Portrait of the Artist is a new feature where I focus on artists from around the country who are doing interesting things deserving of your attention. This week it’s Laura-Blaise McDowell.
Laura-Blaise McDowell holds an MA in Creative Writing from University College Dublin. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, most recently in Still Worlds Turning, an anthology of new Irish writing from No Alibis Press. She was shortlisted in 2016 for the Maeve Binchy Travel Award, and in 2017 for the Doolin Writers Weekend Short Story Award. In 2019, she was longlisted for the Hinterland Prize for Nonfiction, and shortlisted for the Benedict Kiely Short Story Award. She was runner-up for the Dalkey Creates Short Story Prize, and had two stories longlisted for the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award at the An Post Irish Book Awards, with Balloon Animals making the shortlist.
Tell us about your background.
I am lucky to come from a family where storytelling and reading were integral parts of the day-to-day. My dad would read to me and my sister every night before bed and often as we ate dinner, too. On car journeys, he would make up stories and tell them all the way from Dublin to Galway. My mother is a voracious reader who has always had the house stacked with books. I was my maternal grandmother’s first grandchild and she was eager to start me reading as soon as possible. I have a book she gave me in 1994 (when I was two years old) which she has inscribed with the instruction ‘Hurry up and learn to read.’ I lived the third year of my life in character as Snow White almost all the time. My costume had to be washed at night because I refused to take it off. I really never stood a chance at ending up anything other than a writer. Writing was what I always wanted to do, though throughout my childhood it took a backseat to ambitions such as being a ballerina-marine biologist, a dragonologist and the next Avril Lavigne, but it endured.
I studied English and Sociology at UCD and then completed an MA in Creative Writing there in 2016. The MA was absolutely fantastic and there is no question about whether I’d be where I am today without it.
Tell us about your work.
My work is primarily short stories, though I am working on a novel as well. I’m often inspired by music. Imagining music videos for songs I’m obsessed with has resulted in more than one short story, and a particular piece of performance art is the inspiration for the novel I’m writing.
This year I’ve had a few successes, with shortlistings for the Benedict Kiely Award, Dalkey Creates Short Story Prize and the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year at the Irish Book Awards for my story Balloon Animals. Balloon Animals is a bit of an anomaly among my work. It definitely stands out from other things I’ve written as being ‘absolutely batshit’ as more than one person has described it. It’s more action driven than a lot of my work, which would have a tendency to be a little more self reflexive, but I’ve always been drawn to absurdity, to the weirdness of the everyday and the little details of people and places that are often missed, but when observed, lend a whole new dimension to the situation. Very few things are actually mundane, when there are people involved. Even boring people become interesting if you describe them in an amusing way. Maybe there’s no such thing as a boring person.
Who are your influences and why?
My earliest memory of having my head totally knocked off in amazement is when I was first introduced to Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. I was nine or ten, and we watched the film at a sleepover and I was immediately obsessed. I received no less than three copies of the book from different people the subsequent Christmas as I had clearly talked about nothing else. My dad read me the first seven or eight books in the series and I remember thinking, I want to do this. A lot of my early attempts at writing were Aiken imitations.
Kevin Brooks has two books which were extremely important to me as a teenager, called Candy and Lucas. Both are love stories and both are quite different. I think of Candy as an oil painting, a rich, dark story set in the city, and Lucas as a watercolour, a sad, beautiful story set on an island. They’re absolutely stunning books and were some of the first more reality-based stories that made me want to write.
I read The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter having found it in a mountain market in Spain when I was sixteen and that was really it for me. I thought ‘Oh my God, this is in the world that my imagination is desperately trying to get to.’ It felt like if I had just thought a little harder, I would have got there, the imagery was so completely the sort of thing I was drawn to and wanted to create. I read Nights at the Circus not long after that and since then any and all of her books I have read have astounded me over and over again.
The same year I discovered Angela Carter, Florence and the Machine began to gain momentum and I read an interview with Florence Welch in the NME where she talked about jumping out of trees because it felt amazing hitting the ground and I was like, yes, this girl is for me. I recently recorded an episode of the Juvenalia podcast where I talk for over an hour about how much of an influence Florence Welch has been on me, so I won’t go into it all here, but her lyrics, vulnerability, aesthetic, videos, poetry, insight, self reflection and presence have been a consistent inspiration to me for over ten years. My first ever published short story which appeared in The Runt Zine is called The Body in the Garden and was inspired by her song Blinding. When I was preparing to record Juvenalia, it occurred to me, which it hadn’t before, that the original video for Dog Days Are Over, which features strange clowns in a forest, was quite obviously the root of my inspiration for my story Balloon Animals. When I was seventeen, I read that Florence liked Angela Carter and got so excited I put on a gold dress and just ran around my house. I felt like I would explode with how right it all was. I think I probably thought then that they just needed me to complete the triad or something.
Patti Smith is someone I put off reading because I was freaked out by how much I already knew I would love her. I could feel it. In 2014, I finally gave in and read Just Kids because I was going to see her play at a festival that summer, and sure enough, it changed my life. Not to be hyperbolic, but it did. A more beautiful book I have yet to encounter. I met her at a book signing in New York and she said my name was cool and I cried. She’s a genius and she should have won the Nobel Prize. That’s my opinion.
I recently read Rebecca Lee’s short story collection Bobcat and her novel The City Is a Rising Tide, which are two of the most unique, astounding, delicious books I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I think sometimes in life you meet people who are so unapologetically themselves that they inspire in those around them a deep and lasting authenticity, merely through reminding them that such a way of being is possible. I feel like Lee’s books are the book-version of those people.
I have to stop now because this is becoming an essay, but I would like to give honorable mention to my beloved Michael Chabon, Lauren Groff and Donna Tartt, all of whom are huge influences on me as well and deserve paragraphs more.
Are there specific themes/issues you try to address in your work?
When I began thinking about assembling a short story collection, my first thought was ‘God, it won’t be cohesive at all, I have absolutely no common themes.’ But then when I put it all together and read them through, I realised that pretty much all of them dealt with young women navigating new places, because they were all written as I, a young woman, navigated moving out of home and away from Ireland for the first time. In fact, some were so similar that it became clear they couldn’t even sit in a collection together. I don’t set out to address anything specific with my work, but the themes that come to the surface do tend to be revelation, absurdity, newness and coming of age. I have no doubt that this will change as I do, and grow as I do, but at the moment, these are definitely the topics that my brain is chipping away at in the background.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in your field?
I’m far from an expert so first, I’ll reiterate the things everybody says because they are said for a reason, which are: read a lot of the sort of thing you want to write, take notes, examine what makes the great ones great. Seek feedback from others. Don’t be precious with your work, accept the feedback, and don’t let rejection stop you. Literally everyone gets rejected all the time.
Personally, I would recommend creating a ‘Rejections’ folder in your email. This will help you make sure you do not send the same thing to the place twice, and it gives you something to stare at mournfully during your allocated moping time, of which I would recommend allowing yourself five to seven minutes after each rejection, otherwise it will creep in at unallocated, inconvenient times. Moping time allows you to get it out of your system and keep going, because you must keep going.
Utilise social media. Even if you’re not interested in using it as a promotional platform, it’s a goldmine of information on writing contests, submission guidelines, advice and more. There are tons of bloggers who put together monthly round-ups of journals and competitions open for submission. It’s also a great way to reach out to people you admire and engage with other writers dealing with the same things as you.
Success is not finite. Don’t worry that someone you know got a book deal. It wasn’t your book deal that they stole.
On a technical level, I will pass on a piece of advice from Anne Enright which I find invaluable which is, stop worrying about getting your characters from A to B. Stop stressing about putting them on a bus. Just put them where they need to be. The bus is not interesting.
What can we expect from you in the future?
My episode of Juvenalia airs on January 23rd, in which I chat with Alan Maguire and Sarah Maria Griffin about my love of Florence. My story Out of Nowhere is forthcoming in The Blue Nib in mid-January.
I’m currently working on the aforementioned short story collection, and also on a novel which I’m extremely excited about (artists! obsession! madness!) so I very much hope you can expect to see those sooner rather than later.
Laura can be found on Twitter @BlaisinSquad and online at laurablaisemcdowell.wordpress.com, which features links to all her published work. Balloon Animals can be read online on The Irish Times and on writing.ie and is featured in No Albis Press’ anthology of new Irish writing, Still Worlds Turning, available in bookshops nationwide and from the No Alibis website.