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the things we know now: Catherine Dunne on Process

Writing.ie | Magazine | News for Writers | The Big Idea
Catherine-Dunne4

By Eleanor Fitzsimmons

I’m with the writer Catherine Dunne discussing her ninth novel the things we know now, published in March 2013. You can read the first half of this interview here. We turn now to the topic of her extensive body of work, nine novels and one non-fiction book to date along with many shorter pieces. I find it interesting that her novels defy categorization, which is no bad thing I suppose.

Catherine laughs heartily at this. It clearly amuses her that reviewers in particular struggle to find the right box to put her in. ‘I never ever wanted to write to formula’, she stresses. ‘When my first book was published there was an expectation that the second one would follow on the same trajectory but A Name for Himself, which was shortlisted for the Kerry Fiction Prize, was completely different, deliberately, from the first book’. She rails against the constraints of what she describes as a ‘mania for categorization’. ‘People ask me ‘what is it’ and I always say ‘it’s a novel’, she says playfully.

On a more serious note she is particularly concerned about the way women novelists are treated and admits, ‘If you are a woman writing today either explicitly or implicitly you are always going to be asked the ‘chick lit’ question.’ This is completely artificial and something that her male counterparts seem to escape but Catherine is very clear on the matter. ‘Each story is different and each story demands a different treatment’. She is clearly irritated by the snobbery that can sometimes surround books, particularly those that are considered ‘readable’. ‘Sometimes accessibility is seen as a dirty word, as if something accessible is in some way inferior. I don’t buy that at all’. Catherine has an interesting perspective on the notion of turning to a book for escapism and describes how, for her, a book often represents an opportunity to escape to another world rather than escaping from the real world. ‘If you escape to rather than from then something will resonate, it will stay with you longer. That’s my preference’, she says.

Every writer approaches their work differently. How, when and where does Catherine write, I wonder? ‘I would certainly write as far as possible every day’, she muses. One aspect of the job that she does find difficult to accept is that there is far more to being a writer than just sitting at the desk; it’s also going to festivals and meeting readers. Ruefully, she admits ‘I still fret every time I’m away from the desk because to me that’s the real work.’

What’s the most challenging aspect of the actual writing, I wonder. Catherine smiles and has a ready answer to this question: ‘The first draft is always the nightmare. First drafts never get any easier, they are excruciating, very, very painful to produce.’ So what happens if she gets really stuck, or if things are going really well? Does she stick with it for as long as it takes? ‘If something is really knotted and difficult and particularly if I’ve been doing other things during the week I don’t mind catching up over the week-end’, she says. ‘If it’s going well you don’t want to leave the desk at all’, she adds with a laugh.

Catherine has one writing tip that may not appeal to everyone: ‘I discovered something really useful several years ago when I had a deadline that had to be met and I was hugely frustrated’, she says, I realized that the emails start at 9am and the phone calls begin too, so I discovered the bliss of 5am. I’ve never found early rising easy but I said, ‘I’m just going to do this for six weeks’ and it is astonishing how much I got through.’ One thing that she will absolutely not compromise on is quality. As she also takes her deadlines very seriously she realizes that when you’re up against it the only thing you can do is to put in more time: ‘I work out a schedule for the first draft based on word count’, she explains, adding, ‘if I panic I have in the back of my head ‘there’s always 5am.’

Inevitably there will be times when it’s just a case of getting stuck in and getting enough of the right words on the page but as far as possible is it important for her to have a structure to her day? ‘Yes’, she says, ‘you need discipline and you need structure. I don’t believe that anyone can produce a book without some sort of structure.’ One aspect of the life of a writer that she does appreciate is that there is a degree of flexibility if something does come but, as Catherine puts it, ‘the work still has to be done and the words still have to go on the page.’ Her own habits have evolved over time and she tells me that she used to write at night but that no longer works for her. She has one strict rule. She tells me, ‘because I work from home I’ve made the rule that the office door closes at 6pm. You must have a cut off. There’s always something you could be doing, always’. In an incredibly busy day there is one other activity that is very important to her and that’s walking, something she finds great for resolving thorny issues. For this reason she sets aside time to walk early every morning, except the 5am mornings of course. We both laugh at the prospect of that.

Another important aspect of Catherine’s life is teaching. She regularly facilitates Creative Writing Workshops for Listowel Writers’ Week, The Seanchaí Literary & Cultural Centre Listowel, Dublin City Council, The Irish Writers’ Centre and the Arvon Foundation in the UK. This summer she will facilitate a ‘Getting Started on Your Novel’ workshop at Listowel Writers Week.

Broadly speaking, I ask, what does she tell her students? This is an easy one for which she has a ready answer: ‘I’m always astonished by the number of students who come to creative writing classes but don’t read’. Sounds interesting, can she elaborate? ‘Yes’, she smiles, ‘for me that begs the question ‘how do you know what you want to write?’ So that’s always my first question, ‘what do you read?’ When it comes to writing, patience and clarity of purpose are essential and Catherine feels that sometimes people are impatient to be published before they have something to say, there can be an unwillingness to serve the apprenticeship.

Happily it is her experience that the vast majority of people who come to her workshops do have something to say, do want to write and are trying to find the space to articulate that. Again gender is a factor here: ‘For women it seems to be much more difficult to give yourself permission to say ‘I am a writer’, even I f you haven’t had anything published’, she says. This is something she has experienced many times and it saddens her. She describes encountering this reticence amongst young women particularly, much more than amongst young men. How does she tackle this, I ask? Her solution she tells me is simple: ‘the first rule of my workshop is that you leave the internal critic outside the door, it has no place in a workshop, none.’

the-things-we-know-now-978144722956801Catherine is amazed by the number of people who will start off saying ‘this isn’t any good but…’ ‘I don’t allow that’, she tells me. Instead in her workshops: ‘you read out your piece, we work on it and see what works and what needs work’. Her sessions are very interactive. ‘I don’t believe in just standing there talking at people’, she stresses, adding, ‘I believe that people learn most when they are actually dealing with a text, their own or one written by someone else’. Catherine has an admirably positive approach: ‘The rule is always that we find something positive to start with and then we can look at the things which need work’. There is one key message. She smiles as she tells me that, ‘the most important thing in a workshop situation with students is to stress that all writing is rewriting’. I agree. That’s certainly true for all writers, no matter what level of success they have enjoyed. This is excellent advice.

Even a highly successful novelist like Catherine is adamant that no one can get it right first time, yet her own students are often shocked that a piece of writing can take fifteen or sixteen drafts. It is from bitter experience that she has learned the importance of getting things right: ‘I deleted six months work with this book as it wasn’t working’, she reminds me, adding ruefully, ‘you know in your heart when something is just not working and you always aim for a better book. For me the aim is always to raise the bar every time.’

Catherine has certainly excelled this time and I have taken up enough of her valuable writing time. It’s been a fascinating and enlightening couple of hours for me and I can understand why Catherine Dunne is in such demand for writing workshops, and why her brilliant books are such a global success. It’s been a pleasure and a very informative and thought provoking experience to meet one of our most reflective and talented novelists.

For more information on the things we know now and on Catherine’s eight other novels, short fiction and non-fiction I would encourage all readers and writers to visit www.catherinedunneauthor.com or www.facebook.com/Author.CatherineDunne. Here you will also find her excellent ‘Readers Forum’, which is packed full of really helpful and practical creative writing advice.

(c) Eleanor Fitzsimmons

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster. Her work has been published in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Irish Times and a number of other publications, and she is a contributor to the www.theantiroom.com podcast and blog.  More recently she worked as the researcher on a number of prime time television programmes for RTE, including ‘What Have The Brits Ever Done For Us’ and the IFTA-winning ‘Bullyproof’. In 2012 she returned to UCD, graduating with an MA (first class honours) in Women Gender and Society. She realised that uncovering women’s hidden history is her true passion and at present is writing a biography of Harriet Shelley, first wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her agent is Andrew Lownie and further details can be found at http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/authors/eleanor-fitzsimons/books/a-want-of-honour-the-short-life-and-tragic-death-of-harriet-shelley She lives in Dublin with her husband and two children.

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