Interview: Nuala Ní Chonchúir talks about “Mother America”

I am honoured to interview Nuala Ní Chonchúir about her fourth short story collection Mother America. In Dan Powell’s interview last week, she talked in detail about the title story. Here we take a close look at titles, structure and points of view. And Nuala reveals some fascinating details about her writing processes.

Cover of Mother America

Shauna: How did you decide on the title of the collection and which story was to be the title story?

Nuala: I’ve had that story and title up my sleeve for a few years. I always thought that Mother America would be a strong title with lots of cool cover possibilities. Which worked out – I’m happy with the Kewpie doll as the touch of Americana on the cover.

Shauna: Talk to me about the order of the stories and how they fit together.

Nuala:This is something I work hard at – I want the stories to fit together but for there to be nothing too ‘samey’ side by side. So I want the reader to have a varied but unifying experience. So I make out a chart/list and I think about the voice in each story, its setting, whether it’s light or dark, male vs female POV, and I try to vary the tone. I also begin and end with stories I like. See the chart pictured.


Nuala’s Order of Stories Chart for MOTHER AMERICA

Shauna: Thanks for such openness about your processes, Nuala, it’s really interesting.  Now could you tell me about your process in deciding the endings. For example, in ‘Letters’ did you know when you started writing this story how it would end (the twist?). Or in the wonderfully crafted ‘Cri de Coeur’ with its circular storyline? Or indeed, the open ending in ‘When I Go Down, Go Down with Me.’

Nuala: I never know what will happen in a story as I begin it. I just start out and see where it ends up. It may occur to me as I write how it will end but, normally, it’s as much a surprise to me as anyone else. Flannery O’Connor worked that way. So does Claire Keegan. And if it’s good enough for them…

Specifically, I like circular stories – it’s a trick – so that was very deliberate in ‘Cri de Coeur’, a voice from beyond the grave. In ‘Letters’ I had the image of the letters flying out the window from a Maeve Brennan non-fiction piece and it felt neat as an ending. In ‘When I Go Down, Go Down with Me’ I wanted the reader to feel there was hope in the narrator’s heart – she might reunite with her husband.

Shauna: Your writing is very poetic and has some wonderful descriptions. I know you like to keep notebooks. Is this where some of your descriptions start off? For example, “wet-suited surfers like overgrown tadpoles” in ‘Moon Hill’, or the narrator in ‘From Jesus to the Moon’ who describes a woman she sits beside on the Metro as reeking “of perfume and dignity.” Or Lydia in ‘Queen of Tattoo’ who is “a ripe tomato of a woman.”

Nuala: Yes, it absolutely is where some stuff begins. I am a notebook fiend. My only problem is I have too many on the go and I need to streamline that a bit, or start filing them by date or something. I fill notebooks with observations and phrases that pop into my head. Then, when I’m in the thick of a story, I go to the notebooks and see if there are descriptive things that might fit. There often is. I love my notebooks.

How have you found getting into a male mindset for the stories which have male narrators? For example the sixteen-year-old man’s second person narrative in ‘Triangle Boy’, a gripping story of love and tragedy that reminds us of events like 9/11.

You and Gae parted each evening on Washington Place. That Friday in March you watched her walk away, her dark skirt hiding her legs – legs that you imagined were soft but firm. If only your fingers could slide up them into the soft cave at the top; if only you could unbutton the shirt at her throat and caress her neck, gently. Gae turned and waved, sending a jump to your balls.
‘Arrivederci, Seán,’ she called, ‘arrivederci.’
‘Slán, Gae,’ you said, using the only word of Irish you knew; a word to send her safely back to her room in Mulberry Street. ‘See you tomorrow.’ Your face was scalding but you waved and she turned and walked on.

Nuala: I love writing from the male POV. I never see it as a challenge but I try not to put too many female sensibilities into the characters – unless they are a sensitive type. I like writing about men and how they relate to women. The youngster in ‘Triangle Boy’ is at a crucial part of his life, he’s awakening, and he has a lot to deal with: emigration, isolation and, then, tragedy. His bewilderment is, I hope, believable in the face of all that. A girl might try to talk to someone but he just walks away.

Thanks for having me by, Shauna. On Thursday 21st June my virtual tour takes me to writer Vanessa Gebbie’s blog. She is featuring a short short story (flash) from the book and I talk about how I wrote it. I hope some of your readers will join me there.

Shauna: I am sure readers would love to join you for more wonderful insights into your writing processes and this fine collection of short stories. I wish you continued success!

Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Nuala Ní Chonchúir 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 this month 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.

At The Winding Stair: A lady in black re-imagines Kahlo

What an enjoyable evening I spent yesterday at Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s launch of Mother America, her fourth short story collection. The collection, full of life and colour has the most wonderful cover with both the title and author’s name embossed. I love the colours which show both joy and tragedy. See the little doll in the photograph? Abandoned yet still beautiful? I think she captures the collection.

Cover of Mother America – isn't it beautiful?

The launch was held in one of my favourite bookshops, The Winding Stair. If you’re ever in Dublin – it’s a must see, must browse, and must buy. What a great place to hold a launch and, as the invitation from the publisher New Island stated, we did ‘soak up the atmosphere’, and, of course, enjoyed the chat and a glass of wine.

I’m not surprised Mother America sold out even before Nuala gave a powerful reading from the collection. She read ‘The Egg Pyramid’ which tells the story of Diego Rivera’s affair with Cristina from the imagined emotional, vibrant viewpoint of his wife Frida Kahlo (her sister!).

Nuala with her book and her fab necklace – an image of the doll!!!

Congratulations to Nuala on a fantastic launch. Mother America can be bought here.

Nuala is giving lots of readings both in Ireland and further afield and if you’re in London this weekend, make sure you head down to the Irish Cultural Centre, Hammersmith where she’s reading alongside Claire Keegan and Bernard O’Donoghue.