the Costa Novel Award and the Impac Award. His most recent novel is House of Names. He has also published two collections of stories and many works of non-fiction. He lives in Dublin.