Nuala O’Connor (AKA Nuala Ní Chonchúir): ‘Joyride to Jupiter’
And this month I’m delighted to welcome Nuala O’Connor as my guest writer for June. Nuala’s latest collection of short stories, ‘Joyride to Jupiter’ has just been published by New Island and was launched by Lia Mills in The Gutter Bookshop in Cow’s Lane. As ever, the indomitable Bob Johnston hosted a wonderful evening there.
Nuala O’Connor AKA Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, she lives in East Galway. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in June 2017. Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. Miss Emily was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 and longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, will be published in 2018.
C.D.: I attended a ‘Creative Minds’ event recently, where Sinéad Gleeson interviewed the American writer Jeffrey Eugenides. He said that writing short stories was infinitely more difficult than writing novels. Your latest novel – which I loved – was ‘Miss Emily’, and now we have ‘Joyride to Jupiter’, a wonderful collection of short stories. What is your view on this topic? Are short stories or the novel the more challenging form? Or is it that their challenges are different, and particular to themselves?
N.O’C: Stories are harder to get right for many reasons: brevity, expectations, potential for messing it all up with one wrong move.
The novel has time on its side whereas the story is a temporal art form in a different way – its heightened, pressing nature means it has to work immediately or the reader is gone. Novels have a more leisurely approach, often, to hooking the reader, the old ‘getting into it’ routine.
No such luxury for shorter forms.
And you’re always starting anew with short stories: new characters, setting, scenario. At least with the novel you have the comfort blanket of a long haul with the same characters, usually. Both have their joys. Stories are trickier but, in some ways, more rewarding.
C.D.: The title story of this collection, ‘Joyride to Jupiter’, has a sinister undertone. The narrator, while ostensibly caring for his wife Teresa, who is in the throes of dementia, seems to relish his power over his wife, now that she barely recognises him. ‘She is my girl, my small thing, my tender, yielding doll.’ The characters in your stories frequently seek to exercise power over their nearest and dearest. Can you talk to us about this?
N.O’C: All human relationships are about power – I explore that in this book mostly via the actions between lovers and spouses, but also the parent-child dynamic, friends and siblings. True equality is rare, one person often has the upper hand: men still earn more than women, kids need guiding by parents et cetera. Mr Halpin in ‘Joyride to Jupiter’ is not on a power trip. For me his actions grow from helplessness. But he is creepy, you do wonder if he isn’t a bit too fond of children and, ultimately, he takes a drastic decision.
For me the stories are as much about powerlessness, and the frustration of it, but also the seizing back of power.
In the story ‘Tinnycross’ an older brother wants to deny his brother a family inheritance, and in ‘Room 313’ a business woman lords it over an immigrant chambermaid. But the POV character reasserts themselves by the end of the story, which is important.
C.D.: There is a wonderfully potent sense of place in these stories. I’m thinking particularly of ‘The Boy from Petrópolis’ where the heat and the poverty of the Copacabana are palpable presences; and of ‘Tinnycross’, where we can almost taste the oppressions of rural Ireland and feel the fierce heat of family battles over land. How important is place to you – both in your stories and your novels?
N.O’C: Place is enormously important to me. I like when a setting is as much a part of the narrative as the people moving through it. I love the green, leafy part of Dublin I grew up in, by the Liffey, surrounded by fields. As kids, the landscape – the river, woods etc – were as much a part of us as the old mills and derelict coach-house we used as playgrounds. I live in a lovely place in Galway now, and I am a committed traveller – novelty excites me and feeds my writing.
I am always, always gathering story fodder as I move through the world – I believe in minute detail and concise description. It excites me as both reader and writer.
C.D.: Motherhood is a central theme in your writing – perhaps it’s more accurate to say ‘parenthood’. The longing for a child, the frustration of that longing, the fear of ageing and the many complexities of sex: all of these themes are explored in your stories – and indeed in your novels. Is motherhood also present in the new work that’s absorbing you at the moment?
N.O’C: It is (surprise, surprise!) though I didn’t realise it would be when I began my research. The novel, Becoming Belle, appears next year from G.P. Putnam and Penguin Canada, and it’s based on the life of the last earl and countess to occupy the local big house, Garbally Court, in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, where I live.
The Countess Clancarty was originally the London dancehall girl Belle Bilton and her marriage to William Le Poer Trench caused an uproar in his family and a scandal generally.
Especially as Belle had had a son, and was not married, before she met William. So I had to figure out her relationship to this child and how she fitted him into her hectic, bohemian life. Not well, was my conclusion. I didn’t want to deify Belle but neither did I want to make her flawless so her ambivalence about her son will, I hope, make the reader a little uncomfortable.
C.D.: At your launch recently, you spoke of writing as your ‘job’, your full-time occupation. Can you give us an insight into your writing process: how your initial idea or inspiration grows and develops into a story? I was interested to hear you say that often a commission will take you in new and unexpected directions. How so?
N.O’C: I write full-time in as much as you can when you still have to earn. So I mentor other writers, teach creative writing at festivals and other places, and do readings and panels too. But I do write five days a week, in the mornings, and I get mildly hysterical if I am not at my desk by 9am.
As for inspiration, it comes from individual words a lot, or non-fiction pieces I read. I write organically, no planning, so I go to the desk with that new word or a tiny scenario and I build out from there, telling myself the story as I write. I don’t know what’s going on, usually, until I’m nearly done. And even then I won’t know what I was really attempting to tease out for ages afterwards.
Commissions are not easy when the deadline is short. I hate having only two months or whatever to write and complete a story. It sends me into a panic. I prefer to let stories stew for months or years, however long it takes. But sometimes you just have to get the thing down and, at least, it gets me into the beloved world of a short story and makes me finish one.
C.D.: The demise of the physical book seems to have been over-stated. What are your views on the current state of publishing, both in Ireland and elsewhere?
N.O’C: We have a vibrant publishing scene in Ireland but the publishers are generally working very hard with tiny budgets and resources. I would like to see publishers publish fewer books to give each book space to breathe. I’d like to see more support for literary and innovative writers, never mind if the books will never be bestsellers.
Not everyone wants easy books or so-called beach reads. Some of us still want to be challenged as readers. I love non-plotty novels, quiet novels, weird short stories etc. but big publishers are not behind those books; thankfully small publishers are. But, I would love to see literary books get the PR treatment that commercial books get.
I would also like more supports for people on their second, third, fourth etc books. It’s disappointing to see good writers neglected in favour of shiny newbies who may never produce a second book. Writers with longevity deserve supports in terms of bursaries, prizes and so on. The Irish Writers Centre and Words Ireland are doing good work in that direction and I’m heartened to see it.