A writer runs a risk in writing a sequel to any book—especially one beloved to readers. Can it ever live up to expectations? So Colm Tóibín, the 68-year-old author of 10 novels and two story collections, in addition to numerous works of nonfiction, says he felt trepidation—“immense trepidation!”—in revisiting the characters of his best-known work, Brooklyn (2009), later made into a 2015 film starring Saoirse Ronan.

In the earlier novel, set in the 1950s, Eilis Lacey is a young girl who leaves her home in County Wexford, Ireland, to work in New York, where she meets—and marries—an Italian American plumber named Tony Fiorello. But her sister’s death brings Eilis back to her hometown of Enniscorthy—where she quietly omits the fact of her marriage and falls in love with a local boy, Jim Farrell, before returning to America for good.

In a recent Zoom call from his apartment in Manhattan—the author splits his time between New York and Ireland—Tóibín talked about the decision to write his new novel, Long Island (Scribner, May 7), which picks up Eilis’ story 20 years later. As the story opens, an Irish stranger has appeared on Eilis’ suburban doorstep, accusing her husband, Tony, of an affair with his wife and threatening to deposit the baby that is on the way. This dramatic encounter sends Eilis back to Enniscorthy and to a reckoning with her past and her present. In a starred review, our critic calls it a “moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.”

My conversation with Tóibín has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you have trepidation about doing the sequel to Brooklyn?

There’s a pact the novelist makes with the reader: The reader has to imagine so much. Every time a character comes into the room—imagine the room, imagine the clothes, imagine the face, imagine the voice. You’re just giving some clues, for the reader to imagine. You don’t have to explain everything. And that includes the end. It may be that the end is not entirely finished, and you just end on an ambiguous note.

So I never planned this [sequel], had no ideas for it....And then the opening of this new book occurred to me. I don’t know where it came from. Suddenly, this Irish man would appear. It was essential that he was Irish, because Eilis is able to read him. If, for example, he was someone that she would call American, she’d have no idea if [his claim] was bluster. But the guy has an Irish accent, so it’s two Irish people in America confronting each other. And once I had that, I then had the book.

How long had this been percolating?

Not long. Probably, [it came to me] at some point in the pandemic. It just occurred to me and then I wrote the book. But it honestly was a bit of a surprise.

Probably to your publisher, too.

I think they thought I was going to write another novel about a German novelist with his family and all that. [Ed.: Tóibín’s last novel, The Magician, was based on the life of Thomas Mann.] There might have been a slight sigh of relief.

One of the things I love about this novel, not unlike Brooklyn, is that we don’t spend very long on Long Island, despite the title.

Yes, Eilis lives there. And the opening section of the book is there. But it’s not as though she’s integrated in any way. That’s not what happens to people who are emigrants. It takes them so long to integrate. It’s the next generation experiences the world. [Emigrants] are caught between two.

It’s very much a novel about domestic space. I used to go out to Long Island and just look at those three or four houses—I’m not going to tell you where they are—that were in a cul de sac that were absolutely possible [as the Fiorello family enclave]. I didn’t interfere with the people, I didn’t talk to anyone. I would go out there, just look, just walk along those leafy avenues, and then get back on the train into the city.

Setting shapes everything, right?

No one has lived in this house before. These streets, 20 years earlier, were black, in the sense that they were agricultural land. This is a new suburb; therefore everything Eilis does has no tradition, no history, and she’s really thrown her lot in with this Italian family who almost don’t see her at certain moments.

Quite a contrast with her hometown of Enniscorthy, back in Ireland. It’s a real place,  your hometown.

Enniscorthy is all topography. There are loads of bars that are named [in the novel]—all those bars are real. The only bar that’s invented is Jim’s bar. But all the other things—street names, street corners, names of bars, names of shops—are real. She buys her newspaper in a shop called Godfrey’s. Well, anyone in Enniscorthy will tell you where that was.

But notice that there’s no Irish history. It’s not as though we’re talking about nationalism or the IRA. For example, Enniscorthy is a famous town because the last battle of 1798 was fought there; Seamus Heaney [writes about] Father Murphy, the rebel—there’s none of that in Long Island.

But lots of family history, no?

Going back one generation only—very important. All that stuff is too easy to put in there. Still they were haunted by history. No, they’re not. They’re just haunted by the previous generation.

You’ve written many novels over the years, inspired by the lives of Henry James and Thomas Mann, by Greek mythology and the New Testament. But you keep coming back to Enniscorthy.

Altogether now there are five: There’s The Heather Blazing [1993],  The Blackwater Lightship [2000], Brooklyn, Nora Webster [2014], and Long Island. And in this new one, there are references to characters from the other books. When they’re walking down to the beach, they pass the judge’s house—well, that’s The Heather Blazing. Nancy meets Nora Webster on the street. Lily Devereux comes to the wedding—Lily is the daughter from The Blackwater Lightship. So there is a sense of them all connecting as fictional characters into this circular world I’ve made. I’ll be able to fully people the town by the time I’m finished! It’s a sort of mischief almost. They’re not real characters. They’re not fictional characters. It’s a funny space in between, in which you’re making your fiction seem more real.

Did the fact of the Brooklyn movie change revisiting these characters for you?

I had Eilis so clearly in my mind, and Saoirse Ronan’s performance is so particular, I think, that it wasn’t as though I could take things from the way Saoirse was. But with Jim, the actor Domhnall Gleeson managed to play a thing that is almost impossible to play, which is a quiet, thoughtful Irishman. Think about it, you know? Even the film The Irishman—trouble coming. Jim does the opposite, and watching Domhnall build that—it’s very, very subtle, what he does, and I found it very moving. From that performance I got something that I could work with for Jim. Next time I see Domhnall, I have to thank him.

Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief