Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway County. Her début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times and ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner. Her third short story collection Nude (Salt, 2009)) was shortlisted for the UK’s Edge Hill Prize; her third poetry collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her second short story collection To The World of Men, Welcome has just been re-issued by Arlen House in an expanded paperback edition. Nuala has recently completed her second novel.
At a short story conference in Toronto in 2010, I heard the supreme Canadian novelist and short story writer Alistair MacLeod say this: ‘In order to write you have to have language and you have to have leisure. You have to have a place to sit.’
Well, we all have language and, as writers, we are probably in love with it on many levels: as readers, as observers and as people who like to bend it to our own use. My childhood was steeped in language – my father was (and is) an accomplished oral storyteller. He was unafraid of both the colloquial and the learned phrase, and all of it was put to use in the stories he told and invented.
And I read, hungrily and without discrimination. All of the good writers I know are readers. Big readers. They read like vultures, devouring the words and picking out the juiciest bits to savour. Writers delight in language, whether they are stylists like Annie Proulx, or fans of the clean, clear sentence like Yiyun Li.
Leisure. It’s a word that has connotations of idleness which I know Alistair MacLeod did not mean. What he meant was you have to either find, or create, space to write. If you want to succeed as a writer and by that I mean if you hope to get the words down and get them published, you have to make the time to write. Novels are written one word at a time, over long periods of time. It generally takes me about a year to complete a novel; it took Arundhati Roy ten years to write The God of Small Things.
I always tell my Creative Writing students that writing is a vocation and you have to be dedicated. The nuns who taught me at secondary school often talked to us about vocations; they were hoping, I suppose, that some of us would veil up and replace them. One nun told us you would know you had a vocation because it would be whispered in your ear. I waited for that whisper: the idea of being a nun appealed to me as much as it appalled me. All that solitude! All that solitude…The call from Jesus or whomever never did come my way, but from a young age, someone or something persistently whispered in my ear: ‘You want to write’. Someone or something was handing me my vocation: ‘You want to write’.
And because I wanted to write, I had to find a way to gain leisure. A soon as I realised this was what I wanted to do, I switched to part-time work. When I had two books published, I left the workplace and began to write full-time. Well, as full-time as you can with two kids. Now with a third child, I have to buy my leisure. Ten and a half hours of it a week, at a cost of €208 a month. That’s the price of my daughter’s three-morning-a-week crèche place and that is what we as a family can afford for me to write.
So what of a place to sit? Well, for me, novel writing means routine – welcome routine – and in order to use my precious ten and a half hours a week fruitfully, I like to come back to the same place, so that I can pick up where I left off with ease. I have a study but it is the coldest room in the house so I abandoned it in favour of a warm corner of the dining room. Here sits my desk and computer, bookshelf, printer and lamp, and that’s pretty much all I need.
It sounds so simple: ‘language, leisure and a place to sit’ and it is simple in that it makes absolute sense. For novelists starting out their biggest complaint is always the lack of leisure time, time to get the work done. But I urge anyone who is serious about writing that first novel to carve out time from their life by any means – the language and the place to sit will fall into place, once you create the leisure.