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That Just Sparked
An interview with Danielle McLaughlin

(Issue 32, spring 2018)

The short story writer Danielle McLaughlin lives in rural Cork. Fishing, as a child, ‘I used to be terrified that I’d lose fish hooks and the horses in the field would swallow them and die. It used to terrify me. Last year I wrote a short story about it, which goes to show how writers are always harvesting their childhood fears and obsessions.
   ‘I can remember my mother telling me that as a small child I used to write prince and princess stories involving me and the boy down the road. 
   ‘I did attempt to write stories at other stages in my life, but I had no idea that you had to rewrite a story, for example, or that you had to practise craft. So when something didn’t work out for me first time I figured, well, it’s just because I’m not a writer. Writers can just put it down on paper and get it right first time. 
   ‘I suppose as quite a young person I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, and I had to find a slightly unusual route. A lot of my late teens, early twenties were focused on finding a way to become a lawyer, and I did eventually.  
   ‘In a way law was a very creative and fulfilling line of work for me, all built around words. It’s drafting and redrafting, and thinking about the meanings of words and constructing paragraphs, you know. It’s as precise as writing poetry, I think. And there are so many stories, and such drama. I think law reports are like collections of stories. The specifics are always there. The most astonishing details. Sometimes, when I’m teaching writing workshops, I remind my students to use specifics. Because we all live our lives in specifics, no one lives their lives in generality.
   ‘I became very ill very suddenly in 2009, and I had to stop work. I had just upgraded my home office to premises in the city centre, I was developing my practice, which was growing, and then all that was gone.
   ‘Just a few weeks before that I had had a non-fiction piece accepted by the Irish Times. And that was a very strange thing for me. I was in really bad humour one night and just out of exasperation I wrote this thing and emailed it to them. They said, “Yes, we’ll publish it.”’ Oh my goodness!  You know, writing seemed like sort of a pipe dream, so that was a big kind of shift in my thinking.
   ‘So when I got sick I wrote some more non-fiction pieces and published them in magazines. But I very quickly moved over to writing fiction. And then it was short stories that I just got totally obsessed with.
   ‘I went along to the Cork International Short Story Festival, this was back in 2010 maybe, and I thought, wow, this is just amazing, because I didn’t know any writers, I could hardly have listed ten short story writers if you’d asked me. I signed up for writing workshops that autumn, with the Munster Literature Centre, who run the festival, and at those workshops I met the people who became my writing group, and we still have that writing group. So that was when I learned that writing can be taught, and I believe writing can be taught. And I know there are conflicting views on that but I think that most people, if they’re prepared to slog, can be taught to write to a stage where they will have some work published.
   ‘I love teaching. I will be teaching at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin for a few days next month, and I was the visiting Writer Fellow at the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre last term. And I’m just back from Oxford, where I was giving a seminar over there.
   ‘I think the first story I had in print was maybe in Crannóg in 2011. And then I had a couple of stories accepted in The Stinging Fly and I started working towards a collection, and you know, it took a while.
   McLaughlin’s debut collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets was published by The Stinging Fly Press in 2015, and then by John Murray and Random House in 2016.
   ‘While I was writing the book, and while I was even not working on the book, just working on short stories without any thought of a collection, I would drop the kids to school, drive eight or nine miles down the road to the nearest village and go to a café there and I’d write longhand for a couple of hours. I might work on something for a couple of weeks or a couple of months before it makes it to computer stage. But if I have something that’s ready to go on the computer when I get back to the house around lunchtime, I put it on the computer. Or else I might edit an earlier story that I was working on because I’m always working on a few of them at the same time.
   ‘There was great freedom in moving from law to fiction writing. With law I suppose you’re always conscious that if you make a mistake it can cost the client a couple of million. And then you get sued! You had to be careful as to where you channelled your creativity, and there were serious consequences if you got it wrong. Whereas I loved the fact that there were no consequences in getting fiction wrong, as I saw it at the time. I thought, oh yeah, I can do whatever I want here on the page. At the same time I think law helps in that you have to get writing done by a particular deadline, because if the client wants the contracts for 2 o’clock you can’t say, “Well, I’m not in the zone now. I’m going to take a walk in the woods.”
   ‘With law you work with lots of formulas of words, and that’s really interesting because they’re like magic formulas, you know, they’re like spells, you arrange the right selections in the right order and they bring about particular effects in business and in people’s lives. But I think there can be the danger of coming to rely too much on formula. In fiction we’re always steering clear of cliché and we’re trying to avoid overused words and overused sentences. So I like that contrast.
   ‘I’m working on an anthology of writers who are also lawyers, a collection of work themed around the law reports, which are amazing stories anyway, and people’s creative responses to them. It’s going to be a fundraiser for the Peter McVerry Trust, set up to reduce homelessness and the harm caused by drug misuse and social disadvantage, and it’s going to be published by The Stinging Fly Press later this year. 
   ‘I remember reading a law report, I think it was somewhere in the Irish Midlands, a murder roundabout the 1940s or so, and there was a man missing, presumed dead, and they found a torso. But there was no head. So they weren’t sure if it was him or not. So they were bringing in the local tailor, who would have measurements of all the people in the locality, and trying to work out with his knowledge from the size of the torso’s shoulders if this might have been the man they thought it was.
   ‘I was reading another law report recently and it was about the use of Ireland’s airspace, for planes going to fight in Afghanistan, I think. And it was about war. And the judge was saying in this particular paragraph that nobody in the case had been able to point him to a particular agreed definition of war. And I just thought that was extraordinary, when you think of how much war impacts on the world, you know, throughout the history of humankind, and yet in a law case you’re arguing over the concept of war and when a country is or isn’t at war. And what is the definition of war. It’s just so interesting. At least it’s interesting to me. 
   ‘As well as writing more short stories, I’m currently working on edits of my first novel, set mainly in Cork and inspired by an exercise in a writing workshop given by Nuala O’Connor. And I’ve started sketching out the beginnings of my second novel, which is going to be historical, so that’s going to be a totally new thing for me. It was something I saw in the National Gallery in Dublin one day that just sparked something. The more I looked into the life of the artist and the subject the more extraordinary were the details of their lives. But I  won’t talk too much about it just in case it evaporates.’