I am delighted to welcome back Nuala O’Connor for a Q&A session on her new collection of short stories, the wonderfully titled Joyride to Jupiter. (Check out other interviews with O’Connor here and here).
Thank you, Nuala, for having me as part of the Virtual Book Tour for Joyride to Jupiter and to New Island Books for offering one lucky reader a fab ‘jupiter’ purse and a signed copy the book. See below to enter!
Many congratulations on the wonderful reviews that this book is getting including the Sunday Times saying that your “language is clean and conscientious as well as poetic and lyrical”. You also gave a great radio interview on RTE’s Arena.
Shauna: Let’s start right away with the title story ‘Joyride to Jupiter’ first published in the anthology Town and Country, New Irish Short Stories (Faber & Faber). It has a very powerful ending which I won’t name because people should really read the story. For me it wasn’t just about Teresa’s Alzheimer’s; it also spoke of the depths of relationships, and what it means to love someone – who that ‘some’ one is – and the lengths people can go to so that person remains.
There has always been a softness about Teresa and me. Some couples look like they’d break each other in bed but not us; we always left our spiky selves at the bedroom door.
Nuala: I started to write that story on a long bus trip in Croatia, five years ago. I had bought an eyeshadow called ‘Joyride to Jupiter’ in Zagreb and the gorgeous, zingy name of it was looping around in my head, begging to be used. The first line came to me and I wrote and wrote on that bus. About a month after that, in Little Rock Arkansas of all places, I met an Irish wolfhound called Mary Kate and she gets a mention because, like all writers, I’m constantly accruing details from the world around me and I’m on particularly high alert when I go abroad. So the story was written and honed over that summer, with the central relationship blossoming and earthing as I wrote.
I’d seen a TV programme about spousal carers of people with dementia and one elderly man talked about the way his wife’s face lit up when they made love. Her mind was gone but her body remembered that joy and I found it very moving. So, in the story, the couple’s physical relationship is still important but, of course, an inevitable chasm has opened, complicated by Mr Halpin’s self-focus and lack of control.
My loved ones are ageing – I’m ageing – so it’s a subject matter that’s become fascinating to me.
Shauna: I was particularly moved by ‘Room 313’ which I found spoke to me as much about powerlessness as power, interchanged by a sexually charged kiss on the neck. I felt that it was the type of story that had to be told in the second person, a perspective which often works in your stories, and indeed, in your first novel You. Can you comment on that?
Nuala: I’m a big fan of the second person voice. My writing steers naturally into it and I often stop myself using it – in favour of the first person – because I don’t want to wear out readers’ patience with me. ‘Oh here she goes again with her second person POV…’ I shouldn’t care.
For me it’s a seductive POV and clearly it’s integral to me as a writer, maybe because I had early success with it. I find it a very natural way to tell a story, a very Irish way, which has a lot to do with the fact that it’s both intimate and at a remove. The narrator is at a small distance but uses the cajoling, close voice of a confidante, inviting the reader to get on board. It’s like a voice in your ear, which is how all good fiction should be. Second person makes the reader walk the tightrope with the narrator, there’s a sense of being suspended between reality and fiction, with an added abyss below. It suits those urgent, melancholic stories like ‘Room 313’.
Shauna: Much of your collection deals with female desire and sexuality. For example, generational attitudes in the story ‘Mayo Oh Mayo’ where the protagonist is judged by her grandmother for displaying her affair with a married American man – ‘Walking him down Main Street like a prize bull.’ There’s a touch of sadness or perhaps it’s more that the protagonist is yearning for something. Tell me about the process in writing this story which skips over time and flits from place to place as much as the narrator’s feelings waiver for Conrad, ‘this man of America’ who is ‘well put together’.
Nuala: The first process was that I had a deadline. Granta wanted something for its Irish issue and I had been dithering with this story while writing a novel. That is to say, I had an opening paragraph featuring the moon, a star and a lake. Suddenly I had to write the rest and finish it. There’s nothing like a deadline to light a fire under your arse.
So, as the story is set in Knock, I drove to Mayo and walked around, taking photos and gathering as much detail as I could. I hadn’t been in Knock in years and found it as kitschy and weird as ever. I have a mild obsession with the Blessed Virgin Mary, which I thought I was over, but clearly not – she makes a few appearances in this book.
The story is about Siobhán and a doomed relationship with a married man, Conrad. She’s lonely, a young teacher back living in her hometown and feeling stuck. I’m vastly interested in the subject of loneliness and how debasing it can be, how it can prompt bad decisions.
Shauna: Quite a number of the stories in the collection are quirky, humorous and spiky short pieces. ‘Fish’ springs to mind – I read that several times and each time found myself smiling, just like the characters. ‘The Donor’ felt like something of the perfect story. However, some of the longer ones leave the reader with a weight of emotion. ‘Squidinky’, for example, in how it looks at grief and connection, and has that universal emotional feel to it:
Mourning is hard work, it is long work; every twenty-four hours is a new lesson in learning the proper way to grieve.
Nuala: I had a plan, back in 2014, to write a book of funny stories, as I was sick of earnestness. But I have a big old melancholic heart so I just wrote what I generally write and some funny stuff crept in. I was pleased, though, that Houman Barekat mentioned the humour in his Irish Times review of the book. Sometimes it feels like an easy, show-offy thing to do so I avoid it, but I embrace it other times. I like bold, dark humour.
Shauna: I loved how you build up the relationship between the young French Hélène and the feisty Irish woman Kitty Boyle in ‘Shut your mouth, Hélène’ – and also how the story is about so much more than that. There’s the movement of peoples – again another theme threaded through the collection – and there’s the consideration of ‘difference’. What inspired this story?
Nuala: The story is based on a song. It had been on my mind for years to tease out the lyrics of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Jacques et Gilles’ and try to write a story about it. I didn’t find a way until I had the axe of a deadline to my neck for The Long Gaze Back anthology. I think I hate deadlines, that they’re not a conducive way for me to write but, in fact, they seem to work.
I’m interested in social history, migration and integration and how those things affect people and the song – and now the story – explores that.
Shauna: Many of the stories in this collection have appeared elsewhere and indeed have been translated. Did this have any impact on the order of the published collection and, in particular, on naming it? I have to ask, as well, about the beautiful cover which captures much of the mood of this collection – it draws you in with its eerie airiness and surprises you with the sharp teeth of reality.
Nuala: I try to bookend a collection with stories I like and then mix up the stories in terms of POV, gender of the narrator, length of story and tone. The book’s title, as you see above, came from an eyeshadow.
The cover was designed by Mariel Deegan in New Island. She is very collaborative and the cover went through many iterations and ideas – women in crinoline suspended on strings, the motif of the apple, hot air balloons – but I love the image that we settled on. I’m obsessed with clouds and I love that they’re on my cover.
Shauna: Nuala, you gave a wonderful reading at the Dublin in The Gutter Book Shop, Dublin, Wednesday 14th June. For those who missed that launch and your appearance at the Belfast Book Festival, where else can we hear you read from Joyride to Jupiter?
- 21st July Ennis Book Shop – reading with Lisa Carey
- 28th July Boyle Arts Festival – with Sinéad Gleeson and Christine Dwyer Hickey
- 30th July Fiction at the Friary, Cork – Flash panel w/ Marie Gethins & Denyse Woods
- 10th August Farmleigh – reading and panel with Mia Gallagher & John Boyne
- 18th August Terryglass Arts Festival, reading and Q&A
- 15th Sep. Cork Short Story Festival – with Tania Hershman (Culture Night)
- 23rd/24th Sep Bray Literary Festival with Alan McMonagle & Catherine Dunne
And now for the opportunity to win a signed copy of Joyride To Jupiter and a fab ‘jupiter’ purse (see pics above) – delivered worldwide! Thanks again to New Island Books. Simply add a comment below along with your name (first name will do) and an email address so we can contact you if you win. The winner will be picked out of a hat on Monday 24th July at 8pm.
You can stay in touch with Nuala O’Connor via her blog and website.