Where law meets literature

Cork author and former lawyer Danielle McLaughlin has edited a collection of stories by people from the legal profession, writes Colette Sheridan.

Where law meets literature

Cork author and former lawyer Danielle McLaughlin has edited a collection of stories by people from the legal profession, writes Colette Sheridan.

When Cork solicitor turned fiction writer, Danielle McLaughlin, kept coming across lawyers who had become writers , she thought it would be interesting to put together an anthology of prose and poetry, inspired by law reports and legal judgements.

The result is a collection of writing entitled Counterparts by 22 writers, published by the Stinging Fly. All proceeds from the book will go to the Peter McVerry Trust which supports housing for people in need.

This dovetails nicely with McLaughlin’s interest in housing. She completed a Master’s degree in an area of research related to social housing and has worked in local authorities, dealing with housing.

She has been watching the housing crisis of the last few years. “I wanted to do something,” she says.

The contributors to the book include the late Supreme Court judge, Adrian Hardiman, with an extract from his book, Joyce in Court, that concerns the law cases featured in Ulysses.

“The extract from the book is paired with the 1892 Maybrick case (in which a woman is accused of poisoning her husband with arsenic). It’s a case that illustrates what Hardiman identified as one of Joyce’s philosophical concerns which is how can one ever really know the precise detailed truths of past events.”

Among the other contributors are Madeleine D’Arcy, who worked as a criminal lawyer in London before taking up writing. McLaughlin and D’Arcy run the popular monthly event in Cork, Fiction at the Friary, which features well known writers reading from their work and encourages emerging talent.

Also included in Counterparts is Catherine Kirwan, a practising solicitor whose debut crime novel is due out in January; Olivia Smith, a former law academic who edits the literary journal, the Winter Papers with her writer husband, Kevin Barry; brothers, John Mee who lectures in law at UCC and is an award-winning poet, and Michael Mee, a former lecturer in law who is a comedian and prose writer and Andrea Carter, who was both a solicitor and a barrister and has recently published her third crime book in the Inishowen Mysteries which is being made into a TV series.

In her introduction to Counterparts, McLaughlin writes about how she is often “struck by the similarities between the practice of law and the practice of creative writing: the stories, the focus on language.”

Practitioners of law and writing understand “the relevance of nuance, of tone” and are attuned to the things that are not said “but may nonetheless be suggested or implied.”

As GC Thornton, author of Legislative Drafting, pointed out, “a superfluous word is...a potential source of contention. If one word will communicate the intended sense exactly, two or more should never be used.”

Lord Denning, the English judge and author, was an amazing writer, says McLaughlin. “He knew exactly how to capture the points of a story and communicate them.”

He uttered the second sentence at the beginning of a judgement: ‘It was bluebell time in Kent’ which conjures up a whole vista in such a pithy and accessible way.

McLaughlin believes that practising law has helped her writing. “It cuts both ways. If I were to go back to practise law — which I might do as I miss it sometimes — I think I’d be a better lawyer, for having written. Law made me think very closely about the meaning of words. In law, when sending out a final document, you could be in trouble if you got a word wrong.”

Because McLaughlin found law so interesting in the way narratives are presented, it satisfied her creatively.

I didn’t need to pursue writing back then. I loved reading fiction but I found so much creativity in my legal career. I know some people try it and don’t like it but I saw so many parallels with fiction. There were discussions around words, people’s stories, the dramas, who said what.

A severe dose of auto-immune arthritis in 2009 meant that McLaughlin had to stop working as a solicitor.

“I was quite unwell for six months to a year but I’m fantastic now, thank goodness. While I was out sick, I started writing.

"I had always loved books and used to write stories at school. I would have attempted to write a short story (in later life) but I think I never understood anything about writing. I didn’t realise that it could be learned and that you had to do a lot of editing and redrafting. That was a complete revelation to me. I think I thought that when I wrote something, if it didn’t work, then that was it.

"I should have realised that’s just the start of it. It’s a whole process of re-writing.

In 2010, McLaughlin attended the Cork International Short Story Festival for the first time. She was aged 41.

“I was blown away by the festival. I did workshops at the Munster Literature Centre that autumn and I signed up for the spring workshops. When they came to an end, a few of us asked the tutor if she would put on a summer workshop.

At the end of that, I just knew I didn’t want to stop doing this. I was completely hooked on writing. Four of us, who had been to the workshops, started our own writing group which is still going today.

McLaughlin’s debut short story collection, the critically acclaimed Dinosaurs on Other Planets, was published in 2015. Prior to this, she had stories published in journals including the New Yorker, and the Stinging Fly Magazine. She had been shortlisted for the Davy Byrne Award.

Working as a writer was “one of those things I’d flit in and out of but it didn’t take root for a while. It seemed like such an unreal thing to actually make a career, a life, out of writing.”

Now, McLaughlin is firmly established. After the publication of her collection, former laureate for Irish fiction, Anne Enright, said McLaughlin had arrived and there could be no worries about her next book.

As part of her two book deal with John Murray in the UK and Ireland, and Random House in the US, McLaughlin’s first novel is not expected to hit the shelves until 2020.

“I’m way over deadline,” she admits, having just finished tweaking the novel. Its main character is a woman in her forties whose husband has cheated on her with the mother of one of her daughter’s friends.

McLaughlin is writer-in-residence at UCC and will be starting workshops for staff and students there.

“There’s a lot of interest in writing now. I think people are more inclined to see it as something that’s possible. In Cork, there’s a community of writers. If you know someone who’s a writer, you’re much more inclined to give it a try.”

As part of the Dublin Book Festival, Danielle McLaughlin, will discuss literature and law with contributors on Sunday November 18 at 3.45pm in Smock Alley.

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