Thanks to the fabulous ERMurray who has passed the 2014 writers’ Q & A blog-tour torch to me. The idea is that you answer the following three questions about your work, then ask the same questions of another writer whose work you’re interested in, and they pass it on to another writer … and keep it moving.
What am I working on?
My novel Fallen is coming out in June from Penguin Ireland. There’s a peculiar hiatus while you can do nothing but wait for its first readers so that its independent life can begin. People say you should write – and preferably finish – another novel before the current one comes out, but instead I’m working on shorter pieces and preparing an earlier novel, Nothing Simple, for re-release as an ebook.
Nothing Simple was published during the boom, when arguments raged in Ireland about inward migration – a phenomenon we never dreamed we could experience until it happened – and whether or not babies who were born here could be Irish citizens. There was an amount of self-righteous spouting that went on about economic migrants, as if those were dirty words. And I wondered: was the whole country in the grip of amnesia? When I was growing up there wasn’t a single family that didn’t have at least one person working abroad, many of them illegally. So I wrote Nothing Simple, about a young Irish family living in the US. We had lived there, so I knew I could have a bit of fun with the pieties because of course the rhetoric and disapproval about immigrants over there was exactly the same, it just pointed back in our direction.
It never occurred to me that within a decade things would turn yet again and Irish people would have to leave the country in search of work. Nothing Simple is more directly relevant now. Hence the e-book, which should be ready at the end of this month.
Besides the copy-editing involved in that I’m working on shorter pieces: short stories and essays. I’m really enjoying the change of pace – by the time I finish a novel my imagination is exhausted, my poor brain has gone slack, exhausted and battered by brutal re-reading and punishing, rewriting and fact-checking. I’m toning it up with shorter work – which is just as demanding but in a different way and lovely to me right now because its rhythm is so refreshing: finish and move on, finish and move on.
And I love feeling free to read whatever I want to read again.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
The one thing a novel has to be is new, so you could say that every novel is different. You’d certainly hope so, otherwise what’s the point? For me, one of the sparks that flares a novel into life is the strong sense that no one has done this before; no one’s told this story in this way – and it has to need the telling. That need will drive you through long months spent feeling your way through the dark territory of the unwritten.
My new novel, Fallen, is set during the early years of WWI and the Easter Rising, in Dublin. The story of the Rising is basically the foundation myth of our State; it’s been so lovingly crafted and polished it seems impenetrable. But the business of a novelist is to find a way in under the smoothest of surfaces and poke around, to poke a torch into out of the way places where creepy-crawlies, slimy things and the occasional jewel might lurk, and to ask awkward questions. That’s what I set out to do.
Unfortunately for my mental health, once I’ve been gripped by a story, and the fact that it hasn’t been done before, I’m seized by a paranoid dread that everyone has had the same idea at the same time, that they’re all out there writing my novel but more effectively, or faster, or for more money. This interferes with sleep to a shocking extent for the duration. It’s very tiring.
How does my writing process work?
If I knew how it actually works, I’d write a book to explain it and retire on the proceeds. I can say how I go about trying to persuade it to work, which isn’t quite the same thing:
Generating a first draft is a nervy, intense time where I practically sleepwalk to my desk, so early in the morning most of you would call it the middle of the night and pound the keys until I’m empty. I generate a lot of words that have no future and some that do. It’s the ones that do that keep you going. I print out the day’s work when I finish and read over it with a pint of strong coffee before I start the next morning. I like Hemingway’s advice, to stop at a place where you know what’s happening next. Helpful things can happen in your brain when you’re not looking.
At some point I try to take charge of it all and boss it into shape. I make lists and notes and more lists, then get back inside the morass and spin more of it. When my imagination is spent, I put the work away and make vows of renunciation, because there’s enough horror in the world already without adding to it with my own unformed, inelegant garbage. But sooner or later I’ll sneak a look and realise that it’s both better and worse than I thought. That’s when I get to the more ordered task of shaping and rewriting.
I’m always looking for more effective ways to work. Every now and then I’ll write an outline and try to stick to it but I usually lose them once they’re written.
I like the rewriting stage. It’s a different kind of challenge. You get to spend your waking life thinking about language and craft, refining your ideas and testing them on the page. It’s a different kind of energy. Spring forward, fall back. But by the time you’ve been through the whole manuscript for the 99th time, your eyes slide off the edges of your sentences and you’re literally incapable of reading what you’ve written. That’s when you need an editor to prise it from your grasp.
I’m passing this on to Nuala Ní Chonchúir, another Irish writer who needs no introduction from me, online or anywhere else; poet, short story writer, novelist and critic, she writes in Irish and English. Her new novel The Closet of Savage Mementoes is out from New Island in April. She has just guest edited the fiction section of the latest issue of The Stinging Fly.