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 was published in Ireland in September 2015 by The Stinging Fly Press, and is now published and available to buy in the UK ( John Murray). The US publication is scheduled for August 2016 (Random House). A German edition (Luchterhand) is also planned for this year and a Slovak edition is upcoming from Inaque.
Interview by Jude, updated from April 2015.
- We met at the West Cork Literary Festival on a short story workshop led by short story writer and novelist, Tessa Hadley in July 2012 and it’s been exciting seeing your progress since that time.
That was a really great workshop! One of the stories in my collection grew out of a writing exercise we did that week at the West Cork Literary Festival, and I read from the story at last year’s festival at Bantry Library on Wednesday July 15th with Claire-Louise Bennett whose stunning debut collection, Pond, is also published by the The Stinging Fly Press.
- It’s a standard question – but always fascinating to other writers – can you tell us how you structure your writing day?
The work that I think of as the rawer, rougher work usually happens in the mornings. That’s when I do the early draft stuff. I work on a number of stories at the same time, so there’s always something at the early draft stage. I take the kids to school and then drive to a café in the nearest village and write there. I’ll write for a couple of hours, longhand, and when I get home I’ll transcribe what I’ve written onto computer. As well as working longhand on early drafts, I also work longhand on paragraphs or sections of a story that made it onto the computer but need to be re-written. I write in a notebook, preferably one with a cover image that connects with the story in some way. Sometimes, depending on what stage a story is at, I’ll print out a copy of the story and write on that. In the afternoons there are school runs to be done, and the kids have various activities that I take them to, but I’ll often get to do some re-writing in the afternoons, and I’ll write for a couple of hours after dinner in the evenings. Lately, I’ve been thinking that I could do with a more formal structuring of my writing time ie having particular time slots for the short stories, the novel, admin things, but I haven’t got around to that yet
- I find the images in your stories linger – the skull in The Dinosaurs on Other Planets with the grub floating out of the eye, the shock of the seal cull at the end of A Different Country Do images events from the natural world often prompt your stories?
It’s strange, the things that can prompt a story. A Different Country started off when I read a TV review in a newspaper that mentioned a kids’ cookery programme, one of those competitive ones where terrible things happen, like a small child forgets to switch on the oven, for example. It might have been Junior Masterchef. The reviewer said that it was ‘like watching a seal cull’. And I thought: ‘watching a seal cull. I wonder what that would be like.’ My husband is from a fishing family on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal so I knew immediately where I would set the story and after that, there were various autobiographical elements that I drew on. ‘The Dinosaurs on Other Planets’ had its beginnings in a question asked by my youngest child, and in a skull brought home from a nearby forest. Creatures, birds, fish, insects, do tend to feature in my stories, and, sadly, when they do, they are often dead or, if they are alive at the beginning of the story, they meet a bad end. I don’t know why that is, though I can remember having a bit of a fixation with dead things since I was very young.
- In your interview with Clare Savage in the Incubator Magazine , you say that you always begin your stories in longhand. Can you tell us more about why you do this?
If I could write directly onto computer, I would. It would save me a lot of time. I find that I can’t ‘think’ onto a computer screen, the thoughts first have to be put down on paper. I need the freedom of paper, the ability to mess around with the words, and yes, I suppose I could mess around with them on a screen, couldn’t I, but it just doesn’t work for me. I like to be able to scribble bits here and there and doodle on the margins, and draw arrows and squiggles and shapes.
- In the same interview, Clare Savage points out that also redraft your stories 40 to 50 times, which I find very interesting and encouraging as it shows that such intense work pays off. Do you use a particular method in your re-drafting process?
No, is the short answer, it’s usually quite a haphazard affair. I’ve heard of people focusing on a particular aspect of the story during each re-write eg fixing characterisation in one re-write, dialogue in the next, etc. It sounds like a very efficient process, but I couldn’t imagine working like that. I can get to a stage with a story where I think I have it sorted and I’m fine-tuning language, and then, in the next draft, I could lose a character, or gain a new one, or the story might change from first person to third person. Sometimes, I’ll think a story is finished, but feedback from my writing group, or my editor or agent, might send it off in a new and better direction, cue lots more drafts! I think whatever system I put in place, I would still end up with a large number of drafts, it’s just the way I am, the way that I work. But I’m comfortable with the repetitive nature of the re-writing process, I don’t mind it.
- You write both longer short stories and shorter ‘flash’ fiction. Your flash fiction, Shaping Air, from The Stinging Fly magazine, Summer 2014, was selected for Queen’s Ferry Press Best Small Fictions Anthology 2015 and your story Beached approx 250 words was shortlisted for 2014 Bristol Prize short story competition and is published in their 2014 anthology. Can you say what you enjoy about writing to different lengths? Do you think different skills are required?
When I started writing, most of my stories were around 2000-3000 words long. Then I wrote a story that I liked, but which ended up longer than anything I’d written before, over 5000 words. I sent it to The Stinging Fly, who published it. I liked that story better than I liked my earlier, shorter, short stories and from then on, I wrote without regard to word length. I have a lot of stories now that are between 5000 -10,000 words. As the stories were getting longer, I noticed that my flash fiction was getting shorter. It was also changing in a way that I’m not sure I can accurately explain, except to say that the voice of my flash fiction now seems to be different to that of my longer stories, and my flash also seems to use language in a way that differs from the language of the longer stories. It may be that the flashes are moving closer to poetry; I think that they use rhythms or cadences in a more pronounced way, for example. There are a couple of things rattling around in my head at the moment that don’t seem to be either short stories or flash, but poems, and I’m toying with the idea of having a go at writing them.
- Three writers in the BSSA anthology 2014, Annemarie Neary, Kit de Waal and Anne Corlett are formerly lawyers like yourself. In the current 2015 anthology, we have a shortlisted story by Sara Collins, also a lawyer. I imagine that you have all become successful in your new profession as writers because as well as hearing so many different stories from people in crisis, as lawyers you must have continually worked hard on new cases and to tight deadlines? Is this true for you?
I see a lot of similarities between the skill sets of lawyers and writers. Both jobs involve working with words very precisely and being tuned in to things like nuance and tone, being aware that words and phrases may be open to a number of different interpretations. Both jobs require a lot of creativity and both bring a lot of stories to your desk, a lot of drama. I used to love the Law Reports, yearly collections of important legal judgements published in book form. So many wonderful stories! Recently, in the offices of another solicitor, I spotted some volumes on a shelf and experienced a rush of nostalgia; I had a yearning to take one down and start reading. There’s no doubt that years of drafting very precisely to tight deadlines has helped me as a writer. If a client requires the contracts for 2pm, it’s not acceptable to say that you’re waiting on the Muse, you just have to get on with it. On the other hand, I do like the freedom I have now, to write whatever I want at my own pace, to take whatever time is needed to get it right (within reason, of course). And it was a relief when I began writing fiction to realise that I could delete a paragraph, perhaps even a whole page, without worrying about whether I might accidentally cost a client a couple of million and might get sued.
- In what ways have writing competitions helped you as a writer? Can you give a few tips for writers entering The Bath Short Story Award, 2016
I used to enter a lot of competitions and they were a great encouragement, not just the competitions where I was fortunate to be one of the winners, but also the ones where I made longlists or shortlists. Most of us seem to spend a lot of time combating enormous levels of self doubt, so it’s good to get these boosts now and again. And I’ve also made new writing friends through competitions, because if there’s an event, you get to meet the organisers and the other writers.
In terms of writing tips, I’m going to say firstly, read, read, read, read. I’m with Stephen King when he says that ‘if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.’ I tend to read more short stories than novels and I dip in and out of different collections, a story here, a story there. Collections I’m reading/re-reading at the moment include Aiden O’Reilly’s superb debut collection ‘Greetings, Hero’, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh and I’m looking forward to starting Avril Joy’s Millie and Bird which has just arrived in my post and has the most beautiful cover!
The best tip I’ve read about short story beginnings is this Colin Barrett advice here: And yes, I know that’s on your blog but it just happens to be the most useful tip I’ve encountered about the beginning of a short story.
As for endings: stop in the right place. Easier said than done, I know, but a short story can be ruined if the writer insists on carrying on past the ending. ‘ … already in that space the light begins to fade into the calm gray even light of the novelist.’ That quote is from a paragraph in The Lonely Voice where Frank O’ Connor is discussing an aspect of the work of Mary Lavin, and whether or not you agree with his assessment of Lavin’s work, I think the analogy of the fading of light is a good way of explaining the loss of intensity, the loss of explosiveness, that can occur when a short story continues on further than it should.
Interview by Jude originally published on this site, April, 2015. Want to catch a workshop with Danielle? She’s leading one in lovely Bantry at the West Cork Literary Festival this July.