Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s Mother America is her latest book, a collection of seventeen short stories, published by New Island. Nuala is the author of three other collections of short fiction as well as a novel and four books of poetry. Mother America has been longlisted for this year’s Frank O’Connor International Prize for Short Stories.
Today I interview Nuala about Mother America and writing in general:
Valerie Sirr: I like the rhythm of this collection: the longer stories interspersed with flash pieces. How did you decide on the running order of the stories and which stories to include?
Nuala Ní Chonchúir: This is something I work hard at; I want the collection to have a certain feel, so, when ordering stories, I make sure to mix it up in terms of tone, POV, setting, sex of the main character. I want diverse stories side by side so that the reader is taken on a different journey each time they start a new story. In terms of what to include, I left out the stories that didn’t deal with mother-child relationships.
VS: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing the stories?
NNC: Early on, no. But as I began to accumulate stories I noticed that many of them were about mothers and their children (sons often) and so, for better or worse, that did begin to enter my mind as I wrote new pieces. When you have already published three collections it’s hard not to, at some point, start viewing your stories as part of a greater whole.
VS: As with many of the stories in Mother America, ‘Peach’ successfully engages the reader’s attention from the first line: ‘There was a pregnant woman getting drunk in the back lounge…’ Do these first lines come to you as first lines, or do they emerge as first lines after a few drafts?
NNC: I almost always start with a first line that has been swirling in my head and write on from there to see where I am taken. I believe in flash-bang openings. I want the reader to engage immediately. It’s something I like as a reader.
VS: How about endings? Which do you find easier to end – a short story or a flash piece? I particularly like how you ended ‘The Egg Pyramid’, for example.
NNC: Endings are so important in the short story. Your ending says to the reader, ‘This is the last thing I want you to see.’ So it has to be good. Some story writers seem to forget to end their pieces, or some like to end several times. It’s a tricky business. Sometimes I reach the end before I feel I am ready but somehow the story tells me it’s over.
I wouldn’t say I find either easier – short story or flash – but flash are less complex, perhaps, because there is less to wrap up. The end of ‘The Egg Pyramid’ was about Frida Kahlo finding solace in art, which I relate to as a writer.
VS: There are several flash stories in Mother America – the title story, ‘Mother America’, ‘The Egg Pyramid’ as mentioned already, ‘The Doora Spinster’ and ‘Moongazer’ among others. At what point do you know when a piece of work will become a full length story, poem or flash piece?
NNC: I think in shapes and so I have a feeling of the size of something before I begin it, so I know immediately if it will be a poem, a story, a flash or a novel. It’s hard to explain but the forward motion of a piece dictates its form to me. I can’t think of any good/intelligent/easy way to explain this though I am often asked about it.
VS: In a recent interview in The Irish Times Richard Ford said that he has ‘always been more alert to criticism than to praise, probably because praise is too easy.’ Do you share his attitude?
NNC: Well, as an Irish person I’m not used to being praised. So when I do receive praise I am suspicious of it; I don’t trust its sincerity. It embarrasses me too. I understand criticism better. I’m sure that would make sense to most Irish people, writers or not.
Of course it is lovely to get positive reviews etc. but, in ways, like Ford, I pay more attention to the negative comments. That may just be human nature. But I also test them for truth and try to take on board the things I believe in the criticism. You can’t do anything about someone who dislikes your work but if someone gives coherent reasons why a piece is flawed, then you can learn from that.
VS: Thanks for the interview, Nuala, and for the copy of Mother America. It’s a beautiful book with a striking cover and attractive title fonts.
Best of luck with your future projects.
NNC: Thanks a million, Valerie. Right back at ya – I wish you lots of luck with all your writing.
Mother America has been receiving plenty of praise and some of the stories have won well deserved awards.
Here’s Nuala’s Bio: Nuala NíChonchúir is a short story writer, novelist and poet, born in Dublin in 1970 and living in Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published in June by New Island. Nuala’s story ‘Peach’, in the Winter 2011 issue of Prairie Schooner, won the Jane Geske Award and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. www.nualanichonchuir.com
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