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Mother America – Nuala Ni Chonchuir

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction

By Eadaoin Lynch

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Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir is a full-time fiction writer and poet, living in Galway county. She has published four collections of short fiction, three poetry collections – one in an anthology, and one novel, “You”. Nuala holds a BA in Irish from Trinity College Dublin and a Masters in Translation Studies (Irish/English) from Dublin City University. She has worked as an arts administrator in theatre and in a writers’ centre; as a translator, as a bookseller and also in a university library. Nuala teaches creative writing on a part-time basis.

Dublin-born Nuala Ní Chonchúir is about to launch her fourth collection of short fiction, Mother America (New Island), and she has another novel in the works: this writer will not, thankfully, leave the shelves any time soon.

When I read the first story in her new collection Mother America – “Peach” – I immediately began writing down questions to ask her for this interview. This first story captures a snapshot of time in the lives of two characters, Dominic and Maud, who come together in a moment of loneliness. The descriptions in “Peach”, and other stories from the collection, expose Nuala Ní Chonchúir as a poet in their precision and physicality. As Cathal Ó’Searcaigh put it, “She has the Chekhovian eye for detail and a gift for brevity and relevance.”

Mother America encompasses re-imaginings of famous figures (Frida Kahlo, Ted Hughes), historical fiction (an Irish estate at the turn of the century, Manhattan in the 1950s), contemporary Ireland, as well as vivid depictions of Rome and Paris. I was curious to know how Nuala got her inspiration for these stories, and began by asking about her writing routine. Nuala explained, “I write in the mornings when my kids are at school/crèche. My daughter is in a crèche three mornings a week (five mornings from September – yay!) so that’s when I write. I also get up early at the weekend when everyone’s in bed. I write all the time: on the train, bus, in the car, in bed. It’s a constant thing.

‘I don’t make rigorous demands on myself as regards word counts etc. – I achieve more with modest goals. The aim is to just write something, anything. I never know how a story will end as I begin it. I write to tell stories to myself so I don’t need to know the ending. I start with a first line and a character, and a feeling or mood, and work from there. Inspirations can be diverse – an image or a word or a person can inspire a story, so they come at you differently.”

Mother America is a diverse collection, I wondered what themes were as the collection came together. Nuala told me, “I don’t sit down to write with themes in mind but, like all writers, things possess and obsess me over the course of writing a book. I am always interested in the body and in mothers and children and, in this book, these things came to the fore. I divorced and remarried in the period these stories were written, so that turns up. I also visited Rome for the first time and got to know Sligo’s Strandhill a little. Things that happen to you, and places you visit, turn up in the work.”

For a poet, surely it must be difficult to know if an idea is better suited to a poem or a short story. How does Nuala decide? “I always find this a difficult question to answer. Maybe there is no good answer. Something just feels like a poem as opposed to a story. Having said that, all of my writing is concerned with the body and families and women’s place in the world.”

Many of the stories in Mother America are set in the past. In a story such as “Scullion”, set in an Irish estate house in the late 19th/early 20th century, I asked Nuala why she had decided to write about a scullery maid, and whether she felt more comfortable re-imagining the past or writing in the present. “I’m interested in every type of woman and I imagine the life of a maid back then was pretty joyless and tough. It’s interesting to re-imagine other time periods. Slightly tricky too as you want to get things right but not douse the story in historical fact. I love historical fiction as much as that set in contemporary times; both are great to occupy as a writer.

In this collection there are two stories (“Moongazer” and “From Jesus to the Moon”) that conclude with the female narrator looking to the moon for help or forgiveness. Nuala explained, “I love the moon. Plath loved the moon. I am absolutely sure the moon affects my mood and it is such a beautiful thing to look at. It lends itself well to art. I get possessed by symbols from time to time: rivers, the moon, peacocks, hares. It pleases me and helps in the writing.”

In the stories “Easter Snow” and “Triangle Boy”, both set in Manhattan, Nuala compares the narrator’s experience (of Ireland) to their perception of the city: “I am from a quieter place — a country of villages, where the odd tractor makes the biggest noise, and the buildings do not try to suck the breath out of the sky.” I asked how much of this was informed by Nuala’s own background, whether she shared some of her characters’ thoughts on the city’s claustrophobic quality. I love New York and when I come home from it my ears ring with the silence of where I live (‘a quieter place … where the odd tractor makes the biggest noise’) after the din of the city. I’m from Dublin (a rural part of it) but I went to school and college in the city. I prefer cities but you can get a lot of writing done by living in a quiet place.”

Indeed, Nuala went on to explain that the themes of fertility and barrenness that appear, were also part of her life, “Fertility issues have affected my own life (pregnancy loss, fertility treatments) so having been consumed by these things for years they inevitably made their way into my writing. The ability (or decision) to have or not have children is huge for women, central to their lives. It can make great stories.”

Mother America is an international collection – the stories jump from Ireland to Rome to Mexico to Paris to Manhattan with ease, and Nuala has been to all the places mentioned except Mexico: I love writing about places I have been – I fall madly in love with most places I visit. Travel is the big bonus of being a writer. I’m just back from a short story festival in Croatia. In a couple of weeks I’m going to a short story conference in Arkansas. Everywhere I go I’m on high alert and furiously jotting things down and taking photos. It energises me to go away. Then I come back to my quiet East Galway town and re-imagine it all in stories and poems.

There are other places I would like to set stories but I would like to visit them, to get a proper feel – Russia, for example. The Antipodes.”

There is huge importance invested in place in this collection. “Place is one of the hallmarks of Irish writing. We’re obsessed with place and land and ownership and regionality. I love the part of Dublin I am from. I am not so crazy about the place I live in now, but circumstances have me here and it works from the POV of getting work done – there are few distractions.”

And which writers are her greatest influences? “Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle, Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, the Brontës.”

What’s next for Nuala Ní Chonchúir ? Another novel, another collection of short stories, another collection of poetry, or something entirely different? She told me, “All of the above! I have another novel completed (set in Scotland and Ireland). I have started another (historical). I have more stories written and more poems. As for ‘something entirely different’, who knows? Maybe I will finally secure that elusive, wonderful agent that I so want ☺”

About the author

© Eadaoin Lynch June 2012.

Hear Nuala reading from Peach and her short story Letters, both of which can be found in Mother America


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