Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir about her novel, You

I am thrilled to be host this week to the most talented Nuala Ní Chonchúir on her tour of the blogs with her exceptional debut novel, You.

First, a bit about Nuala and her writing:
Born Dublin 1970, she is an award-winning fiction writer and poet living in County Galway. Her novel You was published by New Island in April 2010; her third short fiction collection Nude was published by Salt in 2009; The Irish Times called it ‘a memorable achievement’. Nude was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. A full poetry collection The Juno Charm is due November 2010 from Templar. She is fiction editor of Horizon Review.

You is a second-person narration (the 'you' of the title) from the viewpoint of a thoughtful but feisty ten-year-old girl left basically in charge of her two younger brothers (aided and abetted by a couple of colourful neighbours), as their mother struggles with the emotional and practical trials of single parenthood, and as tragedy eventually strikes. The first thing to say about it is that I loved it, was completely engrossed by it, and from about halfway through I was in floods of tears while still having the odd wry smile. And now if you want my more professional writer's and critic's opinion I'd say that the book is most impressive in terms of language and voice as well as humanity and insight, and consequently is strong on vivid characterisation. It's a touching and generous portrait of the vulnerability yet toughness of people under stress, very moving yet humorous.

I asked Nuala about these achievements:

Nuala, the second person is notoriously difficult to extend over the length of a novel, yet you manage it with amazing ease and to my mind total success. Why did you choose this particular narrative mode?

Really the narrative mode chose me; my fiction begins often with the voice. For me, second person is a very natural, very Irish way to tell a story: close but at a remove. People say the second person is difficult to maintain, but like any voice, once you are in the groove of it – the grip of it, even – it flows and feels right. (Though in Ghost Light Joe O’Connor slipped between second, first and third person, which I found distracting.) Maybe it’s readers who fear the second person narrative? Personally, I love it. I loved Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (both written in the second person).

I think the voice of the young girl in this novel is pitch-perfect, as are the voices of the characters she quotes, and I'd say from reading this novel that language is very important to you. Can you talk a bit about this?

I am in love with language, always have been. I love the way people talk, the expressions they use and invent. I’m from Dublin and the book is written in a Dublin vernacular that I am very familiar with. I’ve been a big reader all my life and I’m fan of stylistic writing. I love Banville, Proulx, Wells Tower – any writer who takes risks with language, who is playful. I also write poetry which is hugely about language and bending it. Jeanette Winterson has said, with regard to writing, ‘A tough life needs a tough language’ and I subscribe to that. I love when language and theme intertwine in a book and I hope I achieved that in the novel.

You certainly do. Telling a story from the viewpoint of a child while portraying ideas beyond the child's consciousness is also very tricky and again something I think you do with great success. It seems to me that the novel is about the vulnerability and toughness of children and adults, too, in the face of difficult circumstances. What made you want to tackle the particular themes of this novel, and choose to do it through a child's eyes?

Yes, the novel is about survival and trust and it’s also to do with the way children suffer when the people who love them let them down. Thankfully there is room for humour within all of that and telling the story from the child’s POV means you can maximise on that. I wasn’t thinking themes – I tend to write to tell myself a story and whatever happens happens. I’m not a plotter. But it’s challenging to tackle things like alcoholism, neglect and broken families. And satisfying when you work it all out.

The novel flows with a real energy - rather like the river in the story - especially in the second half, and I get the feeling you wrote it very quickly. Is that the case, and how does it compare to the process of writing for you generally?

It took a year from start to finish so not very quickly but it wasn’t a slog either. Having young kids tends to cut into writing time something fierce. But it also makes you productive because you will literally grab writing time anywhere. These days I write an awful lot slower because I simply don’t have the space in the day to write – my baby daughter is my priority. I’ve been working on one single story for over a year, for example. I’ve become a more ruminative writer, I think, and I hope that will prove to be to the good. However, in September baby’ll be in a crèche 3 mornings a week and I plan to write up a storm. I can’t wait!!

Thanks a million for having me here, Elizabeth. Next week I'm at Sarah Hilary's Crawl Space Blog

Nuala, it was such a pleasure - and a great pleasure indeed to have read your novel!


Quite frankly, folks, I read so many books that just float off into the great grey of Literature in my head, and so few that stay there with vivid pictures and emotions and indeed whole phrases, and You is one of the latter. I have a spare copy for one lucky reader: just put your name in the comments section to be included in the draw.

You can be bought from here.
To find out more about Nuala, go to her website here, and you can read her blog here.
Read last week's stop at Barbara's Bleeuugh!
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