Nuala O’Connor: a flash interview

Nuala O'Connor photo by Úna O'Connor

1. You write both contemporary and historical fiction. Could you tell us some of the challenges you’ve faced in using real people as the inspiration for your characters?

The challenges usually come from other people. By the time I’m writing about a real-life character, I’ve already gotten over any audacity I may have felt when inspired to use them fictionally. But relatives of the person, naturally feel that they ‘own’ the person/character and are often wary of how you’ll present them. Ditto scholars, if the person was a writer. Every fictional story has villains and inevitably, with biographical fiction, some of those villains are real people. For example, in my novel about Emily Dickinson, Miss Emily, I painted her brother Austin quite darkly. In real life he was eccentric, but I also made him actively boorish and racist, for fictional drama. Some Dickinson fans and scholars were uncomfortable with that – though there was truth in my portrayal – and other fictional choices I made. That’s the nature of writing bio-fiction. I imagine when my Nora Barnacle novel comes out the Joyce fans and scholars – there are a lot of them – might be hopping. C’est la vie.

2. Your latest novel Becoming Belle is based on dancer Belle Bilton. What was it about Belle that captured your imagination?

When I first heard of Belle, I became fascinated with the notion of a beautiful young dancer/actress swapping the delights of bohemian London for life in rural Galway and, by all accounts, thriving. Of course, when I looked into it, there was much more to Belle’s life than could be seen on the surface. The more I discovered, the more I realised her life was unusual for her era and that she survived many blows. She was a proto-feminist – she wanted to progress, to throw off her early life and become ‘someone’; she wanted to be seen and heard and she worked hard for financial independence. I loved her courage and I wanted to get to know her more deeply by writing her story.

3. I know it’s like choosing between your children, but if you could recommend just one of your books to a readership, which would it be and why?

I suppose I’m very fond of my semi-autobiographical novel The Closet of Savage Mementos (New Island, 2014). It’s set in the Scottish Highlands, mostly, in 1991 and in 2011, and it’s about Lillis Yourell, a young Irish woman who moves to the Highlands, gets pregnant by an older man and the choices she makes about her baby son. It’s closely based on my own experience though I made different choices to Lillis. It’s about the ways the past influence the present, grief, single motherhood, love, family woes – all the big stuff. I loved writing it and I’m proud of the novel in a way that’s kind of deep for me. Mostly I don’t much like what I write but The Closet of Savage Mementos feels different and the publishing experience with New Island was fantastic too. That always helps!

Nuala is taking part in our event Strangers in a Strange Land on Sunday 29th September @ 13.00 in Bray Town Hall along with writers Mary Costello and Oisin Fagan.

Photo by Una O’ Connor

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