From the concept of dinosaurs on other planets to a skull found in a forest, no idea is wasted by Cork author Danielle McLaughlin, says Collette Sheridan
DANIELLE McLaughlin came to writing relatively late in life. The former solicitor, 46, who lives in Donoughmore, Co Cork with her husband and three children, became ill in 2009 and gave up work. Although she had dabbled at writing in previous years, nothing came of it.
Before signing up for a writers’ workshop which was a revelation to her, McLaughlin says: “I had this idea that one was either a writer or one wasn’t. A writer was this mystical being and you had to find out whether or not you were one. It seemed to be like allergy testing. And who would you get to administer the test?”
McLaughlin tested positive at the 2010 Cork International Short Story Festival when she attended a workshop by Lory Manrique-Hyland.
“That was the turning point for me,” says McLaughlin, who has had two stories published in The New Yorker and has won several writing competitions. “I realised that there’s so much about writing that can be learned. I also discovered that it can take a very long time to write a story and that it’s hard work.
“I can write 50 or 60 drafts before something eventually turns into a story. I don’t mind how long it takes. I’m quite a perfectionist. But I need input all the time. I know that some writers prefer to work alone. I couldn’t imagine that.”
McLaughlin, who often goes to a cafe in Blarney to write longhand into her copybook, is in constant contact with her agent in the UK, her editor and publisher, Declan Meade of The Stinging Fly, and her writers’ group that meets twice a month in a Cork city restaurant. She shows these people her work-in-progress and is open to their critiques and suggestions. The process serves McLaughlin well. Her writing is full of precise detail and descriptions of nature that mirror what seems to be going on with her vividly-drawn characters. But McLaughlin doesn’t over- intellectualise her approach.
In her story, ‘All About Alice’, dying bluebottles buzz around and “rise up in a last frantic salute to life and summer”. Alice, aged 45, makes a desperate stab at having some sort of a sexual experience, in an ill-judged encounter with a young man.
“Creatures keep coming into my stories. I don’t know why that is. I know that as a young child, I had an obsession with dead things; insects, birds and animals,” McLaughlin says.
“Myself and the other kids had a club at one stage which involved gathering dead things. We’d make notes of what they were, we’d bury them and sometime later, we’d dig them up.”
The title story, shortlisted for the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award and published in The New Yorker, was inspired by McLaughlin’s son’s startling question when he was eight.
“I was putting Rory to bed one night and he asked me if there are dinosaurs on other planets. I thought that was a great question. How do we know what is beyond us? Then one day, my husband and the kids came back from a nearby forest with a skull that they found. The image of the dinosaurs and other planets, the forest and the skull came together.”
McLaughlin is also currently working on a novel. With her numerous drafts, some material doesn’t make it into her short stories but may find its way into her novel.
“Nothing is wasted,” she says.
Not even her child’s curious preoccupation.
Danielle McLaughlin will read from her debut collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, at the Cork International Short Story Festival (September 22-26) at Triskel on Wednesday. She will also give a workshop entitled ‘Short Stories for Beginners’. www.corkshortstory.net.
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