This blog is disgracefully late, but I still want to record elements of a most enjoyable interview/conversation that took place in the Dun Laoghaire LexIcon a fortnight ago between Nuala O’Connor (Nuala Ní Chonchúir) and Sarah Maria Griffin (SMG), current dlr writer-in-residence. They were talking about Nuala’s latest novel, Becoming Belle (Penguin, 2018).
The Belle of the title is Isabel Bilton, who left a middle-class English military family in the late nineteenth century to become, first a music hall star and then the wife of the young Viscount Dunlo, ending up as the Countess of Clancarty despite his family’s objections. The novel is based on a true story. Nuala’s last novel (Miss Emily) was also based on the life of a real person, Emily Dickinson.
She tells us that she’s a hermit by nature. Life makes her uptight and anxious but when she’s writing she’s free. Relaxed. She likes novels because they offer more space to work in but she loves poetry and short fiction too – she’s in love with language, basically. She had a bilingual childhood and has a degree in Irish. Her sisters were into crocheting, knitting, always making things. She remembers her mother saying ‘Nuala’s not artistic’ and her sisters cracking up, laughing. Because of course she’s an artist – in language.
She was working with a theatre company in Galway when someone suggested she should join a group and try to publish her stories. She says she was clueless and needed someone else to say it to her. Her first writing teacher was Mike McCormack, then she took a poetry course with Louis de Paor and a group grew from that.
SMG asked if there’s a central question in her work. Nuala said that she had felt that Emily Dickinson had been largely misrepresented and misunderstood. In school she’d been given the dark, depressed version of Dickinson – “it suited me, I was a goth.” But Nuala (who is also a poet) felt there was so much more to Dickinson: the cook, for example. The woman who loved flowers. She wanted to create a real, human representatio
When writing these women, she’s trying to bring them out onto the page. Day to day, she’s at her desk, trying to write scenes, working in the dark. She doesn’t know what she’s doing until the end or even later. She first came across Belle Bilton in Ballinasloe in 2005, doing local history research. She discovered a woman who was a deeply flawed but very human character. Nuala wrote a poem about her first, then a piece of flash fiction, and the story grew from there.
She has a real gift for research, unearthing the telling detail and expressing it in such a way that the time and place she writes about become real for a reader. She used the British Newspaper archive (she’s a subscriber) and the National Archives at Kew, where she found the marriage certificate and the divorce petition that Viscount Dunlo signed; she went to the Café Royale for something to eat and to Conduit Street, where Belle had lived – ‘ghost chasing,’ she called it. Staff at the National Portrait Gallery in London were helpful, giving her images to photocopy. Since the book was published, people with connections to the story have come forward – the current Earl Clancarty has a copy.
SMG: So it’s a magnet then, as well as a book.
NOC: She was a real person; it’s a huge responsibility.
Inventing the Victorians (by Matthew Sweet) was a great resource. ‘It’s a brilliant book,’ and shows the Victorians as real people, with as much excess in their lives as any of us. They were into opiates, for example; self-soothing. But they weren’t supposed to acknowledge those experiences. ‘Then you had to deal with editors who wanted to remove the opium scene, or the childbirth scene … Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot – they weren’t allowed to include such things in their writing, but I’m writing in the 21st century…We get a sanitised, biased account of that time. The Victorians were a lot freer and more open than we give them credit for.’
SMG: Those missing pieces are really important …
SMG remarked on a quality of incantation in the narrative. ‘How do you do that? Do you keep a diary?’
NOC: As a kid, yes, I kept a diary. I keep a journal when I’m travelling.
SMG: Now, though: aren’t you keeping a journal of the book you’re writing?
NOC: I’m trying to; I’m creating this document, it’s a tool. It’s so helpful when talking about it later – after I finish, when it comes to promotion, figuring out what the book is about. I’m using a brilliant notebook – Claire Keegan says buy the best, then you feel something beautiful in it…
SMG: … ritual, intentional.
Nuala does her research at night: reads, takes notes; then does her creative work in the mornings; gathers her notes and tries to make a scene.
SMG: It’s full of shards, like a mosaic. There are movements in it – like music.
NOC: If it’s all on one note, it’s like shouting at the reader.
They talked about endings; readers’ expectations and the expectations of editors – who generally want a positive outcome. But readers, Nuala says, are intelligent. They get ambiguity.
SMG loves the use of fabric in the book, remarks on the ways in which Nuala is alert to fabric; Nuala talked about her college experience of putting on plays, amateur dramatics. She bought loads of clothes second hand. Her sister made costumes; another sister was a set designer. Her writing is tactile but she also uses colour and smells.
SMG: (Reading Belle) is a sensual experience for the reader.
NOC: As women too… It’s about our presence in the world as bodies, how our bodies are valued. Belle would have been very much of that world. Her image was on cigarette cards, posters etc. Reviews in her time said that she had more heart than talent.
SMG: Belle is a good example of acquiring an artistic practice as a method of achieving freedom. She sets her life in motion by artistic practice – which is kind of what we do. Can you talk about that in your own life?
NOC: Working in a theatre in Galway, I became aware of writers as people, colleagues. I wanted their lives, knew the life would suit me. But someone had to say it to me. Someone had to suggest that I find a group, try to publish my stories.
SMG: Is there anything you would tell yourself, maybe back when you moved to Galway – what advice would you give yourself?
NOC: Don’t worry about what people are thinking. Do what you need to do. 500 words a day, or 200. It doesn’t matter. Set modest goals and stick to them. Keep your hand in with reading, exercises. Walk by the sea. Anything that feeds you. Wake up telling yourself a story.
SMG: Tell us about your ‘cabin.’
NOC: It’s new, an investment, I love it. It has two desks, one for the computer and one for writing. Even doing my taxes in there I’m happy, smiling. I protect my time. The first thing I do every day is the creative part. Mentoring and teaching come later. I do it in sickness and health. I’m a writer for my sanity; it’s my job as well as my passion and vocation.
SMG: Is this bit (book promotion) anti-writing?
Well, Nuala enjoys this part too. Travel is a bonus but the real bonus of the writing life is in the friends you make. Still, most of the time she just wants to be alone, writing.
SMG believes in the well (of inspiration?) we need to fill so that we can be creative.
NOC: Don’t only fill it up with books.
SMG: Is there anything you go back to for inspiration?
NOC: Visual art. I take the bus to the Hunt Museum or the National Gallery. I did the Julia Cameron 12 week course (The Artist’s Way). Certain books are talismanic: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast; Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice; I’m happy those books are in the world.
She also has a list of books she wants to write. At the moment she’s writing about the wife of a well-known person, but she wasn’t telling us who. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait very long to find out.