‘If you had asked me five years ago to name 10 short story writers, I could have got stuck’
Danielle McLaughlin: ‘I think it’s more interesting if you don’t understand straight away and if you feel the story and it registers almost on a physical level’
Danielle McLaughlin: “I do think that just as runners have their particular distances, writers have particular lengths they work better at too. Mine tends to be around the 5,000 to 10,000 [word] mark”
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
As a child I can remember the Anne of Green Gables books [by LM Montgomery], I absolutely loved those – really loved them. And looking back now there are some quite sad things in those books as well, heart-wrenching things. And I loved all the Secret Seven, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books and I went through a phase where I would read them all one after the other.
Do you have a favourite book now?
In my late teens, I read Wide Sargasso Sea [Jean Rhys’s retelling of Jane Eyre from the point of view of the “mad woman in the attic”] and it just blew me away. It’s so subversive, that book, the way it challenged a story told. I suppose up to that point I had just accepted books or accepted stories, and here was a book saying what has gone before is not the story. It was a long time ago that I read it, but it has made such an impression on me, and it actually comes into one of the stories in my collection.
Which short story writers do you admire?
They keep changing because I am all the time finding new writers. If you had asked me five or six years ago to name 10 short story writers, I could have got stuck and not managed it, but some, like Anne Enright, I was reading always. Alice Munro and Kevin Barry are big, big favourites of mine now, and then Tobias Wolff has great short stories. I love the humour that George Saunders has in his stories, they’re funny and so sad as well. And I really love Claire-Louise Bennett’s writing – I love what she did with Pond. It’s a different approach to telling stories and that’s fabulous.
Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to have a drink or meal with?
Oh, if I met some of those people, I would just be too much in awe. Imagine if Alice Munro came in, I think I would just sit there mute – I would stare at her and slide off the chair.
What is the most beautiful book that you own?
Let me see… Oh the one that comes to mind straight away is a new one I got, Winter Pages [a new annual arts anthology edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith], which is an absolutely gorgeous, pale blue, cloth-covered hardback, and the paper inside is gorgeous as well.
When you read short story collections do you binge on the stories or take them one at a time?
At the moment I have a few different short story collections on the go, because I got a whole batch of new ones, and new anthologies as well. I’m reading a short story by one writer one day and a different one at night, and back and forth. But sometimes I would read from start to finish. I’m not great at keeping to the order of stories in a book. I don’t know why, because when you think about it, a writer may have spent a lot of time working out the order of their stories in a collection.
What impact should a short story have on a reader?
Hmm. I think if they work that it should happen to you, that it should almost be a feeling, a thing that has happened to you rather than something that you necessarily understand on an intellectual level straight away. I think it’s more interesting if you don’t understand straight away and if you feel the story and it registers almost on a physical level. If it’s set out too didactically then it doesn’t really interest me as much.
I have read that you do 40 to 50 drafts. Is this true for every story you write?
Some might take less, but I do tend to have a huge, huge number of drafts. That’s partly to do with my writing process and also the fact that I have to write long-hand first. So I have an awful lot of drafts that are just on pages and notebooks and that stage might go on for a few weeks or sometimes a couple of months. My stories change an awful lot as I write them and people have said to me “how can you say it’s the same story”. But it will start with a core feeling or emotional response to a place that I’ve visited, or an idea. So even if the plot or the characters change through those drafts, I will still count it as the same story, because the central feeling is what I am trying to get at. If anyone looked at the last draft and the first draft, they would say they were completely different.
Do you ever show the first draft to anyone? What number draft will you typically allow others to read?
Oh God, it is very far down the line, because my process is messy and incoherent at the beginning. Talking to other writers, I notice that other people are able to work things out in their head and get them very clear before they put them on paper, but my working out happens on the page. So it might be 20 drafts before I show something to someone, but with my writing group, it might be only seven or eight drafts before I take something to them, and then I will bring it back to the group again at different stages.
For me, good short stories often hang on little details. Is this something you believe?
I like the details, and I’m quite drawn to small details in things, and images, and I like being able to have the space to use detail in the story. Maybe that’s why some of them are quite long, because images come to me and I like to run with them.
I didn’t feel that your short stories were long. Is there an ideal length for a short story?
I think it varies from writer to writer. I do think that just as runners have their particular distances, writers have particular lengths they work better at too. Mine tends to be around the 5,000 to 10,000 mark. When I started, I was writing 2,000- to 3,000-word stories because that was what all the competitions and submission opportunities were for, but the longer stories almost have a different voice and I tend to prefer writing them. I will also sometimes write flash fiction [less than 500 words]. They are very, very tiny stories, and they definitely have a different voice to the more regular length. They are closer to poetry.
Are you working on a novel?
I have a novel that grew out of a writing exercise at a workshop I did with Nuala O’Connor at Waterford Writers Weekend, a few years ago now. I don’t want to say the title or what it’s about because I don’t want to jinx it – it is still being written – but its working title is the same one it had in the workshop. For years I thought it was a short story, and I wrote it from so many different characters’ point of view and so many different angles and I wasn’t happy with any of them. But I stayed with the same kernel of story and the same central images and settings, and then it occurred to me earlier this year that this was going to be a much longer piece – it was going to be a novel.
When do you think you will finish it?
I’m supposed to have it finished next year – so sooner rather than later. That doesn’t bother me so much because the characters have lived with me in my head for several years. They have been growing and taking shape and interacting with each other and with the setting over those various stories. Enough of it has taken root to make me know that it’s there.
Where do you write?
I drop the kids to school then continue on to the cafe in Blarney, which is about eight miles away, and I write in the cafe for a couple of hours. That would be the rough-notebook, early-idea stuff. When I get home in the afternoon, I put things onto the computer or edit things that have reached the computer stage.
Is there one thing that would improve your writing life?
Being a more organised person, because I am very disorganised. I do go from one project to the next, as one grabs my attention and if I get stuck on one thing I will just move to another.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
I’m always saying to people they should do writing workshops, because things only started working out for me when I started doing them. Before that I was making so many mistakes. I had no idea you could learn to do stuff – and you can. I also wouldn’t have produced half the work if I wasn’t in my writing group. We meet twice a month, so that’s twice a month you have to be ready to have something to hand over. It is peer pressure in a good way.
Is there a danger of being steered down the wrong path by the writing group – especially if you’re still in the process of working out the story yourself?
Because of the way our feedback works, that isn’t a problem. No one tries to change anyone else’s story in its core sense, unless someone asks because they are stuck. We’re not really saying “I think you should do X, Y or Z with this plot or character”, it’s more about what the person has tried to achieve and whether that has worked or not.
Do you read reviews of your work?
Yes, it was nice to read the reviews of my collection because people were very kind, and they were positive reviews. It is my first book, so it is slightly strange the idea of it being talked about, of it being out there in the world. But yes, it’s been good so far – so far.
What has becoming a writer taught you?
Oh gosh. That’s a strange one. What has it taught me? I suppose a sense that things change all the time and all kinds of things are possible, because I wouldn’t have ever thought of becoming a writer. [McLaughlin is a former solicitor.] If you had asked me 10 years ago what I thought I would be doing now, I would have thought I would be a lawyer. So life takes all kinds of interesting turns.
Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin is published by Stinging Fly