Author Nuala O’Connor

In this series of conversations about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir (aka Nuala O’Connor) lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. In 2019 she won the James Joyce Quarterlycompetition to write the missing story from Dubliners, ‘Ulysses’. Her fourth novel, Becoming Belle, was recently published to critical acclaim in the US, Ireland and the UK. Her latest novel is Nora, about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strength do you admire in others?

It’s a great question, motivation. I think it changes, over the years. I’m twenty plus years writing seriously and, at the start, it was pure joy and love of the act of writing. Now it’s my job so the motivations are to share my work, to be published and read, and to earn a living.
The joy remains, but there’s a different impetus added to it.
As for my forte, in terms of writing I’d say it’s fiction. In terms of craft, I’d say it’s stick-with-it-ability and a willingness to always learn and grow.
I admire writers like Salinger and Ferrante who, to whatever extent, managed to extricate themselves from the PR roundabout and just get on with the writing. That’s what important for creatives: doing the work. Not the promo and public appearances – creating.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I rarely get a dry spell. I can’t write poems, often, but my fictional well doesn’t dry up. I have a lot of stories whirling in my mind that I want to tell. The problem is trying to get the time and space to commit to projects. Having said that, my new year’s resolution this year was to not begin a new novel (once the one in hand is done). I want to give my head room and space to think over some stories and, hopefully, some poems.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social and/or regular media help or stifle this?

I don’t tend to feel infected by other people’s voices, I’m confident that I have my own voice and style; I know what I’m doing with my writing, most of the time. That doesn’t mean I think everything I do is great, or that I’m always happy at my desk but, once I’m enjoying myself, that’s good enough for me.
I do sometimes get down about the emphasis on literary prizes. I don’t write prize-winny, zeitgeisty novels; I don’t have one eye on the market. I can only write about things I’m passionate about. Literary prizes can seem like cynical exercises and they also seem to be the only things that the public responds to. So, if you’re not winning prizes, few people seem to care about your books.

I started entering short story comps again in the last couple of years to see if I could up my profile a bit. I live in a very quiet, non-literary town and, sometimes, I feel out-of-it. I wish that prizes weren’t the only thing – we need more quality reviewing outlets. In Ireland The Dublin Review is great, for example, but it can be hard to get quiet books – like the ones I write – noticed.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

I come from a creative family: my parents both painted and acted for pleasure, my mother made our clothes (for seven of us!); my sisters are artists, photographers, costume makers, editors. My mother fed me books as a child too, I’d read a book a day, and she supported me in that brilliantly. I always wanted to be a writer but I thought it was for magic people with special insider knowledge, not for working class girls like me. It took until I was twenty-eight for me to really grab writing by the neck and say, ‘You’re for me.’
Yes, I’m very Irish. I love the bones of the place and I love our languages –Irish and English – and all things colloquial and native. I love our ability to laugh at our own absurdity, to talk long and hard, and to enjoy ourselves. That influences my writing.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I go a bit nuts; I get cranky and hard to live with. Writing keeps me on an even keel, keeps me sane and happy.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I cry it out, rant and rave to my husband, who listens well. My agent is super supportive too and she’s honest, which I love. Some things are harder to get over than others because you set your heart on certain outcomes and then, if they fail, it’s very disappointing. Some failures and disappointments still hurt me, but you have to just get on with it. The creative life is hugely about tenacity. I can see why some writers give up and disappear, the rejections and setbacks are constant; there’s no endpoint with this, it’s all journey.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Yes, I’ve collaborated with other writers and visual artists – writing works prompted by their (art) works. I love that, it’s a different way to work, a little daunting, but always worthwhile. You write things that would never have occurred to you otherwise.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

The financial side is hard. There are very few writers earning good livings. I supplement book advances with other work: mentoring new writers, articles, essays, appearances at literary festivals, teaching creative writing etc. I apply for bursaries too. Also my husband has a real job, with regular wages, so we never starve. But we live in an affordable part of the country and we live modestly.
If you’re starting out, and can afford to, work part time and organise your remaining time well – use it to write often, commit to one main project and work at it regularly. Routine is helpful – it keeps you connected to the work, immersed in the headspace of it, and that helps with moving it along.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

I’m deeply introverted and also shy, so I love working alone and being my own boss. I like that I’m in charge of my own time and can devote as many hours as I need to my writing.
Because I’m happy at my work, that rubs off on my children. They see my contentment but, because I work from home, also my disappointments and concerns about the creative life. I doubt they have any illusions about it. That’s maybe why my boys are determined to become computer programmers and engineers. My daughter (at the moment) wants be a crazy cat lady/writer. She didn’t pick that off the stones 😉
When I write, I’m happy, so it’s important to me to write every day or, at least, five days a week.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

You have a responsibility to what you’re writing and the people you write about. The artist should shine a torch down the well of time, to help people understand various eras, including our own. It’s not necessarily the artist’s role to wave placards on the street but we can if we want. We can be subversive and political in what we write but that’s up to the individual. As a feminist I write from that perspective but I’m way more interested in story.

First published 03.03.20

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