Nuala Ní Chonchúir recently launched her latest collection of fiction, Of Dublin and Other Fictions, in both San Francisco and Galway. If you read my review last week you will already know that this is a wonderful chapbook in both content and design. It was my great pleasure to recently have the opportunity to interview Nuala about her writing process for this collection of flash fiction and her poems, short stories and novels. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into her writing world as much as I did:
As someone who, despite currently struggling with a novel, sees myself as primarily a writer of short fiction, the idea of writing across a host of forms intrigues me. Do you see yourself as primarilya short story writer, a poet or a novelist? Or is it, from your perspective, all just writing?
It’s all writing to me. But I’m a fiction writer, first and foremost, and the short story is my passion. Still, the more I write novels, the more buzzed I get about them. I haven’t written a poem in ages but I still write flash quite often. I seem to love whatever I am currently doing, the genre I am with at a particular time. At the moment, that’s novels.
How, if indeed at all, does your creative process differ when writing in these different forms?
Well, the novel needs a greater time commitment; it’s a marriage, perhaps. The story is maybe more of a fling. (Does that make the poem a one night stand?) So the novel takes over my life and I sleep and breathe it. I love research (I was always the nerdy one at school who loved schoolwork) and that has been a joy with the novel I have just finished, which is set in 1866 in Ireland and the USA.
How early in your writing process are you aware that a particular idea will be a poem or flash fiction or short story or novel?
Instantly, really, though I tend to write about the same stuff across the genres (women and their relationships; friendship; motherhood; love going wrong; sex). The work has a shape in my consciousness and that shape tells me how long the piece needs to be. It’s hard to explain.
Have you ever started a project in one form and midway discovered that it wants/needs to be tackled using another?
I don’t think so, though I have a (published) story that grew into my novel YOU. And I wrote a series of linked stories about a young woman that eventually morphed into my next novel, The Closet of Savage Mementos. It’ll be out in April 2014. Set in the Scottish Highlands and Dublin. My publisher and I are working on the title as we speak.
Moving on to talk specifically about Of Dublin:
What inspires you when write flash fiction? How do you develop that initial spark into a short short?
My God, these are hard questions! Erm, what can I say? My mind alights on something, or notices something, and mulls it over. The mulling reaches a point of excitement and I have to write about that thing, whether it’s an object or a character. Flash tend to emerge quickly, I think I always complete them in one sitting.
I was particularly struck by both the strength and the variety of voices in the collection. Finding the voice of a story is something I struggle with. How do you go about finding the voice of the story or the voice of the narrator in your fiction?
The voice – or tone – comes to me with the first line. If that doesn’t happen, I can’t move forward and there will be no story. I don’t enjoy flat, ordinary prose as a reader or as a writer. So there has to be something in the language that excites me in the first sentence in order to keep me moving along with the piece.
I notice that you use second person in a couple of the stories. The use of ‘you’ in fiction can be problematic for some readers. What made you select this point of view for ‘Room 313’ and ‘Fish’?
It’s a POV that comes very naturally to me. I like its closeness and its distance (My novel YOU is written in the 2nd person.) I have to stop myself using it at times and switch to 1st person. Though maybe I should just let myself be that writer who always writes in the second person. It would annoy the shite out of critics but, sure, they are there to be annoyed.
As for choosing it, I don’t. It presents itself as the best way to write a particular story and I just go with it.
As a reader, the defining characteristic of your work, whether prose or poetry, seems to be your ability to evoke in the reader a deep sense sympathy for someone else’s plight. A great example of this in Of Dublin, is in the final paragraph of the story ‘Fish’ when one of your characters, in a gesture of solidarity with another, does something quite out of the ordinary. Is this something you consciously try to evoke in your work?
Not consciously, but I think I am an empathic/sympathetic person. I am constantly weeping and worrying over other people’s sad or terrible life situations. I know how lucky I am (in my life) so maybe that makes me feel for those less fortunate. I think most writing is done very unconsciously – you only see patterns or themes afterwards. I can’t talk coherently about most of my stuff. When it’s done it’s done and it doesn’t interest me that much.
Lastly a question on endings:
Re-reading the collection I was struck by how exactly right each ending felt. Do you know before you start writing how things will close, or do you discover the ending as you write?
When I begin, I haven’t a breeze how any piece will end, not novels, not stories, not flash, not poems. I write to entertain myself and part of that entertainment is the journey of the story (long or short) towards its conclusion. I used to fear endings when I started to write seriously in my 20s. Now I understand them more and I realise how crucial they are in short fiction. Your ending says to the reader, ‘This is where I choose to leave you’, so it has to be good/relevant/memorable. You don’t want the reader to feel cheated, or feel like punching you, by the time they get to the end.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of short-short stories Of Dublin and Other Fictions is just out in the US and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos will be published in spring 2014 by New Island.
Of Dublin and Other Fictions can be purchased from the publisher Tower Press and will be available on Amazon very soon.