Book Giveaway and Q&A: Nuala O’Connor ‘Joyride to Jupiter’

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.

 

Martin Malone: Black Rose Days

Black-Rose-Days

Martin, First of all congratulations on the publication, by New Island, of your tenth book Black Rose Days. The title is immediately arresting and, I have to say, the cover strikes me as the perfect match for the story this novel tells.

SG: So tell me about the title. Did you always have it? The motif of the black rose – quite beautifully – is threaded and themed through the novel. Did this come first, along with the title, or, like Stephen King and Carrie, was it only when you’d finished the novel that you were able to sit back and discover the recurring imagery (of which, I should add, the black rose is only one).

Titles can be difficult to decide upon,especially if they’re not organic within the work. It wasn’t with me at the outset. But later I had this image in my head of a young woman and the black tattooed rose just seemed a natural fit for her      personality. I had a loose idea that sub-consciously she was outing what she deep down believed was the colour of her tarnished soul.

SG: Yes, I think Ena’s belief about the darkness within her comes out very clearly in the story. You set the book mainly in Kildare, though we do get an American voice through Irene’s perspective. You’re from Kildare so did you still have a map in your head of how far real hotels, discos, pubs etc were from each other as you wrote the story? And did you have in mind at all the history of the Curragh, and the Curragh Camp? I’m thinking here of the theme of entrapment, and inevitability.

I think I know the Curragh and its surrounding milieu very well, and I have a fondness for the terrain and its characters, not always reflected in my writings.The map in my head was of areas and places no longer extant, or if in existence, much changed. I like to anchor my characters in familiar landscape, as I feel, perhaps sometimes wrongly, that it’s an inroad into breathing authenticity into their nature.

SG: I think you’re right; the landscape in which we exist does impact on who we are – it’s whether we acknowledge this or not that is key to our creative writing. Tell me about the brilliantly executed dual narrative. We have the ghost voice of Ena which is, at times, more real than the voice of the protagonist, Dan. How did you approach these? Did you write one narrative and then the other? And if so, could you tell us a little about piecing them together so that they revealed the whole story at the right pace?

Ena’s voice is strongest, I think, because of the first person past tense narrative, which allowed for an in-depth soul excursion. Dan is written third person present tense, which puts him at a bit of a remove from the microscope. Irene, likewise. The styles are contrasting and the book runs the risk of being  jarring in the sense that the reader has to contend with the different styles at play. It’s an unorthodox crime novel, alien to the concept and genre and not at all formuliac, I think. Ena’s voice gives us her life, but where she is now… she does not mention where –  this was deliberate and to broach it would have meant, I think, another book in its writing. I wanted to work the reader a little,too. Where is Ena? How is she? Is she at peace? This is another mystery at play within the novel – so to solve it a little – well, I would have written something like this:

There is rest after death so as to recuperate from the exhaustion caused to the soul by living: there’s an awakening and a reappraisal then of how one has led his life – there is understanding and compassion and  forgiveness in this, lessons learned and others for the learning, before the rebirth.

Interesting to hear the comments of President Obama on the death of Muhammad Ali – they ran along the lines of that we were blessed that he chose to live among our generation…’He chose.’

SG: The fact that Black Rose Days is unorthodox and has a very literary feel to the writing was what struck me as quite wonderful. But staying with narrative voices. I was particularly taken with the strength of Ena’s voice – and how her story explores the themes of identity (starting with her name), class, privilege, and courage. You said in an Irish Times article that the book isn’t intended as a social reflection yet Ena’s narrative is both reflective and reflexive beyond her years – her keen eye for detail, from Luigi’s “nest of blackheads,” to the benefit of perspective: “Habits have small beginnings” she reflects on remembering when she first drank in a pub. Can you tell us about writing Ena?

Ena is intelligent, acutely observant, curious and naturally rebellious. Her intelligence is not of the sort agreeable to the restraints created by a dysfunctional educational system,  centred on the size of one’s memory to retain information, much of it useless. She has been tainted and evilly blessed by a fiery baptism of blood, a sight and experience for which she received no support, for which there was no support – PTSD.

She has examined the accident in minute detail for years, in her wakening and sleeping moments – she has become accustomed to reading people, not always correctly – this pattern of observation became a survival tool for her. She     tries to read another’s mood, so as to bring herself out of harm’s way. Are there people walking around today who have similar tales to Ena? Yes, sadly too many.Their stories might differ to Ena’s, but their trauma is no less than her’s. Many children grow up too quickly, in order to leave something behind.

In terms of pacing. Not sure about this, if the cadence was spot on, but I went for voice and pace at the outset can be a little off whatever pace the reader might expect and hope for. It’s probably better, definitely for future crime related work, to exit the starter’s block at word one.

As a writer, I want to lift the rock and see what’s underneath. I don’t write about all that I see.

SG: Ah yes, now that you name it – PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), it is so clear how the event that happens at the start of the book set out the path she was to follow. But also layered through this murder mystery is that ultimate question of existence, and how and why we share our lives with others. As you say, it’s about what we don’t see. So, Irene realises at one point that her and Dan had “accepted less because less was much more than they already had” and Dan acknowledges that now Ena “is dead for longer than she had been alive. This happens to us all…”. He remembers his mother saying that “We will all be ancestors one day”. (I loved this line) Can you comment on this?

Human interaction is always interesting to watch/note. Dan and Irene are far from a perfect fit, and their marriage is on the point of collapse when he falls seriously ill. She decides to stay with him. Irene understood something was lacking in the relationship, and though she dealt in the world of spirit, she failed to fully understand Dan and the type of ghost he danced with – his past was his ever-present.You know, I suppose for Irene…I think she was sad at the depth of loneliness she’d felt, despite being alone in the same room with someone she once loved or had come close to loving.

As for ancestors…a while back I brought my son to a stone circle and spoke to him of the rituals associated with these ancient temples, and of their lore and history – the points I’d wanted to impress upon him, without lecturing: respect for all faiths, for the frailty of man, to understand the shortness of your life no matter how long you live. An important lesson I’d wanted him to understand was that of energy/atmosphere – how to tap into the energy of a place, which then becomes more than just a place. It becomes an experience.Culture, folklore and tradition, are dear to me.

SG: It occurs to me that in a way Ena became the embodiment of Kildare, or a type of fictional Kildare within a very real landscape of the Curragh plains. So lastly, Martin, a little about you as a writer and reader. What are you working on now and what books are on your bedside table?

I’ve just finished reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, set in China, and it concerns Mao’s reform policies and their effects on writers, teachers – basically anyone with the capacity to think for themselves and question. Currently reading Of Love and Demons by Gabriel Marquez.

Sitting with a stage play at the moment and wondering if my latest novel, It’s a Murder Story, will pass muster. Other than that, it’s the occasional writing practice session, searching for a rock to peer under.

m3

Oh! Marquez is one of my go-to writers.

Well, I am sure you’ll find many rocks and write about what may or may not be visible. Thanks, Martin for such engaging answers and I wish you every success with Black Rose Days and look forward to the new novel! 

Martin will be reading from Black Rose Days at his launch on Thursday, 23 June, in Kildare Town Library, Claregate Street. All welcome. You can also follow Martin on his blog

 

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.

CLOSET COVER JPEG large

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.