FlashBack Feature: Interview with Nuala O’Connor
Author of Eleanor’s Last
We are absolutely delighted to present our first feature interview, in which historical flash virtuosa Nuala O’Connor talks with us about flash, historical fiction, Eleanor’s Last, and her soon-to-be-released historical novel, Becoming Belle.
‘Eleanor’s Last’ is a masterclass in voice, nuance and compression. What inspired you to write this piece? Was it based on a real person or incident?
I wanted to send something in to FlashBack and I had nothing available, so I wrote this for the journal. I write obsessively about fertility and motherhood so I guess it just arose out of those personal interests. I’ve always loved the name Gabriel and have used it in other stories. It came as most of my flash come: as a gifted first line that I then tease out. So there was no inspiration, just exploration.
How much research went into writing ‘Eleanor’s Last’? How much of that ended up on the page? Were there any interesting aspects of your research or elements of earlier drafts that didn’t make it to the final draft?
It was a no research piece, initially, then I did a little research on archaic abortion methods. Not all historic flash needs research, especially when it’s about universal things, or personally experienced things, like pregnancy loss. Some flash require post-research just to make sure the details are right, or that there are no anachronisms.
You write novels, short stories and poetry as well as flash fiction. Do you feel your flash influences your other writing? Does you other writing inform your flash? How so?
I hardly ever write poems anymore, they seem to have fled me. Flash fills the poetry gap, more and more. My novel chapters tend to be short so I see the influence of flash in them. But I’ve always been a succinct, concise writer; I tend not to do long. My editors would prefer if I wrote long chapters and long novels, but it’s not really my thing, though my novels are getting naturally longer but that’s more to do with the subject matter. My novel Becoming Belle, out in September, is 40k longer now that it was when I subbed it to my editors. They had me lengthen it.
Your historical novel Becoming Belle is coming out in August 2018 and tells the story of Isabel Bilton, a woman who lived in Victorian London in the late 1800s. Foyles online bookstore lists it in two categories, both Fiction & Poetry: Historical Adventure and Biography: history, political & military. How do you feel about these labels? Where is the line between historical fiction and creative non-fiction?
Becoming Belle is a work of biographical fiction in that it’s based on a real woman. I like to take the thin, known facts of a life and elaborate on them, but within the parameters of what’s out there. I’m not in the business of inventing completely outrageous happenings for lives I want to highlight. I prefer to find the drama in the life as it was lived, with some small, credible invention for drama and narrative thrust.
When writing historical fiction, how important is historical accuracy to you? Which aspects of a piece do you feel comfortable fictionalising and which aspects do you feel compelled to represent as accurately as possible?
You generally have to invent the interior life and the home life as these are usually not recorded. I like to stick to historic timelines and events that happened and embellish a bit. There’s more freedom in inventing your characters but there’s a peculiar joy in resurrecting forgotten women, for me.
Could you tell us a bit about how you go about writing historical flash? How do you approach research when writing in such a condensed form? How do you balance the use of period-specific language with the need to make the language clear to a contemporary reader?
I never do much research for flash, though my novel research will often inspire a flash, maybe just a nice word or an interesting tit-bit that won’t fit in the novel. I think the language has to give the flavour of an era and/or place, but it shouldn’t be impenetrable. The odd historic word or turn of phrase is preferable.
On Saturday, 21 July, you’re giving a workshop on historical flash fiction at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol. For those who can’t make it, what advice would you give to writers who are reasonably new to historical flash?
Your flash will grow from your passion and interests but you can guide those by reading about social history, or the biographies of specific people, in order to set off a spark. Don’t worry about research, you can deal with historical accuracy at the editing stage.
Do you have any other workshops or events planned that would be of particular interested to historical flash fiction writers or readers?
I’m teaching a one day flash course at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin in November and at Arvon the same month. Both those workshops will touch on the historic at points. I’ll be doing lots of events for Becoming Belle and what holds true for writing historical novels also holds true for flash, so people can come and listen to the readings and Q&A’s at the events listed on my website.
What are some of your favourite historical flash pieces? What writers of historical flash would you recommend? Were there any authors or pieces (flash or otherwise) who inspired you when you were first starting out?
I love Robert Olen Butler’s flash, he writes the historic beautifully; I’m a big fan of his books Severance and Intercourse. I find I have to dig around to find historic flash that excites me, they’re rare little diamonds. Poets are often brilliant writers of historical flash, people like Aidan Rooney; more poets could embrace the form. I’ve always loved fragments and short narratives, writers like Ivor Cutler, Kafka, Chekhov, Lydia Davis, Grace Paley. More recently Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie were flash heroines when I was really committing to flash as a form.
Finally, what’s next for you after the release of Becoming Belle?
I’m working on novel #5 (a big fat secret for now) and writing a commissioned story for a BBC project and thinking of putting together another flash collection because that’s such a joyful thing.
And thank you for talking to us! Best wishes for a successful release of Becoming Belle!
Thank you so much!
If you’d like to hear more from Nuala, she’ll be giving a workshop on Flashing Historically as well as talking to FlashBack editors Ingrid Jendrzejewski and Sharon Telfer about historical flash at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol. You can also catch her at one of her many forthcoming readings and events.
Nuala O’Connor lives in Galway, Ireland. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in 2017; her story ‘Consolata’ from that collection was shortlisted for Short Story of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, is published in 2018. www.nualaoconnor.com
Image courtesy of mh-grafik via PixelBay.