Nuala Ní Chonchúir‘s latest collection of short fiction, Mother America, was published last week. As part of her blog tour to promote the book, I was very kindly offered the chance to read the collection and interview Nuala about a story of my choice. The collection is full of great short stories, any one of which I am sure would provide insight into Nuala’s writing process if discussed, but it is the title story that I found myself thinking about, above any of the others, upon closing the book.
The narrator of the story, a young hitchhiker named Chris, is picked up a few miles outside Cork city by a seemingly eccentric American woman. His lift does not last long but his meeting with the woman who calls herself Mother America is one full of the possibility of both revelation and redemption. There is a palpable sense of change taking place in the character of Chris as he is made to face what he is running from, while Mother America herself is a fittingly larger than life creation, at once real and fantastic.
Dan: What was the starting point for this story? The idea of ‘Mother America’? The narrator, Chris? A real experience hitchhiking or giving someone a lift? Something else?
Nuala: Like many of my stories it’s a mixture of things. I was in Chicago and picked up a magazine with off-the-wall religious sayings like, ‘Forbidden fruit makes plenty of jam.’ I was immediately taken by these as my family had been involved in the Charismatic movement when I was young and they reminded me of that.
I used to hitchhike when I was a student but I don’t pick up hitchhikers now – all that has changed. Some drivers I met were quite nutty and, I guess, some passengers can be too, so I was playing off that in the story.
In order to work the story had to be about three mothers: the driver, Chris’s mother and the mother of God, so it’s all mixed in there.
The line about the ‘Forbidden fruit’ is one of my favourite lines in the story and I love found dialogue/poetry. I find that each story I write tends to demand at least some small change in my writing process. What was your process for writing ‘Mother America’ and how much did it differ from your usual way of working?
Yes, every story emerges differently. Some spring from images or overheard words/sentences, or from people who fascinate me. This one sprung from the magazine with the religious quotations, so that was a different way for me to start. I didn’t use all of the quotes – just a couple that fitted with the story.
How far along in the assembling of the collection was the story written? Did you know right away it would be the title story?
This story is a few years old. It pre-dates my last collection, Nude (Salt, 2009). I fell in love with the title Mother America and was determined to use it as the title for a collection. So I hung on to it until I had enough stories that fitted together thematically.
How does this story resonate with or relate to the rest of the collection?
It touches on the major motifs in this collection of stories: religion, how mothers and sons relate, and the influence of America on Ireland.
The narrator Chris is forced over the course of the story to face his own feelings of guilt and grief while struggling with a deep need for redemption, for forgiveness, all of which, it seemed to me, are key themes in many of the stories. Was that the guiding idea in collating this collection?
All of the stories are about people struggling with who they are and where they fit in life and in relationships with other people, mainly mothers. The main thing that emerged for me when I looked at what I had written over a three year period was the recurring mother motif. So that was my kicking off point.
Though each story is complete in itself, this collection has a unity to it that many authors fail to create. How did you decide which stories to put in and which to leave out?
I left out the ones that didn’t fit at all – I had one about van Gogh and another about two neighbours who have a simultaneous mid-life crisis. They just didn’t go with the rest. I also pulled another at the last minute because it wasn’t up to scratch. Luckily, my editor was flexible and let me jiggle things around. There are two stories in the book that I wrote this year so it’s fun to have them in there, all spanky and fresh.
Where is Mother America now?
The character Mother America is still floating around the world, knocking sense into arrogant and confused young people. The book Mother America is in the hands of readers and reviewers and I hope that they like it.
What do you think happens to Chris after he is dropped off?
He grows up a bit, forgives himself a bit. Moves on, falls in love, becomes a parent.
After reading I couldn’t stop thinking about what Mother America might force me to face up to. What would Mother America make you think about, force you to talk about?
Well, the story reminds me of when my sister was dying and that, even though we were close, it was hard to say everything I wanted to say to her before she went. Watching a loved one die is bewildering. You know it’s not about you but it is overwhelmingly sad. And it can be hard to articulate what you are feeling. I hope if I am in that position again, that I will be able to get the words out.
If the character Mother America were to talk to me right now she might say, ‘Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.’
Thanks for having me by, Dan. Next Monday my virtual tour takes me to writer Shauna Gilligan’s blog, A Girl’s Writing is Never Done: http://shaunaswriting.com/wordpress/. I hope some of your readers will join me there.
I’m sure they will. Thank you, Nuala, for providing such honest and thought provoking answers. I know I won’t be alone in my appreciation of this glimpse into your writing process. I wish you all the best with Mother America, it’s a fantastic collection and deserves a huge readership.
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 America was 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