Irish Short Story Month Year Three
March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Event
Nuala Ní Chonchúir to some questions I sent her. Nuala is one of my favorite contemporary short story writers. When I ask Irish short story writers who among contemporary writers they most admire, her name almost always comes up. I would not have read and posted on four of her books if I did not greatly admire and respect her work.
Yesterday I posted on her very exciting collection of short stories, To the World of Men, Welcome. You can read my post here.
Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir is a full-time fiction writer and poet, living in Galway county. She has published four collections of short fiction, three poetry collections - one in an anthology, and one novel. Nuala holds a BA in Irish from Trinity College Dublin and a Masters in Translation Studies (Irish/English) from Dublin City University. She has worked as an arts administrator in theater and in a writers' center as a translator, as a bookseller and also in a university library. Nuala teaches creative writing on a part-time basis.
I have previously posted on her amazing short story collection, Mother America, and a collection of her poetry I really enjoyed, The Juno Charm.
I have also read and posted on her third collection of short stories, Nude. I found the stories in Nude to be beautifully written lessons in the nature of the gaze, the meaning of nudity and the lingering power of colonialism partially reinstated in an account of the relationships of men to women and artists to the women who pose nude for them. It is about the difference between being naked and have it mean nothing and being nude and having it mean everything. I think it is also, in the tradition of Edward Said, about the orientalizing of Irish women by the English and in a greater sense of women by men.
1. Who are some of the contemporary short story writers you admire? If you had to say, who do you regard as the three best ever short story writers?
Today they are the following, on a different day I might name others:
Contemporary: Ron Rash, Anthony Doerr, Caitlin Horrocks, Sarah Hall, Mary Morrissy.
2. I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish, and alcohol plays a much bigger part in the Irish stories. How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish culture?
Alcohol is a huge part of Irish culture and not in a good way. People are only cottoning on to the fact now that gallons of alcohol on a night out might not actually be a great idea (for both kinds of health). Des Bishop, a comedian, is doing an interesting exploration of the Irish misuse of alcohol on TV just now, called ‘Under the Influence’. Brian O’Connell, a journalist, is also trying to educate young people about its de-merits. It’s about time. The Irish use it a crutch and have normalised alcohol abuse to such an extent that you are seen as weird and joyless if you don’t drink, or don’t drink to excess.
3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work? It seems present in several of your stories.
I think there are more dominant themes than that in Irish literature – land/property, loneliness, shame etc. – but it’s an interesting angle. If you’re specifically talking about my collection To the World of Men, Welcome, well the book concerns itself with men and how they deal with women. Mostly lovers. There is one absent father who may or may not have murdered his daughter (‘Toys’). The father is more of a shadow figure in my novel YOU because the parents are separated and the kids live with their mother. So he is missing but not weak, as in Kiberd’s theory.
4. When did you start writing?
When I was a child, I wrote poems and stories. I came second in a national poetry competition at the age of 10 and that spurred me on. I didn’t try to get published until my late 20s, though.
5. How do you view Aosdána? Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism?
I think it’s a good thing, it shows respect for artists. It is extremely difficult to make a living as an artist and the stipend is a Godsend to many. Having said that, the group elects their peers so there is always the danger that if you don’t know the right people, you haven’t a hope of getting in. And therefore that the same type of people will always make up the membership.
6. I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of literature of the world, that is regarded as great, is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers? I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on a tropical island, for example.
It rains a lot here, particularly in Galway, where I live. We have nothing to do but stay indoors and write!! I’m sure the Australians would disagree with you: fine weather, fine writing (Malouf, Winton, Frame et al). Ditto the Africans: Coetzee, Achebe, Gordimer. I’m not convinced that bad weather causes great writing but people certainly mention it a lot in Ireland, daily and in fiction. A benign obsession, perhaps.
7. A character in an Ali Smith short story, asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels "Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?" Does this make a bit of sense to you?
No, it makes little sense but, then, Ali Smith delights in being obscure, as is her right. But the analogy is just about youth vs age, I guess – short vs long. Stories and novels are only linked by the fact that they are both fiction. Neither writing them nor reading them is a similar process. You get a different hit from each form. Sometimes the short, sharp, shock of the story is what you require; other times you crave the long haul of the novel.
8. Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?
James Joyce, in the sense that he broke the mould. The stories in Dubliners age as the book ages (the characters go from young to old). He introduced the epiphanic moment. He was employing simplicity before Hemingway made it his own. He wrote a collection and thought about how to order it.
9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate to their population number of great writers?
I have no idea. Maybe because we love to talk and that translated itself into a need for private expression (on paper) for those who were not so gregarious or social. Maybe we are good at talking about our work and that got us noticed. Brendan Behan once said, among hundreds of equally interesting remarks, ‘I am a drinker with a writing problem.’ Or words to that affect. How could anyone ignore someone who came up with that and who also wrote so well?
10. Ok this may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declan Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:
"One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."
I love what that woman said. There was a fairy ring near our house – we didn’t dare go into it. When the local hospital was being expanded, they flattened the ring and cut down the blackthorn tree. The man who cut down the tree died of a heart attack a few days later. It was understood that the fairies went after him.
Do I believe? Yes and no.
11. Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?
I don’t know. I think we have very poor understanding still of our ancestors and their power and knowledge. And I would wager that most Irish people don’t care. There is a lot of worship at the altar of other countries in Ireland: young people ape their British and American counterparts. There isn’t a huge amount of pride in our ancient culture among the general population. Writers, artists and scholars love and respect it all but not ordinary people so much. We have watered down our culture and vernacular to insipid levels.
12. How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?
The legacy of the famine lingers on – big events like that always leave a psychic scar. We are obsessed with owning property, for example. And many Irish people have a huge begrudging bee in their bonnets about emigration, despite the fact that many people choose to emigrate, and are not forced as they once were.
13. Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels?
I think of the “stage Irishman” as an American invention: a gormless gombeen with cute hoor tendencies. There are still plenty of violent, unemployed drinkers in Ireland so, if they are in novels, they reflect a reality. Roddy Doyle writes them excellently.
14. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons.” I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding to, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature?
Irish people are maudlin and sentimental, often. The past, and all that was lost with it, is always a better place. We have resisted modernity a lot.
There is another quote: "The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad. For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad." - G.K. Chesterton
Irish people love to be negative and sad and upset. We can be a nation of whingers. The daily moan takes place on Joe Duffy’s Radio Show It is unbelievable.
15. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers?
In an ideal world the poet would have a role as seer, prophet, commentator. We have plenty of fine poets who commentate regularly: Durcan, Lordan et al. Some of us listen, many do not.
16. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.
They should be granted whatever they want. They are a distinct group with their own traditions and cultures and they should be supported in every way to live as they please.
Some people hate Travellers, irrationally. Tarring all of them with the same brush. It is racism. There are bad eggs in every community but many people feel all Travellers are bad because a few make trouble. It’s not a fair stance.
17. Where is the best place in Galway to get a real Irish breakfast? Fish and Chips and Irish Stew?
I don’t eat meat so have no interest in Irish Breakfasts but there are great places all over: try McCambridge’s on Shop Street for a start.
Fish ‘n’ Chips: McDonagh’s of Quay Street.
Irish stew: Probably The King’s Head on High Street
18. The literary productivity of Galway is incredible. What is there about Galway's social climate that produces this?
It’s a university town, a small city, on the edge of the sea. It’s pretty enough to look at, with its medieval layout and traversing river and canal. It was a draw for hippies and artistic types since the 60s and many stayed and added to the cultural life, particularly in theatre (Druid, Macnas, the now defunct Punchbag). It has a huge annual literary festival in April: Cúirt. So there is a lot going on and that lures people. I moved here 17 years ago and am still here somehow. Galway does that to people.
19. Do you prefer e-reading or traditional books?
Traditional books at home. My Kindle when I am travelling.
20. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland, where would you live?
New York. I feel at home there and I love its diversity, people, food, book shops, theatre etc.
21. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
Oh, time travel, what fun. I might go back to the 16th century in Mayo and see if I could be friends with Granuaile, the Irish so-called pirate queen. I imagine she was some woman to be around.
22. John Synge - is he the second most important 20th century Irish writer?
Who am I to say? Who is allegedly the most important – Joyce?
23. The Aran Islands - must see authentic experience or just for the tourists?
It’s a bit of both. There is a commercial side to it that is tourist oriented but less so on the smaller islands. People still live and work and speak Irish there. It is a beautiful place.
24. Best Literary Festival you have so far attended?
The Cork Short Story Festival – for its fabulous line-ups, its warmth, its inclusiveness, for the way it looks after writers. Brilliant. I go every September and it is like a homecoming each time.
25. Flash Fiction - how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits?
Flash has been around a lot longer than Twitter. Chekhov wrote short-short stories. Twitter has just added an extra dimension but most flash is longer than 140 characters and is better for that.
26. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?
Island people have a different mindset. We are on our own despite communication technologies, air travel etc. As for how it shapes literature? Islanders look inward, maybe, and are a little eccentric. A bit peculiar and lonely. It’s the old inferior/superior thing. Maybe that’s why half the population are writing – because we are islanders!
27. Best place to hear traditional music in Galway? Best book store, best literary tourist experience, best "real people's" restaurant?
Trad music: Tí Neachtain, Shop Street.
Books: Kennys in Liosbán and Charlie Byrne’s on Middle Street. You MUST go to both.
Literary Tourist Experience: Drive out to Connemara to see what exactly entranced Synge, Martin McDonagh, Ted Hughes, Ó Flatharta, Macken et alReal People’s Restaurant: Ard Bia at Nimmo's Pier
You can learn more about the author and her work at her very well done website.
My thanks to Nuala for taking the time to respond to my questions.
I hope someone does an event devoted to the Irish Short Story twenty years from now and I am sure she will be one of the automatically included writers.