In March 2012 a dozen of us gathered around a table in a Waterford hotel, the room thrumming with that energy that happens when a group of writers get together. I was there with two women from my writing group, excited, and a little nervous, to be taking a workshop with Nuala O’Connor, whose work I admire hugely. During the workshop, Nuala gave us a prompt as part of a writing exercise. We each chose an object from a bag, and I got a piece of broken pottery, chalky around the edges, small enough to sit in the centre of my palm. I didn’t know it then, but I was holding what would become, over time, The Art of Falling.
At the workshop that morning, an image began to take shape of a woman on a windswept coastal path, beside cliffs. The scene was dense with conflict, friction, a sense that the shard I was holding was not the only broken thing in the story. There’s a photo of me from that weekend taken on the beach in Tramore, a place I remembered from childhood summer holidays. Coastal landscape features in The Art of Falling, though it’s not Waterford, but Tragumna, a small coastal inlet outside of Skibbereen, and the Marine Nature Reserve, Lough Hyne.
In its earliest incarnations, the piece that took root in the workshop that morning was a short story, one that I re-wrote from many different angles. Reading back over those drafts now, I see that while the versions differ from one another in myriad ways, there’s also a constant that runs through them: an odd piece of art called the Chalk Sculpture. The size of this artwork varies from draft to draft, as does its fate, but it persists in staking its claim on the story, hanging in there even when so much around it changes. In The Art of Falling, the Chalk Sculpture is Robert Locke’s best known work, over seven feet tall, part human female, part abstract.
While I can trace the spark of the idea back to 2012, it would be a while before I realised that it was not a short story, but a novel. A turning point came in Cill Rialaig artists retreat in 2014, another place of cliffs and beautiful isolation where writers stay in restored famine-era cottages. I was writing alone in the small hours of the morning when it occurred to me that a set of characters I was working on in a different project, actually belonged with the Chalk Sculpture. Perhaps without my realising they’d been edging toward each other all along in my subconscious, merging, finally, in that soup of creative energies that inhabits Cill Rialaig.
Having previously written short stories, it was a fascinating learning curve to write my first novel. Now I had to get used to cutting and handling a large swathe of fabric, rather than finely embroidering a small square. With a short story, if it becomes necessary to go back and unpick something, it’s a matter of re-working a few thousand words, rather than a whole book. One of the biggest changes I made while drafting The Art of Falling was to change it from first person narrator to third person. As anyone who’s had to do this will know, it isn’t just a matter of using ‘find and replace’ on the word processor to swap ‘I’ for ‘she’. The story is now being seen through a different lens, filmed from a different distance. But the work involved was worth it. Writing in the first person, I’d been too hard on Nessa, my main character, perhaps burdening her with too much of myself and then judging her. With the change to close third, I began to relate to Nessa more like she was a friend in trouble. And because we’re often quicker to offer compassion to others than we are to ourselves, I became kinder to her.
A more joyful part of the process was the point, about mid-way, when various strands of plot and character came together. Over a period of approximately six weeks I wrote about 70,000 words, something that never happened to me, before or since. This may be what people mean when they talk about being in the zone. It was exhilarating, and very special, to be taken out of myself by the novel during those weeks. Having written very slowly for so long, this new momentum was glorious. Truth was, I would soon be back to writing slowly again, doing many more drafts, but I enjoyed that forward charge while it lasted. I wrote the final section of The Art of Falling on a camper van holiday to Wales and Devon and Cornwall – more windswept coastlines, more beautiful isolation – during an October mid-term break. I typed the words ‘The End’ on the ferry back to Ireland, while a storm raged at sea. All around me, my family and fellow passengers were clutching sick bags. I, on the other hand, couldn’t have felt happier.
(c) Danielle McLaughlin
The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin is published by John Murray.
About The Art of Falling:
‘A gripping novel and a sharp, entertaining examination of the nature of art and its power to inspire and corrupt’ Roddy Doyle
Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibit for one of Ireland’s most beloved and enigmatic artists, the late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: a chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her, and at work, an odd woman comes forward claiming to be the true creator of Robert Locke’s most famous work, The Chalk Sculpture.
As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she must decide whether she can continue to live a lie – or whether she’s ready to face the consequences once everything is out in the open. In this gripping debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that rule us.
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