Nuala O’Connor interview: The Irish writer on feminism, baking and new novel Miss Emily

'A lot of women are publishing but you can still feel the boys are taking care of the boys'

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On the day I come to write up my interview with the Irish writer Nuala O’Connor – author of the novels You and The Closet of Savage Mementos, as well as highly acclaimed collections of poetry and short stories – Twitter, newspapers, and pretty much all of social media are aflame with the story of a woman writer who pretended to be male and found that she received fewer rejections from literary agents as a result.

It’s hard to imagine O’Connor trying out such an experiment, or even that she’d want to. She’s the kind of writer whose female identity is so hardwired into her writing, I doubt she could fool anyone about her authorship. She’s also the kind of writer who’s suddenly looking at a degree of international success, after years of publishing with small presses in Ireland, on her own terms. It’s an exciting time for her – “very hectic, much more than I’m used to”, she says of the latest run of daily US radio interviews she’s been doing. “I don’t think that I’d have been able for that in my twenties.”

Emily Dickinson, the subject of her latest novel, might have understood her very well. When we meet on a bright but cold summer’s day in Glasgow, O’Connor having just flown in from her home in Galway, she’s possibly unaware as yet of the small storm brewing over the cover of the UK edition of her book, Miss Emily. It shows a headless woman in the foreground, and has drawn complaints about stock images and unnecessary anonymity.

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I wonder later why it is that women writers tend to attract so much of this kind of criticism. But O’Connor’s experience, as well as her feminist background and long-held interest in “shining a light on women’s history”, combine to deflect the criticism with grace. She’s both astute and aware, as her latest book shows. A fictional account of the year in Emily Dickinson’s life when the poet’s household didn’t have a maid and when she also made the decision to start wearing only white and pretty much withdrew from the world, O’Connor’s novel is both sensitive and realistic, romantic yet also psychologically profound.

“There’s a myth that [Dickinson] wasn’t sociable,” O’Connor says. “But when she was young, she was witty and loquacious. She was tight with people, but letter-writing was her thing. She was a friendly person who operated within a small orbit of people, who was very curious about the world.”

In O’Connor’s  book, Dickinson comes into contact with the fictional Ada, a maid from Ireland who matches her mistress in talkativeness, and who also involves her in the twists and turns of her own love affair. Each woman influences the other to leave a lasting emotional mark.

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The book is also, of course, about the relationship between Ireland and America in the 19th century, played out here through the relationship between two women, mistress and servant, artist and domestic labourer. There’s an inevitable poignancy in O’Connor’s research methods, her visit to Dickinson’s home in Massachusetts, sitting at Emily’s work desk or exploring her library. “I got so emotional standing in her bedroom,” she laughs. “Having known her work since I was a child and reading so much of her for the past year. I’d give anything to hear her voice.”

Like Dickinson, she loves to bake, O’Connor explains, and she’s even tried out recipes that the poet regularly used – her coconut cake and her gingerbread, her black cake (a hefty 19 eggs and five pounds of raisins that I doubt even Mary Berry could manage). The domestic connection provides an emotional recognition for O’Connor, and I think it’s brave of her to mention it, given how frowned-upon the domestic so often is. She describes Dickinson as “sparky” in her letters, though, and I think the same could be said of O’Connor. She gives short shrift to the current publishing scene, when I ask about how women writers in Ireland are advancing.

“A lot of women are publishing but you can still feel the boys are taking care of the boys. Women are starting to take care of each other now, but the best-known Irish writers are still your Colm Toibins and your Colm McCarthys. Anne Enright, who’s a genius, has just been longlisted for the Booker, but so many great Irish women don’t get a look-in at all. There’s only room at the top for a few and they always tend to be men. Ireland is a small country, we’re very literate, but women are still cracking their heads on the glass ceiling.”

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I ask where her own feminism comes from, and she talks of courses in women’s studies that she did while looking after her first child (she tends to read the research she needs to do in bed at night, and write during the day when her three children are at school), and of her interest in women’s bodies. O’Connor is a very sensual writer – there’s a real eroticism at the heart of Dickinson’s relationship with her adored sister-in-law, Susan, for instance, which she draws out beautifully. Ada, too, is unfortunately forced to become more aware of her body than ever before, due to certain tragic events in the novel.

“How we use our bodies in the world fascinates me,” she says. “My daughter is six and I’m terrified for her. She’s so comfortable in her own skin right now, but I wonder if in 10 years she’ll feel the same way. Even those of us who are feminists and aware of what the media does with women’s bodies get affected by it. I hate that I’m affected by it, I wish I was still six!”

I wonder again afterwards if talking about her children, about baking, about the difficulties of being a women writer, is a bad thing for O’Connor, if this is what a male writer would talk about, and if it will do her harm. But then I think of the things that matter to us as women writers, things that mattered to genius poets like Emily Dickinson, and wonder who decided that those things are less crucial to the world in the first place.

Lesley McDowell’s latest book, Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers, is published by Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, £9.99