Nuala Ní Chonchúir is the author of numerous short stories (recent collections include Nude and Mother America), poetry (The Juno Charm) and novels (You). Her latest publication is Of Dublin and Other Fictions, a chapbook of flash fiction. We recently discussed the book and her writing over email.
Your latest book is Of Dublin and Other Fictions, a chapbook collection of flash fiction. How does a reader approach a book of flash fiction, is it more akin to a book of poetry than traditional short stories?
Nuala Ní Chonchúir: Probably with trepidation, wondering what it is. I hope the reader gets a nice surprise when she reads the stories and finds them funny or provocative or thoughtful. I hope she comes away thinking, ‘Wow! Small can be great!’ The novel so dominates literary culture it would be nice if the other genres got a look-in once in a while. (Said as a person who loves novels.)
Flash fiction is a comparatively young “genre” in the marketing sense, although writers have always been writing very short pieces. Are there many outlets (magazines, websites, etc.) specifically for flash fiction?
Tons. Look at Wigleaf, Smokelong Quarterly, Flash (out of Chester University) and Every Day Fiction. There is a great resource list here: http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/flash-fiction-list-resources
Do you feel the impact of a certain word or phrase is heightened in flash (i.e. because of the brevity the words are more conspicuous) or really no more so than in any other piece of writing? Is there a different sense of artistic pressure in flash than poetry or novels?
Definitely. There is only a small space so each word has to carry its weight and be appropriate. I hate to see well-worn phrases in flash – writers need to work harder than that. Language is key in flash, writers have to be very attentive to the words they choose.
As for a different sense of artistic pressure, yes, of course. Flash, poetry and novels are all so disparate – they offer a different hit in terms of the reading experience. In terms of writing, the process for each is not even vaguely the same.
Despite the short length, some of your pieces (“Room 313,” “What Became of the People We Used to Be?”, “Vincent in the Yellow House,” or “Fish” for example) have no lack of incident or complexity. It appears to the reader that these could easily have been expanded to greater length; “Fish” and “Room 313” in particular feel like they could be extracts from novels. What makes you decide on the optimum length of a piece of fiction?
It sounds like a cop-out, but they emerge the way they emerge; there is no conscious decision about form or length. So I feel the shape of a story in my brain and it plays out before me and somehow I know it will be long or short. People/critics always seem to want all fiction to be the novel, or to aspire to be the novel. This is messed up thinking. We need to accept that short can be good. Short is good! Comparing novels to short fiction is like comparing eggs to bacon. They go well, side by side, but they are not each other.
There’s a perception (among readers) that short stories are easier to write than longer pieces, but my experience as a writer has always been that brevity is the hardest thing to achieve, and takes the longest. What’s your process for writing flash? Does the writing of these very short pieces differ significantly from other forms of writing?
There is also the opposite perception – many novelists know that they can’t write short fiction – it’s too challenging – so they don’t attempt to write it. Zadie Smith has spoken about this before.
In terms of process, short-shorts come to me, usually, via a first line and I launch forward from there. All stories come to me like that though. I’m not sure why or how I can feel the length of a piece before it starts; it’s something unconscious at work, maybe.
You have a great gift for dialogue and dialect. An Irish person can tell exactly what county another Irish person is from within seconds of hearing them, while foreigners tend to only perceive a broader “Irish” accent. Do you think in terms of certain regional dialects when you’re writing your stories? Do you know where a character is from in terms of voice even if that fact never comes out in the story?
I love accents and Irish people’s accents differ from parish to parish, which is intriguing, so I always listen out for variations in dialogue etc. I can tell the main ones apart, but some county’s accents I wouldn’t have a clue about.
I was in San Francisco recently and an academic was talking about the Irish ‘brogue’ – a term we don’t like here and that we don’t use. I wanted to point out that it was sort of rude and archaic but I didn’t in the end because I couldn’t articulate exactly why I don’t like the term. (On reflection, it is a word loaded with corny and derogatory connotations, like something from Punch magazine.)
What inspires you and makes you write?
I’m inspired by the intrigues of people – the mean and bad stuff, as much as the love and good stuff. I’m introverted and a loner (I don’t do groups much) so I have always been an observer and I guess I explore my understanding of people through writing. A longwinded way to say that I am interested in people and their contradictory ways and, because I love words, I explore by writing.
You have a new novel coming out in 2014. What can you tell us about it?
The Closet of Savage Mementos is set in the Scottish Highlands and Dublin. It concerns a young woman called Lillis who is determined not to become her mother, Verity, who is an alcoholic taxidermist. There is gay sex and paperweights and lots of lovely Scottish scenery – who could resist?!?
Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of short-short stories Of Dublin and Other Fictions is just out in the US and Nuala’s second novel, The Closet of Savage Mementos, will be published in spring 2014 by New Island.