Stiofán Ó Nualláin
Q. Tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Clapham, London to Irish parents from Westmeath and Derry. I came home as a teenager to study for way too long before settling near the village of Leitrim, County Down with Patricia and our three children. After working as a volunteer on a Bosniak refugee camp during the war in Yugoslavia I came back to Belfast to finish a PhD in Linguistics. I began working with Trademark, the ‘Anti-sectarian Unit’ of the Irish labour movement, nearly twenty years ago. I am an Irish language speaker and activist and though writing in English, Irish is the language of the home.
Q. What prompted you to start writing?
Boredom. My partner was ill for a brief period and staying in quite a lot so I started jotting down some ideas and before long I had ten thousand words written. I had tried creative writing once before in a remote guesthouse in Brazil whilst on holiday. I thought that if I smoked and drank heavily in a foreign location then Hemingway-like inspiration would naturally flow, it didn’t.
Q. How long does it take you to write a novel?
I’ve only written one. It took about a year.
Q. Was there much research involved?
Not too much. I teach a bit of history so had an idea about the historical period and subject matter though I did visit a forge to talk to a blacksmith and get a sense of the processes involved in metal working.
Q. Where do you find your inspiration? Are you influenced by anything in particular?
Landscape, placenames and history feature strongly. There is a tradition in Ireland of ‘Dinnseanchas’, the “lore of places” which brings together legendary and mythical events and characters and their association with specific places, and it’s ubiquitous in the Irish landscape. I spent quite a few years working with ex-prisoner groups and part of that work included the teaching of history. We tended to do most of the work outside the classroom on study tours and trips to sites of historical significance. Using narrative and Dinnseanchas to engage the participants in learning about the past was a key strategy. The historical background to YELLOW SUN is one of the stories we used to tell.
An example by way of explanation - One of the characters in the book is called Gowan, who possesses knowledge of metal working. In Ireland today Ballygowan (Baile Gabhan) means ‘townland of the blacksmith’. Gabhan comes from the old Irish word ‘Goibniu’, who was the metal smith for the mythical tribe the Tuatha Dé Danann. After the arrival of Christianity it found its way, like many Celtic gods, into the name of a saint, St Goban who was prized as an architect in seventh century Ireland and in modern Irish a jack of all trades is ‘Gobán saor’.
Q. What would be your criteria for a good story?
My values and politics tend to drive me in the direction of ‘killing the monster’ type stories. I don’t have the skill to do subtlety or nuance, so I have a tendency towards catastrophe and brutality. When I’m writing I always think to myself “if I was reading this, would I bother turning the page”, that tends to direct the story and keep up the pace.
Q. Who are your favourite authors?
I’ve spent the last eight years reading political economy almost exclusively, its probably one of the reasons why I retreated into my own imagination. I’ve read everything I can find by Toni Morrison, Umberto Eco, John Irving, Iain Banks, Jean Rhys, Brian Ó Nualláin and Seamus McGrianna.
Q. What was the last book you read?
The last novel was ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ by Dickens.
Q. How important as a writer is support from family and friends?
I tend to write in the gaps in everyday life so as not to annoy those around me; it’s a fairly solitary pastime.
Q. Have you any advice for aspiring authors?
Befriend a good beta reader.
Q. What are your plans for the future? What can we expect from you next?
I started writing a sequel to YELLOW SUN before it was published which was a bit presumptuous but I’m enjoying the process.