Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin and now lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. Her third poetry collection The Juno Charm was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011 and Nuala’s critically acclaimed second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appeared April 2014 from New Island.
Under the name Nuala O’Connor, Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) will publish Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, in summer 2015.
I had the pleasure recently of asking Nuala some questions about her writing, her processes and her thoughts on literature.
Can you tell us a bit about the day to day process of your writing. Do you set aside specific time and place for your writing?
Yes, I am rigid about my writing time and protecting it. I have kids, so I write while they are at school in the mornings – I have 5 hours or so, per day, but I only write creatively for part of that. The rest of the time is for the business end: reviews, reading, PR stuff, interviews, blogging.
My desk is in my bedroom, which is grand, but I am starting to long for a study (I had one until we had another child…) My bedroom is overflowing with writing junk: books, papers, research boxes. I like clutter but this is getting icky.
What part does Ireland play in your writing? Do you consider yourself an ‘Irish’ writer or part of an Irish tradition?
People go on about labels and the danger of them but I am Irish and am happy to identify as an Irish writer. I’m also feminist so ‘woman writer’ doesn’t bother me too much. I’m on the side of special prizes for women – they represent solidarity in a male-dominated world. Anything that shines a light on women’s literature is good with me.
Not all my writing is set in Ireland but there’s a comfort and an ease to writing Irish characters – I know the landscape of Irish personalities, I know the language.
The Irish Times are celebrating Irish women writers at the moment and attempting to address their under-representation. Do you feel that women writers are marginalised in favour of their male counterparts? Who are your favourite female writers from Ireland?
In general, yes. The boys appear to look after the boys. Though there are scads of female writers making great inroads: Anne Enright is our new Fiction Laureate; Sara Baume is scooping up plaudits; the Novel Fair and initiatives like it are giving women an even playing field. I’m excited about the fresh crop: Máire T. Robinson and Eimear Ryan, for example, as much as the likes of Mary Morrissy, Mary O’Donnell, Mia Gallagher et al. I love the writings of Elizabeth Bowen, Anakana Schofield, Órfhlaith Foyle, among many.
You’ve written poetry and short stories as well as novels. Do you have a preferred discipline and do you feel being a writer of poetry affects your prose style?
I’m so immersed in novel-writing these last few years, I’d have to say I’m happiest in novel-land at the moment. I’m passionate about the short story but I don’t get to write them much anymore. When I have finished the first draft of novel #4 (soon! soon!) I plan to switch to stories for a while. I feel I deserve to. The long haul of the novel is a great comfort blanket but I crave the switchiness and dexterity of writing stories.
Language is sacred to poets so, when you write fiction too, that reverence continues and blossoms into the prose.
You have a website, a blog, a FB page, and a Twitter account. And you’re active on all of them, interacting with readers and other writers. Why do you like social media as much as you seem to, and what advice would you have for aspiring writers keen to take advantage of social media?
Like everyone, I get very weary of social media – the constancy of it, the work it involves, the endless tootling about projects…but I live in a quiet town in East Galway so I love the connections the net affords to me with fellow writers and book-lovers, and with my friends and family who are in other places.
Advice? Only set up a blog if you have something to say and if you can commit to it. There are WAY too many dusty writers’ blogs out there. Write about your passions. Be generous towards, and friendly with, other artists. Don’t always talk about yourself – offer information on lit comps, calls for subs etc.
Following on from the last question, you are a keen proponent of ‘flash fiction’. What draws you to this genre and what are the particular rewards and challenges for the writer?
You can write them quickly. They’re punchy and succinct. They give the hit of a poem yet don’t have to have a coherent narrative like a story. They are great for language play. They support the odd and the surreal very well.
What can you tell us about your new novel, Miss Emily?
It’s set in 1866, mostly in Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Ada Concannon, a young Irish maid, arrives there to work for the Dickinsons and befriends Emily. You get to see the more social side of Emily while she helps Ada through various difficulties.
The PR side of things for the book is gearing up now, which is exciting. I’ll be in the States in April, July and August on the promo trail, so that will be fun.
‘You’ and ‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ were both set in Ireland and Scotland in the not so distant past. ‘Miss Emily’ is more obviously historical fiction. Does this kind of novel involve more research, or are all novels set in the past, be it the 1980s or the 1880s, historical in some sense?
Tons of research! You want to get the period right and especially the details about real peoples’ lives. I did so much reading around Emily Dickinson and the 1860s in America and Ireland. It was hugely enjoyable.
My novel YOU is set in Dublin in 1980 and the narrator is ten years old. I was 10 in 1980 so I relied a lot on memory but I read papers from the time and studied news programmes and the contemporary music too.
I am currently immersed in Victorian London for novel #4. Again, the research is an absolute pleasure. I love pinpointing the food, the clothing, the transport etc. I’m just back from a research trip to London where I touched documents my characters had touched. That gives a certain kind of thrill.
I would like to thank Nuala for taking the time to answer my questions. I’ll be reviewing her novel You later today on the blog. In the meantime, if you want to find out more about Nuala and her work (and I urge you to!) you can check her out at her various social media outlets!
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