An Interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway county. Her début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times and ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner. Her third short story collection Nude (Salt, 2009)) was shortlisted for the UK’s Edge Hill Prize. Her second short story collection To The World of Men, Welcome has just been re-issued by Arlen House in an expanded paperback edition. Nuala’s third full poetry collection The Juno Charm was published by Salmon Poetry in November 2011. Her story "Peach" in the current Prairie Schooner has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
“Peach” begins with such a powerful and irresistible hook—“A pregnant woman was getting drunk in the back lounge; I could see her through the hatch, from where I sat at the bar. She was drinking and crying, sitting on the red velveteen couch alone.” Did you have these lines when you started writing, or did they come later?
I had those lines at the start. My stories usually begin with a collision of a first line, a vague feeling about a character or two, and an even vaguer notion of a situation. Originally the story was about stillbirth. That morphed into surrogacy and damaged lovers and, the classic short story theme, loneliness and what it makes people do.
Do you think having the lines at the start made the story easier or more difficult to write? That is, during the process of orchestrating a story, do you feel like strong images like this one can overpower the rest of the setting and tone, or are they instrumental in opening up the rest of the story?
I find all stories difficult to write in the sense that I don’t have a clue what’s going on for a while and I just push on to see. I write, essentially, to tell stories to myself. So I never know what is coming next until it happens. I love that point in the writing when it all becomes clear and I can forge ahead with confidence. Every story I write feels like a complete dud at the start, then some go well and some don’t.
I love a good strong opening sentence as both reader and writer. Too much preamble bores me – I like to get a sense of the characters very early on. The opening is so important – it has to set everything up and give the reader the impetus to continue on. I find openings come to me readily, it’s the rest of it I have to work hard on.
“Peach” seems to be about Dominic’s state of mind more than anything. He’s a character who sees himself as “a slow-walker on ice.” The tone and setting play perfectly into his internal sense of apprehension too. I’m wondering, then, do you think it’s something about the city that makes Dominic this way, or is it just his character, essentially?
There’s a place in Dublin called the North Circular Road – a street of Georgian houses that are mostly converted into flats. When I lived near there I used to see a lot of single men on that road (separated men, ex-prisoners, men estranged from their families) and they just reeked with loneliness. Dominic is one of those men – his wife is gone, he doesn’t have close friends, he doesn’t drink because it messes with his head. There are enclaves in every city, I’m sure, where men are a forgotten tribe.
So Dominic is a combination of circumstances, his own downbeat personality – he says in the story that dread is his ‘default position’ – and the fairly grim place he is living in. He loves Dublin but nowhere is kind if you are lonely.
What external environmental factors influence your work and writing process the most? Are you a person who likes to be out in the world while writing? Is writing more of a pure reflective task? Do you find yourself being more productive in one season more than the others?
Cities influence me; I am crazy about cities: Dublin, London, Berlin, Paris, New York; smaller cities too like Bremen in Germany and Nantes in France. I have a very low boredom threshold so I find the buzz of city life exciting. I love buildings; I love all the people teeming around and the art galleries stuffed with mad and great artworks. I also love trees, the sea, birds.
I like to go out into the world to soak it up but I retreat to my peaceful house in the small market town I live in to write. If there are too many distractions, it’s hard to write, so it suits me to live in a quiet place.
It’s challenging to write when the three kids are off school in the summer – they keep interrupting me, demanding food etc. Autumn is a good time to start a new project – the children back at school gives me that fresh feeling of wanting to begin something.
The most unproductive time is when a new book comes out because I spend so much time tearing up and down the country doing promotional stuff. It’s fun but maddening too because my desk calls to me.
Also, as a multi-form author, do you find that outside factors influence your poetry different than your prose? Is there a difference in how you process information between your long- and short-form prose too? Do you find that you experience life with a different mind when writing in one form or the other, or is it all just writing/creating in the end?
Like all writers I have my obsessions so I tend to cover a lot of the same ground in poetry, novels and short stories: sex, the breakdown of love, art, strong women, troubled children. I’m a feminist and that will always come through too.
I’ve written both poems and stories on the exact same topics – Joan of Arc, for example; and also pregnancy loss and fertility issues; marriage breakdown. My poetry tends to be more personal while the fiction is generally not based on my life but on situations that interest me.
I love the long haul of the novel because it takes over your head and you start to process the world through the eyes of the novel, if that makes sense. Because you spend a long time writing it (in my case about a year per novel) it soaks into your life and your life also soaks into it. It’s a very joyous thing, to be in the thick of a long piece of work.
What is one book written in the past five years that you wish you had written? Why?
Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan. It is a fabulous, understated, strange story of revenge, beautifully written. It’s set in Maine in winter and I felt perished reading it. Honestly – this is top notch literary fiction by an under-praised Irish writer, so if you haven’t read it, do!
Who are some of the young talented writers in Ireland that most people haven’t heard of yet? Who is an older writer that doesn’t get enough recognition for their body of work?
There’s a young writer called Eimear Ryan who is winning lots of literary prizes and whom I published in Horizon Review when I was fiction editor there. Eimear has it: she is not only talented, she has oomph.
I am also a big fan of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, who writes wonderful short fiction. She is recognised here, to an extent, but she is on a par with any of our so-called top writers and I don’t understand why everyone is not raving about her work.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir will be on campus in Lincoln on February 9 & 10, 2012, for a public performance of her work at the Sheldon Museum of Art, among other events promoting the launch of our current Ireland themed issue. More specific information will be posted on this blog as it becomes available.