Flash Frontier

Interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Interviews and Features

October 2012

This month, we had the honour of sitting down with Irish writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir for our special international issue of Flash Frontier. Poet, novelist and short story writer, Nuala has published her newest collection of short stories, Mother America, this year.

On language and form

FF: You were first published as a poet but you’ve diversified into short story and novel writing, and in all these forms, your writing stands out for its intensity, strength and passion which is handled with a delicate appreciation of language. Do you think this balance comes from being a poet first? Does poetry influence the way you go about writing short stories or even novels?

NNC: Certainly as someone who writes poetry I value concision in language and beauty. I was also brought up bilingual – English at home, Irish (Gaelic) at school – so I have always been steeped in language and asking questions of it. Language is hugely important to me as a writer and as a reader – I love those who take risks with language, I love stylists like John Banville and Annie Proulx. Kevin Barry is doing great things with Hiberno-English.

For my own writing, I like to use interesting language because, I feel, it adds richness. Having said that, plain language – like Hemingway’s – can be equally rich. I guess I value writers who take great care with words.

FF: In short story writing – and especially in flash fiction – the opening is critical. You pay a lot of attention to the way your stories open (and readers can see the careful opening of each of the stories in your collection Nude here). Do you think this is the most important part of the story? 

NNC: The opening is the hook and it has to be arresting. I don’t like stories or novels with lots of preamble. As Jim Dickey said, “If the story is about a bear, bring on the damn bear.” I don’t think it’s the most important part of the story but a good opening is certainly crucial to keep the reader reading.

All my writing starts with an opening line that occurs to me, or swirls in my brain, until I get it down. I then see where the story will lead me. I usually have that, a vague notion of a character, and an even vaguer one of a situation (which often changes as things progress). So I don’t think in ideas, more in feelings. The idea (the story) comes as I write it.

FF: And what about titles (which you also do so well)? Do they come first or last or somewhere in the middle?

NNC: The title often comes very early, along with the opening paragraph. I don’t struggle with titles but I have to have the appropriate one for things to sit right. I sometimes tinker with them until they feel exactly right. I hate wishy-washy titles and try to avoid them. The title has to woo the reader – it’s as much a part of the story as any other part and writers would do well to give titles a lot of thought if they don’t occur to them easily.

On your short story collections, Nude and Mother America 

FF: You open your story collection Nude (Salt Publishing 2009) with a quote from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “Nudity is a form of dress”. The stories in this collection paint nuanced colours of everyday people and their relationships, layered with rather extraordinary experience and emotion. So do you paint your characters nude, or are they intentionally clothed in layers for the reader to peel back? 

NNC: I don’t mind what way readers unlock characters but I try not to be deliberately obscure or secretive, because, as a reader, that irritates me. Fiction is a temporal form so I place my characters in a section of time where something is going wrong for them and see how they cope. Literary readers are very clever and they can pick up on hints but it is probably better to just present your character as they are in a bad situation. I’m not a fan of twist in the tail stories, for example, where ‘all is not as it seems’ but in a really obvious way.

I love this quote from Kurt Vonnegut (while not entirely agreeing with the last bit of it…): “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

FF: Your latest short story collection Mother America (New Island 2012) is about the connections and gaps that exist between people across generations and time and place. These stories travel the world just as do your poems of The Juno Charm (Salmon Poetry 2011). And while your stories and poems take your readers to so many places, you remain an Irish voice, as if these stories could not be written from any other hand. Do you feel first and foremost like an Irish writer, or an international writer? 

NNC: This is a hard one. There’s a ‘thing’ in Irish writing (among critics?) whereby as an Irish writer, you are meant to represent your country in your writing. I am Irish and I feel very Irish but I don’t always want to write about Ireland or Irish people. I also feel very European; I go to Europe a lot. And I love America. (I am positive I will love the Antipodes when I make it there too!) I love travel and inevitably that comes out in the writing.

Some critics don’t know what to do with you if you don’t sound Irish or talk about Irishness all the time. It annoys me when critics make demands on writers, shoulding them about Celtic Tiger novels and, now, Recession Novels. Piss off! We can only write what we are moved to write.

Having said all that, I love writing about Irish people and places, and I love Hiberno-English and will continue to use it because it is what comes most naturally to me.

FF: Mother America has been met with much critical acclaim. Órfhlaith Foyle comments that in your stories “wishes for happy endings lead to fragile and transparent fates through which the past creeps back to take root.” Is it something in your own upbringing that makes this a trend in your stories, or is it more a deliberate plan to work those themes and make them speak to each other, and to your readers?

NNC: Like every writer (like every person) I have passions, interests, ambitions, obsessions, losses, experience. I am also melancholic so I am continually looking back to a lost past and trying to make sense of it and that comes out in the writing.

I like darkness but not utter gloom in stories, though. So I try to keep even a seed of hope in my stories.

FF: You read an excerpt from the story ‘Letters’ here, which is part of Mother America. Did you choose to read this story for the book trailer because it’s part Ireland and part America, a story that reaches across an ocean between people and their histories? How is it representative of this collection overall, even though it’s not the title story?

NNC: Yes, that was the idea. I called the book Mother America because I thought it was a strong title. All the stories feature mothers but not all are set in America. For the book trailer, I wanted something that hit both. There were a few too many f-words in the title story to use that!

I think ‘Letters’ represents the book in that it is about loss and misplacement and a broken mother-child relationship. The scene where Bridie tosses the letters out the window is an homage to a non-fiction scene from the writing of Maeve Brennan, an Irish writer who lived in New York. So there are a few things going on there.

FF: ‘Queen of Tattoo’ is one of those stories dealing with the difficult themes of power, sexuality, identity and bad roads taken – themes you tackle in a lot of your stories. For New Zealand readers, this story will particularly resonate, as the tattoo in Māori tradition is artwork and intricate storytelling, a display of identity and history. Those themes are prevalent in ‘Queen of Tattoo’ also. How did you come to this idea, and is there something about the tattoo artist that particularly fascinates you?

NNC: Yes, I’m kind of obsessed with tattoos, though I only have one myself. I had a poetry collection a few years ago called Tattoo – Tatú, and I have other tattoo stories. I’ve done a non-fiction piece on tattoos as body art too (unpublished as the mag that commissioned it never published it – grrrr.)

‘Queen of Tattoo’ was inspired by the old Groucho Marx song about Lydia the tattooed lady. I love that song and I decided to see if I could invent a life for Lydia. It was enormous fun to write.

On flash fiction and play and the meaning of birds 

FF: Sometimes you are quite playful in you approach to POV, as in the story ‘Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We Are Not Fake!’, first published at Everyday Fiction in 2008.  How does a story like this come to you and how do you decide to take a particular point of view? 

NNC: That one was totally about the voice – the voice came to me and went from there. That kind of story can feel like a gift because it’s like the character tells you the story and you write it down. It’s just occurred to me that I do a lot less obviously voice-driven stories these days, though it’s something I really enjoy.

FF: What’s most challenging about writing flash fiction? And what was specifically challenging about the story ‘One For’ that you wrote for this issue of Flash Frontier? Did it begin from something larger and become something trimmed down? Or did it start out as a 250-word story?

NNC: I wrote ‘One For’ for you! I was in a hotel in Cork when you asked me to submit something and I had seen a magpie on the roof that morning who looked like he was about to throw up. I love magpies – they have such presence – so I started with the bird and went from there; I was also thinking about a friend who recently lost a spouse. I knew the story had to be short so I envisioned it short.

As to what is challenging about flash, well, you have to move and/or surprise the reader and there’s only a certain amount of room. You also have to trust that the reader will get it. I like that flash fiction is amenable to the surreal – it works well in small spaces.

FF: You’ve noted that one of your heroines is Sylvia Plath and that symbols are important to you (and indeed Plath features not only in your poetry but also in your story ‘Cri de Coeur’ in Mother America). Two symbols that recur in your writing are the moon and birds (in your Flash Frontier story as well). Why are symbols so important for you, especially in the forms of poetry and short fiction? And are there particular Irish symbols that are meaningful to you, and why?

NNC: I think things become symbolic to you and, because they do, you carry them over into your writing. I (foolishly) think I am neither religious nor superstitious but I am clearly influenced by both. I was brought up super-Catholic and the church is chockers with symbols – I loved all that and still do: bleeding hearts, mournful statues holding arrows and olive branches, water into wine etc. It was the colourful aspect of an otherwise dull and frightening regime.

In terms of Ireland, we have a rich mythology complete with animal goddesses, emphasis on tripartite gods, fertility charms etc. I love the hare, I love peacocks, I love the moon; I love these things as things of beauty and I love how they can have meaning to a character, so I use them for their vivacity, for their colour.

On your personal connection to places and finding your voice

FF: You grew up in Dublin and now live in Galway. Can you tell us what is special about each of those places to you personally?

NNC: I had a very happy childhood in Dublin – I was a bookish tomboy in a big family, in a rural home-place but I went to the city centre for school and uni, so there were lots of enjoyable aspects to my growing up. I love Dublin’s compactness, grittiness, friendliness; I love its language. I use all that in my fiction, particularly in my novel YOU.

Galway has been many things to me: I became serious as a writer here (maybe I needed to leave Dublin to write it out); I married, divorced and re-married here; I’m raising my three kids here. But, in a sense, it has been an isolating place. It is not my real home and never will be, so I always feel temporary here, even after 16 years. Dublin beckons. I will go back.

FF: Your story ‘Peach’ was the winner of the Jane Geske Award and also nominated in 2011 for a Pushcart Prize (readers can hear you read from it here). Is this story in some way emblematic of your stories, a fair representation of what you try to achieve in short stories?  What elements make this a ‘typical’ Nuala Ní Chonchúir story, if there is such a thing?

NNC: I rarely feel content with a story when it’s done but ‘Peach’ is one of the few that pleases me a little. The pace feels right, unhurried; I like Dominic’s haplessness.

I guess it’s a typical story for me in that it deals with broken love and a man whose default position is dread. An interviewer (male) asked me recently why my male characters are so unlikeable. I was taken aback – I think they are just struggling, like all of us. I have deep affection for my characters because they are flawed not in spite of that. My women are probably equally ‘unlikeable’ in that I don’t write about boring people with boring lives. There would be no point then, no story.

FF: You credit a fiction writing course with Mike McCormack with the turning point for you, back in 1998, when you decided to become a serious writer. Has your writing changed since then? And, given the long and worthy tradition of Irish storytelling, is it easier or harder for an Irish writer today to follow in the footsteps of Joyce, O’Connor et al?

NNC: My writing has changed. I have tried to slow down a bit (I’m always in a bit of a hurry, it’s a personality trait). I have learnt so much over the years from reading other writers and I continue to learn. That’s why I love lit fests – they are an education.

Yes, every Irish writer is inevitably sized up against all our great writers, it’s unavoidable. A reviewer said recently that I was “carrying Edna O’Brien’s flame” which was very pleasing as I have worshipped at the altar of Edna since I was a teenager.  I love the writing of most of our greats and it is nice to be in their company, in whatever small way.

FF: What do you like most in short stories? Who are some of your favourite short story writers, and why? And what about flash fiction? Who are some of your favourite flash writers and why?

NNC: When done well, short stories can be sublime, achingly gorgeous. I love Alison MacLeod, particularly her story ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’; such an elegantly written, moving and original story. I loved Ron Rash’s collection Burning Bright. I cringed and spoke out loud to his characters who were all brilliant wrong-decision makers. Beautifully done. I love Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference – such command of language, such tension. Caitlin Horrocks, Anthony Doerr, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Proulx, John McGahern…

Flash: I love the writing of Tania Hershman (concise, surreal, funny, moving), Nick Parker (funny, off-the-wall), Ivor Cutler (the original short-short maestro), Jim Crace (writes brilliantly about food), Robert Olen Butler (postcards, beheadings, post-coital thoughts – the man is a true maverick who can write anything and make me believe it).

On home and habits

FF: In another interview you mention things that you collect that clutter your writing desk – lucky pennies, things you’ve found on the beach, a paperweight. Are you a superstitious person? Do you have any rituals that accompany your writing or publishing? And do you believe in the luck of the Irish?

NNC: You see, I think I’m not superstitious but why do I collect this stuff? Why do I rub Buddha’s belly every morning? I like charms, talismans, stuff. I guess they are something to fill the religion hole…

As to rituals, I do like to surround myself with things relevant to what I am working on. So for my novel Highland, which is as yet unpublished, I have beach-combed bits from a Scottish beach, the aforementioned paperweight etc. For my novel YOU I made a collage to draw positivity towards the book (it sounds mad when I say that aloud…).

The luck of the Irish? I think we’re lucky that we have a rich literary heritage and that people are literate and like reading. I think we’re lucky that publishers are approachable in Ireland and we have a small scene. (There are downsides to that too, of course!) I think we’re lucky that there is an academic discipline called Irish Studies.

FF: What are you reading this month?

NNC: I have about ten books on the go. I’m reading Silver Threads of Hope a new anthology of short stories by Irish writers in aid of the suicide charity Console. I have another tattoo-related story in it called ‘Squidinky’. I am re-reading Angela Bourke’s fab bio of Maeve Brennan, Homesick at the New Yorker. I am also enjoying Canadian author Zsuzsi Gartner’s short story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth. I’m reading Bishop, Chekhov and Scottish author Dilys Rose. I’m reading the current issues of Five Dials and Mslexia. I read a lot.

FF: What are you writing this month?

NNC: This month I am writing a short story set in Brazil where I have recently been. And another one about a man meeting his son for the first time. I am also working up the courage to throw myself into another novel. It is proving difficult. Procrastinators ‘r’ us.

And finally…

FF: Travel is important to you both personally and professionally – and we’ve already seen how your collections such as Juno and Mother America take the reader to many places, from Paris to New York, from Ireland to Mexico. In another recent interview here you say: “There are other places I would like to set stories but I would like to visit them, to get a proper feel – Russia, for example. The Antipodes.” So we wonder: which New Zealand authors leave an impression, and why? And do tell us, Nuala, when are you coming to Aotearoa, and will you please stop in and pay us a visit when you do?

NNC:  Keri Hulme – I read The Bone People as a teenager and was blown away. I wanted to live in that house.

Janet Frame – I loved her trio of memoirs; she was extraordinary.

Witi Ihimaera – I met Witi recently at the Cork Short Story Festival. I had read Whale Rider and loved it. He’s a gorgeous person, warm and sweet and funny.

Alan Duff – Once Were Warriors is a powerful, painful novel. A friend who lived in Australia sent me that when it came out. Jake the Muss lives on in my head.

Charlotte Grimshaw – she writes masterful short stories. I’ve met her too – I was on the jury that short-listed her for the Frank O’Connor Award the first time she was shortlisted, for Opportunity.

Katherine Mansfield – of course! We studied her in school and I came back to her recently.

I would travel to NZ in a heartbeat. My son has family there so it is something we have on the cards for when we are rich. I have been very fortunate with the invitations I have received to travel with my writing and I am hopeful that someday New Zealand will enter that mix. You’ll be the first to know!

Thank you, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, for the interview this month. 

For Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s story ‘One For’ which opens our international October ‘flight’ issue, please go here

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