Danielle McLaughlin

An Interview with Danielle McLaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin’s stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines such as The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, The South Circular, Southword, The Penny Dreadful, Long Story Short and The New Yorker. She is currently Editor for Short Stories in English at Southword Journal. Her debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs on Other Planets is published by The Stinging Fly Press, and in the UK (John Murray), US (Random House) and Germany (Luchterhand) in 2016.

Laura Kenwright: Can you speak of the editorial process you experienced with ‘Dinosaurs…’? Your collection strikes me as an extremely fine-tuned one.

Danielle McLaughlin: I’m very fortunate that I have a number of people who give me feedback on my work at various stages of the process. I’m a member of a writing group, so all the stories in the collection went in the first instance to my group to be critiqued. After that, I did re-writes and, depending on the extent of the changes made, sometimes I brought the stories back to writing group again for further feedback. I see from my files that one story I struggled with over a couple of years got sent to my group on five separate occasions. After that, the stories went to my editor, Declan Meade, and also to my agent Lucy Luck, and then I did more re-writes as necessary, sometimes making small changes, other times very large ones. John, my husband, also read all the stories before they were finalised. Even when the stories were finished and we were moving towards publication date, every time I read them I’d see something I wanted to tweak, some clunky phrase or a word repetition. That has to stop at some point, of course, you just have to let the book go, but even this weekend, when I was reading over proofs for another edition, I found myself thinking, hmm, I wonder if a different word should go there. I’m not sure it’s an efficient use of time, but that’s how it is.

What new writers are you reading and enjoying?

There’s been so many impressive new writers in 2015, some really great debuts this year. To mention just a few: I loved Paula McGrath’s novel Generation and Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume, and short story collections by Thomas Morris, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, and Jessie Greengrass, An account of the decline of the Great Auk according to one who saw it.  Also loved Clasp, Doireann Ní Ghriofa’s first collection of poems in English. I’ve recently bought Sifting by Mike Mac Domhnaill and Dublin 7 by Frankie Gaffney and am looking forward to starting those. I’m currently reading and enjoying Snapshots by Michael O’Higgins and The Space Between, Kate Dempsey’s excellent poetry collection.  Lots of exciting very new writers coming through in the journals also, like Sally Rooney who has a story in Issue 1 of Winter Pages and Sam Coll who has an extract of his upcoming debut novel in the Winter Issue of Stinging Fly.

Who are your biggest influences, in literature, culture, life…?

Alice Munro, Kevin Barry, William Trevor, Flannery O’Connor, Anne Enright are some of the writers whose work has made a big impression on me. I admire the way they tell  great stories in beautiful vibrant language, I admire their attention to language, the joy they take in it. And the way they can mix darkness with humour. Lately I’ve been wowed by the work of writers who experiment with form or structure, writers like Claire Louise Bennett and Jenny Offill, for example. All kinds of things influence us as writers, I think, and filter into our work in different ways, whether we realise it or not. My old job as a lawyer, for example, with its dramas and its focus on words, on language, all those law reports I read over the years, the unfolding of stories in court – that has influenced my writing. My family owned a pub when I was young, and I used work there, so I’m sure that must have had its influences too. My writing is also influenced by the place where I live, by the times that I live in, my responses to social and political matters, my experiences of motherhood, etc, though often these things find their way into my work via very convoluted routes.

How did your involvement with The New Yorker occur?

I used to enter a lot of writing competitions, they were a great way of setting deadlines for myself and it was always a big encouragement to be placed, or to make the long/shortlists. My first publication in the New Yorker came about through entering a writing competition, The Davy Byrnes Award, in 2014.  I didn’t win – Sara Baume, who’s since published the hugely acclaimed Spill Simmer Falter Wither, won – but I was one of six writers shortlisted and the New Yorker read the shortlist. So that was how ‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’, the title story from my collection, came to be published in September 2014. And I was amazed and delighted when they accepted another story, ‘In The Act Of Falling’, earlier this year.

Your collection deals with some highly sensitive subjects (affairs, mental breakdowns, alcoholism for example). What draws you to these difficult subjects? 

The short answer is that I’m not entirely sure. Some things in my stories stem from aspects of my own experience and my own fears that I’ve fictionalised and woven into stories. I’m drawn to explore characters who find themselves apart from others, apart from the world, for whatever reason; characters who aren’t coping, who are on an edge of some sort, who find the world a strange and frightening place that can only be negotiated with difficulty. I also allow things to be inflicted upon my characters, perhaps as a means of observing how they react under pressure. I say ‘perhaps’ because usually it’s not a thing that I will set out to do as part of a grand scheme at the beginning, it’s just the way the stories tend to unfold. Characters under pressure make for more interesting characters, I think. Well-adjusted people being kind and mutually supportive are all well and good in life, but they’re pretty useless in fiction.

I heard Kevin Barry talk on Radio 4 about how he thinks Irish literature is going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment. What are your thoughts on this?

I think there’s a real sense of the possible in Irish fiction at the moment; there’s lots of exciting new work being produced, a lot of writers taking risks with their writing, new writers emerging all the time. I think the strength of the lit mag scene in Ireland has played a big part in that. There are lots of places publishing new writing, there are editors and publishers committed to working with new writers. Writers aren’t just writing and shoving the pages under the bed, or worse into the bin, they are writing and sending their writing out. There’s a reality to getting your work published, a reality to the prospect of finding readers. And I think this encourages writers, not just to send the work out, but also to stick with it long enough to learn the craft.

Which character in your collection are you most fond of and why?

That’s a tough question! I think Louise in ‘The Smell of Dead Flowers’. She’s one of the younger characters in the collection, and I think her youth leads me to be more forgiving of her. It’s like I’m prepared to make excuses for her on the basis that she couldn’t be expected to know any better. She’s very innocent in ways. I think that because she’s young, I’m not as hard on her as I am on some of the older characters in the collection. I accept that my older characters are all struggling in various ways, of course, and I try not blame them, but all the same, I do sometimes find myself going: ‘What on earth were you thinking of there? Haven’t you learned anything, at this hour of your life?’

What happened to the stories that were discounted from this collection and will we ever be able to read them?

A change occurred in my writing sometime around 2013 or thereabouts, when I embraced writing longer stories, and also learned how to incorporate autobiographical elements into my work. The stories written over the past two years seem to me to be different to the earlier stories. If I took one of the earlier stories and dropped it into the collection, it would look really out of place. Which isn’t to say that I’m sorry I published the earlier ones. I’m grateful to the magazines and newspapers that gave them space, awarded them prizes, and grateful too for the encouragement that publication brought. A couple of earlier, shorter stories can be read online at Southword magazine, and a couple of others were published online at The Irish Times.

What do you find most joyful about being a writer? And conversely (/predictably) what do you find most challenging?

It’s a joy to make up stories for a living, to do something that I love and get paid for it. There’s no such thing as boredom. The thing that I like to do in my time off – writing and reading – is actually my job.

One of the challenges is trying to manage the extent to which writing takes over my life to such a huge degree, to try and balance writing with other aspects of my life. Another challenge is trying to manage the creative drain that comes from the more public aspects of the job. I’m suited to the writing part of being a writer, but the rest of it takes getting used to: the public events, the social occasions, the on-stage performances, the trying to speak coherently about things I barely understand myself.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a number of new stories at the moment, and working on a novel that grew out of something I’d attempted to write as a short story, in various versions, over a number of years. I’m also very excited about an anthology project for next year that I’m currently working on.