An Interview with Nuala O’Connor  

John Lavin

Nuala O’Connor is one of the most talented and prolific Irish writers of the new millennium, having published five short story collections, three novels and three poetry collections in little more than ten years. Joyride to Jupiter, her fifth short story collection, was published this year to considerable acclaim in Ireland and it is easy to see why. While O’Connor has long been described as a promising new writer, there is a confidence, maturity and breadth of vision to this latest collection that demands a shift in that perspective, marking her out as a short story writer whose talent has reached a point very near maximum expression. As with William Trevor or Alice Munro the reader may feel, having read the best of these short stories, that they have experienced everything of importance that they might have encountered in a high-quality novel but in a mere twenty pages. It is this quality of distillation that can make the short story such an impactful, almost overwhelming form.

JL: Nuala, firstly, congratulations – Joyride to Jupiter is a triumph. The stories have great depth and complexity, taking in a range of emotional registers – by turns bleak, tender, political, sensual and often, perhaps unexpectedly considering their subject matter… downright hilarious. How do you feel that you’ve developed as a short story writer since your last collection, Mother America? You have become known for your novels The Closet of Savage Mementoes and Miss Emily in the interim. Has the work of novel writing informed your approach to the short story in anyway?

NC: Thanks for the kind words, John. I don’t know that novels have influenced my story writing, it is more likely the other way around – I am more naturally a short story writer, brevity and omission being my thing. I tend to write short: in poems, stories and novels; I am way more interested in subtext than gut-spilling (from characters), and in creating small, contained worlds rather than sprawling spell-it-all-out ones. But I do hope that the more I write the better my writing is. I think the older we get the fairer we get, the less judgmental – we’re more open to the fallibility of humans and more forgiving because of it. And also, conversely, we’re angrier. So perhaps all of that comes to bear on the writing. One would hope.

JL: The title story deals with dementia from the point of view of a husband who desperately doesn’t want his wife to be sent to Emerald Sunsets (a genuinely diabolical name for a nursing home!) ‘I am the worm in the dementia apple’, he says, believing he can somehow defeat his wife’s disease – or at least, treat it as a new development which can be subsumed into their relationship – and the resultant story is a finely balanced affair, depending on whose perspective the reader decides to view the drama from. The daughter clearly has a very different view to her father, and the story’s denouement suggests that it is she who has been seeing things more clearly than we, the reader, all along. It is this quality of being able to view the drama from different perspectives that gives the story it’s complexity and unmistakeable ring of truth. How challenging was it to write about this very difficult illness? Could you tell us a little about the impulse behind the story and some of the process that went into the writing of it?

NC: Gosh, process is such a nebulous thing – how do you define it? I began writing that story on a long bus trip in Croatia, five years ago. My loved ones are ageing – I’m ageing – so it’s a subject matter that had started to become interesting to me. In Zagreb, before boarding the bus, I bought an eyeshadow called ‘Joyride to Jupiter’; the lovely sound of that was looping around in my head, begging to be used. The first line of the story came to me and I wrote and wrote on that bus. About a month after that, I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I met an Irish wolfhound called Mary Kate and she made her way into the story because, like all writers, I’m constantly accruing details from the world around me; and I’m always on even higher alert when I go abroad. So the story was written and honed over that summer, with the central relationship blossoming and earthing as I wrote. Also I’d watched a TV programme about spousal carers of people with dementia and one elderly man said his wife’s face lit up when they made love. Her mind was gone but her body remembered that joy and I found it very moving. So, in the story, the couple’s physical relationship is still important but, of course, an inevitable chasm has opened, complicated by Mr Halpin’s self-focus and lack of control.

JL: Your eye for describing contemporary Ireland feels particularly acute in this collection, from the Dublin of advertising agencies and ‘exhaust-stink’ described in ‘Futuretense®’ to ‘every collapsing gutter [and] …whited-out shopfront’ in ‘Mayo, Oh Mayo’ – the story of a young Irish woman’s affair with a married American. Despite taking him to see the Book of Kells, ‘the mystic hulk’ of Ben Bulben and the ‘phallic wonder’ of Glendalough, the protagonist’s new lover only truly seems to enjoy a visit to Knock. The famously over-the-top Mayo shrine seems to be the one place that lives up to the American’s pre-conceived idea that Ireland would be some kind of simulacrum of the breathtakingly awful Disney film, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. But while there is a great deal of humorous gold to be found in this dimension of the narrative, it also provides plenty of scope for providing genuine news about contemporary Ireland. The closing moment in which Siobhan joyfully smashes the statue of the Virgin Mary the American has given her into ‘satisfying chunks. Moon. Body. Stars’, feels particularly symbolic of a final breaking with the dogmatic Catholicism of her grandmother’s generation. Is this a correct interpretation and could you tell us a little more about the intentions behind this story?

NC: Yes, you’ve nailed it interpretation wise. It’s important to me to examine Ireland as it is, hurtling rapidly onward into the 21st century while clinging to old modes of being, some good, some bad.

Mine was the last generation (Gen X) to be utterly steeped in Catholicism. I was brought up super-Catholic – not just mass, but special masses in handpicked churches outside our own parish. We were brought to prayer meetings too. (Before he married, my father was in a monastery). And I was quite a fervent youngster – I loved the ritual, the music, the iconography, the built architecture. I still love those aspects but I awakened in my late teens to the narrowness of the church’s teachings, the abhorrent attitudes towards women, the rampant crime and hypocrisy.

Still, after that I went through a long phase of collecting and displaying holy statues (in a kitsch way) but eventually I got rid of most of them because they had begun to annoy me, the look of them.

Knock is the weirdest place and I went back there to do research for ‘Mayo, Oh Mayo’. It’s fascinating to me as a lapsed Catholic – the fervency, the holy throngs, the religious paraphernalia on sale. It’s as bizarre a place as ever and made, I felt, a good, solid setting for the story.

Joyride to Jupiter

The story is about loneliness and the types of doomed relationships that can result from it. I liked the notion of an American who isn’t impressed by Ireland, too, as they usually love it. I enjoyed weaving all those strands together.

JL: ‘The Boy from Petropolis’ provides the reader with a window into Elizabeth Bishop’s life with her lover, Lota, in Brazil, written from the point of view of the author herself. How did you go about writing from the point of view of such a famous poet like Bishop – one that people already have so many perspectives on and opinions about? And did the success of this story encourage you to continue down a similar path in Miss Emily, where you convincingly enter into the mind of Emily Dickinson? I presume that writing from the point of view of celebrated artists like these forces you into places and thought processes that your imagination might not ordinarily go?

NC: I went to Brazil for an Irish studies conference in 2012 and all the time I was thinking about Elizabeth Bishop and what it must have been like for her to live there. The details of the beach and the shacks, the weather and seascape are from my experience of Brazil. The story emerged very quickly and with a kind of grace which I wish happened more often. I didn’t obviously identify the writer in the story as Bishop, and some readers missed the fact; I really just wanted to write about her as woman and lover, not as Great Poet.

I am enjoying writing biographical fiction a lot – I think I may have missed a vocation as a researcher as I adore the research involved. But I also love making things up, so I try for a nice balance of the two with these stories and novels based on real people.

I take my work on a project-by-project basis so one doesn’t spark another. I have a list as long as my arm of novels I want to write, set in various locations, involving the real and the fictional. The worry is finding the time to get the stories written in between book promotion, mentoring, supervising, teaching et cetera.

JL: Your next novel, Becoming Belle, is due to be published next year. Could you tell us a little about what to expect from the novel?

NC: Isabel Bilton, a beautiful artillery sergeant’s daughter, goes to London to pursue a life on the stage. The bohemian world she embraces leads to some unplanned disasters but Isabel – now ‘Belle’ – meets William Le Poer Trench, Viscount Dunlo, a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and after a heady romance of mere weeks, they elope. Cue fury from the groom’s father, the Earl of Clancarty, who steps in to sabotage the marriage. There’s separation. Exile. A court case. Tears and frustrations galore.

Belle lived in Ballinasloe, Galway, where I now live (my son’s school is her old house – Garbally Court) and her story captured me and begged to be brought to life.

JL: Camus said that, ‘art is nothing but this slow trek to discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence [your] heart first opened.’ Would you agree, and if so do you have ‘two or three’ such images yourself?

NC: So many works of art move and inspire me. One of my earliest obsessions was Manet’s ‘Olympia’ and I went on to write a story about Victorine Meurent, the model for the painting.

I also have a whole short fiction collection about art, Nude (Salt, 2009), recently translated into Spanish as Desnudo. In it I explore other favourite paintings such as Micheal O’Farrell’s ‘Madonna Irlanda’, subtitled ‘The Very First Real Irish Political Picture’, in which he comments on Ireland’s political situation in the sixties and seventies, feminism, censorship et cetera. It’s a firm favourite.

Frida Kahlo’s ‘What the Water Gave Me’ is another powerful image that I return to a lot: it’s a biography of her physical and emotional pain. Her brave, beautiful work always lights me up.

JL: Do you have a writing routine that you try to keep to everyday?

NC: Yes, I go to my desk at 8.30am and write until midday or so. I do my creative work first – 500 words per day if I’m working on a novel; word counts don’t concern me with short stories. After getting the ‘real’ work done, I do my other stuff: mentoring work, commissions, non-fiction work et cetera. I do most of my research/reading at night in bed.

JL: Are there any writers that have acted as a particular source of inspiration to you?

NC: Yes, lots of them: Anne Enright and Mary Morrissy who both wrote about sex and Ireland in the nineties in ways that were new to me. Also Edna O’Brien and John McGahern who were brave and honest about Ireland in the sixties. I’ve always loved the Brontës and Jane Austen. These days I enjoy a lot of Americans: Amy Bloom, Lorrie Moore, Valerie Trueblood, Arlene Heyman. I also love the British writers Andrew Miller and Michel Faber.

I want honesty and revelation in fiction. Not necessarily exploding plots, just emotional truth and great language.

JL: Finally, you’ve been kind enough to support The Lonely Crowd since its earliest days (and indeed I’m proud to say that two of the stories from Joyride to Jupiter were originally published here). How important do you think literary journals are to new writing? And perhaps to the health of the short story in particular?

NC: Oh, they’re crucial. When you’re starting out it’s so important to buy, read and submit to literary magazines. They are the lifeblood of any literary community. Here in Ireland we have a wonderfully healthy cohort of magazines and journals. I first published in The Stinging Fly and in several (now defunct) lit mags in the west.

I admire people like you and the Banshee editors, to namecheck just one other mag, who set up new, hard-copy magazines despite all the challenges involved re. distribution and sales. We, the writers, are hugely appreciative of your efforts.

Some of my faves in Ireland, apart from the aforementioned, are The Penny Dreadful and The Moth. Others doing great work include Gorse (more avant garde) and newbie The Tangerine. There are also good online outlets such as Spontaneity, Long Story Short and Southword. All in all the scene here is thriving.