Maid in America: an author’s tale
Writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir has struck a substantial deal in the US and Canada for her third novel about poet Emily Dickinson’s Irish maid. She tells The Irish Times about writing, motherhood and rural Ireland
Writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir with sons Cúán (at back) and Finn at their home in Ballinasloe. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Q What’s the story behind the big deal?
A I spent 18 months looking for the right agent until I met this fantastic Irish woman, Gráinne Fox, who was working in London and went to New York to work with Fletcher and Co. It turns out we both went to Scoil Chaitríona, Glasnevin. She’s an Irish woman who I can talk with properly and she rings me regularly with updates, which I used to think was unheard of.
Q Rumour has it that the film rights to ‘Miss Emily’ are in negotiation.
A I probably shouldn’t say anything about that yet, but I have fun imagining who will play the roles. For Emily, Cate Blanchett has been mentioned and Sorcha Ronan seems a natural for the Irish maid.
Q How will you spend the money?
A My second husband, Finbarr McLoughlin, and I live in Ballinasloe, east Galway, but we’d love to have a place in Dublin. I feel isolated in Ballinasloe, I’m not someone they’d have time for. It’s a small, conservative town. I had a son, Cúán 20 years ago with an older man I met while working at a hotel in Scotland and we were never together. Then I married John, who was from Ballinasloe, and he adopted Cúán. We parted after about seven years and I married Finbarr. We’ve stayed in Ballinasloe for the kids [Cúán, Finn (11) and Juno (4)] because they love it there.
Q Are you betraying your Gaelgoir background, being published in the US and Canada as Nuala O’Connor?
A Nuala O’Connor is my name. I grew up in Dublin, in old Palmerstown, in a workmans’ cottage on the Guinness estate, which was very rural. And from age four I went to a Gaelscoil. They gave me my Irish name and I love Irish. I have a degree and an MA in Irish. The presumption is that with an Irish name you are from the Gaeltacht and that you have certain attitudes. It’s annoying that people can’t pronounce the Irish version of my name. It’s a mental block.
Q You’re part of a lively writers’ network.
A I like blogging. I don’t keep track, but there’s a fair bit of traffic. When you’re not surrounded by friends and family where you live, it’s a great support. And I’ve made good friends, other writers, through the internet. So when we meet up at festivals, it’s like we already know each other. I’m very introverted and shy so for me it’s ideal.
Q When your work is solitary, how important is it to stay positive?
A I’m anxious. I can get very impatient and short with people. I think it’s PMS. I can’t explain it any other way because I have a really nice life – what I always wanted. I have a nice home and a nice husband and great kids. There’s nothing wrong but every so often I slump and get very nervous, very wound up.
Q How do other writers react to your success?
A There’s jealousy. Some people have distanced themselves. I don’t know why. I’m very involved with my writers’ group, although I don’t show them my work; the first person to see it is the editor or the agent. I agree with Jack Heffron, who said, “The story you are writing is a secret.”
Q Your second novel, just published, ‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’, explores your experience at the age of 20, of becoming a single mother after having a summer fling with a New Zealand artist in Scotland.
A Yes – I’ve been promoting my second novel while finishing the edits on my third! I’m glad I had my first child at 20, you could put your youth and energy into him.
When I was pregnant, I got counselling at the maternity hospital and my mother sent me to a crisis-pregnancy organisation. Nobody said it out loud, but through the counselling the impression I got was, “Give us your baby!” All of my friends had had abortions. I’m pro-choice but I couldn’t have an abortion. It made my friends uncomfortable. I always had my child with me and they’d say, “What’s that child doing here? Doesn’t he have to go to bed!”
Q What’s it like having your last child at 40?
A I’m 44 and have a four-year-old, and I think having your first at this age would be exhausting. I notice that with other mothers who’ve had their first at 39 or 40 it’s all about the schedule and the nap. Whatever happened to letting the child fall sleep in your arms?
These older mothers want “me-time”, it’s like, “get that child off me!” I like having my kids around me.
Q Do you see differences in attitudes between female and male writers?
A Women aren’t supposed to write “ugly characters”, which I’ve been accused of, and people want an uplifting experience from women’s books, while that’s not true for men. I’m a mentor in the creative writing programme at NUIG and I notice that when a man presents his writing he says “read this, it’s brilliant”and he totally believes that his writing is brilliant and that he is brilliant.
When a woman shows you her writing, she apologises for it and tells you everything that’s wrong with it. Women fall down early, when they have their first child or get a negative critique.