FlashBack Feature: Catching Up with Nuala O’Connor
Author of Ébauche, Esquisse, Étude, Tableau
We’ll be back next autumn with our ninth season of historical flash, but in the meantime, we’re spending the week celebrating Nuala O’Connor’s new collection of historical flash, birdie. Nuala first talked to us in 2018, and we’re delighted to catch up with her about her newest FlashBack story, Ébauche, Esquisse, Étude, Tableau (which features in birdie), as well as her recent and forthcoming projects.
What inspired you to write ‘Ébauche, Esquisse, Étude, Tableau’? Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?
The piece is a few years old, so I don’t remember the ‘I’m-going-to-write-this’ moment, but I’ve been a Matisse fan for a long time. I love his monumental female figures and his bold colours. Like many artists, his personal life was complicated, but the early part of his marriage to Amélie Parayre seems to have been a happy time, and I wanted to write about that. I like playfulness in form, so the titled sections were there from the start.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I tend to just do a swift peek, when it comes to research. Enough to get me interested, but not so much that the story feels fact-swamped. I love research, though, which is probably the reason I write so much historical fiction. But for historical flash, I prefer a glance rather than a full-on glare. It suits the form to be a little squinty about the details.
I loved unearthing the fact that Amélie had a hat shop – such a sweet detail.
We published your piece ‘Eleanor’s Last’ in our first year of publication. What have you been up to since then?
My Victorian novel, Becoming Belle, about an English music hall dancer who became an Irish countess, was published in 2018. I finished a new novel, NORA, about Nora Barnacle, wife of James Joyce. It comes out in January 2021 in the USA and Ireland in spring 2021. Also publishing in German next year!
And this week saw the publication of birdie, which includes ‘Ébauche, Esquisse, Étude, Tableau’. Birdie is a collection of sixteen historical and out-of-time flash fiction, which I was able to write and compile because of a special Covid-19 Arts Award from the Irish Arts Council. That was a welcome treat and I had such fun putting the chapbook together; it’s been a genuine joy of a project. I planned it as a digital only project and a real bonus was Alan Hayes of Arlen House offering to make a physical copy.
Readers can buy birdie digitally or physically and all details of that are here: http://nualaoconnor.com/?p=768.
What has helped you keep writing and editing during this time of Covid-19? Do you think the pandemic has affected your writing in general, or this collection in particular?
It’s been a stressful time for everyone and our family has been under particular strain as my Da – sick in hospital – contracted Covid-19, and died at the end of July. So, the worry about him, and now grief – exacerbated by pandemic stress – has been difficult.
However, writing is one of the few things that calms and soothes me, so I have kept at it. I worked on birdie and on a longer historical piece about another feisty Irish historical woman. I haven’t written every day, but I’ve tipped along and that’s been helpful. I’ve also been working on more essays, just trying to make sense of all the strands of my life. I turned fifty this year and that felt big; with my father’s death, I now have larger things on my mind.
Your novel NORA about Nora Barnacle is being released by Harper Collins USA in early 2021 and in Ireland in spring 2021. Can you tell us a little something about Nora and what attracted you to her story? What is your favourite piece of Nora ephemera in your collection?
NORA is Nora’s point of view, a close portrait of the artist’s wife, and it shows the invisible supports without which great art can’t be made. Without Nora’s steady hand to Joyce’s back, there wouldn’t have been a Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Nora was muse and rock to Joyce, and he couldn’t live, or write, without her. A chance encounter changed both their lives and the novel shows the ways love grows, settles, and shifts throughout a long union; it’s a story of resilience, and the way a so-called ordinary woman can be powerful and extraordinary.
As for ephemera, a writer friend – Niamh Boyce – had a Nora art-doll made for me, and she sits over my desk like a queen. I love her!
What is next on the horizon for you?
I’ll try to complete the historical novella or novel I’m working on (I’m not sure what it is yet) and I hope to get to that contemporary novel that has been swirling in my mind for years.
And I’ll edit Splonk (subs open 14th August for one month!) and generally just get on with it.
Odalisque with the Red Coat by Henri Matisse (1937), via @lonequixote.