Windham-Campbell Prize winning author Danielle McLaughlin on the power of short stories, and her creative process

Danielle McLaughlin loves the intensity of short stories, the allure lies in their quality to deliver powerful punches. A short story can possibly be more of a challenge, she explains, because authors are asking the readers to stay with them only for a short time.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe April 07, 2019 11:40:28 IST
Windham-Campbell Prize winning author Danielle McLaughlin on the power of short stories, and her creative process
  • Danielle McLaughlin recently won the Windham-Campbell Award for her debut book, Dinosaurs on Other Planets.

  • Lawyer turned writer, McLaughlin is the third Irish author in four years to have been the recipient of the generous winner’s purse of $165,000 .

  • McLaughlin's latest short story A Partial List of the Saved, is set to be featured in Being Various, an anthology of New Irish Short Stories.

"It’s an astonishing sum of money, the kind that so rarely comes the way of a writer of fiction and particularly the writer of a collection of short stories!" exclaims author Danielle McLaughlin, who recently won the Windham-Campbell Award for her debut book, Dinosaurs on Other Planets.

Lawyer-turned-writer, McLaughlin is the third Irish author in four years to have been the recipient of the generous winner’s purse of $1,65,000 for her 2015 collection of short stories. Yale University’s literature award follows the process of an anonymous selection such that writers come to know that their work was under consideration only when they have won. McLaughlin says the prize gives a writer "wonderful financial freedom".

"It’s like an affirmation of all the hours spent on projects that will never earn any money — and in the life of a writer there are usually many of those hours."

The winners, announced on 13 March, 2019, included Indian journalist and writer Raghu Karnad, who won the Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction for his work Farthest Fields: An Indian Story of the Second World War.

McLaughlin, an author from County Cork in South-Western Ireland, spins stories of multiple characters immersed in various shades in Dinosaurs on Other Planets. She writes about a woman battling bluebottles whilst planning an ill-judged encounter with a stranger, a husband commuting to work through a treacherous route and a nine-year-old’s obsession with dead birds and the apocalypse. The jury cited her stories as those that "capture the beauty and brutality of human relationships, imbuing them with near-magical qualities rooted in the details of everyday life in a manner both wry and resonant."

WindhamCampbell Prize winning author Danielle McLaughlin on the power of short stories and her creative process

Danielle McLaughlin's collection of short stories, Dinosaurs on Other Planets.

The author loves the intensity of short stories, the allure that lies in their quality to deliver powerful punches. Writers such as Alice Munro, Elena Ferrante and George Saunders continue to inspire her work. According to her, they approach their characters in a spirit of compassion rather than judgement. A short story can possibly be more of a challenge, she explains, because authors are asking the readers to stay with them only for a short while. And these writers, McLaughlin continues, have enough respect for their readers to trust them and to allow them to engage on a personal, intimate level with the story rather than ‘explaining’ things to them.

"I love the way a good short story keeps on offering up more with each re-reading."

McLaughlin was a lawyer for many years before a bout of illness in 2009 compelled her to take a break from work. While at home, she turned to writing as she recuperated and never went back to legal practice. When asked what motivated her to write Dinosaurs on Other Planets, she says, "I can’t say that I had any particular motivation as such, other than a desire to write stories. Perhaps a desire to communicate something to the reader, to record the experience of living, as I struggle to understand it, is the closest I can get to a motivation."

However, the author does point out that there is an overlap in the skills needed to practice both law and writing. There is drama and story in legal practice as in a book, and the focus on words and their meanings is of extreme importance. Nuance and tone reveal so much, and there is a requirement for precision in the choice of words. She has always found law to be a very creative career, she adds, "Perhaps if I hadn’t got sick, I might not be working as a writer today."

*

Earlier in March 2019, nearly a decade after switching careers, the full-time writer and mother of three was in Copenhagen celebrating her 50th birthday on a surprise trip with the family. Her children had just been on roller coasters at the Tivoli Gardens theme park, when out of the blue, she got the phone call. Answering it outside a Wagamama restaurant, she was informed that she had won the Windham-Campbell Prize and it was "quite extraordinary," she notes, she "didn’t really know what to say" but recalls having uttered the word 'wow' a lot. She remembers thinking afterwards, "It was just as well it was my writing that had been considered and not my conversational skills!"

WindhamCampbell Prize winning author Danielle McLaughlin on the power of short stories and her creative process

Author Danielle McLaughlin at the announcement of the Windham-Campbell Prize winners in London. Image courtesy Honeybunn Photography

The author is engaged in teaching and working as a writer-in-residence in her hometown at the University College Cork (UCC) and continues working on a number of short stories. One of her latest works, A Partial List of the Saved, is set to be featured in Being Various, a long-running series by Faber & Faber that publishes an anthology of New Irish Short Stories. The name of her story, McLaughlin says, was picked up from the title of an actual list. The author stumbled upon a copy of a newspaper cutting on the wall of a pub in Northern Ireland that had carried this list shortly after the Titanic sank.

“I won’t say too much about them,” she says of the other stories that are in the works, “because they always change so much while I’m writing them — what I think they’re about now, might not be what they’re about next month!”

There is also a certain excitement of watching stories grow, from simply being "work-shopped" to developing into early drafts and finally transforming into works ready to be read by the world, she explains. The writer, who hosts the monthly event in Cork, Fiction at the Frairy, with fellow author Madeleine D’Arcy and the English Department at UCC, says a group of writers coming together and working creatively creates a special energy.

Of her experience teaching and writing at the university, she notes, “I’ve often found that after a day spent teaching, when I get back to my writing desk the following day, problems in a piece of my own writing will have worked themselves out, solutions will have materialised.”

While at UCC for the year 2018-19, McLaughlin has been participating in writers’ collaborations for people who have gone to Ireland seeking asylum and is also completing her novel Retrospective, set in Cork city and West Cork, Ireland.

Dinosaurs On Other Planets was published in Ireland by The Stinging Fly Press

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