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Air Schooner #1: Ireland and America

Nuala Ni Chonchuir

Prairie Schooner has teamed with the UNL College of Journalism to create a lively, quirky, biweekly radio-magazine-styled podcast that features interviews, readings, reviews, travel diaries, current affairs, and literary curios.

Bonus Material
Nuala Ni Chonchuir reads from her story "Peach."

Full transcript of Air Schooner interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Scott Winter: From her home in the midlands of Ireland, thanks a lot for joining us on Air Schooner, Nuala.

NNC: Thank you.

SW: Tell us a little bit more about this story, “Peach,” and where it came from?

NNC: Sure. The story is about Dominic, who is a separated man who meets this woman, Maud Peach, and they have a relationship and things don’t go very well. As to where it came from, the Irish poet Michael Longley once said, “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.” So it’s a bit like that with me and short stories: I’ve absolutely no idea where they come from or where the characters spring from, other than maybe with this story, Peach—I have a mild obsession with charting how relationships go awry or break down. So, I would normally start with a first line—a first line kinda pops into my head at random and I would have some vague feeling for a character and I just try to push on from there and sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.

SW: Okay. Well, let’s talk about that first line. I’m gonna read it to you, though you should—you probably know it by heart, so it’s awkward for me to read it to you, but… “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.” So where did that line come from, and would you like to go to that place?

NNC: Um…I suppose it’s just the notion of these days, pregnant women are not allowed to drink at all, and, y’know, they nearly have glasses of alcohol snatched out of their hands if they were seen, so the idea occurred to me of how bad it would be to see a pregnant woman getting drunk and crying on her own, and—what’s she crying about? Originally, I had the idea that the story was going to be about stillbirth, and then I changed it to surrogacy. So I kind of make it up as I go along; I kinda write to tell a story to myself, and so it will develop as I write it.

SW: Well, it’s really a gut-punch, I think. Do you like to gut-punch readers like that?

NNC: Yeah, I think it’s important to open well, to open interestingly. I’ve judged a lot of short-story competitions, like the Seán Ó Faoláin Award; various competitions; the William Trevor as well; and it’s the stories—when you’re sent like, a hundred or seven hundred stories to read, it’s the stories that open well are the ones that go into the “yes” pile for reading, y’know? Stories with too much preamble at the start tend not to interest me—I just can’t get into it, so I love a nice strong opening.

SW: Do you know a lot of Dominics? Have you known quite a few Dominics in your life, or where you grew up?

NNC: I went to a Dominican convent school—maybe it came from that! [both laugh] It would be a popular name here because of Catholicism.

SW: I guess I’m not talking about the name; I’m talking about the character.

NNC: Oh! I get it.

SW: Those kinds of Dominics.

NNC: Let’s see…would I’ve known a lot of…I suppose I would have observed a lot of men like him. I suppose as anyone knows, Ireland has a great reputation for drinkers, and drinking is the one big social problem in this country, y’know, that has really caused huge problems in families, so it’s something that affects every family. There’s an alcoholic probably in most families in Ireland, so I’ve known plenty of alcoholics, so I know how…Dominic in the story is a dry alcoholic—he’s not drinking anymore—and then he has a drinking episode in the story, and I’ve just seen how that can cause destruction with people.

SW: You’ve talked a little bit about how you build stories. You build stories, you’re a novel-writer, you’re a poet…. How do you know, when an idea strikes you, how do you know where it’s headed, as far as what form it’ll take? How does that decision happen? Like with “Peach” or with any other piece?

NNC: I get asked this question a lot, because I work in, y’know, three different forms. I still haven’t really come up with a satisfying answer. It’s to do with a feeling, really. It’s like, I dunno…it’s like I can see ahead of me how long something will be, and that then dictates whether the subject will be a poem or a story or a novel. Some things, some characters will nag at me more as well, so they tend to be made into longer work. Having said that, I have written poems, stories, and novels about the same things, namely: relationship breakdowns; fertility issues; visual art (which I’m very passionate about)… so these are the things that haunt me, the things that occupy my mind, that I’m passionate about, so I suppose it’s only natural for me to write about them in any way I can. So there’s no kind of proper answer to that question—it’s just, I know when I start out, whether this thing is poem, story, or novel material.

SW: I’m going to shift gears a little bit. You’re ahead of us—you’re seeing the world way before we do, I think six hours before we do. So you’re on Greenwich Mean Time and you’re living in Galway County—can you tell us about Galway County?

NNC: Yeah, Galway is…it’s quite a large county, so I live on the very east part of it, so I live almost in the Midlands of Ireland—almost in the center of Ireland. I live in a small market town; nothing much happens here. I don’t know a whole lot of people, so I’m actually left in peace a lot, which means I can get on with my work very well. It’s a nice place to bring up kids; it’s gentler than, say, Dublin, which is where I’m from. The Catholic fever passed the town by, so it’s neither wealthy nor prissy, but we have a nice old house in a quiet cul-de-sac—we’re happy enough here. We probably will move back to Dublin eventually, but at the moment, this suits. It suits for bringing up kids.

SW: So, you’re writing from the Midlands, you’re writing from a cul-de-sac…we’re doing a show later this year, talking to writers about their writer workplaces—where and how they write. Can you tell us a little bit about your writer workplace or workplaces?

NNC: Where I write? My actual desk, like?

SW: Yeah, sure.

NNC: My desk is in the corner of the dining-room. We do have a study upstairs, but it’s freezing cold. We’re going to get it insulated and I’ll probably move back up there then. I have this little old desk that was made in Dublin in about 1900, with a drawer, and it’s full of chewing gum and business cards and stuff like that. I kind of have a very…I’m a clutter-bug, so there’s a lot of clutter around me. But I keep nice things around me too: there’s a postcard of Sylvia Plath, who is one of my heroines; there’s a picture of the Eiffel Tower with a lady in a red coat in front of it, which I like; there’s a sign on the wall that says “To imagine is everything”; there’s bookshelves to my right—I’m just looking to see what’s there—the Paris Review interviews are there, four volumes of those; my Oxford Dictionary and my thesaurus; books on how to write, because I do some creative-writing teaching, so they’re always handy to have to, y’know, to refer to. So it’s a very quiet corner of the dining-room; we don’t use the dining-room every day—we use the kitchen to eat in—so it’s kind of my room. It’s a lovely room. Darkish, but I have my own little space, so that’s the main thing.

SW: And on the middle of that desk, do you have some really fancy paper, homemade paper? Or do you have the latest MacBook Pro? What are you working from?

NNC: No, my humble little Toshiba laptop, and pots of pens, and I have a list of things to submit to—magazines to submit to—like a list with dates; I have a paperweight, which is relevant to the novel I just finished: one of the characters in the novel collects paperweights, so the paperweight sits on my desk. I have a luck-plate for my novel as well—at the moment, I’m looking for a new agent, so I have a little silver plate filled with things I’ve found on the beach, and lucky pennies and things, to kind of give luck to my novel as it goes off to the agencies.

SW: Nuala, you’re a mother and presumably, I’m sure you serve many roles in life, and I notice that you’re doing an incredible amount of readings, including you’re reading for a Prairie Schooner event at the Sheldon on February 10th, and you’re also in LA—you’re doing readings all over the place—so how do you make time to write? How do you remain disciplined as a writer? Or isn’t it really about discipline?

NNC: I think it is about discipline, because if you don’t have discipline, you’ll get nothing done. I’m lucky because I’m naturally very organized; I like being organized. Now, I only have ten hours a week to write, really, while the youngest is in a crèche and the boys are at school, and I really guard those hours very well. The rest of the time, if the children are occupied, I can get stuff done around the business of writing, like submitting things. I can’t really write creatively if I’m constantly interrupted. So I keep my ten hours as much as possible for my creative work and then other hours, I use for…like, I supervise two BA students who are writing novels, so I supervise their novel-writing, so I do that outside those hours as much as possible. Any reviews I’m writing, I try and write—I can write them easily while the kids are here, you know that kind of way? But I do think it’s about discipline because , like, if I’m writing a novel, I can set myself a word-count target—something very modest, like 500 words a day, so that I can see where—it usually takes me about a year to write a novel—so I can see where that will end, and where I will be at a certain point, and I just find that helps me, and keeps me motivated and coming back to the desk every day and continuing on.

SW: I hate to put people in this position, where they have to speak for large groups of people or movements or anything, but can you tell us a little bit about contemporary Irish literature these days? Other than to read great stuff, why is it important for the world to pay attention to what’s happening in Irish literature, contemporary literature?

NNC: Well, I s’pose we’ve such a history of literature here, with Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien and all of these people—we’re a small island, but we are definitely a nation of readers. There are thousands of books sold here, and literature is discussed on the radio—not so much on television. One of our most prominent broadcasters, Ryan Tubridy, is a great reader, so he’s supportive of literature, as are other broadcasters. I think the thing about Ireland is, Irish people love telling stories, they love to talk, and really, every time you go outside the door you can potentially hear a new story—usually embellished, I would have to say. [laughs] My father is a great oral storyteller and I think my love of stories came from him as much as from the books that my mother fed me from a very young age. So literature is important in Ireland. It’s rated. You know? People like to see, for example, an Irish writer get the Booker Prize—the Man Booker. Like, Anne Enright won it a few years ago, and Roddy Doyle, and the whole country’s interested in this, y’know?

SW: Other than your own work, whether it’s a poetry collection or your novel, or anything else, what books by current Irish authors should our listenership be paying attention to or picking up?

NNC: One I enjoyed recently was Belinda McKeon’s Solace. It’s a new Irish novel; it’s done very well. She’s a young writer in her thirties. It’s a father/son story, but it’s also like a rural/urban story—it’s set on a farm in County Longford; it’s also set in Dublin. Really lovely writing. It moves at a very leisurely pace, and even though the big thing that happens is foreshadowed in the book, it’s still shocking when it happens. I found it quite moving, modern—both—y’know, a heart firmly in the farm culture—the writing of, say, the likes of John McGahern. She would’ve been a big—she is a big fan of John McGahern’s work. Other writers who are doing really good things…Martin Malone is a very good writer; Sebastian Barry; Anne Enright…those are a few that spring to mind.

SW: All right, well, that’ll be utilitarian for our listeners. I appreciate that. Our contention over here in America is that—and this was kinda reiterated in the note in front of this Prairie Schooner issue—is that there’s a special bond or kinda relationship between Ireland and America: that Ireland’s culture is very prominent and really disparately clear, unassimilated, and celebrated in this country. How do you feel about that from your perspective, and how does Ireland view America and American culture, and literature?

NNC: I would say it is true. Irish people here in Ireland, and when they go abroad, are resolutely regional, so they tend not to lose their accents when they go abroad; they tend to still be very connected to home; they join Irish groups when they go away. Not all Irish people, but many of them. They go to Irish pubs…. I think there’s a version of Ireland in America, though, that’s not very true to reality—it’s something a little bit old-fashioned. You know, we don’t all live in thatched cottages and stuff like that—Ireland is a very modern European country in many ways, but there’s still a lot of rural beauty in it, if you know what I mean. We absolutely love America here. We were brought up on American television; we have a tendency to look west rather than east. Not our political thing, because we’re very tied into Europe, but y’know, when people emigrate and that, there’s always a huge draw to America, to New York particularly, and Boston. As regards as how we view American literature, again, I can’t talk for everyone, but I love American literature. I really love your short fiction writers, from the greats like Flannery O’Connor; Deborah Eisenberg; Stuart Dybek; to the newer crop like Wells Tower, Manuel Muñoz, Suzanne Rivecca, and my absolute new favorite writer—I don’t know if you’ve read him yet?—is Ron Rash. He’s from North Carolina, as far as I know, and his stories are just something else. They absolutely kick you in the guts, you know? And I just got a Kindle last week and the first book I downloaded was his collection Burning Bright and I’m sitting there talking to the Kindle, y’know, because his characters make these terrible decisions and I’m sittin’ there going “No! No! Don’t do it!” [both laugh] Ah, it’s just fantastic stuff. Read Ron Rash.

SW: Okay. And what are you working on now? What can I see next from you?

NNC: I’ve a new short story collection coming out in May, and it’s actually called Mother America. Some of the stories are set in America. It’s a book basically about mothers and sons and different kinds of mother and son relationships, so I’m really looking forward to that coming out. I’m going to the Short Story Conference in Arkansas in June to read from that, so I’m looking forward to that.

SW: Anything else our readers need to know about you as a writer, as a mom, as a human living in Ireland?

NNC: [laughs] I suppose the drawback to being a literary fiction writer and a poet is that you never earn much money, but even though I’m broke, I absolutely love what I do. I wouldn’t change my position for anything. Really, it suits me 100% to spend my day moving around in an invented world and then re-emerge into family life and being a mother. I mean, I think when people hear you’re a writer, they think that your whole life is taken up with writing—and it is, in the sense that it’s always on your mind, but most of my life is school runs, and making dinners, and making cakes…stuff like that. I fit my writing in very well with my life because I don’t have an outside job; I don’t go out to work. I do all of my work from here. Even supervising my students, I do that from here, so it’s grand!

SW: Fantastic. Thanks for spending time with us.

NNC: Not at all!

(Transcribed by Tory Clower.)