IN the summer of 1983, as I was working on that novel in a hotel room in the Algarve region of Portugal, I came to an impasse. The two main characters had followed my trajectory; they had left Enniscorthy and landed in Barcelona, where they had lived. I had written chapters about the enigma of arrival, about the excitement of the new city, and then about settling there, and also about a sort of unsettlement that came with being away from your own country in a new place of choice. I had written my chapters on the legacy of the civil war in Catalonia. But the novel wasn’t finished; it needed something else, but I had no idea what. I remembered what the Irish painter Barrie Cooke had said to me about starting a painting; he said “you just make a mark.” I was working on a manual typewriter. I thought I would close my eyes for a while, think of nothing, open them and type a word, any word, and then see where that word led. I wrote: “The sea.” An then I wrote: “A grey shine on the sea.” Suddenly, I was back in an Irish landscape, with Irish weather, and not only that, but in a very precise place – the strand at Ballyconnigar on the Wexford coast. I moved my characters there, and I found a calm, stable, melancholy tone to work with. I could see the shore stretching south to Curracloe in many types of Irish summer weather, including days when the haze so easily becomes mist and when soft clouds so easily darken and become rain. Somehow, writing about it was easier than writing about Spain, and the sentences came with less strain….
Novels and stories come only for me when an idea, a memory, or an image move into rhythm. This happens almost of its own accord, and the work can only happen when the initial impulse and the rhythm become nearly inseparable. In the past thirty years as I worked on fiction, the impulse and the rhythm have pulled me from home – Spain, Argentina, the United States, the Holy Land – and then have also nudged me, forced me, pulled me, dragged me, back home to the damp air and the dulled light of the south east of Ireland, closer and closer to things that happened there, to the place of loss, to the loss itself, to minute details, to the very spaces.
Com Toibin, On Elizabeth Bishop