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
‘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
‘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