The Power of Objects: Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Every time I write a novel, I gather objects around me that are relevant to the book. They go into the wine-box shelf above my desk and I like to look at them as I write. I am a ‘things’ person anyway – I collect old glass, ceramics and pictures. So it makes sense to me to surround myself with objects that act like touchstones in the writing and editing of the book.
In my new novel The Closet of Savage Mementos, the main character Lillis leaves Dublin for a coastal village in the Highlands of Scotland. There she falls in love with boutique hotelier Struan – an older man – who collects glass paperweights, among other objects. Ultimately Struan betrays Lillis and this sets the course of her life. The paperweights Struan loves are works of art that can cost up to €500 apiece. Lillis says that her favourite of his paperweights is a blue and white egg-shaped one ‘that seems to suspend the sea in its core’.
While I was writing the book – which is partially based on events from my own life – and introducing the fact that Struan collects Caithness glass, I paid a visit to my local charity shop. There is often a weird synchronicity that can happen when you are writing a book – ‘relevant’ things occur and minor coincidences seem to crop up all the time in the world around you. I had one of those synchronised moments in the charity shop that day and it made me extraordinarily happy. I spied a paperweight in the window. And, yes, it was a blue and white egg-shaped one that seemed to ‘suspend the sea in its core’. It cost me the grand sum of €3. The paperweight is not Caithness glass but, still, it was strange and wondrous to find it there, as if waiting for me. It made me feel that I was on the right path with the novel – it gave me an injection of confidence, it was a small ‘yes’ from the universe.
In the novel, Lillis’s mother Verity is an artist and her speciality is whimsical, anthropomorphic taxidermy. I have always loved taxidermy and I enjoyed the research into it for the book. As a treat to myself when I finished The Closet of Savage Mementos I bought my first piece of taxidermy. I chose a sweet white mouse called Lucy who is perched on a vintage box of tansy – a herbal remedy used, among other things, to treat digestive problems. By the time I bought Lucy, I was in the thick of writing novel number three, in which one of the characters needs to take tansy for an ailment. It pleased me enormously that my little mouse, on her herbal remedy plinth, tied my two novels together.
When I finish the first draft of a book, I always like to go to the place where it is set to find on-the-ground colour; this helps me add texture and truth to my story. So twenty years after I left the Scottish Highlands, I returned there to do final research for The Closet of Savage Mementos. The small town of Ullapool had barely changed and the landscape around it remained as powerful as in my memory – sea lochs, mountains, the well-kept village packed with sweet restaurants and cosy pubs. It was an emotional trip but also wonderful. I trawled the stone beach in Ullapool for shells and sea-glass and brought them home to my desk in Galway to look at and touch while I edited and finished the book. I grouped them on my desk with the blue paperweight and it helped enormously to have these tiny parts of Scotland with me to invoke the feel and sense of the place the events are set.
Pertinent objects have the power to reassure me and ground me in the atmosphere of the novel I am writing, but I also think they spur me on to finish the work and add to it in meaningful ways. The glass and shells from Ullapool brought not only the setting of the novel to life before me but also the characters, because they posed questions: what kind of a man collects paperweights? What relevance do shells have for Lillis when she thinks about all she lost in Scotland? These small physical presences, that sit before me as I bring a novel to its conclusion, act like talismans and they connect me to my characters in a deep, visceral way that has become necessary to me in the making of longer fiction. I am already trawling eBay for just the right object to ease me into the atmosphere of novel number four.
(c) Nuala Ní Chonchúir
About The Closet of Savage Mementos
Lillis leaves behind 1980s Dublin for a summer job working at a lodge in a small lochside village in the Scottish Highlands. Leaving Dublin is a way to escape her sorrow and despair following the death of her boyfriend and a testy relationship with her mother, Verity.
In Scotland she encounters love and excitement but when a series of unexpected events turn her new found life on its head, she is forced to make a life-changing decision, one that will stay with her for her whole life.
The Closet of Savage Mementos is Nuala’s second novel and drawn directly from the author’s own experiences and explores heartbreak, loss, motherhood and adoption in a gripping narrative and expressive, emotive and exciting prose.
Find out more about Nuala at her website nualanichonchuir.com
Pick up your copy of The Closet of Savage Mementos online at New Island’s website here.