Declan Meade: ‘Danielle is so bloody talented. She cares deeply about the text’
Authors & Editors: Danielle McLaughlin and her editor at Stinging Fly talk to Sarah Bannan about their working relationship and how her debut collection came about
Declan Meade: “As soon as I’d read Night of the Silver Fox, I thought that there could potentially be a collection. The story is very stark and bleak, but it’s told with great compassion and understanding. It was thrilling to read.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Danielle McLaughlin: “I find it very hard to be a judge of my own work. If Declan says that something isn’t working, then I know that it really isn’t working. Far better to have something rejected, or have to go back to the drawing board with it, than to have it published when it’s less than it could be”
Danielle McLaughlin’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Irish Times, Southword, The Penny Dreadful, Long Story Short and in The Stinging Fly. She has won various awards for her short fiction, including the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition, The Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize, The Merriman Short Story Competition in memory of Maeve Binchy, and the Dromineer Literary Festival Short Story Competition. Danielle was awarded an Arts Council Bursary in 2013. Her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, was published by The Stinging Fly Press in 2015. She lives in Co Cork with her husband and three young children.
Declan Meade is publisher of The Stinging Fly magazine, which he established in 1997 and edited until 2014. He is currently editor & publisher with Stinging Fly Press. Since 2005 he has published debut short story collections by Kevin Barry, Michael J Farrell, Mary Costello, Colin Barrett and Claire-Louise Bennett and he has edited a number of anthologies, including These Are Our Lives, Let’s Be Alone Together and Davy Byrnes Stories 2014.
Danielle, you began writing the stories in this collection back in 2011. What made you decide to submit to Declan at The Stinging Fly?
I first submitted a story to the Stinging Fly in 2011 at the suggestion of Tom Morris, who I didn’t know back then but who’d been involved in administering a competition I’d won. I was already a reader of the magazine, and was a bit in awe of the writing that appeared in it, so hadn’t submitted anything before that. That first story wasn’t accepted, but I remember Declan gave me some very useful feedback and he invited me to submit another story. The next one I sent was All About Alice, which was published in the Spring 2012 issue and is the earliest of the stories in the collection. I had another story published in the Winter 12-13 issue and shortly after that Declan got in touch to ask if I was working on a collection, which I wasn’t, as such, at the time. I’d had an approach from someone previously about doing a collection, but knew myself that I was nowhere near ready and had declined. And, in a way, I still wasn’t ready, but I knew I wanted to have a book published some day, and I was especially delighted at the prospect of being published by Stinging Fly. It took me another two and a half years after that though to complete the book.
Declan, what was it about Danielle’s work that made you want to publish her?
We published a story by Danielle called All About Alice in our Spring 2012 issue and, a short while later, she emailed to ask if I’d be willing to read a longer story she had written called Night of the Silver Fox. As soon as I’d read that story I thought that there could potentially be a collection. The story is very stark and bleak, but it’s told with great compassion and understanding. It was thrilling to read. I went down to Cork to meet Danielle and I remember encouraging her to concentrate on writing longer stories. I think she was already heading in that direction anyway. She continued sending me batches of stories and we began piecing the collection together. It was exciting for me to read each new story – and then it becomes a matter of believing that other readers will be excited by the work too.
Danielle, how do you give your work to Declan – stories at a raw stage or very polished? Do you ever talk about early ideas with him or do you wait until this work is done and send on?
My writing process is very, very messy and long-drawn-out. My early drafts are done longhand, I couldn’t show them to anybody, often it gives me all I can do to decipher them myself. After a while, I’ll move them to the computer, and when a story reaches a certain stage, I’ll send it to my writing group, then do some more drafts after that before sending it to Declan. Lucy Luck, my agent, also reads the stories at this point. Sometimes I’ll think a story is done, but Declan will see that perhaps the ending isn’t right, or that the story works to a particular point and then breaks down, and I’ll go back to the drawing board. Other times a story will just require small edits – for example, expanding on something, or maybe cutting back, rewriting sentences here and there. As for talking about early ideas, because my stories change so much during the writing process, there’s little point in me discussing my early ideas with anyone, because what I actually produce might be something entirely different to what I’d talked about. So mostly I will only send a story when I’ve done a large number of drafts, though I did once send a story I had doubts about at an earlier stage, to get a steer on it, and that saved me a lot of time in the long run, because I ended up ditching pretty much everything apart from the setting and starting out again.
Declan, how do you make your edits with Danielle?
Nearly all of the editing on Danielle’s stories was done by email. She lives in Cork and she has a young family to work around so we didn’t really have many opportunities to meet up. It is sometimes easier to talk these things through face to face, but once we’d decided which stories were going into the collection, there wasn’t a huge amount of editing to be done on them. The stories were all fairly polished. I’d mark up a word document with comments or send a list of questions and suggestions – and Danielle would usually come back with her own list of suggested changes as well.
Danielle, I’ve heard you say that it took you a long time to make stories that you were happy to put in the collection. Can you describe a little bit about how you know when a story is done? And were there, for example, stories you wrote that you love but that don’t suit this particular collection?
I’m not entirely sure that I do know when a story is done. I remember discussing this during an audience Q & A once and somebody, having listened to me trying to talk about my writing process, saying: it’s other people tell you when it’s done. And I thought, yes, that’s right! It is other people who tend to see that before I do. I’m not a good judge of my own stories. Also, it can differ from story to story: some stories will play out like a reel of film, and while they still take me a long time to get down, I will have a sense of the shape of them, they will start and stop quite definitely. Other times, the characters and plot will keep changing and changing and changing.
Every story that I wanted in the collection is in it, and I’ve no regrets about any of the stories left out. It was more a case of making sure I had enough stories that worked well together. I only finished writing the book earlier this year.
The stories that I wrote five or six years ago, when I was just starting out, are very different to the stories I’ve written over the past two years or so. Those earlier stories wouldn’t have worked in the collection and I wouldn’t say that I love any of them, though I’m grateful to the places that published them and I learned a lot by writing them. I have pieces of flash fiction that I’m fond of, but my flash, for whatever reason, seems to happen in a different voice and style to my longer stories. They wouldn’t have been a good fit in the book.
Declan, Anne Enright said recently in the Guardian that you are a man “who has never made a mistake”. The Stinging Fly has become a launchpad for (extreme) international success. Danielle, for example, has had two stories published in The New Yorker in the space of 12 months – that’s almost unheard of. Are awards and international recognition important to you as a publisher, and why? And how do you keep your focus on new (and unknown writers) amidst all that (positive) noise?
What’s most important for me as a publisher is to publish well – and that means first working with the writer to ensure the manuscript is as good as it possibly can be, then producing the book to a very high standard, and then getting that out to as many readers as possible. We’ve mostly been working with debut writers until now. I feel a great responsibility towards them. I want to give them the best possible start. I want their first book to be something they can always be proud of, too. The awards, if they come, are of more immediate benefit to the writer – but they do help to boost sales and bolster our reputation so that the path for the next book or author we publish might be a little easier. I think we’ve been very lucky that all these really talented writers have come through in the past few years– and, of course, having the magazine is a great way of finding them.
Danielle, do the two of you ever argue? Has Declan ever suggested changes to your work that you’ve dug your heels in about? And have you regretted this afterwards? Or vice versa?
I don’t recall us arguing (though I’m open to correction here, Declan!) I find the editing process quite straightforward, actually. Declan will identify something that isn’t working and I will then go work out a way of fixing it. It’s not like he dictates how I should fix it, so it never becomes a case of his version versus my version. For the smaller edits he might suggest a replacement word or phrase. All the bigger changes – and a bigger change might be something like an ending not working, or maybe one half of a story working and the other not, or a problem with the characters – I’ll go away and do the rewrites and then send the story back again.
Declan, I’ve asked other editors this, and so I’ll ask you – it’s only fair: do you obey the rule “First do no harm”? How do you offer advice and questions without encroaching on a writer’s unique style, the unique voice of the story?
I do obey that rule, yes. Editing for me is about reading the text very closely and tuning in to the writer’s voice and style and seeking to understand their intentions. Any suggestions I make are towards finessing the manuscript so that it comes closer to what the author is attempting to achieve. And I am only making suggestions – the author is free to agree or disagree, to take them on board or to say no thanks… In making my suggestions I make allowances for the style of the piece and I try not to waste the author’s time or my own.
Danielle, your writing is so intensely and wonderfully visual, and so connected with nature. And they are so polished and assured, I know you must be an avid reader. Can you talk about some of your literary influences? And do you and Declan share book or story recommendations with one another?
When I went along to the Cork International Short Story Festival for the first time back in 2010, if you’d asked me then to name 10 short story writers I think I’d have struggled. I was always a big reader since I was a child, but just wasn’t familiar with the work of many short story writers. I had Anne Enright’s collection, The Portable Virgin. I remember stories from school by Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor, Padraic Ó Conaire, and I had a couple of anthologies on my bookshelves. Otherwise, I had almost no short stories in my house at all! Even as I type this now, it seems strange to me, because these days I read more short stories than anything else.
So in terms of my reading, I feel like I’ve a lot of catching up to do, and I’m all the time discovering the works of writers that everyone else has been reading for ages, but who are new to me. As well as Anne Enright, other influences over the past few years would be Alice Munro, William Trevor, Kevin Barry, Flannery O’Connor. This past year, I’ve been very taken with the work of Elena Ferrante, Claire-Louise Bennett, Eimear McBride, Jenny Offill. When I discover a new writer that I really like, I tend to go on about them to the point of obsession to anyone who will listen; books and the people who write them are what I most like to talk about, so people tend to get book recommendations whether they want them or not.
Declan, what part of editing do you feel most comfortable with? Is it sentence by sentence or the overall shape of the story? Or both? Or something else?
I take great pleasure in the sentence by sentence work, the fine tuning of the text, working with the writer on that. I enjoy successive rounds of editing, picking up on different things each time. And editing stories for a collection is different to editing them individually – you have to look for the repetition of words, phrases and images across the collection and decide if these should stay or go. I also enjoy shaping a collection of stories, figuring out the order in which the stories will appear. Again because I’m usually working with first-time authors, that’s something I can help them with.
If I feel that a story has structural problems or is in some way unfinished, I’ll tend to pass it back to the writer and ask them to take another run at it. Often times they just haven’t finished working on the story yet, they haven’t got it down on the page.
Danielle, what’s the best thing about working with Declan?
I trust his judgement completely. He has an excellent eye for what is or isn’t working in a story, and I know he won’t let a story out into the world if it’s not ready. That’s a relief to know, because I find it very hard to be a judge of my own work. If Declan says that something isn’t working, then I know that it really isn’t working. Far better to have something rejected, or have to go back to the drawing board with it, than to have it published when it’s less than it could be. And if there’s something wrong with a story, he’ll take the trouble to say it in a kind way, which is important, I think, and possibly one of the reasons why we don’t argue! So there’s respect for the writer as well as for the writing. I’m grateful, too, that I was allowed as much time as I needed to write the collection.
Same question for you, Declan.
Danielle is so bloody talented and she cares deeply about the text. She was fully engaged in the process, but always very open and easy to work with. It was intriguing getting to know Danielle better and trying to figure out where the hell these stories came from. I’m not much the wiser on that score – but I can live with that, I’m very happy to have the stories.
And, finally, Danielle, can you give us a hint on what you’re working on next? And how is this process different from the first collection?
I have a number of short stories under construction at the moment. I’m also writing a novel that started out as a short story that I attempted to write in various ways over a number of years before it settled into a longer piece of writing. And I’ve recently begun working on an anthology project for next year that I’m not going to say too much about just yet, but which I’m already very excited about.
Dinosaurs on Other Planets is published by Stinging Fly.
Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury).
Next: on Wednesday, we publish Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate, a story from the collection first published in The Irish Times in 2014 as part of our This Means War series; and on Friday, we publish an interview with the author by laura Slattery ahead of their Book Club podcast next week