Interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Closet coverNuala Ní Chonchúir has a new novel The Closet of Savage Mementoes. There’s already a buzz about this novel and her next, Miss Emily, already signed with Penguin in the US.  Nuala took time out from preparations for her launch to answer a few questions:


Why are you a writer?

I think it’s a combination of things that melded together and made it inevitable: I’ve always read voraciously (encouraged by bookish parents) and I’ve valued writing since I was a kid (I wrote diaries, poems, stories). I’m introverted, studious and curious, and I like my own company. I’m also control freaky, which means I like being my own boss and I get to control my characters. Writing keeps me sane as well. I often wonder how non-writers cope when life is hard because writing takes me out of myself during tough times and keeps me on an even keel.

In your interview with Edith Pearlman in the current issue of The Stinging Fly (which you guest-edited) you ask about obsession.  It’s a great question, so I’ll put it to you: How do your personal obsessions manifest themselves in your work?

My personal obsessions are all over my work. The things I am most curious about are matters of the body, especially women’s relationships with their bodies and sex as part of that; motherhood (I first became a mother at 23); failing and broken relationships; art – I love visual art of any kind; travel – the huge bonus of being a writer is all the great places I get to visit and I often use them in my fiction afterwards.

A lot of your fiction refers directly or indirectly to the visual arts, and your new novel, The Closet of Savage Mementoes is no exception – can you talk about that?  What artists do you love most?

Yes, in the novel the main character’s mother is a taxidermist, her speciality being anthropomorphic pieces. I think, again, this is the influence of my home: my parents are collectors and sellers of antiques and bric-a-brac so our house growing up was jammed with gorgeous art and curios (often sold and/or replaced with no notice). My own home is a replica of theirs: barely an inch of space without a painting or drawing, a cluttered dresser full of china and glass. I even have a taxidermied mouse – a gift to myself when I finished writing The Closet of Savage Mementos. Favourite artists include Frida Kahlo, Micheal O’Farrell, Manet, Pauline Bewick, Marja Van Kampen and Graham Knuttel.

sideways Nu smaller

Where did The Closet of Savage Mementos come from?

It’s inspired by events in my own life. Like the main character, Lillis Yourell, I left Ireland in my early twenties and took a job in an arty hotel in the Scottish Highlands. Also like her I had an unplanned pregnancy with a man somewhat older than me (an artist, as it happens). However I made a different choice to Lillis and kept my son. People will have to read the book to see what Lillis does. The novel was a way of exploring what might have happened if I had made different choices.

On a more practical level, I had written ten short stories about Lillis at different points in her life and liked her company. I decided to concentrate on two periods in her life and write a novel about her.

Can you talk about the title?

The title is from the Louise Erdrich poem ‘Advice to Myself’. I am using two lines from the poem as an epigraph to the novel and the title is one of those lines, adapted. Miss Erdrich very graciously allowed me to mangle her line to make my title. I had a working title of Highland but both I, and my editor, felt it was too mundane.

I love the physicality of your writing; you write the physical very well, direct physical experience – of sexuality, of motherhood. Can you talk about that?

It’s something I am interested in – how we perceive and experience the world through our bodies; they are all we have and our mind is connected to them. I don’t believe in glossing over sex in fiction –we do it in real life, so why not do it on the page? I think it’s unfair to cheat the reader of sensory experience. Childbirth too – if that’s what you’re referring to here in the context of the novel – is something I like to write about. It’s profound; it belongs in literature.

You have the eye and ear of a poet; some of your images and the language you use to express them made me put the book down so that I could absorb them before going back to the story.  How/do you think your poetry and your fiction interact? 

I think maybe a love of poetry makes you obsessive about language and individual words and that leaks out in the fiction. Edna O’Brien says language is ‘sacred’ to her – I feel like that too. I admire writers who push language quite far – people like Annie Proulx and John Banville. I am also a thesaurus fiend – I use mine every single day.

In your recent review of the interview Edel Coffey did with Emma Donghue for the Dublin Writers’ Festival ( ) you wrote about Emma Donoghue’s historical research and her account of her process of turning it into fiction – but it’s a process you’re familiar with too.  I think the first story of yours I ever read was about a tiny historical Thumbelina figure.  You often plead the cause of historical fiction.  Would you like to say anything about that?

I adore historical fiction and I can’t understand when people are sniffy about it. Well, I guess I can understand…sometimes the language is so false-sounding that it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief. But done well, it’s amazing.

It helps that I love research and there is tons of research needed for hist fic. For the Miss Emily book I had to research everything from skinning a hare to gonorrhoea to breastfeeding in the 19th century. Research makes me happy – I love expanding my knowledge and finding titbits that fit brilliantly with the story. I research contemporary stuff too – I like to go to the book’s setting especially so I went back to the village in Scotland where Closet is set (after a 20 year absence) and that was intense, emotional and wonderful. It’s amazing what you remember about a place, and it’s amazing what you can forget.

You’re undergoing a very intense period in terms of your career – this novel, a recent stint as guest editor of the Stinging Fly, a dynamic online presence, forthcoming publication of another novel in America ­– how do you keep your balance? 

Lately I’ve been a bit wobbly. Penguin wanted a revised first draft of Miss Emily by the end of March, right at the same time as I was getting ready to promote The Closet of Savage Mementos. So I had a very intense 6 weeks or so of concentrating very hard on my rewrite but also putting things in place for this novel. Neither thing could be neglected so I worked very long days, developed RSI and generally turned into an exhausted madwoman. The day I subbed the second draft to Penguin, I felt lighter, more myself again. I couldn’t miss a deadline – it is not in my DNA to disobey certain types of rules – but it doesn’t make for stress-free living.

Can you tell us about Miss Emily?

It’s set in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1866, and a little in Dublin and Tipperary, and it concerns Ada Concannon, a 17 year old girl who ends up as maid-of-all-work in the Dickinson house. She and Emily become friendly and then disaster strikes…

It’s a book about friendship and home, and the mistress-servant relationship. And writing too, of course.

What’s your favourite question to ask other writers?

‘Who are your favourite women writers?’ So few mention Irish writers and I find that frustrating. We need to take Irish women’s books by the scruff of the neck and hold them high for all to see. Irish male literary writers have a great international profile, but our women literary writers don’t. It baffles me.

What’s your least favourite question to be asked?

I find the question about what becomes a poem as opposed to a short story as opposed to a novel hard to answer. Inspiration whacks me in the gut and I know as soon as it arrives what form it will take; a shape arrives with the ‘idea’. Having said that, all my work is concerned with the same stuff: sex, the body, women, love (usually broken!), children, motherhood, friendship.

What’s next for you?

I’m teaching a whole lot of workshops at festivals this year – Listowel, Cork Short Story (the novel!), Waterford. I have a couple of reading gigs in Scotland for Closet and some here in Ireland. I love getting out and meeting readers.

And I have the germ of another 19th Century historical novel growing, and another set in the 1960s in New York which has been nagging at me for years. It’s a matter of choosing which project to go with. I don’t see an end to my busy life but that’s OK.

The Closet of Savage Mementoes will be launched in the Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar at 6.30 pm

BIO: Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of flash Of Dublin and Other Fictions was published in the US in late 2013 by Tower Press and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appeared April 2014 from New Island. Penguin USA and Penguin Canada will publish Nuala’s third novel, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, in 2015.


Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Patrick Scott (and Michael D) at IMMA

IMMAIs there anything nicer to do on a sunny Dublin Sunday than go to IMMA? Why a gallery, in such rare sunshine?  Good question.

The long avenue stretching away to the Richmond Tower is one reason. The formal gardens, another.  A balmy walk across the courtyard, in the presence of that thing in stone that softens when it’s warmed.  The light that floods the annexe and touches the paintings and lovely floors, the green, leafy views from its windows. And Patrick Scott: Image Space Light (part I) the exhibition we’d come to see (Part II is at the VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow until 11th May; Part I is at IMMA until 22nd June)

Patrick Scott, who died shortly before this retrospective opened, was an architect and designer as well as an artist.  I’d somehow missed the extent of his influence on our visual environment.  In the first gallery, we immediately recognized a framed teatowel one of us had in her family’s kitchen, growing up – it was the CRC map designed by Scott, featuring Celtic sites.  We went on through the room exclaiming at half-remembered patterns, images and colour-schemes (remember CIE trains?)

The next surprise were the early White Stag group paintings.  Someone recognised one from having seen it in a house he used to visit as a kid.  He remembered a (deserved, he said) beating administered under it, but bore the painting itself no grudge.

Patrick Scott KillineyThe house I grew up in had no art, only religious stuff and those placemats with hunting scenes and Georgian buildings on them, but I was the one who recognised the train window in “Killiney” for what it was – I was on those trains often enough, looking out across the Bay through their racketing frames.

One of the many joys of IMMA is that even when there are a lot of people there, it’s not crowded.  It’s easy to be alone with the work, even just for a few minutes.  This allows the rare luxury of absorbing colour and line uninterrupted.

Scott’s later paintings are well known, and may even have been what we came to see.  The Gold Painting series, the geometrical patterns (especially the Rosc symbol), the Strange Devices and Bog Paintings– all of these are trademark Scott, but it’s the earlier paintings that I’ve thought about since. They have a memorable charm, like the man himself.

When we came out people were filing into the chapel, on their way to a memorial service for Scott.  It looked to be a permeable sort of event, the doors left open to light and air on both sides of the building.  A small group of relaxed-looking Gardaí in high-viz jackets suggested VIPs.  The friend who’d owned – and used – the teatowel, not knowing it’d be famous, told us a story about a Leonard Cohen concert, where she and her son had seen the President and Mrs Higgins let out of their car at roughly the same spot where we stood, looking at the Guards.  Her son (a young man), went right over to say hello to Michael D.  You can’t do that, she said.  Why not? he said, and did.  They chatted for a while, my friend’s son, who is very tall, and Michael D, who is not. Where else would that be allowed to happen?

We went our separate ways and later discovered that the President had, indeed, been at the memorial service for Patrick Scott that day, with all the doors left open and visitors wandering around the premises at will: people walking their dogs (on leads) in the gardens and on the avenue, families with children, tourists, and those of us lucky enough to have a few hours to spare and a properly public space where we could spend them.





Posted in Art | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Dublin’s Progressive Film Club

Dublin’s Progressive Film Club is hosting its first film festival 4th - 6th April. All screenings are at the Ireland Institute (also known as The Pearse Centre), 27 Pearse Street, Dublin 2 – close to the Trinity Capital Hotel.

Admission is free and no, that’s not a misprint.

The club supports independent film makers and non-mainstream film. In 2013 they put out a call for films with the general theme of global justice, and the festival will screen a selection of these.

The festival opens with a new film, Peripheral Vision, by the award winning film maker Donnacha O’Briain (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised).

Check out their website for programme details and /or to download poster.

The Progressive Film Club is also on Facebook

(Source: Robert Navan)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dublin’s Progressive Film Club

Dublin’s Progressive Film Club is hosting its first film festival 4th - 6th April. All screenings are at the Ireland Institute (also known as The Pearse Centre), 27 Pearse Street, Dublin 2 – close to the Trinity Capital Hotel.

Admission is free and no, that’s not a misprint.

The club supports independent film makers and non-mainstream film. In 2013 they put out a call for films with the general theme of global justice, and the festival will screen a selection of these.

The festival opens with a new film, Peripheral Vision, by the award winning film maker Donnacha O’Briain (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised).

Check out their website for programme details and /or to download poster.

The Progressive Film Club is also on Facebook

(Source: Robert Navan)

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stinging Fly Launch

Stinging Fly toteThe Writers’ Centre was jammed to the rafters for the launch of the latest issue of The Stinging Fly.  Declan Meade talked about the transition to Tom Morris’s stewardship and introduced the issue’s featured poet, Dimitra Xidous, whose first collection Keeping Bees is being launched on Saturday. Her reading (“Oh–Oh–Oh-vum!” was memorable and witty. She’s one to watch – and listen to.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir spoke about being guest fiction editor for this issue.  She talked about her love of flash fiction and the pleasure of reading so much strong work.  She has an interest in the issue of gender balance, but even she was surprised and gratified that, despite reading the stories blind, she ended up with a perfect 50:50.  In her honest and straightforward way she mentioned the difficulty of rejecting stories written by people she knows, but she had to choose the stories that spoke to her most clearly.  This is a common problem in Ireland, so small that we may as well all be related by blood (we’d probably find out that we are, if anyone took the trouble to investigate).  She talked about the joy and excitement of discovering a fantastic story by a brand new young writer – David Mellerick Lynch, one of the readers for the night.

He read “The Lunar Deep”, a wise and imaginative story about the deterioration of a father;  Alison Wells read “Eat!” a suggestive, surreal story about food;  Patrick Chapman read his striking, disturbing “Eel”.

June Caldwell said ‘you should never do this’ before explaining the background to her electrifying “Cadaverus”. Her explanation meant that the audience got the benefit of two stories for the price of one.  Talking about the death of her brother, she had us ricochet from shock to hilarity, and when we were well and truly rattled she read her dark, funny and deeply unsettling story. This is a strong issue from the Stinging Fly.  They don’t have many copies left, so buy one – or better still, take out a subscription – before they’re all gone.

Posted in Launches, Readings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Shun Li and the Poet

SHUNLI_Rev_2013_LO 2 Written and directed by Andrea Segre, this film is set in a small fishing town in the Venetian Lagoon. It tells the story of a Chinese woman (Tao Zhao) finding her way into Europe. Working off her debt to the men who brought her in a waterfront bar, she has few choices; but she finds a friend in an older man (Bepi: Rade Serbedzidja) – a fisherman, like her father. Their friendship comes under attack because no one wants it, not Bepi’s friends,  certainly not the men who control Shun Li.

Strong story, strong performances.  But the real spell of the film is cast by cinematography – images that strike deep and linger.  Watery streets, lonely lives, candles floated in memory of Qu Yuan the Chinese poet whose words inspire Shun Li (Bepi is a rough and ready rhymer, the other ‘poet’ of the title).  The friends spend time out on the Lagoon in a fisherman’s hut and this is where the film comes into its own: glowing mountains, a luminous sky, water with the quality of paint.

I know this sounds stupid, but it reminded me that film is a visual medium.  We see so many narrative-driven films – and believe me, I’m all for narrative – but this was deeply satisfying on a different level.  I saw it a week ago, and the memory of light on water and mountains  got me up out of bed to write about it while the rest of you were all sound asleep.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Upcoming events: Irish Writers’ Centre & Stinging Fly

There will be a reading from the latest issue of The Stinging Fly on Thursday March 27th in the Irish Writers’ Centre at 7pm.

The Fly is  also running a special subscription offer until St Patrick’s Day: a  one-year subscriptions – both Irish and international – for €20:

To celebrate St Patrick’s Day, they’ll be giving out free books in Washington D.C. and New York. You’ll find details here:

And on March 20th at 7pm the Writers Centre will host a lecture by Professor Tony Curtis: ‘My Life With Dylan Thomas’.  Booking and other details here:

Posted in Readings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment