Thursday, September 27, 2018

Becoming Belle - An Interview with Nuala O' Connor

Firstly congratulations on such a compelling novel Nuala, its such a beautifully written story, and a fantastic read – I devoured it in one weekend!
Thanks a million, Niamh, that’s lovely to hear.

The character of Belle is based on a real person, someone you have known about for quite some time, and who is buried a ‘stone’s throw’ from where you live in Ballinasloe. You have already spoken about your research in previous interviews – so what I would love to know is, was it hard to chose which portion of Belles rich and various life to represent and what to leave out?

Nuala O' Connor
I think this is always the tangly bit for novelists – we do our research and end up with a pile of facts and then we have to finesse them into something readable and, hopefully compelling. And, basically, some of the facts of people’s lives don’t necessarily fit with the story we end up wanting to tell. So writing a novel becomes a series of questions about what caves (of the character’s life) we want to shine our torch into. I’m interested in people and their little madnesses and obsessions, so I wanted to see how Belle handled the various upheavals she found herself at the centre of (baby out of wedlock in 1888; a fraudster boyfriend; elopement with a viscount; his sudden disappearance etc.) I focussed on four consecutive years in Belle’s life and thought my way through the most relevant parts of them, as unearthed through research.
I adored the language of the novel, it evokes Belle’s world in an incredibly sensual and immediate manner. It’s a leap and a lifetime away from our contemporary hashtag /emoji/lol filled language – had you any particular rituals or techniques for immersing yourself in 1880s London when you sat down to write?

The only ritual I have is to read yesterday’s written work before I move onto today’s. That way I get myself back into the mood/tone/language of the piece before moving on. I wanted Becoming Belle to read like a Victorian novel, so I did a lot of research around that through reading contemporary social reports and newspapers, novels of the day etc. It’s important to me that the language sounds authentic so that the reader feels they’re immersed in the Victorian era.
Cigarette Cards Featuring Belle
I really enjoyed reading the Author’s Note where you fill us in on what happened to Belle and the other characters. It felt respectful to their real lived selves and was quite moving. If there’s a particular pleasure in weaving fiction and fact, what would you say might be the cautions – I am thinking of other writers who may be reading this – what would you say are the particular challenges that come with working in this genre?

I suppose I have contradictory thoughts about it. In one way I feel we as writers have a duty to be faithful to the lives and events of the real people we write about. In another way I feel we’re fiction writers, we should have freedom to invent where we feel that’s necessary. I come at my characters with love and respect. That doesn’t mean I present them as paragons, I want them to seem real: lacking, sweet, damaged, fun, blemished, honest and confused in the way that we all are. Belle can come over as selfish at times but who is not guilty of that on occasion? I think it’s important not to make demigods of real people – we all make mistakes, and do regrettable things, even our beloved factional characters.

Your short stories often involve real characters, and this is your second novel inspired by someone’s actual life (Miss Emily being the first) – do you feel you have found a groove, so to speak? Are you hooked? Can we expect more bio-fiction novels in the future?
Yes, I’m working on another bio-fictional novel now. It centres on a strong Irish woman who has been flicked to one side by history, but who I’m bringing centre stage. I love bio-fiction, but it can be a little restrictive, in that you have to hang your fiction on the archway of a real, lived life. Once my novel-in-progress is done, I may have a go at another contemporary novel. I miss the freedoms of unadulterated invention. That’s something to look forward to while I wade through the muddier bits of the novel-in-progress.

Best of luck with that novel in progress Nuala, and look forward to finding out who this strong Irish woman is!  Becoming Belle is available in all good book shops, and Amazon. For more about Nuala's writing,  and Belle (including a fascinating video of her collection of Belle ephemera) check out her Website 

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