‘Novels are work, day in, day out’: Nuala Ni Chonchuir
Are you reading our book of the month? Here, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, the author of this month’s Book Club choice ‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’, talks writing and the books business
Emily Dickinson: Miss Emily by Nuala Ní Chonchúir, above, (August, Sandstone) looks at the life of the famously reclusive poet through the eyes of 18-year-old Ada Concannon, her Irish maid. Photograph: Emilia Krysztofiak
The ‘Closet of Savage Mementos’ draws on your own experiences. Was it cathartic to write?
It was, in ways. It made me look at what had happened to me (what I had let happen) and work it out. It also gave me the opportunity to imagine what life might have been like had I decided not to keep my son and raise him myself. I don’t view writing as therapy but it definitely contributes to my mental wellbeing. I am happy when I am writing, grumpy when I am not.
You’ve written novels, poetry, short fiction, plays. What’s your preferred form?
The more I write novels, the more I love them. Novels are work, day in, day out. They are comforting – unlike with poems and short stories, you are not constantly starting anew. I love the long haul of the novel, the settling in to a long period of writing with one set of characters. I also like the frisson of the unknown. I’m not a plotter so I write to tell myself a story and, until about a third of the way through, I rarely know what that story is.
Your forthcoming novel ‘Miss Emily’, told from the perspective of Emily Dickinson’s Irish maid, is a new departure from autobiographical work. Was it easier to write? Most of my fiction, short stories especially, are not autobiographical so it wasn’t a challenge for me but neither was it easier. My two novels, You and The Closet of Savage Mementos, while based on aspects of me, quite quickly veer off into fictional worlds. Miss Emily is a dual narrative, so the story is told alternately from the point of view of Ada (the maid) and Emily Dickinson. No novel is easy to write – it’s like making a jigsaw with blank pieces: not only do you have to fit the pieces together but you need to paint the picture too. It’s a trial and error process, stressful and rewarding.
The film rights to Miss Emily have been acquired. In an ideal world, who would you like to see play the two main characters?
There are so many great actresses who could do justice to the parts. I think Tilda Swinton would make a fine Emily and she already has the red hair! Sarah Greene would, no doubt, do a great job as Ada.
Do you read when you’re writing your novels, and if so, what do you read?
Yes, when I write contemporary, I read contemporary novels. Historical when I write historical work. At the moment I am ensconced in the nineteenth century once more, in London, for my fourth novel, a work in progress. So I am thoroughly enjoying multiple non-fiction books on Victorian London as well as Michel Faber’s superb The Crimson Petal and the White.
The Irish punch above their weight in the literary world, both as readers and writers. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a hangover from our oral tradition. Irish people love to talk and we tend to spin narratives around every small thing. The Irish are good at making a story or anecdote or joke about everything that happens in their day. We also seem to be a nation of readers and if you want to write, you have to read like a demon; a demon with eclectic tastes – read everything!
If you couldn’t win the Laureate for Fiction in January, who would you like to see it go to?
I think Anne Enright would make a great Fiction Laureate – apart from her varied and excellent books, and her literary garlands, she is opinionated and articulate. And funny! I think she would do us proud.
What part of the writing process do you most enjoy?
I like the buzz of invention so I am probably happiest at the start of a novel when I haven’t a clue what is going to happen or what the thing is about. I love research and get a huge kick out of that on an ongoing basis. As the novel gathers momentum, problems arise but I quite like the tricksy work of sorting them out. I usually feel bereft when I have finished the book, but I love editing and the editing process for Miss Emily, with the team at Penguin, was amazing.
What have you learnt over your career as a writer in the last decade?
That you don’t attain success because you deserve it; it’s earned. And even then it doesn’t always come to those who do deserve it. There’s a lot of luck, timing and marketing involved, unfortunately. You have little control as a writer as to how your book will be published, marketed, perceived or read.
It’s been a tough few years for the publishing industry. What’s your opinion on the current state of Irish publishing?
It looks good for debut writers what with the advent of the Novel Fair at the Irish Writers’ Centre, the various Pitch-to-an-Agent events at festivals, the new imprints that are hungry for good writing like Tramp Press and Ward River Press. I see fewer opportunities for mid-career writers but the Irish Writers’ Centre are attempting to tackle that under their new director, Valerie Bistany. That’s good for writers and publishers alike.