Nuala Ní Chonchúir

The Short Story Interview: Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Interview by Marie Gethins

Nuala, with three novels, four poetry collections, five short story collections, and innumerable publications in literary journals, you have enviable success in multiple genres. When an inspiration hits how do you decide on which genre suits it best?

There is a feeling of shape and length that comes with an ‘idea’ that is hard to describe – it’s like I can physically feel the length of something stretching out in front of me. I say ‘idea’ because I don’t think I really get ideas as such; stories/poems come to me more like blurry notions. And the initial notion is expanded and warped and is usually hardly visible in the end product.

One of my particular favourites in your publication list is the flash collection Of Dublin and Other Fictions. The story, ‘Fish’, which I’ve been lucky enough to hear you read, features a quiet visual revelation between two people that leads to a silent bond. Another gem, ‘Yellow’, published in Cease, Cows, also centres on two people that silently agree on a choice that deepens their established bond. Can you detail the background to these flashes? Is the unspoken an important element in your work?

I wrote ‘Fish’ for a challenge for International Flash Fiction Day. A write-a- -new-story-on-the-day type of thing. Years ago, when I lived in Galway city, I saw a fish truck overturned near my home and my heart went out to the driver. I set the story in that grey part of Galway I used to live in; there were lots of single people on the housing estate and it always struck me how small interactions were so important to them. So the story looks at that type of loneliness and the way odd circumstances can create bonds.

‘Yellow’ came out of a flash workshop I did with my friend Tania Hershman. She threw out all these amazing prompt words and we had to write like billy-o. I have no idea what word(s) I clung to but this flash grew from that. I am obsessed with the whole business of fertility for personal reasons, so ‘Yellow’ reflects that.

I do love the unspoken as people can say so much by keeping their mouths shut, but I also love truncated dialogue, particularly in flash. Conversations in flash must be concise, precise and relevant and it’s interesting to play with that by using body language as much as words.

In terms of construction/technique, how is flash fiction different, in your view, from other genres – in particular poetry and the short story?

My friend, the writer Billie Travalini, made a casual remark to me that has become one of my favourite flash quotes: ‘Flash is where poetry and prose sleep together and neither one hogs the covers.’ (I’m paraphrasing.) For me, flash is a language-based art, so it is very close to poetry. Titles, openings and endings are so important in flash; the writer really needs to work hard at those if they are not gifted to her. Flash also need to be ‘short but deep’, to quote Flannery O’Connor and have points of brilliance, whether that comes from insight or language that sings. I tend to write a flash in one go (like a poem) so it gets to the page in a different way to short stories. There is less time for active thinking, more room for the unconscious to take over. I love that, especially when it delivers a surprise.

You often have wry humour in your work. Do you find humorous stories harder to place (which has been my experience)? If so, why do you think this is the case?

I have very few unpublished stories probably because I write so few since novel writing took over my life. I do think humour is maybe harder to place in lit comps because there is a certain literary voice that often wins comps; there is a notion that gravitas is required and I can understand that from many points of view. Plus, as someone who adjudicates a lot, no one really enters funny ones. I guess, though, it’s the old thing: humour is hard to get right and a story that I find hilarious, you may find obnoxious. But, look, Anne Enright is screamingly funny, as is, say, Gavin McCrea who has written about Engels and Marx. Humour is often found in the most serious and darkest of work and that’s as it should be.

As well as a successful flash writer, you are a frequent judge. What, for you, makes a flash piece successful?

Attention to language. If I see a cliché or well-worn phrase in a 300 word story, I baulk. I love to see a bit of dialogue. I love a swishy title and a killer ending. I don’t like twist-in-the-end stories. I love anything a bit quirky, a bit thoughtful. But not quirky as in a flash written in emails – that type of thing does nothing for me. I don’t like vastly ordinary subject matter – show me interesting settings, odd happenings, insight and depth. Move me.

Are there common mistakes or wrong paths that you see when judging flash competitions?

Common mistakes: lazy language. Boring titles – your title should sing to the reader and make her want to delve in. Pointless dialogue – better to have none rather than waffle. I also hate to see flash that are completely contemptuous of other humans, you know, where the main character has no redeeming features whatsoever (is sexist, racist etc.). I don’t need to like the main character but they shouldn’t be 100% loathsome. Ordinary settings (supermarkets, kitchen sinks) where very mundane things are happening (shopping, spousal arguments).

Considering other writers (in flash and any other form), who inspires you and what do you admire about their work?

Flash: Stuart Dybek seems one of the most humane flash writers.

Lydia Davis is so deadpan and funny in her work. Love her.

Tania Hershman is a gloriously inventive writer – her scientific background shines through her work.

Ditto Zsuzsi Gartner – like Tania, she takes the reader to bizarre and wonderful places.

I also love Emily Dickinson, Sharon Olds, Anne Enright, Emma Donoghue, Michel Faber, Mary Morrissey, Thackeray, the Brontes, Mrs Gaskell, Elizabeth Strout, Valerie Trueblood, John McGahern, Behan etc.

What advice would you give aspiring writers? Any reference texts that you think are particular helpful?

Don’t fixate on publishing and notoriety – they are the bullshit end of the writing life. Write because it keeps you sane, well and happy. Write for yourself, don’t mind anyone else. Share your work when you’re happy it’s done. Try not to compare yourself to other writers in terms of productivity, publication successes or awards (that’s a tough one, admittedly.) Buy and read contemporary lit mags. Buy and read the books of your contemporaries. Set deadlines if you have difficulty producing work. Protect your writing time. Write five days a week and, if you can’t write, read. Be realistic. Be modest. Be nice. And, as Grace Paley said, ‘Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work.’

As for reference texts: Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King; The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, ed. Tara Masih.

Your historical fiction novel, Miss Emily, came out last year and was nominated for a number of awards. What are you working on now?

 I am finishing up novel four which is set in 19th C London and a little in Ireland and, again, it’s about a feisty woman, this time a music hall dancer who married the local Viscount where I live in County Galway. Great fun to research and write. Will be out next year.

Novel # five is calling to me now and it may be contemporary, I haven’t decided yet; there are a few ‘blurry notions’ forming in my head. I am also working on a few stories. I had a notion to write a whole bunch of funny stories but I’m not sure if it’s going to pan out. Things are getting dark again…


Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in East Galway. She has published four short story collections. A chapbook of short-short stories Of Dublin and Other Fictions appeared from Tower Press in the US in 2013. Nuala’s critically acclaimed second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appeared April 2014; it was shortlisted for the Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. Under the name Nuala O’Connor, her third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, was published in summer 2015. It was shortlisted for the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015. It is currently longlisted for the 2016 MM Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Her author website can be visited here and blog here. Nuala can also be followed on Twitter @NualaNiC

Marie Gethins’ first encounter with TSS was via her flash fiction win ‘Blood-ties’. Her work has also featured in Litro, Firewords Quarterly, 2014 and 2015 NFFD Anthologies, Flash, NANO, The Lonely Crowd, Firewords Quarterly and others. She has won or been placed in Tethered by Letters, Flash500, Dromineer, The New Writer, Prick of the Spindle, and Marie is a Pushcart and Best of the Short Fictions Nominee. She lives in Cork, Ireland, working on her MSt in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.

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