Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012; The Irish Times said of it: ‘Ní Chonchúir’s precisely made but deliciously sensual stories mark her as a carrier of Edna O’Brien’s flame.’ Her début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner and ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times. Her third full poetry collection The Juno Charm was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011. Nuala’s second novel will be published in 2014.
This interview is in two parts. We begin with an informal chat and end with a more in-depth look at the author’s craft.
Allen: Nuala, thank you again for judging Flash Mob 2013, and thank you for taking the time to talk to me. You’ve been publishing short fiction–and longer fiction as well–for more than a decade. I remember reading in an interview once that you started writing short stories when the novel you’d been working on wasn’t coming together. How do you know when an idea is better suited for the short form?
Ní Chonchúir: I get asked this question a lot – it is hard to pin down why one thing becomes a story another a poem or novel. It has to do with thinking in shapes, I think. I see/feel the spark of the thing as a long or short shape; it’s a gut thing, hard to put in words. But the story is deep and sharp and it requires a small space and the material (spark/idea/inspiration) dictates that.
Allen: This description–which I love–reminds me of my own musical training. Is this merely my interpretation here, or do you feel prose musically?
Ní Chonchúir: Very much so. I love musicality in prose and I read everything aloud for sound as I write. If it doesn’t sound right, it gets changed. I like to sing, maybe it comes from that?
Allen: Ah! That makes me feel confirmed (read not crazy). Do you by chance write while listening to music?
Ní Chonchúir: No. I used to study and listen to galloping Irish music at the same time, but I find the older I get, the more quiet I need for working.
Allen: I can’t write to music with someone singing lyrics. Eventually I start writing the lyrics into the story, which almost never turns out well. I have experimented with classical music and instrumental stuff. What is your opinion about experimentation in writing?
Ní Chonchúir: It’s good to experiment, it keeps you fresh. It is fun to play with form and language and try for something new. Who wants to write the same story, in the same way, over and over?
Allen: Agreed. Since we are ankle-deep in a flash fiction blog carnival-slash-competition, what is the briefest story you’ve ever published? And would you consider it flash fiction?
Ní Chonchúir: Oooh, I’d have to think. 100 words or so. Prose poems are so close to flash as to be indistinguishable, and I have published them and shorts of all lengths. Poets will call these short prose pieces prose poems, fiction writers call them flash or short-shorts. I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘flash’ anyway. I prefer ‘short-short story’.The lines get blurrier for me as time goes on. I think we should call our pieces whatever we are comfortable with. Neither the great Lydia Davis nor Pulitzer prize winner Robert Olen Butler likes the term ‘flash’ either and, ostensibly, they both write it.
Allen: A lot of writers are moving away from the term “flash”, and I understand this. With so little page space, flash fiction–or sudden fiction, micro fiction, quick fiction or however else one chooses to classify it–often runs the risk of being taken less than seriously. Which writers of the short form do you take seriously, and what are they doing right in your eyes?
Ní Chonchúir: I think ‘flash’ is gaining a reputation. There will always be those who wrongly equate short with ‘unfinished’ or ‘less than’.
Of the well-known people writing short, I love Tania Hershman and Robert Olen-Butler. Lately I read a story in Camera Obscura about a deer and motherhood and anorexia that blew me away.
What these writers have in common is a joy in language mixed with an excitement about what it is possible to write about. They are original thinkers who like to deliver thoughtful prose in exuberant language. I love that.
Allen: I just had to run and get the issue of Camera Obscura I got at AWP to see if the story was in it. I don’t think so. Do you remember the name of the story?
Ní Chonchúir: Apologies, I have been searching in my brain for the author’s name all day. Her name is Thisbe Nissen and the story is called ‘Deer at Rest’. Phew – so glad I remembered that. It’s online.
Allen: Excellent. I’ll get my hands on that story. Let’s talk about your work now. What are you working on right now, and what excites you these days in terms of your characters and themes?
Ní Chonchúir: I am working on a novel set in the 19th century in America and that’s all I’m saying about that. Otherwise, because the novel takes up so much headspace and time (research & writing), I am writing the odd short-short. Recent themes include bullying, egg folklore and magpies.
Allen: Egg folklore? Tell us more!
Ní Chonchúir: The egglore was a result of novel research (there is a lot of cooking in the novel) and I just loved all the extra, weird stuff I found out about eggs e.g that witches make boats from eggshells and sail out to sea in them and brew up storms. Anyway, I wrote a short-short using egglore I had unearthed. It’s called ‘Treedaughter’ and will be in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology in the UK.
Allen: When does that come out?
Ní Chonchúir: As far as I am aware in June (before NFFD which is, of course, the 22nd June).
Allen: It has been such a pleasure chatting to you, Nuala. Thank you again for taking the time.
Ní Chonchúir: Thank you, Christopher, I hope we meet in the real world anon 🙂
Allen: Same here, Nuala!
We turn now to a more detailed look at Ní Chonchúir’s craft. In this interview with Flash Mob Organizer Michelle Elvy, Ní Chonchúir and Elvy discuss particular stories in-depth at Flash Frontier, a flash fiction journal out of New Zealand.
On language and form
FF: You were first published as a poet but you’ve diversified into short story and novel writing, and in all these forms, your writing stands out for its intensity, strength and passion which is handled with a delicate appreciation of language. Do you think this balance comes from being a poet first? Does poetry influence the way you go about writing short stories or even novels?
NNC: Certainly as someone who writes poetry I value concision in language and beauty. I was also brought up bilingual – English at home, Irish (Gaelic) at school – so I have always been steeped in language and asking questions of it. Language is hugely important to me as a writer and as a reader – I love those who take risks with language, I love stylists like John Banville and Annie Proulx. Kevin Barry is doing great things with Hiberno-English.
For my own writing, I like to use interesting language because, I feel, it adds richness. Having said that, plain language – like Hemingway’s – can be equally rich. I guess I value writers who take great care with words.