Interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos (Dublin: New Island, 2014) tells the story of 21-year-old Lillis who leaves Ireland for Scotland.

It is a moving, gripping story driven by deep and strong emotions that will stay with you long after you have turned the last page. Eithne Shorthall described it as “her finest novel yet” (The Sunday Times). Watch the trailer here.


SG: Nuala, welcome to my blog and thanks for the return visit!  Having enjoyed your debut You, I was looking forward to reading The Closet of Savage Mementos. I read the novel in one sitting in a café in Wales and was really moved by both the writing and the lingering emotional weight of the story. Although the action in Book 1 takes place in 1991, the choices Lillis has to face around her unborn baby are very topical to today’s Ireland.

NNíC: Yes, it’s true. I finished writing the book three years ago but now adoption is a very current topic in Ireland. Even as late as the nineties people were still trying to take babies from young mothers. When I arrived home from Scotland pregnant, my mother sent me to Cura and I also went to counseling at the maternity hospital. I was appalled that in both places there was an element of baby-grabbing about their approach. I never went back to either – I felt totally misunderstood and angry as I had been very clear about the fact that I was having, and keeping, my baby.

SG:It is astonishing that this is still, at times, the case. I was also struck by the wonderful title, borrowed from Louise Erdrich’s ‘Advice to Myself’. How does it fit with the narrative of The Closet of Savage Mementos?

NNíC: I was using an epigraph from Miss Erdrich’s poem at the start of the novel and because the original title I had chosen for the book, Highland, didn’t excite either me or my editor at New Island, I hit upon the idea of adapting a line from the poem for the title. After months of permissions malarkey, we were told we were allowed use it, which was pretty cool. It pertains to the book in that Lillis has several secrets locked inside her.

SG:In the past, you have talked about the importance of naming characters. Everyone we meet in The Closet of Savage Mementos is carefully named, from the mother, Verity, a woman with many flaws who knows her daughter Lillis far more than her son Robin, to Scottish Margaret, the seemingly substitute mother who is, at times, too wise for Lillis.

NNíC: I love the naming part of fiction, it’s fun for me. Lillis (the main character’s name) was the name of a drapery shop in Galway (now gone) and Yourell (her surname) is also a Galway name (some Yourells have a hairdressers on Eyre Street). Lillis’s father, Anthony, is a Galwegian so the names were picked with that in mind. Verity, her mother, is a dishonest drunk, so her name has that irony. I wanted to call one of my children Robin but, when the baby was a girl, I couldn’t. Margaret is a mother earth type so she needed a good, solid, old-fashioned name.

SG:Oh that’s interesting. I hadn’t realised that the surnames also linked to place. Yet even with the strong sense of place, The Closet of Savage Mementos is as much as about identity as journey. And the emotions that drive both, here place more than time, it seems, is an enabler and a keeper of secrets. It seems to me that this novel is an emotional journey of acceptance of circumstance, or of motherhood. 

NNíC: Yes, motherhood is a sticky territory for the Yourell/King women. Lillis says she comes from ‘a long line of unsuccessful mothers’ and it is a place that she fears, so she avoids it. But, naturally, there comes a time when she has to travel that landscape and accept the title of mother in whatever way she can.

SG:I loved how the sense of place in the novel echoed the emotional states of the characters – especially Lillis. The empty wilderness of the Scottish landscape around the fishing village of Kinlochbrack reaffirms her loneliness: the grief at the loss of Dónal and the unexpected homesickness. Though she forms a relationship with Struan, it strikes me that the passion isn’t deep – which, I suppose, is another thread running through the novel, truth and passion.

NNíC: Struan is another dishonest character and he is stand-offish emotionally. Lillis tries to get close to him but it may be an impossible task. There is a lot of passion between them but little else which, when it comes to thinking long term, leaves rather an empty space.

Setting is important to me in fiction – I like it to loom large and to do its own kind of work, with beauty and/or menace, whatever the story needs.

SG:One of the strongest themes running through your novel is that of grief. Margaret describes grief as ‘an active thing’. There are layers to the grief Lillis feels: she grieves for the consequences of a betrayal; she grieves for the things that cannot now be; she grieves for the loss of her self. She leaves Kinlochbrack for Glasgow: ‘I had removed myself from myself’. Glasgow becomes a ‘crevice’ she slides into and later, the house she shares with her husband also becomes a place to hide.

NNíC: I’m very interested in the ways in which grief changes people. I lost a beloved sister 12 years ago and, at times, I can’t believe how much I still miss her and how angry I feel about her death. Losing her changed me; I didn’t feel safe in the world anymore. For Lillis the death of her first love, Dónal, forces her to upend her life by moving to Scotland – she needs to get away from their homeplace. Then other events plunge her into a different grief.

SG: You’re right, grief does change people and it is something that unfortunately stays with us, always, though in different guises. You capture brilliantly the pain and love of childbirth and motherhood – the essential and contradictory loneliness of it. Coupled with this, I am thinking of the wonderful portrait of the mother/daughter relationship of Verity/Lillis.

NNíC: Childbirth is such a profound event in a woman’s life – it deserves its place in literature. I write a lot about motherhood, maybe because I have been mothering for so long (nearly 21 years); it looms large in my psyche.

Lillis and Verity have a troubled, competitive relationship – the mother is jealous of the daughter’s youth and freedom. The daughter is sick of acting as mother and minder to her mother. These are topics that interests me hugely: mother/daughter rivalry; mother/daughter role reversal – I dealt with the latter in my first novel YOU.

SG: And there are more layers to the complexities of mothers/daughters that I am sure you will explore yet again in your short and long fiction. But for now, please share with us the details of upcoming readings from The Closet of Savage Mementos.

NNíC: I haven’t got as many readings as I would like; I keep being asked to be on panels and teach classes at festivals instead. But I will be reading from the book:

  • 4th June – at the Irish Embassy in Rome;
  • 25th June – John J. Jennings Library, Palmerstown, Dublin 20;
  • 26th July – Galway Fringe Festival;
  • 23rd August at the Molly Keane Writers’ Retreat, Waterford;
  • 5th September – Reading and interviewNairn Book and Arts Festival, Scotland.

I will also be teaching a Short Story workshop at Listowel; Social Media one at West Cork Lit Fest; and a 4 day Short Story to Novel writing workshop at the Cork Short Story Festival from the 17th to 20th September.

SG: That’s a fantastic list of events and places where readers can catch up with you and hear you read or attend one of your workshops which are really worth going to.
Thanks for such honest and insightful answers, Nuala, and congratulations again on a wonderful novel. I shall look forward to your third novel Miss Emily.

 The Closet of Savage Mementos is available from all good bookshops (including the Gutter bookshop, Dublin, where the wonderful launch was held) and from New Island directly.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir 2014

Check out Nuala’s blog and keep an eye on her website for updates.


2 Replies to “Interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir”

  1. Looking forward to reading the book, reminds me of my time in Scotland – the names are really interesting. Great interview!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Xuan, glad you enjoyed the interview and you’ll definitely enjoy the book!

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