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Irish author Colm Toibin visits Johns Hopkins University

For Colm Toibin, the world is full of echoes — ancient stories from different traditions that speak of parents, children and the divine.

He sensed the reverberations every time he thought of his childhood in County Wexford, Ireland, where he was steeped in biblical stories. He detected them every time before he stood before a class in the New School in New York and prepared to lecture on the ancient Greek tragedies. And he picked up the murmurs once again when he went to the opera or saw his friend, the actress Fiona Shaw, perform the role of Medea on Broadway, and wished there were more epic roles for her to tackle.

After viewing Shaw's 2002 performance, it occurred to Toibin that there was a story of one such mythic woman that had yet to be told. Over time, and faintly at first, the author began to hear in his head one possible version of the voice of Jesus' mother.

The story of Mary seemed to him reminiscent of the Greek tragedies featuring bereaved mothers, sisters and wives who are helpless before an implacable divine power.

"Mary speaks very little in the Gospels," Toibin, 58, said recently over the phone, in advance of his reading at the Johns Hopkins University. "But the iconography is the same: the grieving woman whose grief becomes a form of spiritual power. Her mere presence on the stage, even though she's not the king, gives her a sort of equality with the king. The king merely has the legislation, but she has the truth."

Toibin began to wonder about Mary's silence and to imagine how she might have described the events before and after her son's crucifixion. Did Mary believe that the infant she had nursed was the son of God? Why weren't her recollections included in the Gospels?

The manner in which Toibin answered those questions became "The Testament of Mary," which first took form as a play that ran in Dublin and on Broadway. Later, Toibin fleshed out the story into a 96-page novella.

A shortened version of the conversation, in which Toibin describes how he found his way into a story that has dominated thought in the Western world for the past two millennia, appears below.

You have said that it's difficult to write a religious novel. Why is that?

Novels are filled with people who want things in this life rather than in the next life, things like money. A novel essentially is a secular space. It is rigidly materialistic. So it's very, very hard to introduce miracles into a novel. It's very hard to say, "And God came and gave the characters what they wanted."

I think plays are much more open to any form of transformational experience. The theater itself is a quasi-religious, ritualistic space. People come to see something re-enacted that was enacted in the same manner on the previous night.

I wasn't aware that Mary isn't quoted very much in the Bible.

What's remarkable is that she speaks so little in the Gospels. She says a few things during Jesus' childhood. But she doesn't speak during his adulthood, in the years he was away, and she doesn't speak at the Crucifixion.

The only one who puts her at the foot of the cross as the grieving mother is St. John. She's not at the cross in Matthew, Mark or Luke. There is no Pieta image of her holding him after he's taken down.

In the early church, Mary was not the mother of God. She didn't become the mother of God until the council held in [the ancient Greek city of] Ephesus in 431.

Given the fact that Mary is so silent, how did she develop as a character in your mind?

You can't write a book like this without almost having the feelings yourself. It's like acting, in the sense that to say your lines, you almost have to go into the same place in yourself that Mary was in when she was watching her son being crucified. It's not something you can do every day.

Her voice comes out of that. It's a heightened tone that's used by someone who doesn't have much time for ordinary experience. It's traumatized, rather than filled with certainty. Once I had that tone, I followed it where it took me.

But I suppose if Mary had embraced [Christ's divinity] in full, it wouldn't have been very dramatic. It might have been useful in the church, but it wouldn't have been useful in the theater.

You walk a fine line in the book when you recount Mary's version of the miracles, from the wedding at Cana to the raising of Lazarus. Both believers and doubters can find support for their points of view.

I was trying to have it both ways.

Mary asks, "Did you personally witness this?" and the other women always say, "No."

But everyone is talking about it, so it becomes belief. These stories were told so many times and in such convincing ways, that even people who didn't witness these events believe that they witnessed them.

Have you received any pushback for portraying Mary as a skeptic?

Not in Ireland. There's been a big change in the past 50 years, and there's a lot more respect for writers.

During one of the previews in Dublin, I was disturbed because there was a very distinguished professor of moral theology in the audience. I didn't want him to think I did this to shock him. Afterward, he said:" "I'm getting old and my hearing isn't as good as it used to be. It looked wonderful."

I think he meant a great deal more.

In America, I did get abusive emails, and there were two protests on Broadway before the opening night.

I've read that you go out of your way to make yourself physically uncomfortable when you write. That seems so perverse.

I find a hard chair more useful as a writer rather than one of those modern writers' chairs that can roll back and forth. For the same reason, I never put my chair facing a window but up against a wall. Writing takes a huge amount of concentration. You need to go down into a deep space when you write. If you can look at anything else, you're too easily distracted.

I also think you need to be physically fit, because writing is a physical activity. I write in longhand, and there are times when my back hurts.

You have said that you "write out of silence." What does that mean?

It means that if you're brought up in a society like I was, where people talk a lot, conversation is there to conceal as much as it shows. That's really very fascinating, especially for a child. It makes language into a sort of a performance.

You realize all the time that there's one thing that no one has mentioned each time. It's not the elephant in the room — it's the room in which the elephant hasn't come in yet. But, it's clear that an elephant will be coming in soon, and that a space has been left for it.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Author Colm Toibin will read from his work at 6:30 p.m. April 3 at Johns Hopkins University's Hodson Hall, 3400 N. Charles St. Free. Call 410-516-8000 or go to writingseminars.jhu.edu/reading-series.

About the book

"The Testament of Mary" was released by Scribner Publishing. 96 pages, $19.99

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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