Extras: Interview with Majella Cullinane
Majella Cullinane, whose essay Meantime appears in Issue 17, talks to Caoimhe McKeogh about process, the influences of culture and place as an Irish–Kiwi writer, and various ways of 'giving yourself time'.
Caoimhe: I read an interview with you from a few years ago where you said that you wrote your first drafts by hand. Is that something you still do? I write everything by hand myself, but I meet fewer and fewer people who are in this camp! The only thing I can do directly into a computer is nonfiction, but even then I’ll often do a bit of thinking on paper first…
Majella: I wish I could write directly on the screen. It would save me so much time! It’s not from want of trying but I just can’t. I like the feel of a pen in my hand, which probably emanates from my childhood obsession with stationery, and in particular old-fashioned fountain pens. It feels the most natural way for me to get the story/poem/essay down. Once I have the first draft down then I can move to the screen and continue from there.
Caoimhe: I’m really interested in the rituals and routines of writers; I always want to know how creative people shape their days, balance their commitments, and find the headspace, time and energy for their craft. How does writing fit into your life? And do you have any rituals or habits that help you get into a writing headspace?
Majella: I don’t think I have any rituals as such but as I’ve got older (the arrival of a wee boy in 2010 has made me a very reluctant morning lark) I find it best to write in the morning and before everything else gets in the way. I’ve been lucky in the last 18 months as I had three writing grants, which is very unusual, and could, along with some community teaching, dedicate myself to writing. However, I recently started a full-time office job and so I’m having to figure out a time that suits. While I can write in spurts, writing is, as you know, all about rewriting, and for this I really like to have a good 2-3 hours where I can immerse myself in the text, cut and polish, polish and cut. So, I’ve decided to dedicate 3 mornings to a 6 am start and see how I go.
Caoimhe: You’re someone who writes—very successfully—in many forms. You’ve published poetry collections and a novel, you have a short story collection on its way, and you’re in the latest issue of Headland as an essayist, with a piece of creative nonfiction. How do you move between those different forms? Do ideas come to you along with the form of writing that would best fit that subject, or do you discover the form as you write?
Majella: I suppose for me at least; poetry and essays work well with the personal. In short stories and fiction I tend to make stuff up, so maybe that’s why I use the various forms to explore different aspects of myself and the world around me. Recently though, with the death of my mother, Covid-19 and reaching my mid-40s, I find my interests shifting, and I think, as I go forward, I may want to spend more of my time in the world of fiction.
Caoimhe: As a fellow citizen of both New Zealand and Ireland, I was wondering how these two homes have influenced your writing? Can you see your Irish and New Zealand literary influences coming out in your writing in different ways? And how do you feel that your work is read differently in those different contexts (for example, when a book is published in both countries)?
Majella: Since arriving here in 2008, I’ve been absolutely fascinated with New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna and that has very much influenced my poetry I would say. In fiction terms, my imagination, particularly of late, returns again and again to Ireland. Maybe as you get older, and with the border being shut for over two years, you realise where your tūrangawaewae really is, and for me that will always be the west coast of Ireland and the Atlantic. In terms of publishing, I think the Irish have always had a strong connection with their diaspora so I guess that’s how my work there would be interpreted. But I guess because I’ve been away from Ireland so long, I’m an outsider there, just as I’ll always be a ‘blow-in’ here. Saying that, the NZ literary community and readers have been very receptive to my work which I’m greatly appreciative of.
Caoimhe: At Headland, we love to publish the work of new and emerging writers alongside established voices, and I get such a thrill from reading through the author bios of an issue, where some bios say the Headland piece is the writer’s first published work, while others list previous publications and prizes—it’s like this adventure that we’re all at different stages in... You’ve achieved a lot that I imagine newer Headland writers would aspire to; what would you say are the main things you’ve learned about the life of a writer since your ‘new and emerging’ days?
It’s important to give yourself time. Don’t be in a mad rush to get things out there. Let your writing rest for a while. Allow yourself to become ‘unfamiliar’ with it—it’s the only way to look at your work objectively.
Try to create a wee routine, even if it’s only once or twice a week for an hour, and stick to it. You’ll be amazed how fast the words can add up to a story, or a draft.
When writing a novel, write one sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time. Don’t think about the size, or that it’s too hard. Just take it one step at a time. When you find yourself overwhelmed, breathe and focus on the words.
Give yourself permission to write badly. It’s better to have some words rather than nothing. Writing is rewriting!
When you’re writing a first draft, ignore the inner critic, give it a name, don’t let it abuse you, fight back, tell it to shut up! It’s got no place in the creative process. You’ll need it in the critical/editing process but until then don't give it any oxygen.
Develop a tough skin! Rejection is part and parcel of the writing life. Try not to take it personally. Often, it’s not about you at all – personal taste, not enough space in a journal/magazine, you haven’t followed the instructions or whatever. I’ve had poems and stories rejected several times which have gone on to win prizes or get published. So yeah, don’t give up!
Read lots. You can learn so much from reading. Don’t be afraid to be influenced. All writers are magpies. Learn from the best. Find the voices that speak to you!
Have a day job or a job on the side—not only to keep the light on, but also to give you a more balanced perspective on life. It’s also a great way to pick up new characters and ideas for stories too.