Danielle McLaughlin: ‘I’m anxious and an introvert. That can be helpful when making fiction’

Author Danielle McLaughlin at home near Donoughmore, Co Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Cork writer on her heralded debut novel, self-doubt and writing with autism

Such was the brilliance of Danielle McLaughlin’s 2015 debut short story collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, that expectation levels for her first novel were extremely high. Its long gestation – the novel’s conception dates back to a writing workshop with Nuala O’Connor in 2012 – must have added to the anxiety.

We need not have feared. The Art of Falling is exceptional, and critics are already falling over themselves to praise it. The text has such depth, it could have been sent to a 3D printer.

The novel is firmly anchored in the author’s native county. Her protagonist Nessa’s description of the light by the sea in west Cork as not soft but “glorious, razor-sharp and unsparing” is a perfect description of McLaughlin’s own writing.

Nessa is in her 40s and facing a perfect storm of problems in her personal and professional life. Already dealing with financial, marital and parental difficulties, she is confronted with her history in the shape of a dead friend’s son. Her curation of a sculptor’s collection is similarly complicated by an intrusion from his past.

“My main concern was to tell a story,” says McLaughlin. “I wasn’t setting out to showcase any particular concerns, though looking back over it now, I can see themes emerging. We are drawn to tell the stories that interest us. Among the territory covered by the novel is feminism; structural discrimination; the need to challenge accepted narratives; the gap between how we pretend things are and how they actually are; the mystery of why people put up with bad relationships; art and how we talk about it; how guilt can follow a person through life; is the past ever really past?”

Nine years before the author could hold her published novel in her hand, it began with her rubbing a chalky piece of broken crockery as a writing prompt. The novel took a long time to come right, and she found it hard to write. Switching from the first to the third person at her agent’s suggestion helped unlock something.

“I have a number of short stories among my drafts called The Chalk Sculpture. They are all quite different and, at the same time, they also have things in common. It became a novel about two years after it started out. A previous setting and some characters from a novel in progress merged to form a new entity. I think that switching to third person gave me a better perspective on Nessa – after all, she’s not me, and I think I was fairer to her when I wrote about her from close third. There was less self-indulgence, and also less self-hatred, creeping in.”

That has always been part of my personality or psychology, that tendency towards obsession, or to frame it more positively, a very intense focus on whatever has captured my interest.

Writing may be rewriting but McLaughlin is known for her multiple drafts. Is this a normal polishing process or an obsessive pursuit of elusive perfection? “Not an obsessive pursuit of perfection, but very possibly just plain obsessive! In one sense, that has always been part of my personality or psychology, that tendency towards obsession, or to frame it more positively, a very intense focus on whatever has captured my interest.

“As a small child, I had obsessive/compulsive tendencies. As an adult I’ve been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. I think being very particular and doing lots of drafts is part of the way I’m wired, and so it follows that it’s how I write.

“It also has to do, I think, with the fact that I work things out on paper, rather than in my head, so I maybe have a physical record of more drafts than other writers might. I’m also comfortable with that repetitive process of doing something over and over.”

Redrafting is also a clarifying process, helping her discover the way ahead.

“The story, the different layers of it, the depth of it, definitely builds over the course of the various drafts. The drafting builds the fabric of a piece. The great thing about human exchanges in fiction is that we can keep revisiting them until the underlying meaning reveals itself to us, the motivations and misunderstandings or connections that lie behind the characters’ interactions. So much of real life could be improved if we were allowed redraft it.”

Freedom of paper

Writing in notebooks at the early stage, “the freedom of paper”, is a vital part of her non-linear creative process. “I have to write longhand at the start of any project. It’s a more direct connection to whatever soup of ideas might be sloshing around in my brain. Often when those ideas start making their way out on to a page, it will be a tangle, and sometimes that tangle will split off into a number of different stories that might end up being in conversation with one another.

“Writing on paper, I like the sense of being ‘unplugged’. The page and a pen or pencil has a more direct route to my brain than trying to write via a computer.”

The title has changed over the years from The Chalk Sculpture to Retrospective to The Art of Falling. Why?

“It was The Chalk Sculpture for years and years, named after the best-known piece of art made by Robert Locke. I liked the idea of something standing as a piece of sculpture but at the same time crumbling and vulnerable from its inception – the idea that perhaps its vulnerability was the most true thing about it, the contradiction between shape and essence. But there were many books with similar titles.

“I then came up with Retrospective. I liked the way it tied in with the plot, as well as the way, whether by choice or because we are forced to, we come to reassess the story we tell ourselves about our own lives, and also others’ lives. The Art of Falling speaks to the novel on a number of levels, and the fact that there are various different kinds of ‘fallings’ in the book.”

To what degree is the switch from short story to novel a natural progression or a publishing industry expectation? “I can only say that personally I didn’t feel any sense of expectation. I wanted to write this novel, to tell this particular story. And Nessa’s story, and the story of the characters who journey with her, wouldn’t have suited a short story.”

Does she feel the novel is held in greater esteem? “I don’t know about esteem, but it definitely has a higher commercial value placed on it.”

The short story can be compared to someone we meet briefly, but who we subsequently find ourselves thinking about.

The author has spoken of the short story’s power as not just something you read but that happens or is done to you. What is the novel’s singular power?

“Perhaps the greater length of time we spend with characters in a novel allows a friendship of sorts to develop, a sort of companionship. Short stories are more akin to an experience of solidarity. The short story can be compared to someone we meet briefly, but who we subsequently find ourselves thinking about. The novel perhaps provides the opportunity to see how a character develops over a longer period, even a life or, in the case of a family, several generations, with room too for insights into what might have made them who they are, or their reasons for making the choices that they do.”

The law years

How did McLaughlin’s time as a lawyer – a serious illness forced her to quit a decade ago – serve as an apprenticeship to becoming a writer in terms of the use of language and as a fund of human stories?

“Law gave me the opportunity of writing very precisely to deadline where the stakes, should one get a word or a paragraph wrong, were open to far more worrying consequences than somebody complaining about clunky prose. Deadlines were more strictly enforced in law and I was better at meeting them back then.

“I loved to read the Law Reports. You get valuable insights into a person’s character when you are reading how they acted under pressure, when they are obliged to tell you things because they are under oath, things that they might otherwise never breathe to another living soul. And the detail, the requirement for evidence that law insists upon, is so enriching – no gliding over the surface allowed. There’s no need for anyone to ever be short of ideas if they have access to Law Reports.”

I like the ability that fiction has to challenge existing narratives. Fiction can fill gaps left by other parts of society.

The Art of Falling steadily strips away (self-)deceptions to get at the truth of a character’s nature and motivations, the debunking of the sculptor’s self-mythologising mirrored in the cleaning of his statue and the gradual discovery of its true origin story and meaning. The novelist as restorer or revisionist historian?

“Or perhaps novelist as challenger,” says McLaughlin. “I like the ability that fiction has to challenge existing narratives. Fiction can fill gaps left by other parts of society. I’m interested in why we blithely accept some things, simply because we’re told them. And conversely, why we refuse to accept other things, even though we are repeatedly told them. So much of what we tell ourselves about our lives, or the lives of others, might be described as fake news.”

Nessa is horrified when her daughter is given a diary. The sculptor Locke, echoing Nessa’s friend Amy, says “there’s nothing I wouldn’t use in my art”. Nessa mentions digging up a rabbit once, an incident from McLaughlin’s own childhood. Are there things she wouldn’t dare dig up?

“There’s subject matter that I think I’d want to be in a very good place before exploring, especially since I’m a slow writer, because it means I’d be visiting dark places for a protracted period. I also think, when dealing with material that’s very disturbing, that a writer needs to have a good reason for bringing more ugliness into the world, always allowing that perhaps a story may manage to make something disturbing into something beautiful.”

Bleak world view

McLaughlin has spoken of a bleak world view and described herself as anxious. How would she describe her personality and outlook? How does that feed into her fiction? “I’d say, yes, I’m anxious and an introvert. That can be helpful when making fiction, all that catastrophising can be put to good use, and I never feel that writing has robbed me of time I could have spent partying.”

McLaughlin is much loved. Marie Gethins, in a 2016 article for The Irish Times about being in a writing group with Danielle, wrote: “It is rare that great talent is combined with genuine good in a person.”

I’m conscious always of how the world treats women, being one – and also, given the history of how Ireland treated women through the 20th century, how could I not be very much aware of it?

How intentional is the strong feminist current in the work, from the domestic to the artistic? Locke took the glory for the work of women in his life. Nessa multitasks while her husband fraternises. Ireland has not treated its female citizens well or equally. Female artists have been neglected. Is that a legacy or ongoing issue?

“I didn’t set out to tackle any theme as such. But I’m conscious always of how the world treats women, being one – and also, given the history of how Ireland treated women through the 20th century, how could I not be very much aware of it? So it’s there in what I write, because I write about life as I’ve come to know it. Definitely very much an ongoing issue.”

Discussing influences, McLaughlin cites: “Anne Enright, for the fierce honesty of her writing, how she manages to close the gap between reader and character; William Trevor, for the grace of his writing; Alice Munro, how she can conjure whole worlds with just the right amount of detail, and can cover great swathes of time and make it look effortless; Kevin Barry, for the lyricism and music and humour of his writing, the way his stories ring so true; George Saunders for the way he writes his characters with both compassion and humour.”

A second novel is under way, but she doesn’t want to talk about it too much, because she hasn’t shown it to anyone yet. “The first chunk of it, which is at a slightly more polished stage, is going to my writing group this week as I continue to redraft the rest.” She has written a dozen stories since her debut, and more are at various stages of construction, so a second collection can’t be far off.

McLaughlin’s art tells us we may have fallen and may be damaged but we are salvageable, still worthy of not just notice but admiration and love. The future is another country. We can do things better there.

Her star too is in the ascendant. But did she begin to doubt herself as a writer at any stage? How important were the two big prizes she won in 2019 (the £30,000 Sunday Times Short Story Award and the $165,000 Windham Campbell Award)?

“The affirmations of the prizes arrived at an important point because I had been thinking about what I was doing with my life and if I should return to practising law,” McLaughlin says. “Doubt is the default position, and I can’t say that there’s any stage at which it stops.”

The Art of Falling is published by John Murray on February 4th. Danielle McLaughlin will appear online at the DLR Mountains to Sea Book Festival with Raven Leilani on Saturday, March 27th at 11am. Booking from mountainstosea.ie