Welcome back to Snow Like Thought, Nuala. I’ve built a Nuala annex on the book case that doubles as a bunk where you’re welcome to pog any time you like; it’s always lovely to have you.
‘Pog’ - what a great word! I’m wondering now if you imported it to New Zealand, or if you found it there? Thanks for hosting me today, Rachel.
I want to begin this interview with a general observation about interviews. There’s a tendency with writers to often quote another (more famous) writer as a means of borrowing authority for the substance of their answers in interviews. For example, Lloyd Jones said, when asked about narrative, ‘I like Samuel Beckett’s quote when asked about James Joyce’s work. “He (Joyce) isn’t writing about something. He’s writing something,” Beckett explained, which gets to the heart of what I’m trying to say here.’ Which gets to the stone of the peach; I must mind my tongue! So, I thought I would use your answers to questions in other interviews as the basis for my own questions.
In the Connacht Tribune you said you had your “Best Holiday” in “New York. I felt right at home. I just loved everything about it: the seediness, the culture, the people, the physicality of it.” I wondered if you could talk a little about your experiences in New York and whether they fed into any of the stories in your fourth short story collection Mother America?
New York is definitely an influence on this book. I always longed to go there but only managed my first trip five years ago. I’ve been back a few times since – I got married there in 2010. Like every place I go, I am on high alert in NY: notebook and camera at the ready as I walk the streets or visit museums. NY is so vast and varied there is always something wonderful to see.
I got the inspiration for the story ‘Triangle Boy’ from my cousin-through-marriage Cathleen, who lives in NY. She told me about the Triangle factory fire in 1911. The story ‘My Name is William Clongallen’ concerns a Brooklyn man of Irish origin. Brooklyn is different to Manhattan and I love its villagey feel, so that turns up. The story ‘Letters’ was partially inspired by the non-fiction of Maeve Brennan, an Irish writer who made her home in NY and wrote for The New Yorker. So, through reading and by being there, I absorb things that I later use. Much like everywhere I go.
Do you think writing fiction set in a specific place is a form of synaesthesia?
For me it is. I get transported to a place when I write or read about it. When I read Janet Frame, I am in New Zealand. When I read Chekhov, I am in Russia. I don’t need to have set foot in either of their home-places to feel it, smell it etc. I hope that I can recreate that at times in my fiction, that people feel they are in rural Limerick, say, when they read the Irish-set part of ‘My Name is William Clongallen’; or that Paris is alive to them when they read ‘Poisson d’Avril’ or ‘Spelunker’. Reading should be a sensory experience.
Many of the stories in Mother America are about exile, of people leaving Ireland to go to America, stories of mothers, and of sons, but I was thinking about the title and it reminded me of Edna O’Brien’s Memoir Mother Ireland, and I thought about one of your stories in your last short fiction collection, Nude, ‘Madonna Irlanda’. You gave an interview about Nude to The Short Review. “Once I cottoned on to the motif of the nude in some of the stories I was writing, there were stories that had to be ditched because they didn't fit with the title theme.” In Authortrek you talked about “inspirations” over “influences”, mentioning Edna O’Brien You also mentioned you worked on The Juno Charm and Nude simultaneously but as a reader I find Mother America a stronger companion to the Juno Charm than Nude, even wondering if you had plans for a Mother Ireland collection.
I read Mother Ireland (ages ago) and found some of it quite fanciful about Ireland. Edna O’Brien has lived most of her life in London, so she has that emigrant thing of knowing an Ireland that no longer exists, except in her memories. If I did write a Mother Ireland it would be very different to hers but, similar also – I went to convent schools, I had a country upbringing (despite being from Dublin), and, like her, I was a sensitive child. But my life is too pedestrian for memoir, so I won’t be going there. Maybe the next fifty years will prove very exciting and I’ll change my mind!
Mother Ireland begins with O’ Brien leaving Ireland but there are writers such as Frank McCourt whose parents had migrated to America but returned to “Mother Ireland” – for better or worse – and your stories span the periods their fictions detail and some similar terrain. The stories in Mother America in particular struck me as asserting themselves in the Irish canon, compared to Nude which had a distinctly international feel I thought. How do you think your fiction fits into the literary tradition in Ireland? How important is a national perspective for a writer? Can you imagine, for example, ever being simply an international writer or would you want to be known as such, without your Irish heritage being a factor? I suppose what I’m really asking is, do you think your fiction demonstrates a migration of the imagination so that, in essence, you are always leaving Ireland, are always a migrant, and if so, how do you think this affects your writing?
I guess, like my contemporaries, I am more global in outlook, less insular. My generation saw huge changes in Ireland: the legalisation of contraception, the collapse of Catholicism, the feminist movement. All of which please me – I would not have found it easy to be born in the 1940s or 50s in Ireland. Life would have been too restrictive for me. So my fiction is postmodern and feminist in outlook, but also Irish.
When you are Irish, your bones are steeped in your nationality – it dictates language and attitude – so it’s inevitable for me, as a writer, to identify with my Irishness. But I also look to Europe, America and the world for freshness, for difference.
There is a particular brand of rural Irish fiction that appeals to me more as I grow older; I used to be annoyed by it as it didn’t represent my life. I also love contemporary work that deals with Ireland’s new issues: immigration, divorce, drugs, loss of religion etc. There is more than one Ireland.
I don’t think I am ‘always leaving Ireland’ in my work, but I like to write about those who leave and return, to see what that throws up for them. There is a lot of sentimentality about Ireland and it’s better to clear that away and look at the country and its people, warts and all, I feel.
Lloyd Jones has said it is “the immigrant’s task to make themselves new.” I think this also applies to fiction writers. In Mother America you manage to re-remember an Ireland of the past and at the same time you have positioned yourself at the helm of a very inspirational creative development in contemporary Irish fiction. I think the only way I can describe it is when I think about the first telecommunications cables being laid from Ireland to Newfoundland – which gave rise for speedy two way communication – and you’ve done the present equivalent with Mother America. In your interview with Prairie Schooner you talked a little about how inspirational you find American fiction, I’m sure the same sentiment will come back across the Atlantic about Mother America.
Thanks, Rachel. I hope so. I find the Americans to be superlative short story writers: Anthony Doerr, Ron Rash, Caitlin Horrocks, Flannery O’Connor, Wells Tower, Manuel Munoz. All brilliant and inspirational.
I have a novel completed, set in Dublin and the Scottish Highlands, for which I am seeking a good agent. And I’m writing more stories and starting out trepidatiously on another novel. So, busy busy.
You can buy Mother America from The Book Depository with free delivery, worldwide.
Thanks for having me by, Rachel. On Monday 16th July my virtual tour takes me to writer Declan Burke’s blog in Dublin. I hope some of your readers will join me there.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Nuala. Very best of luck with your agent search and finishing your latest novel, and for your Frank O’Connor International Prize for Short Stories listing - congratulations!
Nuala Ní Chonchúir is a short story writer, novelist and poet, born in Dublin in 1970 and living in Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother Americawas published this month by New Island. Nuala’s story ‘Peach’, in the Winter 2011 issue of Prairie Schooner, won the Jane Geske Award and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. www.nualanichonchuir.com
 Finlay MacDonald, Words Chosen Carefully; New Zealand Writers in Discussion, 2010. P 18