Born in Dublin, Nuala Ní Chonchúir (also known as Nuala O’Connor) is a short story writer, novelist and poet. Her fiction has won numerous awards including the Jane Geske Award (USA), the Francis MacManus Award, the Cúirt New Writing Prize, the inaugural Jonathan Swift Award and The Cecil Day Lewis Award. Her most recent collection of poetry The Juno Charm is published by Salmon and her forthcoming novel Miss Emily will be published in July by Penguin USA. Nuala’s critically acclaimed second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos is shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. We’re delighted that together with directing our 3-Day Short Fiction Workshop at Listowel Writers’ Week, Nuala will also be interviewed alongside author and journalist Alex Preston on Thursday 28th May, full details of which are here Alex Preston & Nuala Ní Chonchúir.
Q. The Closet of Savage Mementos is drawn directly from your own experience. You went to live in Scotland after you completed your BA at Trinity College back in the early 90s. Why did you choose the Scottish Highlands as opposed to a city?
A. I had studied Scots Gàidhlig for my Irish degree and had done a Gàidhlig course on the Isle of Skye as part of that – one trip to the Highlands is all you need to fall in love. So I was determined to go back for a longer spell, to any part of that region.
Q. Unlike the book’s protagonist Lillis, who had her baby adopted, you chose to keep your son. Did you learn anything in the process of writing the novel?
A. I did research on adoption and how people respond to it (the parent(s), the child); I also have people close to me who are adopted, so I spoke to them. But, ultimately, as a fiction writer, you get inside your character and try to empathise with how their situation must feel. If I learnt anything it was that I made the right decision for me and my son.
Q. How do you manage the blending of fact versus fiction?
A. The enjoyable part is bending truth and/or memories into something that works fictively. I step back from the events and look at them as a story, which is not hard when you are drawing from your own life and you create a character to represent you. Lillis is not me and yet she is partly me. (As is Verity, her mother.) I was a committed diary-keeper when I was younger so I had all my diaries from my time in Scotland and I mined them for details and events. Then I destroyed them, which was fun.
Q. You also write poetry and short stories. What is your preferred form?
A. I have been fully committed to novels for the last five years or so (I am just finishing the first draft of novel number four now). A novel is a daily commitment so it is difficult to find the time or head space for other writing. I manage the very occasional short story and the even more occasional poem. I tend to love whatever genre I am ensconced in – which is novels, at the moment. But I am looking forward to getting back to short stories soon. That’s an exciting, challenging place to be – all that grabbing at things afresh, rather than being embraced in the long clutch of the novel.
Q. Your new novel, Miss Emily is told from the points of view of Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. What was the inspiration behind this choice for your third novel?
A. Baking and poetry. I’ve loved Emily’s poetry since I was a child – there is something new to find in her work always and I love her concision and insight. When I heard she was a baker of bread and cakes (as I am) my mind started clicking over writing possibilities. I wrote a poem and then wanted to stay with Emily, so I began the process of figuring out how to build a novel around her.
Q. Do you enjoy the research aspect of writing a novel?
A. Yes, I love it. Having written a nineteenth century novel set in Massachusetts and, most lately, one set in the same period in London, I have been immersed in fascinating research for the last few years. I love going to archives, museums and libraries to pore over documents signed by the real people that I base my characters on and/or seeing their belongings. I love unearthing domestic detail – how people ate, bathed etc. My research also involves reading fiction from the same period (contemporary and historical) and that’s always rewarding.
Q. Do you have a favourite time or place to write?
A. Mornings, at a desk in my bedroom, while the kids are at school.
Q. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to sit next to on an airline flight?
A. Obviously a lot of writers spring to mind. Emily Dickinson was an articulate, funny, opinionated woman – she would make a great flight companion.
Q. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
A. Read every day, write five days a week, go to literary festivals, buy books, make friends with your fellow writers.
Q. What are you most looking forward to at Listowel Writers’ Week this year?
A. There’s a gorgeous atmosphere around Listowel that is very enjoyable to soak up – I can’t wait to just be there. I’m looking forward (trepidatiously) to the Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award event as my book The Closet of Savage Mementos is on the shortlist. I also can’t wait to meet my students at the 3-Day Short Fiction Workshop. I had a great experience with my class last year and, no doubt, it will be the same this time.
It will be good, also, to meet Alex Preston, the writer I am reading with. It’s always exciting to meet a writer after you have been reading them – you feel like you already know them and you want to compliment them on their good work.
My daughter Juno, who will be 6 years old by Writers’ Week, is very much looking forward to Sarah Webb’s event. She’s a big fan.