Saturday, January 9, 2021

Q&A with Nuala O'Connor


Photo by Una O'Connor

Nuala O'Connor is the author of the new novel Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce. Her other books include Becoming Belle. She is the editor of the flash e-zine Splonk, and she lives in County Galway, Ireland.


Q: Why did you decide to write about Nora Barnacle in your new novel?


A: I moved to Galway, Nora Barnacle’s hometown, from Dublin (Joyce’s hometown) in my mid-20s. I was looking for a fresh start and recognised Nora as a kindred spirit. She didn’t want to be repressed by the Catholic Church, so she eloped with her beloved Jim into the unknown.


Joyce looms large in Ireland, particularly for writers, and I wanted to explore why earthy Nora charmed him so. Obviously, he fell for her sensuality, musical sentences and personal ease, but I wanted to explore how they fared through the long years of their wander around Europe. How the relationship matured when they became parents, how they got through the wars, Joyce’s burgeoning fame, etc.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read all the famous bios (Ellmann on Joyce, Maddox on Nora) and some of the obscure ones. I travelled to the places the Joyces lived – Trieste, Zürich and Paris – for on-the-ground research, getting a feel for the atmosphere they enjoyed, the buildings they lived in, and cafés they ate in.


And I thought a lot about what life might feel like for a young, large-hearted woman, released from rainy, Catholic Ireland into sunny, bohemian Europe, and the protection of the complicated, interesting man she had hitched herself to.


Q: What did you see as the right blend between the historical figures and your fictional recreations?


A: I like to stick to the facts and timelines of the real people’s lives, as much as they are known. It’s up to the author of biographical fiction to create the inner world of their characters, show what they love, how they react under duress, and so on.


So, as a writer, you build an emotional life for your character and I base that on what’s known, on myself, on people unlike me, on those I observe, and on guesswork.


Also, in fiction, there has to be drama and tension, so even if a real person’s life doesn’t seem very plot-worthy, you try to intensify any known dramas, to make them fictionally interesting.


Q: How would you describe the relationship between Nora and James Joyce?


A: They loved each other fiercely and balanced each other out. Nora was optimistic, practical, earthy, sensuous, loving, generous, sure of herself, and extroverted. Joyce was a little neurotic, he was intellectual, prone to drinking too much, sarcastic, loving, also sensual, and maybe a bit introverted. Both had a sense of humour, were musical, and loved leisure.


Their personalities complimented one another and they were supportive of each other. Nora – mostly – accepted Joyce’s neuroses and he appreciated her pragmatism, and unswerving love.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a novella about another feisty woman from Irish history. There is very little solid evidence about her, so I’m freer to invent. (I say it’s a novella but it’s getting longer and longer so I don’t know where it will end up!)


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If readers fall in love with Nora (and I hope they do), I recommend reading Brenda Maddox’s excellent biography of her, Nora – The Real Life of Molly Bloom, and also, of course, Ulysses, most especially the Penelope Episode, aka Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, which is based on Nora’s way of speaking.


And if you are lucky enough to visit Ireland, don’t miss the James Joyce Centre and MOLI Museum in Dublin, and the Nora Barnacle House in Galway.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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