Tuesday 20 July 2010

Nuala Ní Chonchúir's You

I’m very happy to welcome Nuala Ní Chonchúir on the latest leg of her virtual book tour. Born Dublin 1970, award-winning fiction writer and poet Nuala lives 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. Nuala is fiction editor of Horizon Review.

I’ll begin by saying how much I enjoyed You, which is a tough and touching story of family life in extremis, told through the eyes of a canny ten year old girl. Chock full of colourful characters, the story takes an unflinching and often funny look at adult dilemmas and tragedy, as seen by a wondering (and wonderful) child. It’s a terrific read, the sort you can manage in one sitting but which stays with you long after that. Go, read! I asked Nuala about the three aspects of the novel which intrigued me:

You is told through the eyes of your ten year old heroine. Was this a conscious decision you took at the outset, and how hard was it to stick to that voice exclusively? Were you tempted at any point to show us, for example, the mother's side of the story? What do you feel to be the advantages and disadvantages of telling a complex, adult story through the eyes of a child?

This novel grew from a short story and I never start anything (stories, novels, poems) in what I would call a conscious way. I don’t take a decision – I just start to write, usually, because a first line pops into my head, and it has a voice that belongs to a character, and I just run with that. So this girls’ voice emerged very strongly, in the second person, and I was enjoying her voice so much I just kept writing and writing. I soon realised it was turning into a novel and I wanted to keep going.

It was always going to be the girl’s view of the world – not her mother’s – though it is the mother’s story, really. I liked the challenge presented by telling difficult things from a child’s point of view. That’s what I love about a long piece of work: all the questions and problems that get thrown up that you have to solve; I find that thrilling and mildly excruciating at the same time.

As for advantages, well, the reader has to guess at what is really going on because the child narrator can’t always see the truth in things, though my character is quite sharp.

Disadvantages? Erm, I can’t think of any. Telling from the POV of the child is a plot device like any other. It’s enormous fun. I used to go around thinking ‘Oh, yes, she’d look at x this way and y that way’ purely because she is ten years old. It maybe removes me – the adult writer – from the piece a bit more. And that’s good, I think.

Water is very important to this story: the Channel that the children cross, and especially the river, which feels like a character in its own right, both benign and threatening. Do you live near water, and what is its significance to you as a writer?
I grew up beside the river Liffey in Dublin. The physical landscape of You is the landscape of my childhood. The house on the river, where the family in the novel lives, was my friend’s house. The river was hugely important in my childhood: we paddled, swam, fished, floated and boated on and in it; we were familiar with its wildlife: swans, herons, ducks, otters, kingfishers, fish. We were warned away from it because of drownings that had happened but we were drawn to it.

My first collection of short stories The Wind Across the Grass was full of water, specifically the river I grew up beside. When you live that close to a river it influences you: you see, hear and smell it every day. You talk about it with you neighbours: ‘The river’s high today’ or ‘The river’s low today’.

I think childhood is a huge influence on what we write anyway and the river was such a part of mine it couldn’t help but show up.
What was the starting point of the story? Was there a key image or idea that it grew from, and how did you set about shaping that idea into the final story?

Well, the voice of this spiky, sensitive girl came to me and she had a troubled mother. I tend to write to tell stories to myself, so I’m not a fan of plotting and planning. I just start to write and see where it leads me. During that journey I think a lot and ask a lot of questions. What if this happened? Or, for example, what if so-and-so had this profession, how would that shape him as a character? I deliberately made the sinister character Kit a butcher, to give him a semi-violent edge.

Setting is also hugely important to me and it occurred to me early on that I could set this story in my home-place and so all the physical locations were to hand in my head, so to speak. And the river became, as you said Sarah, another character in the book.

It took a year to write the novel and I had no idea as I went along what was going to happen or how it would end. That exploration of the story for myself is a big part of the joy of writing for me.

Thanks, Nuala. The exploration aspect certainly came across beautifully in You. I look forward to reading where the journey (and the joy) takes you next.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Supporting cast

I do love it when things come together, and in unexpected ways. I blogged a while ago about finding an elusive character (my creation) in an earlier story, Here She Is. I've just discovered someone I thought was a bit-player, quietly in the background, is one of the major characters in my novel. How this character will feel about being dragged from obscurity into the limelight, I don't know. Perhaps he/she liked being a bit-player. Or perhaps he/she will see this as the big break every actor craves. In either case, it's a turning point for the plot and one that liberates other characters to behave as they please, rather than trying to fit my machinations.

To be clear: I had no idea this character would be The One. I did not write him/her to fit that mould, or not consciously. But now I come to look at him/her I find that all the facets are there, everything I need in terms of motive and opportunity. The smallest tweak and it falls into place. At least I hope so. I'd better get writing and find out.

Friday 9 July 2010

Bad! science

I enjoyed listening to Blinded by Science on Radio 4 earlier this week, Tania Hershman stealing the show with her flash story and discussion around the benefits of bringing art and science closer together. But it got me thinking, tangentially, about Technology and the Whodunnit.

I read a fair amount of crime fiction, as you may imagine, since I'm writing a crime novel. One of my favourite authors is Jonathan Kellerman, who manages to write compelling characters, intricate plots, superb locations and surprising crimes. He's been at it since the mid-80s and is still going strong. His early novels are good but for my money he hit his stride in the mid-90s. His recent books, from 2000 onwards, aren't a patch on those written ten years ago, at least I don't think so. Part of the reason for this is that he's pared down his style to such an extent that it sometimes reads as if he's summarising instead of telling the story. The bigger part of the reason, though, is that his detectives "benefit" from modern technology. Not just forensics (Kellerman loves to bash the CSI school of police science) but everyday technology.

Mobile phones are the worst offenders. Every character always knows where every other character is at any given time. They can call for back-up, or just to pick the brains of a colleague. It's good to talk, apparently. Personally I preferred the days when the hero could become perilously isolated, his call for help delayed in transit or thwarted by a vandalised phonebox.

Then there's the research angle. Kellerman's hero is brilliant at hunting down clues, extrapolating, following his nose, trying out angles. Or, you know, putting words into Google and, erm, instantly eliminating multiple avenues of investigation. He used to risk his neck doing this stuff, now the biggest threat is RSI.

There's your detective novel done for, right there. RIP gumshoe hero.

Now I'm no Luddite. But sometimes I surprise in myself an idle wish for a satellite serial killer who will do for modern technology what the Millennium Bug was meant to do. Just, you know, so my heroes (and those of others) could have something more exciting to do all day than go online and run up a massive Orange network bill.

I wonder if this thought is behind the recent fascination with historial crime? A return to the good old days when heroes could be baffled and blind-alleyed, and had to work their socks (or clocked-stockings) off to get their man? I expect so.

The silver lining, as I see it? Logically, since modes of investigation are becoming limited and less random, that which differentiates one author from another and one book from the rest, should be characterisation.

You can lead a man to Google, but you can't make him think. The way in which he does that is in the hands of the author, regardless of who owns the network.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Proper words in proper places

If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing (Kingsley Amis)

Every word written is a victory against death (Michel Butor)

All romances end in tragedy. One of the key people in a romance becomes a monster sooner or later (David Cronenberg)

There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia (Kurt Vonnegut)

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people (Thomas Mann)

I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten - happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another (Brenda Ueland)

I never want to see anyone, and I never want to go anywhere or do anything. I just want to write (P. G. Wodehouse)

Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats (Howard Aiken)

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what he thinks about dogs (Christopher Hampton)

It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends (Samuel Johnson)

Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style (Jonathan Swift)

Over to you!