Today this blog is honoured by a visit from the wonderful writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir, who's on a tour to promote her latest book, Mother America (New Island). This stunning collection of short stories deals chiefly though not exclusively with aspects of motherhood - the experience of it, its effects and consequences - taking in not only the viewpoints and voices of mothers but of men and children too. There's also an achingly moving reworking of the Mary Magdelene story, and a recurring scenario of betrayal in which an affair occurs between a woman's husband and her sister, this last vividly conveyed in a second-person portrayal of the pain of the artist Frieda Kahlo - a theme of painting and drawing works its way through the collection, too. There's a cosmopolitan feel, with stories set in America, Paris and Rome, yet the spirit of Ireland hovers over it all, as in the story in which an Irish mother, brought to Brooklyn by her son and then abandoned by her there, sits in a cafe with the letter he's sent her but which she is unable to read. In another story, the very same cafe plays host to a different character, and similar connections trace their way across several of the stories. Short-story writer, novelist and poet, Nuala seems a complete mistress of all three forms. I find her work breathtaking in its insight and command of language - her touch is light, yet her sentences, both poetic yet muscular, burn themselves on your brain, and her vision is both warmly human yet searing. This book had me enthralled, at times in tears, now and then laughing out loud with delight at the connections, and I was eager to talk to Nuala about it.
EB: Nuala, there's a strong theme of exile running through the book, centred on the mother figure. So many of the mothers are Irish, and I wonder if you are making a link between a mother's relationship with her children, and the people of Ireland with their homeland?
NNC: Ireland is personified as a woman – Róisín Dubh, meaning Dark Rosaleen – in song and myth. We also have the mother goddess Danu, and Ériu who gave her name to the country, so the symbol and importance of woman/mother is a strong one in Ireland.
There is also the old cliché about the Irish mother and her sons – she loves her sons and they can do no wrong, but she lambasts her daughters. There’s the ring of truth in that of course. I’m a mother (of two boys and one girl) and I’m a daughter, and that influences what I write about. Ireland is also a country of emigrants and, lately, immigrants. Historically, there is a good deal of sentimentality about Irish emigration (that continues to this day) and I am interested in that.
When it comes to writing stories, I have no agenda – I just write about whatever is interesting to me at that time. For the last three years that has been mothers, especially ones who are separated from their children, by force or by will.
EB: The connections between some of the stories are stunning and very moving, and it's a wonderful way of carrying your themes of exile and also redemption. Would you talk about that?
NNC: When I write stories, one after the other, inevitably there are linking themes, because my synapses are sparking off a few riffs (if that is not too mixed a metaphor!) over a period of time. I only realised, after a few stories, that I was writing about mothers. The fear and separation/exile motifs emerged later. Two of the stories are very deliberately linked: ‘Scullion’ sees a young maid become pregnant by her master. ‘My Name is William Clongallen’ sees the son of that union return to Ireland from America to seek out his mother.
I like links in short fiction collections but I also like diversity. Nam Le, Caitlin Horrocks, Sarah Hall and Anthony Doerr all do a great line in diversity in their collections, though there may be a linking tone or theme, of melancholy or loss or whatever, in their books.
As long as a book hangs together cohesively in some way, I see no absolute need for linked collections. I would be disturbed if it became the norm – it would smack of publishers attempting to make novels of short fiction collections, which I object to.
EB: You are brilliant at voice and point of view, and the contrasts in both once again promote your themes brilliantly. How do you do it? Was it a deliberate choice or instinctive here?
NNC: I am most comfortable writing in the first or second person, so that’s where I will usually begin. Third person is more difficult for me but some stories, like ‘Queen of Tattoo’ beg for that bit of distance.
It’s instinctive in the sense that I don’t plan anything when I write – I go from the gut and the thing either works or it doesn’t. Having a distinctive voice to work from always makes a story flow much easier for me, so I like when a voice whispers in my ear early on.
EB: In some ways this book reminded me of one of my favourite short story writers, the American Grace Paley, although you have your own distinct tone. It's not just in the melting-pot Brooklyn settings, the cleverness with voice and the concern with motherhood: there's always a sense of homeland underpinning everything, perhaps best summed up in the title story. How do you manage to conjure up these places (the stories set in Paris conjure up its atmosphere, beautifully, too)?
NNB: As an Irish person, I am pretty much obsessed with place. It may be to do with Colonialism and occupation, but we Irish are very regional, very place-addicted. Most of us want to own our bit of home.
But, as someone born in 1970, I am also very Europe orientated and I value Ireland’s connection to the European Union. So my fiction happily looks to Europe and America, while also keeping one foot firmly in the homeplace.
Travel has been the big boon of being a writer for me. I’ve always enjoyed travel and now I get to do it a lot. That fires me up as a writer; I love it. I am an ardent notebook keeper and, when I travel, even more so. I keep a journal, I take photos, and all that helps if I feel like setting a story in Paris, for example, where I have set many stories.Thanks for having me by, Elizabeth. Next Monday my virtual tour takes me to writer Ethel Rohan’s blog in San Francisco. http://ethelrohan.com/blog/. I hope some of your readers will join me there.
Thanks so much, Nuala. I urge you all to buy the book - it's wonderful!
See my earlier interview with Nuala about her witty and moving novel, You.