Irish writer Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s fourth short story collection Mother America has just been published by New Island: “In Mother America and other stories mothers tattoo their children and abduct them; they act as surrogates and they use charms to cure childhood illnesses. The story ‘Letters‘ sees an Irish mother cling to love of her son, though he abandoned her in New York, where loneliness is alleviated only by letters she cannot read. In ‘Queen of Tattoo‘, Lydia, the tattooed lady from the Groucho Marx song, tries to understand why her son is a bad man.
Set in Ireland and America, as well as Paris, Rome and Mexico, these stories map the lives of parents and the boundaries they cross. Ni Chonchuir’s sinewy prose dazzles as she exposes the follies of motherhood as well as its triumphs. Once again she spotlights the contradictions and fierce loves that shake up the life of the family.”
E: I’m intrigued by the collection’s name and its cover. Obviously the title is taken from the story of the same name. “Mother America” contains elements of the sacred and magical realism. Can you talk about the ways this story is representative of the collection as a whole? Also with regard to the stunning cover, there are elements, to quote from your story “When I Go Down, Go Down With Me” that could be described as “ugly-pretty.” Can you talk about how “ugly-pretty” might also be representative of the collection as a whole?
N: The story ‘Mother America’ touches on the major motifs in this collection of stories: religion, fear, how mothers and sons relate, and the influence of America on Ireland. Funnily enough the story pre-dates the rest of the stories by a number of years but I held it over as I thought the title would work well for a collection. I didn’t write the other stories because of it but themes of mothering and migration emerged over the three years or so this collection was written.
Life is ugly-pretty and that’s what interests me as a writer. I would rather write/read about the hard stuff and sensual things than hearts ‘n’ flowers. I think the cover does a great job of representing the book – it was my favourite of eight designs the publisher came up with; I just love that Kewpie doll!
E: There are a great number of countries and cultures, and various languages, represented in this collection. How intentional was that? How important is place to these stories and these characters?
N: It’s not intentional in the sense that I don’t make any plans when I write. Whatever emerges emerges. So if Mexico is what inspires me one day, and Galway the next, that is where I go. I love to travel and that comes out in my writing. I’ve been all over this year- Nebraska, Croatia, Liverpool, Arkansas etc.- and I’m off to Brazil in a couple of weeks, so travel is really important to me. And it’s the big bonus of being a writer- I get to go to a lot of cool places because of my work.
Place is very important in story- as I write I need to be firmly anchored in the physical place of the story. I’m not a fan of ambiguity in setting- I like to know where I am.
E: Despite its multiculturalism, the collection highlights our sameness rather than our differences and these characters share such commonalities as loss, rage, loneliness, and longing. I’m especially interested in the terrible choices many of these characters make and their often cruelties. As a writer, how hard is it to allow your characters act badly and make terrible, sometimes lethal, mistakes? How do you find empathy and compassion for what many might perceive as unlikeable characters? I’m especially thinking of the heartbreaking story “Cri de Coeur.”
N: If characters were infallible or perfect they wouldn’t be interesting to write or read about. There would be no story if something wasn’t going wrong. It’s interesting to place someone in a vulnerable situation and see how they act/react. As I said I don’t plan my stories, so I pop a character into a difficult situation and watch how they fare.
The people I meet in life are usually fairly likeable but also have unlikeable qualities. Some more than others! And the news is full of people doing awful, questionable things. So writing about people who do extreme things, like Assia in ‘Cri de Coeur’, who kills not just herself but her young daughter, doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch. She is a troubled but normal enough woman who makes a terrible choice.
E: You have a talent for opening sentences. Can you talk a little about your process? How do your stories start? How often is that gripping first line your starting point? Or do you only find that first line later in the process after say the characters or place or situation has already come to you?
N: With fiction, I usually start with a first line- it swings in my head until I write it down. Then I just see where it takes me. I have rarely changed the start of a story but I often fiddle with the endings. You know, leaving something for a week or two then coming back to rejig the end.
E: Betrayal is another theme that is threaded throughout the collection, largely betrayals of the body. Can you talk about the recurrence of cheating in this collection and of the other instances of betrayal, for example how Maud is betrayed by family in the opening story, “Peach.” There’s also that awful moment in “Peach” when Dominic holds the budgie and his response betrays Maud, and later in “When I Go Down, Go Down With Me” when the protagonist’s husband describes how he and his young lover sent up a Chinese lantern off the bridge. Also how so many characters in the collection are betrayed by their bodies through injury, infertility, aging, ‘ugliness,’ and miscarriage.
N: Yes, betrayal is a good word for all those things. It’s also to do with power and shifts of power and loss. Rising and sliding power can be a great kick off point for friction in a story. I’m interested in infidelity and its causes and what it can mean for a character, the helplessness it can induce. And, in my writing, I am pretty much obsessed with the body and with placing it to the forefront in the work, so that the reader feels the bodily experiences of the narrators almost as a physical thing. Those things you mention – injury, infertility, aging, ugliness and miscarriage- are things that occupy me, possess me, and so I write about them.
Your work challenges assumptions and shines light on often difficult subject matter such as maternal favoritism, female divisiveness, women’s lust, and sex crimes. How difficult are these stories to tell? Do you consider your work to be political? Feminist?
N: I don’t find them difficult things to write about, really. Though the mood of a story in progress sometimes affects my own mood. I explore my interests, and questions I have, through fiction. The work is political in the sense that I am a feminist and so I approach things from that POV. That doesn’t mean I’m polemical or that men necessarily come off badly- I am interested in all sides and in motivations. I write as many ugly women as men.
E: Do you have a favorite story from the collection? Why is it your favorite? If I’ve counted correctly, Mother America is your ninth book? How do you feel your work has changed over the course of those nine works? Do you have a favorite book from the nine? Again, going back to process, you are clearly prolific and have a vibrant imagination. How do you nourish your creative spirit and feed your imagination? What’s next for you, writing wise?
N: My favourite story from the collection is probably ‘Peach’ because I remember while writing it feeling it was coming together in a pleasing way. When it did well for me (winning the Jane Geske Award and being nommed for a Pushcart) I was happy.
I think my concerns have been the same over the nine books: woman and the body and wonky familial relationships, particularly lovers. I hope my writing is improving though- I am always learning how to write well from reading others.
I think my s/s collection Nude might be my favourite of my books- I am fond of it for a few reasons. I think it works well as a cohesive work.
I nourish my creativity through reading and travel- they are two great passions. If I could sit reading the likes of Anthony Doerr, Flannery O’Connor, John McGahern, Dermot Healy, Anne Enright and Annie Proulx in a little room in Manhattan or Paris, I’d be content. But I always like to go home too.
Writing wise, I have completed a new novel (contemporary), I’m starting another (historical), and I’m writing stories all the time.
This is the last stop on my virtual tour for Mother America. Thanks, Ethel for making it a good one.
Nuala Ni Chonchuir is a short story writer, novelist and poet, born in Dublin in 1970 and living in Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published this month by New Island. Nuala’s story ‘Peach’, in the Winter 2011 issue of Prairie Schooner, won the Jane Geske Award and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.www.nualanichonchuir.com