Nuala O’Connor and Siobhán Mannion have both written short stories for our New Irish Writing issue. In Siobhán Mannion’s ‘Through the Night’ two drunk strangers stay up late to watch a storm, and in Nuala O’Connor’s Mayo O Mayo’ a couple embark on a tense road trip.
They have come together here to discuss battling distractions, the writers that inspire them and the challenge of articulating what it is to be alive.
Siobhán, in ‘Through the Night’ there’s a gorgeous melancholy. Is that something that you are interested in as writer and reader?
Yes, as a reader, that is certainly something that appeals to me. Richard Yates’ story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness drew me in with its title, for example. But, more than that, I think what I most respond to is atmosphere – a sure sign that all the elements of a piece of writing are working together, in their own mysterious way.
Daphne du Maurier’s novel Jamaica Inn is a good example of this, as is Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, which I had to put aside one night, when my hands started to shake as I read it. For words on a page to provoke a visceral reaction is an incredible thing.
A short story that I return to is ‘Yours’ by Mary Robison, a vivid evocation of one particular night and a beautiful articulation of what it is to be alive. In less than 800 words, she conjures two whole lives, one of which is about to come to an end. And she manages to get some humour in there too.
As a writer, I’ve learned that much of what I consider to be hopeful and life-affirming, other people read as dark and melancholy, which has been interesting.
Now, a question for you . . . In ‘Mayo Oh Mayo’ you deal with some of the themes that are strong elsewhere in your work: the body, female autonomy, sex, relationships. The story also plays with notions of Irishness. What was your starting point for this piece, and did the writing take you anywhere that surprised you?
Thanks for introducing me to ‘Yours’, it’s gorgeous. The kind of story I might use when teaching creative writing to show students just how much you can fit into a tiny space.
The opening sentence of ‘Mayo Oh Mayo’ came to me when driving back from my friend in Birr to my home in Ballinasloe. There’s a small lake (or turlough, maybe) on the road near Cloghan, and I saw a sickle moon and a star above it, and the three together just looked incredible. I wrote it down when I got home and felt it was a good starting point for a story.
I’m very interested in loneliness and the types of doomed relationships that can grow out of it. And having spent a lot of time around Americans in the last few years I am always trying to figure out what lies beneath the reserve. I liked the notion of an American who isn’t impressed by Ireland, too, as they usually love it. The ‘celestial abandon’ quote is a nod to a favourite American writer, Lorrie Moore.
Then, there’s Knock – I guess that was a surprise, though it’s a place of fascination to me as a lapsed Catholic. I took a research trip there to refresh it in my mind for the story and, I’m happy to report, it’s as bizarre a place as ever. I love a good, solid setting in fiction.
Question: Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod talked about the end of the story being a lighthouse toward which he travelled. I never know how a story will end (or what’s happening). Are you travelling towards a lighthouse as you write, or do stories grow more organically for you?
I almost never know what is going to happen when I start. One exception is a story which ends with two people sitting on a porch watching fireflies. I knew from the outset that this would be the final paragraph; writing the story became a process of discovering who they were and why the moment mattered so much. But, in general, I find it can take a while before the lighthouse comes into view . . . !
It usually goes like this: I write the first draft by hand, without making any conscious decisions. Then I type up whatever I have, including a list of notes at the end. This gets printed out, for me to scribble edits all over it, repeating this process until the story starts to take shape, and I begin to understand what it’s going to be about.
At this point, I might get some feedback from the handful of people that I swap work with. The other magical ingredient is time: I think there’s nothing like putting a piece of work aside for a while and coming back to it later, trying to fool your brain into thinking that you didn’t write it in the first place, and being as ruthless an editor as possible.
Endings, of course, can be tricky. Maile Meloy is a writer whose stories I enjoy for their deceptive breeziness. I heard her interviewed a few years ago, about her collection Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, where she talked about getting a story to ‘land’, which I think is a lovely way of describing it.
I’ve also read that she likes to write in a particular chair that tips backwards, making it something of an effort to get up and wander away. I think I need to get one of those chairs . . . Which brings me to the question of when and where fiction writing gets done. Do you have an ideal set of conditions, and can you adapt easily to different environments?
I am always fascinated when writers tell me that they swap work with other people. Though I do that with my writing group, The Peers, but only ever with finished work. So I never bring chunks of novels to workshop, just finished poems or stories. And I am so busy I hardly ever go to my monthly group anymore, which is distressing.
As for ideal conditions: yes and no. I have a desk in the corner of our sitting room and I write there in the mornings when the kids are at school. I have touchstones there: pictures of characters I’m working on, an encouraging mantra or two (currently that wartime propaganda picture of the woman with the clenched bicep: ‘We can do it!’)
Since I lost my dedicated study to my daughter as her bedroom, my desk and I have been nomadic – from dining room, to bedroom, now the sitting room. I’ve only been in this spot a couple of months and really haven’t settled well yet, though my canary is good company here.
I like quiet when I write (no music, no phones going off, no interruptions etc.). I dread the school holidays and may have to remove myself back upstairs to gain some peace. Having said all that, I travel a lot for festivals and conferences, so I write on trains, planes and buses. Not a lot but enough to keep me sane. I crave my desk when I am too long away from it, though.
You have a full time job, Siobhán, which must make finding the time to write a challenge. Where and when do you fit it in? Are there frustrations in not being able to marry yourself to a piece of work as it progresses?
I’m always interested to hear about people’s writing spaces; I presume the canary is a quiet bird. My writing gets done in irregular bursts, primarily at weekends. But, yes, it can be difficult to remain immersed in a piece of work. Doing it regularly seems to be the only solution to this. And I am always amazed at what a deadline can bring into being . . .
I have a desk that fits perfectly into an alcove in the spare room, under a tiny window, with a cutting from my late grandmother’s 30-year-old busy lizzie on the sill. It flowers hot-pink, briefly, every year. This room also contains a tall bookcase devoted entirely to short stories. Sunlight pours in. The ideal space, it would seem, and yet I find I struggle to write a first draft of anything at home, although editing is no problem.
I like working in the Trinity College library, or, until recently, in the bar of a local hotel, until they decided to throw out all the huge, squashy couches, and fill the place with loud music, high tables and bar stools. But my ideal writing time is during artist residencies. I’ve been fortunate to spend time at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, the Heinrich Böll cottage and the MacDowell Colony.
This last, in particular, was an amazing experience. More than once, I had the thought: I am here because a story I wrote was read by strangers, who have gifted me with this opportunity. Watching the deer behind my studio, eating lunch from one of the famous picnic baskets, I had flown three thousand miles and found myself completely at home.
You’ve mentioned that you travel a lot yourself, sometimes on research trips. I wanted to ask you a question about your historical fiction. One of the great pleasures of reading your novel Miss Emily was the inclusion of so many exquisite, tiny details of domestic life in 1860s Amherst. I know you visited the Dickinson family homestead, as well as doing other kinds of background work. Once all the research is done, how do you go about submerging it in the fiction, so that the reader isn’t constantly reminded of everything the author has learned? You achieve this beautifully, I think. And, for me, a successful piece of work, in any medium, is one where the maker disappears, and the work seems to have created itself.
My canary, Pritchard, is quiet. I bought her thinking she was a boy (expecting song) but she’s a girl. I’ve abandoned her now. I realised after our last convo, Siobhán, that the sitting room was not working for me so I am back in my cosy bedroom. Not ideal but it’ll do for now.
I love the sound of the MacDowell Colony, the peace of it, though I am restricted in the amount of time I can be away because of my kids. I can really only feasibly manage a week at a time. In the future, I hope to take longer retreats.
I generally write a first draft of a novel, then go to walk the ground of the place it’s set. My first novel was set in my home place in Dublin – Mill Lane, Palmerstown – so that was grand. But my second one was set in the Scottish Highlands, in Ullapool, and I hadn’t been there in twenty years, so I had to go back and reacquaint myself with the area (a lochside fishing village – gorgeous). For Miss Emily, I had never been to Emily’s hometown in Amherst, Massachusetts, so my first draft relied on research: maps, photographs, testimonies. But there is nothing like owning the geography of a place yourself. I was beside myself visiting Emily’s house and was very moved by standing in her bedroom, knowing those walls had contained her in comfort. I fell in love with Amherst and Massachusetts itself and have been back twice more since that first research trip.
I suppose being there and seeing Emily’s possessions (her desk, her jewellry, her dress, a lock of her bright red hair, etc.) made her even more real to me. I got a sense too of the grandness of her house in the context of Amherst and of how the college dominates the town and how instrumental her father and grandfather were in setting it up and maintaining it. Just walking the streets and visiting her grave made her more real to me, more of the person emerged. I enjoyed weaving in things I had learned, simple things like including her brother Austin’s oak tree; the layout of their home.
Photographs © Eamonn Doyle / © Internet Week New York