Nuala Ní Chonchúir has a new novel: The Closet of Savage Mementos. There’s an early buzz about this novel and her next, Miss Emily, already signed with Penguin in the US. Nuala took time out from preparations for her launch to answer a few questions put to her by Lia Mills.
Why are you a writer?
I think it’s a combination of things that melded together and made it inevitable: I’ve always read voraciously (encouraged by bookish parents) and I’ve valued writing since I was a kid (I wrote diaries, poems, stories). I’m introverted, studious and curious, and I like my own company. I’m also control freaky, which means I like being my own boss and I get to control my characters. Writing keeps me sane as well. I often wonder how non-writers cope when life is hard because writing takes me out of myself during tough times and keeps me on an even keel.
In your interview with Edith Pearlman in the current issue of The Stinging Fly (which you guest-edited) you ask about obsession. It’s a great question, so I’ll put it to you: How do your personal obsessions manifest themselves in your work?
My personal obsessions are all over my work. The things I am most curious about are matters of the body, especially women’s relationships with their bodies and sex as part of that; motherhood (I first became a mother at 23); failing and broken relationships; art – I love visual art of any kind; travel – the huge bonus of being a writer is all the great places I get to visit and I often use them in my fiction afterwards.
A lot of your fiction refers directly or indirectly to the visual arts, and your new novel, The Closet of Savage Mementos is no exception – can you talk about that? What artists do you love most?
Yes, in the novel the main character’s mother is a taxidermist, her speciality being anthropomorphic pieces. I think, again, this is the influence of my home: my parents are collectors and sellers of antiques and bric-a-brac so our house growing up was jammed with gorgeous art and curios (often sold and/or replaced with no notice). My own home is a replica of theirs: barely an inch of space without a painting or drawing, a cluttered dresser full of china and glass. I even have a taxidermied mouse – a gift to myself when I finished writing The Closet of Savage Mementos. Favourite artists include Frida Kahlo, Micheal O’Farrell, Manet, Pauline Bewick, Marja Van Kampen and Graham Knuttel.
Where did The Closet of Savage Mementos come from?
It’s inspired by events in my own life. Like the main character, Lillis Yourell, I left Ireland in my early twenties and took a job in an arty hotel in the Scottish Highlands. Also like her I had an unplanned pregnancy with a man somewhat older than me (an artist, as it happens). However I made a different choice to Lillis and kept my son. People will have to read the book to see what Lillis does. The novel was a way of exploring what might have happened if I had made different choices.
On a more practical level, I had written ten short stories about Lillis at different points in her life and liked her company. I decided to concentrate on two periods in her life and write a novel about her.
Can you talk about the title?
The title is from the Louise Erdrich poem ‘Advice to Myself’. I am using two lines from the poem as an epigraph to the novel and the title is one of those lines, adapted. Miss Erdrich very graciously allowed me to mangle her line to make my title. I had a working title of Highland but both I, and my editor, felt it was too mundane.
I love the physicality of your writing; you write the physical very well, direct physical experience – of sexuality, of motherhood. Can you talk about that?
It’s something I am interested in – how we perceive and experience the world through our bodies; they are all we have and our mind is connected to them. I don’t believe in glossing over sex in fiction –we do it in real life, so why not do it on the page? I think it’s unfair to cheat the reader of sensory experience. Childbirth too – if that’s what you’re referring to here in the context of the novel – is something I like to write about. It’s profound; it belongs in literature.
You have the eye and ear of a poet; some of your images and the language you use to express them made me put the book down so that I could absorb them before going back to the story. How do you think your poetry and your fiction interact?
I think maybe a love of poetry makes you obsessive about language and individual words and that leaks out in the fiction. Edna O’Brien says language is ‘sacred’ to her – I feel like that too. I admire writers who push language quite far – people like Annie Proulx and John Banville. I am also a thesaurus fiend – I use mine every single day.
In your recent review of the interview Edel Coffey did with Emma Donoghue for the Dublin Writers’ Festival you wrote about Emma Donoghue’s historical research and her account of her process of turning it into fiction – but it’s a process you’re familiar with too. I think the first story of yours I ever read was about a tiny historical Thumbelina figure. You often plead the cause of historical fiction. Would you like to say anything about that?
I adore historical fiction and I can’t understand when people are sniffy about it. Well, I guess I can understand…sometimes the language is so false-sounding that it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief. But done well, it’s amazing.
It helps that I love research and there is tons of research needed for hist fic. For the Miss Emily book I had to research everything from skinning a hare to gonorrhoea to breastfeeding in the 19th century. Research makes me happy – I love expanding my knowledge and finding titbits that fit brilliantly with the story. I research contemporary stuff too – I like to go to the book’s setting especially so I went back to the village in Scotland where Closet is set (after a 20 year absence) and that was intense, emotional and wonderful. It’s amazing what you remember about a place, and it’s amazing what you can forget.
You’re undergoing a very intense period in terms of your career – this novel, a recent stint as guest editor of the Stinging Fly, a dynamic online presence, forthcoming publication of another novel in America – how do you keep your balance?
Lately I’ve been a bit wobbly. Penguin wanted a revised first draft of Miss Emily by the end of March, right at the same time as I was getting ready to promote The Closet of Savage Mementos. So I had a very intense 6 weeks or so of concentrating very hard on my rewrite but also putting things in place for this novel. Neither thing could be neglected so I worked very long days, developed RSI and generally turned into an exhausted madwoman. The day I subbed the second draft to Penguin, I felt lighter, more myself again. I couldn’t miss a deadline – it is not in my DNA to disobey certain types of rules – but it doesn’t make for stress-free living.
Can you tell us about Miss Emily?
It’s set in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1866, and a little in Dublin and Tipperary, and it concerns Ada Concannon, a 17 year old girl who ends up as maid-of-all-work in the Dickinson house. She and Emily become friendly and then disaster strikes…
It’s a book about friendship and home, and the mistress-servant relationship. And writing too, of course.
What’s your favourite question to ask other writers?
‘Who are your favourite women writers?’ So few mention Irish writers and I find that frustrating. We need to take Irish women’s books by the scruff of the neck and hold them high for all to see. Irish male literary writers have a great international profile, but our women literary writers don’t. It baffles me.
What’s your least favourite question to be asked?
I find the question about what becomes a poem as opposed to a short story as opposed to a novel hard to answer. Inspiration whacks me in the gut and I know as soon as it arrives what form it will take; a shape arrives with the ‘idea’. Having said that, all my work is concerned with the same stuff: sex, the body, women, love (usually broken!), children, motherhood, friendship.
What’s next for you?
I’m teaching a whole lot of workshops at festivals this year – Listowel, Cork Short Story (the novel!), Waterford. I have a couple of reading gigs in Scotland for Closet and some here in Ireland. I love getting out and meeting readers.
And I have the germ of another 19th Century historical novel growing, and another set in the 1960s in New York which has been nagging at me for years. It’s a matter of choosing which project to go with. I don’t see an end to my busy life but that’s OK.
NB: The Closet of Savage Mementos will be launched in the Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar at 6.30 pm on Tuesday 15th April, 2014
BIO: Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of flash Of Dublin and Other Fictions was published in the US in late 2013 by Tower Press and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appeared April 2014 from New Island. Penguin USA and Penguin Canada will publish Nuala’s third novel, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, in 2015.