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In Conversation with 2019's Winning Author, Danielle McLaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin, a 50-year-old lawyer-turned-writer from Cork, first attracted attention with her 2015 short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets. Last week, she became the tenth winner of the £30,000 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, for her story 'A Partial List of the Saved', which explores family tensions and a decayed marriage. (You can read it here, or listen to it via Audible as part of their exclusive audiobook anthology of the shortlist) We spoke to her the morning after the award ceremony.

First things first: how are you feeling?

I’m just completely just amazed! I wasn't expecting it at all - I was really relaxed going into the ceremony as I wasn't expecting to win. And then my name was called out and my legs started shaking so much I thought people could see my trousers moving.

It’s been a year of big wins for you - in March you won $165,000 from the Windham-Campbell prize, and now you’ve won a further £30,000 from our award. What are you going to do with all that money?

I’m going to have to go to a quiet room by myself and think about it! But it's fabulous to have that conundrum. The question “what do I do with the money?” is one that so rarely comes a writer's way, especially when you write short stories. So many people tell you that you'll never make any money from them.

I should probably do something sensible, like pay myself a wage every month, because I'm going to have a long stretch of writing time now that I’ve finished my novel, Retrospective, which won't be coming out until January 2021.

But I’ve also had a hankering for a camper van ever since my husband, three kids and I went on a camper van holiday a few years ago. I was writing Retrospective at that stage, and I realised it’s a really interesting space to write in - I would sit at the little table while the camper van was moving and I could just write and write, looking out the window every so often. So maybe I’ll buy a camper van - I know it’s not the sensible option, but I could perhaps justify a second-hand one.

You came to writing fairly late in life, at 40 years old. How did that happen?

Yes, up until 10 years ago I was working as a lawyer, which was a dream I had worked very hard to achieve. But then, in 2009, I got ill very suddenly, after a rare reaction to a prescribed medication. I had to stop working, and transfer all my clients to another firm. Which was when I started writing.

Do you think you’ll ever return to law?

I don't think so. At the start of this year, I did find myself having a tug to go back. I’d just finished working on an anthology called Counterparts, for which I’d collaborated with a lot of lawyers. I was reading lots of law reports, which I used to love reading, as I’ve always felt they're like collections of stories.

But then out of the blue there was the Windham Campell prize. And now this. So it’s affirmed things for me - it’s like the universe is giving me a little push in the writing direction.

You’ve just finished a year as writer-in-residence for University College Cork. Did you enjoy teaching?

I loved it. I think because I believe so strongly that writing can be taught. I firmly believe if anyone sticks with a piece of writing long enough and works at it hard enough, that they can make it into something publishable.

When I first started attempting to write, I was writing by myself at home, and I just wasn't making any progress. I think I wasn't being exposed to the work of enough other writers to realise that there are so many different ways of approaching storytelling.

What changed?

At the end of 2010, I went to the Cork International Short Story Festival, run by the Munster Literature Centre, which also runs writing workshops. I signed up for the autumn workshops, and then for more the following spring. And then a few of us asked the teacher, American writer Lory Manrique-Hyland, if she would put on further workshops for us over the summer. And she did.

At the end of those, there were still four of us who were still really interested in working on our writing. So we started a writing group. We’d send our work around by email, and write up our notes on each piece at home. And then we’d meet as a group in a bar or a restaurant to deliver our critiques of each piece. It’s been really great -when we started out, none of us had anything published, and now all of us have.

I know some writers prefer to work on their own, but, for me, I wouldn't have made any progress at all if it wasn't for my group. I'm really reliant on other people telling me stuff about my work, and then redrafting and working.

How did you come to write this particular story, a Partial List of the Saved?

Like all of my stories, it was a long drawn out process, and I tried it from so many different angles over a couple of years. The main male character at the centre of it was always there, and he was always someone who was returning to his home place, but lots of other things got added in or taken out.

The core emotional conundrum at the heart of the story came from a real-life situation of this separated couple I knew who pretended to still be married for family events so as not to upset other people. I thought that was such an interesting situation: how do the dynamics of that work?

Different things fed in together, like the aeroplane instructions that were lodged in my head: “in the unlikely event of landing in water”. I think there was something that struck me about the idea of this possibility of something going wrong, but us not really paying attention. Or maybe it's just my anxious nature that means I pick up on these things!

And the title comes from a newspaper cutting that I saw on a pub wall in Northern Ireland a few years ago about the sinking of the Titanic. That clipping came back to me and attached itself to the story, kind of like a stone gathering moss.

So what’s next for you as a writer? You’ve got Retrospective coming out in 2021, but have you got anything else in the pipeline?

Since my first short story collection was published in 2015 I've finished maybe eight short stories, and I have a few more under construction, so I would like to have another collection out at some point. I've also got a new idea for a novel that's just starting to turn over in my head, so I'm playing around with that.

Do you think you'll move to novels eventually, or will you always see short stories as your primary medium?

I'm new to the world of writing novels, so I don't know how that's going to work out for me. But ever since I got ill, short stories have been almost like a safe space. It sounds odd, but at a time when the rest of my life had become a bit unmanageable, a short story was a place where I could manage to exist in my worlds between its beginning and end. So I can't see myself not writing short stories.

Interview by Lucy Knight. An abridged version of the interview in The Times can also be read here

Please join us next week for video interviews with 2019's shortlist, courtesy of Audible UK.

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