As a precursor to her short story workshop and reading from Mother America on the 9th March, Nuala O’Connor graciously agreed to answer our questions about writing, female characterization and authorship, as well as the relationship between her work and her life.
Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, and lives in East Galway. Already well-known under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, she has published four short story collections; her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter will appear from New Island in 2017. Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, which was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 and is currently long-listed for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, is forthcoming.
When did you know you wanted to pursue writing as a career?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid – I came second in a national poetry competition when I was nine, with a poem in Irish (Gaelic) about Travellers – but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I got serious about it. I didn’t think it was something ordinary people could do, I thought it was for hallowed, knowledgeable people with some inside track. I moved to Galway to work in a theatre and there were two writers on the staff. They were gently encouraging so I took some workshops, began sending out stories and poems to literary magazines and competitions and, eventually, a manuscript of poetry to a local feminist press, Arlen House, who took me on.
How has being a mother affected the way you write female characters in your work?
I’ve been a mother since I was twenty-three so I’ve never not been a mother while serious about writing. My female characters are often mothers, often pretty unhinged or nasty ones but, like all baddies, they have their merits. I like to explore the female psyche in my work – as a feminist it interests me how women are in the world, how we can take obstacles and thrash them, and what repercussions that thrashing has on the wider life. Being a mother makes you fierce and protective so, even when my characters are going through hell, I like to nourish them a bit, give them hope.
How can writers avoid falling into stereotypical representations of their female characters?
As people we all have our influences: our families, our countries, our hometowns, our language, our peers, our environment, our passions, our prejudices. When writing, we would do well to challenge some of those things and slip on different lives to see what it might be like to be The Other. That’s why writers have to be hungry, greedy readers. We need to know a lot, observe a lot, think deeply and be compassionate to produce good work.
When writing about characters who are partially based on your own experiences, how do you keep your characters’ lives separate from your own?
So many of my characters are versions of me: they are composites of me and others, or fusions of me and other people at various ages. They often live out things I have lived: fertility traumas, broken marriage, passionate relationships, loss etc. But I also invent huge parts of them: physicality, motivations, eventual landing places, thought processes. So, while I draw from my own life, I do it at a remove – these characters are not me but they often very much are me too. Writing is such a weird admixture of things: connection, distance, passion, investigation, impartiality. I use my own life, but I also can remain detached, because I am constructing a story and that’s the most important thing.
Who are some female authors you would recommend for readers interested in complex female characters?
Amy Bloom, Emma Donoghue, Michele Roberts, Alison MacLeod, Anne Enright, Sarah Perry, Mia Gallagher, Lorrie Moore, the Brontes. All of these writers will make you giggle, weep and ruminate. What more could you ask for?
Interview with thanks to Shelley T Martin.