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Clever, Very: Nuala O’Connor

Recently, Nuala O’Connor won The JJQ’s fiction contest, which asked participants to submit their own version of the short story titled “Ulysses” that Joyce briefly considered adding to Dubliners.  Her prize-winning entry appears in JJQ 55.1-2. As part of our ongoing “Clever, Very” series, we interviewed Ms. O’Connor about her contribution, and about her writing more broadly. She is the author of four novels, six short story collections, and four books of poetry. “Gooseen,” about Nora Barnacle, won the UK’s 2018 Short Fiction Prize, was published in Granta, and was shortlisted for Story of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. Currently, O’Connor is currently writing a novel based on the life of Nora Barnacle.

James Joyce Quarterly- There are references to Joyce and his work throughout your writing. Could you tell us a bit about how you first encountered Joyce and discuss the impact that he’s had on you as an artist?

Nuala O’Connor- I grew up in County Dublin, in the Liffey Valley, not far from Chapelizod; the bus I took to school in the city centre went over the Anna Livia Bridge, passed the Mullingar House, and, later on its journey, the House of the Dead. So, Joyce has always been around me. He felt like one of us – I too am half Murray, but haven’t found a link with Joyce’s mother, sadly – but what I mean is, even though he was famous, he felt like one of us, he spoke the language of my people, his scenarios were very recognisable to me, they seemed current, though I grew up in the seventies and eighties.

Also my parents collect books of Irish interest, so there were always copies of Portrait, Dubliners, etc. to hand at home. When I got serious about writing, Joyce was one of the people I looked to and continue to look to. I’m a fan of black humour and word bending and I always enjoy Joyce’s playfulness.

When the Irish Writers’ Centre approached me to rewrite a chapter of Ulysses for the twenty-first century I chose the Penelope episode. In my reworking, ‘Penny and Leo and Married Bliss,’ there’s Penny, stuck in a Dublin suburb and contemplating an affair with the local priest, while deciding whether or not to make dippy eggs for her hungover husband. Penny’s voice was a joy to invent, using Molly as inspiration and guide. But, with a tight word-count, I could only write so much. For my last short story collection, Joyride to Jupiter, my editor recommended that I flesh out the story and I happily obliged.

And now, of course, I’ve been steeped in Nora Barnacle (and beloved Jim) for nearly two years, researching, and writing a novel about her, provisionally titled Barnacle. That has been, and continues to be, a joy.

JJQ– Could you tell us a little bit about how you approached the topic of reconstructing or reinventing the “Ulysses” story that Joyce supposedly abandoned? Did you attempt to write your submission as you think Joyce would have written it, or did you try to write a Joycean narrative in your own style?

O’Connor- I tried to ape Joyce’s style in Dubliners, the sort of clipped, factual nature of some of what he writes and the more colloqial parts when people have conversations. It was enormous fun as a challenge, and I wrote it organically, not planning very much. I live in Galway and am from Dublin, so I feel I have an ear for the speech in both places. I tried to weave in recognisable Joycean titbits; such as the Nora and Uncle Tommy episode, the little we know of Alfred Hunter and his Marion, Nora’s self-possessed carriage when she met Joyce, Broderick as baker like Mr Barnacle.

JJQ– In your story, the narrative focuses primarily on male characters, yet the narrative seems to be driven by women whose voices are largely absent. Why is that, and was this a conscious decision on your part?

O’Connor- The first image that came to me was a Galwayman – Mr Broderick – on the Dublin quays, slightly awed, making his way to find his daughter (an imagined amalgamation of Uncle Tommy and Mr Barnacle). I wasn’t sure if he’d find or accost her, so I just rambled with him and the story seemed to unfold by itself, with just a few questioning prods from me. It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision to have a bunch of silent women – I write a mix of male and female voices in my short fiction, whereas my novels are all female-voiced. But stories find themselves as you write them, in my experience, and my “Ulysses” unfolded that way and it seemed to work.

JJQ– Why do you think that people should read Joyce, either within or outside of an academic setting?  How do you think our understanding of his work has changed and why do you find yourself returning to his life so often in your own art?

O’Connor- Oh, readers are missing out if they ignore Joyce. He’s such a beautiful, careful, and humorous writer. I definitely think people are put off by the conversations surrounding the difficulties of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. It’s not that they’re easy books, but there’s a lot to recognise, enjoy, and celebrate even in the Wake, which is, it must be said, a challenge. But a gorgeous one.

The writer and the life should be separate, but we’re nosy creatures, and it’s fascinating to read Joyce having looked at his life, and his plans and hopes for his works. That, for me, helps my own understanding and appreciation. It still gobsmacks me that he was in his early twenties when he wrote Dubliners. Imagine writing ‘The Dead’ at twenty! It’s mind-shattering.

JJQ– Finally, tell us more about your latest novel, Barnacle, and the decision to write about Nora.  What drew you to her as a character? How have you gone about learning more about her life?  And what surprised you the most about her?

O’Connor- I was studying Italian by night and had to write an essay about Joyce’s friendship with Italo Svevo and got really into it. Around the same time, we rescued a one-eyed cat and I called her Nora Barnacle. I’d loved Brenda Maddox’s Nora when it came out, and often thought about this wonderful feisty Galway woman who became a true European as well as a patient, enduring muse. The idea occurred to me to write about her, but much like when I began to write my novel about Emily Dickinson, I thought ‘This is too audacious. The scholars will bay for my blood.’ But, I got over that quickly and wrote my short story ‘Gooseen,’ which was well received, just carried on, and here we are. I’m in Paris as I talk to you, I’m writer-in-residence at the Centre Culturel Irlandais for a month, and I’m working on the novel here while trotting around some of the Joyces’ nineteen addresses and various other haunts.

I suppose what surprised me about Nora was that she put up with their peripatetic life. I mean, I know she didn’t love it, and she complained and threatened to go back to Ireland, but she stuck with Joyce through all those moves, and never did get that permanent home that she longed for. I was at their grave in Zürich recently, and it struck me that John Joyce was right, Nora really did ‘stick with him,’ right to the very end.