Danielle McLaughlin

Failures of Understanding and the Management of Time

Susanne Stich

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Danielle McLaughlin’s debut short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets (Stinging Fly Press, 2015) has been eagerly awaited. At the book’s Dublin launch earlier this month, acclaimed writer and Laureate for Irish Fiction Anne Enright remarked on ‘the intelligence rising in McLaughlin’s sentences like sap’, and called attention to the ‘completely realized worlds’ in these stories, which are ‘generous with both their pleasure and their pain’. When I met with Danielle McLaughlin on a beautiful autumn morning just before the launch she spoke to me in depth about her meticulous approach to craft, her ideas on time, the challenges of communication and her characters’ relationships. I even got a chance to ask her about her experiences with the prestigious New Yorker magazine.

SS: What made you write in the first place?

DMcL: The question of why I write is something I find hard to work out for myself. It’s come up a few times. And the honest answer is I can’t say for definite. For me, it’s more like a need to write. It’s this obsessional thing that takes over. That’s part of the thing I don’t understand about it because I’m coming to writing relatively late in life, so if I need to write so much now, and if it’s taken over so much of my life, and has pushed so many other things out of my life, where was it the other forty years? I do know that it coincided with when I stopped practicing law, where I was working with words all the time, and I really liked law. I found it very creative. I loved how it was all about tone and the meanings of words, their nuances. Then of course there were all the human stories behind the legal work. I think maybe that was giving me something, and when that was gone, there was more of a push for the writing to come out.

SS: Let’s talk about your writing process. You mentioned to me in the past that you write in longhand first, and have different notebooks assigned to different stories you’re working on. What is it about writing in longhand that works for you?

DMcL: Yes, I find I can’t start a story at the computer, and it won’t develop for me there either. Even if I’m a couple of months into a story and move to the computer, if I get stuck with something, I have to work it out in a notebook. My notebooks are very messy. I don’t write neatly or in straight lines. I often draw lines from one word to another, and later I will go back to something and add to it or write over it. It’s like I need to have the freedom to be able to branch off while the thing first takes shape. Maybe it’s the subconscious. Maybe things have to stew about and come out in very messy ways first. In actual fact, ‘The Art of Foot-Binding’ and ‘Silhouette’ were originally part of the same story, or rather, they were part of a big tangled mess on paper, which eventually, over a long time, became three separate stories, with one of these not in the collection but published elsewhere. I keep all the notebooks and all the different drafts, and then I go back to them at a later time. Preparing for our conversation, for example, I came across stuff that’s still there, connected to my initial ideas for these stories, but hasn’t been used yet, so I might well go back to that and use it somewhere else.

SS: That sounds amazing, and it connects with the idea that every writer has a set of preoccupations they go back to time and again. I love what you’re saying about the messiness of it all, and how time is an important ingredient.

Can we talk a little about the short story in general? The American writer Flannery O’Connor said that it delivers ‘an experience of meaning’, which might be the most concise definition I’ve come across. Frank O’Connor, whose book The Lonely Voice (1962)you recommended to me a couple of years ago, spoke about the short story being ‘motivated by its own necessity rather than by our convenience’ as readers. What is it about the format that first attracted you?

DMcL: The intensity of it is a big thing for me, and how much happens within a relatively short space of print. When that space is worked properly by the writer, the intensity is amazing. Also, a word that you mentioned there, ‘experience’ is important. It takes a relatively short period of time to read a story, and within that time, say 15 or 20 minutes, if the story is good, it’s like we haven’t just read it, it has happened to us, it’s a thing that has been done to us. On another note, Frank O’Connor talks about a point in a story where the past and the future are equally visible. I think that’s a wonderful thing the short story can do: to be intensely focused on a particular moment in the present, while also considering the past, and allowing a glimpse of the future. I like how time can almost be stopped in this way.

SS: Dinosaurs on Other Planets is your first collection, but you’ve had many stories published before and won numerous prizes. Not all of these stories made it into the book. Can you talk about putting the collection together and the decisions you had to make?

DMcL:  In one way it wasn’t difficult to rule out a lot of my earlier stories because they just seemed different somehow. Some of these earlier stories, if they were part of this collection, they would stick out like a sore thumb. Most of the stories in the collection are quite recent. Part of that has to do with the fact that when I allowed myself to write longer toward the end of 2012, my writing changed, and I let the stories evolve more. Around the same time I started to draw on autobiographical elements more.

SS: Let’s look at some of the individual stories. Here’s a quote from ‘Night of the Silver Fox’:

‘The wind blew dark, shapeless things across the paths of the lorry, things that might have been alive or might have been dead: tiny creatures and flurries of fallen leaves. They drove on through small, half-lit towns, through dark countryside whose only light was the flicker of widescreen televisions in bungalow windows.’ (p.74)

This is just one example of many exquisite descriptions evoking Ireland as a country submerged in some kind of all-encompassing crisis, affecting its people, its animals but also its landscape. Throughout the book you capture lives devoid of hope, hinging on relationships fraught with betrayals, hidden aggression and fear of future grief. And regardless of the slow pace of much of the writing there is great emotional urgency underlying it. At times it feels as if you propel your characters into action and experience despite their need to observe what’s going on and be still. It reminded me of Anne Enright referring to John McGahern’s stories as the ‘literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor’ in her introduction to The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2012).

DMcL: I notice now that I have a body of work to look back on that I often seem to be writing on the verge of crisis, and there is this sense of anxiety, fear, and even terror coming in. I suppose, that’s part of me leaking into the stories. I tend to see the world as quite a frightening place, and find it to be inexplicable. I’m amazed at people who go about life in a calm, unworried way. I wonder how they do that, because it does seem to me quite strange and frightening. So, regardless of the storylines, I guess that‘s my own bleak worldview coming through.

SS: Why is there such a preoccupation with dead or dying animals (e.g. drowning wasps,a seal pup dying at the feet of a young woman, dead insects in a jar)?

DMcL: I can trace the obsession with dead animals all the way back to when I was a small child. What it’s about, I don’t know, but as a child I was worried about death, and drawn to dead animals at the same time. Now this sounds really weird (laughs), but I can remember that with one of my brothers and a couple of local kids we used to have this club that was all about being kind to animals. I don’t recall us being of much assistance to any live animals, but we used to do an inventory of dead things by the roadside, or we took notes about dead birds, trying to find out who might be responsible for their death. It was all very strange. I still remember to this day the amazement of finding a dead rabbit. His stomach was burst open and you could see inside, and this was just so fascinating to us. We took him away and we buried him as part of our club activities, and then a week later we dug him up again. We’d bring a bottle of orange and biscuits and we’d sit by the grave. I was always a very obsessive child with slightly odd thought processes. So that particular preoccupation has been there a long time, and it’s interesting that it has filtered into the stories to quite a strong degree, even though it took me a while to see it myself.

SS: You’re not the first writer to depict contemporary Ireland as a dystopian place. One of the key thingsthat struck me as unique in your stories, however, were the women, and the relationships they have with each other, be it as mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, friends etc. 

DMcL: Yes. First of all, one of the themes I myself can see coming through in the collection is failures of understanding, i.e. people who have difficulty understanding other people, and people who can’t make themselves understood, so we have these difficulties with communication and silences, or missed communications. Social interaction is a difficult, complex thing, and I think that affects both my male and female characters. When I put myself in a story I often put myself into more than just one of its characters, and there are some stories in which I personally identify more with the men than with the women. But there is a group of stories I started in early 2013 that deal very much with women and how they are treated culturally and within society, but also with women relating to each other.

At the time I was thinking about the death of Savita Halappanavar, and the issues that were being discussed in Ireland as a result. I wrote that big chunk of material I referred to earlier, which eventually became three separate stories, including ‘The Art of Foot Binding’ and ‘Silhouette’. One of the things that interested me in foot-binding, for instance, is the perplexing and troubling fact that it was done by women to other women as part of a patriarchal regime. And I saw parallels with what happened in Ireland in the Magdalen Laundries – nuns treating other women so badly, again as part of this very male dominated regime, the Catholic Church. So the idea that there is a historical context and a repetitive aspect to women’s struggles today was very much on my mind. It led me to explore what women have to put up with, but also what happens when women let other women down, or don’t support each other. And within that, an exploration of failures of communication. At one point, I was working with an image of a very old bell, its metal tongue remaining but the bell pull missing, so that it only cried out in high winds. The rest of the time it was silent. I think, in relation to abortion, I was interested in the contrast between how a small number of cases were debated and discussed widely, compared to the secrecy surrounding the majority of others. I ended up not using the bell, though it did make its way into a different story. Having said all that,, I know that I don’t write very well when I pick a particular issue and try to address it directly, so for me to address these themes I had to take a more convoluted route, which ultimately produced a number of stories. And maybe that’s the good thing about a collection, that, seen together, stories have an opportunity to resonate with each other, to be in conversation.

SS: Yes, absolutely.

Let’s look at some of the individual characters. I was often struck by the alienation between them, especially the women. For me, that seemed connected not only to the residue of a formerly male dominated culture, but also to the pressures the women find themselves under, in their relationships and jobs, or as a result of their unfulfilled dreams, their inexperience or particular sensitivities. Resonating also with what you just said about the bell, in ‘The Art of Foot-Binding’ I was intrigued how the mother-daughter relationship put a unique spin on the idea of female silence being passed from one generation to the next via the exploration of an art project the teenage daughter is involved in. And I found the encounter between the mother and her teenage daughter’s young art teacher, Ms. Matthews, equally fascinating.

DMcL: Yes. I like Ms. Matthews, even if she is an invented character (laughs), and I think I like her because she’s trying to help, and she’s being supportive as women mostly, but not always, try to be supportive of other women. I felt that the mother’s problem in that story is that she’s not able to accept the support. It’s like she sees Ms. Matthews as the enemy where really she’d need to see her as her friend. The mother is quite alone and self-destructive. She fails to make connections with other human beings.

SS: ‘The Smell of Dead Flowers’ is one of my favourite stories. In its temporal scope, which includes a stunning finale set long after the actual events at the story’s core, it reminded me of the work of Alice Munro. It’s a classic tale in many ways. Young Louise arrives in Dublin to lodge with her aunt and mentally disabled cousin, and another boarder, the enigmatic and self-absorbed philosophy student Marcus. Louise’s coming of age in the city, which contrasts starkly with the other characters’ broken dreams and emotional incapacities, makes her the catalyst for a chain of tragic events. The following quote ties in with some of the things you mentioned earlier, suggesting the residue of a male dominated culture the young woman is grappling with:

‘”What’s family when you think about it?” [Marcus] said. “It’s just something that happens to you; a bunch of people, not of your choosing, that you’re forced into relationships with. I believe we have the right to choose our own families.”

Your family was your family, I thought, and there was nothing you could do about it. I wanted to say this, but feared it might all have something to do with philosophy and then I would look foolish. I stroked the dark hair of his chest and stayed quiet.’ (p.143)

DMcL: This story took a long time to write and underwent huge changes. It started in a workshop with Tessa Hadley in 2012 in the third person with a middle-aged male protagonist, and later morphed into a story written in the first person with an 18-year old woman at the centre. Calling her a catalyst is a good way of describing her, but I don’t think she herself is aware of that, and she doesn’t pick up on the nuances of what’s going on in that household. Marcus, her love interest, is pompous and arrogant, but ultimately insecure. His comment about family is quite telling in that regard. And despite not being that clued in, Louise herself understands that life is not that straightforward. People in your life are not that easily dealt with or disposed of, so in some ways she has a wisdom that he doesn’t have. But she lacks confidence, and so she defers to him, even though she strongly suspects that he is wrong.

And since you mentioned Alice Munro, I’m a big fan of her writing. I’m reading her all the time. I love how she manages time in amazing ways without ever losing the immediacy of the moment the story is set in. For me, she illustrates incredibly well what I said earlier about Frank O’Connor and the idea of being able to see both the future and the past in a story.

SS: Let’s move on to the story ’Silhouette’. Here’s a quote suggesting women’s interconnectedness in an arresting image:

‘Beside the bed was a softly rounded groove in the floorboards. They were the original boards, eighteenth century oak according to the nursing home’s brochure, and were peppered with small knot-holes that spiralled away into blackness. To the end of the bed was another identical groove. A different bed must once have occupied this space, its ordinances closely but not exactly mirroring the one in which her mother now lay. Some other woman, perhaps a whole series of women, had lain there, night upon night, year upon year, mouths parted slightly in sleep, all the time pressing this memento of their existence into the timber.’ (106/107)

In terms of storyline, ‘Silhouette’ tells of a woman in her forties, Aileen, who returns home to visit her terminally ill mother in a nursing home with the intention of talking about her unplanned pregnancy. Throughout the story, the daughter is haunted by the mysterious image of a female cat burglar who has moved into the mother’s old house. Can you talk a little about this figure?

DMcL: I’m not entirely sure where she came from, but she may have got in there because of the main character’s ambivalence to her pregnancy. I suppose the figure is connected to a fear of the woman’s old life having been intruded upon. Maybe intruded upon is too strong, but I suppose the cat burglar is like somebody who unsettles a part of Aileen’s life she used to be quite sure of and understood in a particular way.

SS: I thought this figure connected with the mother’s anxieties, too. There’s some great humour in the dialogue and storyline, but also considerable poignancy:

‘”I’m worried,” her mother said. Aileen waited. Over the years her mother had so devalued the currency of worry that it was impossible to guess what might come next. “About…you know…” her mother said, “about what will happen.” “What will happen when?””You know…” her mother said, “what will happen at the end.” (103)

DMcL: I like the contradictions between the mother and the daughter and how they communicate or don’t communicate. The mother interests me in the way that she frets and gives out about small things. At the same time she isn’t really able to have a conversation about the extent of her own fear, and she’s unable to get to the bottom of what is bothering her daughter. She never gets to that point. They’re worrying about the wrong things. With all the toing and froing and fussing they’re failing to make connections. Conversation ultimately fails them, and they’re people who are important to each other, they’re mother and daughter. It’s also a time when they would really need to communicate, with the mother being close to death and the daughter pregnant. I think this kind of thing affects a lot human conversation, and maybe that’s why I prefer the written word to verbal communication.

SS: In the title story a little boy asks whether dinosaurs might still exist on other planets. His grandfather downright rejects the idea, whereas his mother’s new boyfriend Pavel sees it as a strong possibility. I thought that was a powerful moment, highlighting the ambiguity underlying much everyday communication, but also suggesting the importance of perspective. Is there hope in the world of these characters?

DMcL: I like to keep telling myself that there is. I think my worldview is bleak, but I try to remind myself that people are mostly good, and that there are lots of good things out there. I suppose that section in the story is a mixed blessing in terms of hope, because, yes, it is hopeful, and Pavel opens up the possibility of a world beyond the isolated rural house the family live in. At the same time, for Kate, the woman at the centre of the story, there might well be the realization that there is hope in the world, but there is also the question of whether it is for her.

SS: Before we conclude, let me ask you about the New Yorker magazine. Two of your stories, ‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’ and ‘In the Act of Falling’, were recently published there. What was it like to work with their editorial team?

DMcL: What was interesting to me was the number of people involved, because there were quite a few people reading the stories at different stages. I worked with the editors Cressida Leyshon and Deborah Treisman, but also with copy editors and fact checkers, so that was fascinating. They didn’t change my stories in any major way, though, and they didn’t push me to change anything I didn’t want to change myself. It was more about bringing clarity, precision and tightness to particular phrases, and watching things like punctuation and syntax.

SS: Here’s my last question: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is a wonderful institution. It features New Yorker authors reading a favourite story from the magazine’s archives and discussing it with the editor. Which story would you pick? I guess for our purposes it doesn't even have to be another New Yorker story, but simply a story you admire.

DMcL: Alice Munro’s story ‘Queenie’ I’ve read a number of times. It’s great. I also love Kevin Barry’s ’Nights at the Gin Palace’, and pretty much anything by Kevin Barry, actually. In terms of reading aloud and discussing a story, I was thinking of Tobias Wolff’s ‘Powder’: it’s really short and so beautiful. It looks at the relationship between a boy and his father. There is humour in it, and the way Wolff talks about snow is just wonderful. It has its own built-in momentum with a car journey. I came across it in an anthology called Text, a Transition Year English reader edited by Niall McMonagle,

SS: Wow, yes, ‘Powder’. I read that story last year. It’s amazing.

Thank you so much Danielle. It’s been illuminating talking with you, and I’m sure the collection will resonate with readers in many places. Best of luck with the book and your future writing.