Last week I read Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s Nude, and I really enjoyed it – more than I thought I would to be honest. It’s a collection of short stories about art, nakedness and, well, sex (of sorts), and not the thing I’d normally go for. But I loved it, loved that the stories are stories in their own right and very, very good at that. It’s great being exposed to new things and finding out that I really like them.
And it’s with great pleasure that I welcome Nude’s author, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, to my place to answer some questions…
Welcome to the blog, Nuala. Can you start by telling us a little about your latest collection of short stories, Nude?
Thanks Nik, I’m delighted to be here. Nude is so-called because each of the stories features an unclothed body, mostly in the world of art but sometimes as a lover. The stories are set in Ireland but also Paris, England, Austria, India, Spain…I like to travel as I write; writing about exotic locations keeps me interested.
Who is it for? Do you have an audience or reader in mind?
I never have an audience in mind, no ‘ideal reader’ but I hope readers of contemporary literary fiction will like it. Also art lovers and artists. If all the people who loved Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring bought and read it that would be cool too – I just know they’d enjoy it!!
And a little about you. Who is Nuala Ní Chonchúir (and what a terrific name)?
I’m a full time writer and mother of three – I went full time five years ago and it has paid off in terms of successes with publishing and in lit comps, if not in financial terms. Yet. All of my jobs before writing all the time involved books: bookseller, translator, library assistant, arts administrator in a Writers’ Centre etc. It is practically impossible to live off writing; I earn shockingly little. Luckily my fiancé has a job and he supports us.
My unpronounceable surname is the Irish for ‘O’Connor’. I was educated in Irish language schools and just kept the Irish form of my name afterwards.
Many of the stories in Nude are about art. How do you think literature and art dovetail?
They can feed off each other; one art form inspires the other. I have met so many writers who also paint; lots of my writer friends love art galleries and are obsessive about visual art. Creativity is like a personality trait – invariably the people who thrived in English class at school also loved art class. I’m fascinated by any type of creativity – I think people who can write good songs, for example, are amazing; I always wonder how they do that.
Many of the stories also deal with desire and temptation. Do you think that the temptation of sex is temptation in its purest form?
Oh God, I don’t know! What about food? Isn’t food more of a temptation because we actually need it? Do we really need sex? Some people manage celibacy. Am I changing the subject?! I guess many of the characters in Nude give in to temptation, not truly analysing the consequences for them or others. That’s the beauty of fiction – you can make your characters do crazy things without any danger to yourself.
What’s the difference between nakedness and nudity?
Nudity as we consider it in Western society is a posturing thing. John Berger gave me permission to use a quote from his fabulous book Ways of Seeing, to preface the stories: ‘Nudity is a form of dress’. I was really struck by that.
The narrator in the story ‘As I Look’ in Nude has the following to say on the subject: “Naked and nude are two different things, you know. Naked means unprotected or bare, stripped or destitute. Nude means unclothed, or being without the usual coverings. Think about it. There are a lot of nude ladies in this gallery, but are they really naked? I mean, are they actually naked, as opposed to nude? Being nude is a beautiful thing (supposedly), but to be naked is to be exposed.”
Is a picture worth a thousand words?
It can be. Artists can say so much in a painting, a lot that we won’t necessarily understand as viewers. It’s like dropping a secret reference into a story; it makes you smile to know it’s there but most people won’t even notice it, though you would hope that someone might. I’m sure it’s like that for visual artists too – they will reference painters they admire, incidents from their lives etc but maybe all we see is a picture of a landscape and its beauty.
A couple of the stories in Nude are set in the past; how do you think attitudes to sex and the body have changed over the years?
Levels of prudishness change with the generations. We’re still repressed in Ireland. Even now we are in the grips of the hangover from all that the Church, in collusion with the State, did wrong. Freely expressed sexuality is not a norm in Ireland. Edna O’Brien’s book The Country Girls, which is such an innocent read, was banned in the sixties because the female characters had sex outside marriage.
Ireland shot forward very quickly recently in an attempt to catch up with the modern world – it’s left people confused about expressing their sexuality. We’re still a bit gobsmacked by permissiveness, I reckon. That’s to do with a type of Catholic conservatism that I, and many of my peers, object to.
Some people – like my Ma – are a bit scandalised by how much I write about sexual matters. I think she hopes it’s just a phase!
What do you find difficult when writing about sex?
The actual description of it – I end up repeating a lot of the same words and phrases in different stories, then I have to go back and change them. I keep it brief and suggestive, rather than explicit. A lot of my stories are 1st person POV, so it’s usually about how one person is feeling as opposed to descriptions of the ‘mechanics’! It’s hard to write about sex – no doubt about it!
And writing about art in fiction?
I just love it; I find it so easy to get an idea for a story or poem from visual art. I love paintings and sculpture; I’m interested in the whole process of making art, from inspiration to models to artist. I try to explore that in the stories in Nude, looking at the making of art from different angles. One of them is even from the POV of the figure in the painting. (‘Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We Are Not Fake!’)
What’s your writing process?
I forget! I’ve just had a baby (10 weeks ago) and I’m not really writing at all, I’m spread too thin. I’ve sort of edited three half-written poems into existence since she’s been born and kept my blog and made a few notes for the only story I have on the go – the same one since March. (March!)
I think the process changes as your life evolves. I used to be very prolific but I’ve slowed down enormously in recent years. That’s why I founded a Peer Group in January of fifteen professional writers. We meet once a month and workshop our work – they are all brilliant and I need that group to keep me producing.
The good thing is that the work I wrote when I was writing a lot is now being published so I am doing plenty of readings and promotional stuff. I’ll get back to writing more at some point soon, I hope.
What’s wrong with most art nowadays?
Gosh, it would be hard to generalise, there is so much art being produced. Maybe, like books, there is too much samey, lowest-common denominator art out there. That cheapens it.
How does Nude compare with your other work?
I think it’s pretty similar in style and I’ve written about art before, but I hope it’s better work. Writing is a never-ending apprenticeship and I learn new things about it every year. Hopefully that brings improvements to my writing.
You’re a poet as well as a short story writer. Which comes more naturally to you and why?
I’ve been writing poetry longer but I’m more passionate about fiction, especially short fiction. Stories are harder to write than poems – harder to get right – but they are my preferred form.
What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
My two sons’ welcoming smiles for their new baby sister.
In art, Manet’s painting ‘Olympia’.
What’s next for you?
A virtual tour and several launches for Nude; publication of a poetry pamphlet of 24 poems from Templar in October and hopefully a full collection with them next year. And something exciting that I’m not allowed talk about yet.
Anything you’d like to add?
Just a big thank you, Nik, for having me round at yours – I always enjoy your interviews and I’m delighted to be the interviewee. And I wish you well with all of your writing – may your ink flow!
Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in County Galway, Ireland. Her third short fiction collection Nude will be published by Salt in September 2009. She has poems and an essay in The Watchful Heart – A New Generation of Irish Poets, edited by Joan McBreen (Salmon, 2009). Nuala was chosen by The Irish Times as a writer to watch in 2009; she has won many short fiction prizes including the Cúirt New Writing Prize, RTÉ radio’s Francis MacManus Award, the inaugural Jonathan Swift Award and the Cecil Day Lewis Award.
She was recently shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature and she was one of four winners of the Templar Poetry Pamphlet and Collection competition. Her pamphlet Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car will be published in October. Website:www.nualanichonchuir.com