Q&A with Catherine Dunne, Director of our NOVEL – Getting Started Workshop
Catherine Dunne is the author of nine novels including The Walled Garden, At A Time Like This, Set in Stone, Missing Julia and most recently, The Things We Know Now, which won the 700th anniversary Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Eason Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2013. Catherine has also been shortlisted for, among others, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award and the Italian Booksellers’ Prize. She was appointed to the panel of five judges for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2014. Her work has been translated into several languages.
A. Hard to choose, really! It was a great year. It was very exciting to learn that I had won the 700th anniversary Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction, for The Things We Know Now, and equally exciting to be told that the prize-giving involved travelling to glorious, sunny Tuscany for what turned out to be a wonderful weekend. And while there wasn’t so much sunshine involved in Ireland in late November, it was a real thrill to have The Things We Know Now shortlisted for the Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. But highlights come in many different shades – and one of the most satisfying things last year was really getting to know the libraries, librarians and readers all around the country. So much of the writing life is solitary. I loved getting out and about and talking to so many avid readers about books. It was a revelation to see the beautiful social spaces that our libraries have now become, and to meet so many people who are passionate about their work. The book is dead. Long live the book.
Q. What motivates you to write?
A. That’s a bit like asking me what motivates me to breathe! I can’t not write. I think it was John Irving who said that once you are passionate about writing, everything else is somehow ‘vaguely unsatisfying.’ That’s exactly right. I get twitchy if I’m away from the desk for too long because writing is a kind of compulsion. I think what happens to me is that my characters begin to colonise the space inside my head, quite early on in the narrative. I think about them constantly – and I think through them, seeing the world with their eyes. The only way to get a bit of peace is to sit down and let them get on with their story. They tell; I write.
Q. Were you interested in writing at a young age?
A. Always. At the risk of repeating myself, I was not aware, as a young child, that there was any difference between reading and writing. I read voraciously. And what I read inspired me to write my own stories. I thought everybody did that. If you loved to read, you loved to write. Simple. I think I was around ten or eleven before I discovered that that was not the case. At which point, I kept my mouth shut. I kept on reading publicly, as it were: but I wrote secretly. And I still believe that there is a very strong link between reading and writing. I am often mystified when people say that they want to write – but that they don’t read. How can you write what is good and authentic and resonant if you haven’t learned to recognise it? That’s a mystery to me.
Q. Why have you chosen to express yourself through the novel as opposed to another form?
A. I started off writing poetry. My first literary prize was for a poem submitted to the Gerard Manley Hopkins summer school, back in 1990. I won third prize, shared with two others: a massive cheque, divided among the three of us yielded £3.33 each. A realistic introduction to the writer’s earnings! I’d also written a lot of short stories over the years, and the wonderful David Marcus encouraged me greatly. He nourished an entire generation of writers, I think, and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude. The novel came about because my short stories were very unruly: they always wanted to grow into something longer. Writing is organic and I found it a huge challenge, as well as a most exciting process, to wrestle with characters and story arcs and relationships over the longer haul. It’s now the form with which I am most comfortable, although I would like to explore other areas of writing in the future.
Q. Where does your initial idea for a novel come from?
A. That is a really difficult question to answer. My imagination tends to be very visual, so I usually ‘see’ my main character before I know anything about their story. There is often – but not always – a strong link to a moment in the past. One of those moments that you know at the time is resonant, but you don’t know why, and it lodges somewhere, deep in the hard drive of your memory. But whatever it is, that initial moment of inspiration is, I think, often overrated. Writing is much more about craft and observation, intuition and imagination, passion and persistence, than it is about a single moment of inspiration. The initial idea is simply the starting point: the gun fired at the start of a Marathon.
Q. Do you have a favourite writer? Who and why?
A. No – and that’s the great thing about reading widely. My favourites change all the time. But I will say that back in the 1970’s, when I began writing seriously, but still secretly, the Canadian writers that I came across were inspirational. Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Alice Munro: they had a profound influence on my own investment in writing. And right now, as I read my way through 152 novels for the IMPAC International Prize, I am coming across so many extraordinary novelists that my list of favourites is ever-expanding. Just the way it should be.
Q. What, for you, are the highlights of Listowel Writers’ Week?
A. It’s full of highlights: from the Opening Night where I see, over and over again, that stories and poetry, plays and songs, novels and memoirs are all thriving. That reports of the death of reading are exaggeratead. That people, young and old, still engage with the printed word. And then there’s the relaxed and friendly atmosphere, where all are welcome and where the world is put to rights every night over a pint.
Q. Briefly, what will you be covering in the Novel – Getting Started Workshop?
A. We will be finding out where the participants’ stories ‘live’ – in other words, I’ll be asking the question: What is the central core of the story you want to tell? This is not an easy thing to articulate – particularly in five sentences or so. And it is where the collaborative nature of the Workshop works really well. We tease out the stories together and ‘map’ the narrative: finding the beginning, the middle and the end, although they need not be used in that order. We will look at very practical exercises around building characters, around creating an authentic background in which these imaginary people can live and breathe. This is a course for people starting out on the Marathon and all these exercises help to make the writing muscle more powerful. And we’ll be writing, and learning along the way that all writing is re-writing.
For more information, or to book NOVEL – Getting Started, please click here