Interview: Majella Cullinane, 2014 Burns Fellow
Well, the Burns Fellowship comes around every year. I was pretty unsure whether I was going to apply for it or not, ‘cause I have been in New Zealand for just over five years, and it’s New Zealand’s oldest literary award and I thought maybe it’s too soon, what would be the chances; something like that, I imagine, is very competitive. So I was kind of um-ing and ah-ing about applying for it. Then I met with an Irish friend of mine and she said, “Oh, just apply for it.” My mum has always been like, “if you’re not in, you can’t win.” So I put in an application about a week before the deadline, which involves a CV, a sample of your writing, and a project plan.
You’ve done other fellowships in Ireland and Scotland; what is it like here, comparatively?
The first one I did was after my MLitt at St Andrews. I did a MLitt in creative writing and applied for a creative writing fellowship with Aberdeen City Council. That was very different because part of the fellowship involved going into primary schools and teaching creative writing. Part of the remit of that was to get reluctant readers and reluctant writers, who were mainly young boys, actually, and to encourage them to write. So those were three-and-a-half days of pretty full-on [work] going to five different primary schools – but it was great fun, it’s great fun teaching 10, 11, 12-year-olds. They’re fantastic. Some of them had really great imaginations. Then you only had a day and a half to work on your own stuff. So it was a yearlong fellowship, but three-and-a-half days [of] every week was in schools and one-and-a-half days you had for your own work.
The second residency I did was in Glasgow. That was a shorter residency – that was about five months. And that was, I think, two days in schools so it was more part-time. And then just other little “mini residencies,” we call them. You might get a couple of weeks here in a house with the stipend or something like that. So this one [the Burns Fellowship] is definitely the best because your time is your own, you can do what you want to; there’s nobody checking and saying, “have you reached this word count today?” [And] there’s no report to fill in so you’ve got complete autonomy, which is absolutely unique of any residency anywhere. Usually there’s some kind of outcome that you’re expected to produce something, but that’s not the case with this one.
I read that you’re planning on writing a novel this year and I know you’ve also written a lot of poetry. Which do you like writing more: prose or poetry?
Obviously writing is writing, but they’re both quite different. I would say the mind-set is quite different – for me, anyway. It’s different for everybody. People will say that’s not what it’s like for me, because everybody has a different process. For me poetry is a quieter, stiller mind-set. I’d almost call it like autumn or something. There’s something very still about it, cool. And for me prose is far more fluid. So when I write, because I can get terribly distracted by the Internet, I tend to try and write by hand. I turn off the computer, I’ve tried lots of ways – it’s very old fashioned and probably silly – but it’s just more fluid and you’re less likely to censor yourself. Now, I have friends who would be horrified because as they write, they edit. I can’t wear the two hats at the same time. So I just try to turn off all the distractions and just write the story and then type it up and that’s when I edit. I know there are people who can do it, who can wear the simultaneous creative and critical hat at the same time. I have found that when I try and do it, what happens is the critical starts to take over and goes, “that’s not very good.” Whereas if you just go with the flow, which is, essentially, “what are you trying to do here; you’re trying to tell a good story?” And you’re not even thinking about the reader, you’re thinking, “I want to entertain myself first.” If you’re being entertained or you think that’s quite moving you’re more likely to continue with the story. Obviously, sometimes I deviate from that if I don’t have a notepad and have a computer then I’ll go on the computer. There are certain Irish writers, like Banville and O’Brien, that all write their novels in longhand before they type them up. Banville can spend a whole day on 50 words; he’s a perfectionist, a great writer. Everyone does it differently.
Do you have a particular method you use to write?
With poetry I tend to read a lot of poetry. I think that’s a very important thing. I think reading and writing are inseparable. You get a lot of beginning writers, including myself – ‘cause I started dabbling when I was 14, and I would write lots but I wouldn’t read anything. But you have to – one informs the other. Reading really helps me and then you can get an idea of what is it I want to write. With poetry, for me anyway, I do a lot of free writing. Looking out the window and describe the window and keep going for a certain amount of time and see if there is anything that comes from that. It’s a subconscious thing. Then you start to craft it and find a form and figure out at some point, it could be draft 30, what it is you’re trying to say. With prose I used to get quite overwhelmed. I think it’s better if you take it almost like a film; scene-by-scene. And then you try and get that flow and connection between scenes, rather than thinking, “ah, I have to write a novel.” I’ve done that before, “I have to write a novel,” and then you get half way through and go, “oh, this is really bad, I should do something else.” So just taking your time, I suppose.
Who or what inspires you most to write?
It’s difficult to name names, because there are so many. I suppose it’s easier to say what: Good books; good music; a beautiful day. I think if you’re writing, most people who do write would say that if you don’t write, you don’t feel right about it. You feel antsy. Well, that’s at least how I feel. I’m always writing in my head even if I’m not writing writing. It just never goes away, never switches off; it’s always there. I suppose my first influence that I remember being really affected by was James Joyce. When I went to Uni it was Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. I loved James Joyce’s Dubliners, not Ulysses. Some of Ulysses is great but it’s quite a difficult book. I love magical realism – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie. I like a lot of Irish short story writers, [like] John McGahern. Lots and lots. I did Italian at university and I studied Dante. I like Dante a lot. I do remember someone once asking me, “who do you read?” Now, I never thought who was so important as what. All writers have stories that just really stay in your head. And then there might be something else that they write that you don’t like or you don’t connect to. It’s more about “what” than the “who.”
When was the moment you first realised that you wanted to be an author, and what encouraged you to strive towards this goal?
That’s an interesting one. Certainly back when I grew up in the ‘80s in Ireland – pretty economically depressed in the sense of 30 per cent unemployment, most people immigrating to America – to say you were going to be a writer was kind of a nutty thing. People might think it but they wouldn’t really say it. My dad worked in a hospital and my mother was a housewife so it wasn’t a bookish family or anything like that. I always loved writing in English class. I think the first time I felt like writing was when I read Emily Dickinson. I think a lot of teenage girls go through a sort of Emily Dickinson/Sylvia Plath phase. So I started writing in the style of Emily Dickinson, with the big dashes and stuff like that. I definitely started writing poetry first and then I got to write short stories.
I always think I wanted to be, but reality is, well, at least at that time – or maybe because of the background I came from – it was something you would do as a hobby. That it wasn’t really something you could pursue full time or seriously because you had to find a job. It’s all about finding a job. If you go to university, what are you going to do then? Are you going to do this, this or this? Some people will disagree with what I’m about to say, but I do think it is a good idea, and many writers have, to get a sort of profession to keep the lights on, to pay the bills. In the sense that a lot of writers, especially poets, are librarians or they’re teachers or they are civil servants. Just keep that at the side, and if you do get an opportunity, like this year where you get paid, it’s a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity. If someone said to me that they would like to be a writer, I would say absolutely go ahead with it. Just have something to depend on. The reality is that most people can’t make a living by writing or by art or by music.
I had a bit of a crisis just before my 29th birthday and I was living in a pretty dull town in Ireland and I had a pretty dull job and I thought to myself, “What am I doing? I’ve always wanted to write and here I am doing something I don’t want to do. If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.” So it just happened that I was made redundant, which for many people would have been disappointing, but I was like, “Yay!” So I just started to write. I was on the dole for a few months and I started to write again and I thought, maybe I should apply for one of those creative writing things. I had applied when I was very young, right out of college, and I didn’t get anywhere. So I thought I’d just apply for a few, and I got all of them and then I thought, “how am I going to fund this?” So I applied for an Irish Arts Council grant. I thought that the chances of getting this are pretty low, but then I got that, too. So that funded it. As soon as I was in St Andrew’s I was meeting people with similar obsessions.
I really felt that this was what I was meant to do and always meant to do and I’ve just taken so many diverting routes. I did a Masters in publishing, I thought, “Oh, I like books, I’ll do publishing” but publishing is not the same as writing; it’s the creative versus the analytical. Not to say that publishing is not creative, what I’m saying is that it’s about producing a book and not writing a book. Anyway, then I got the fellowship in Aberdeen and I did little mini gigs along the way. Also, it always helps to have a champion. What I mean by that is that there is usually someone in your life that is really encouraging and I was quite fortunate in that my partner is incredibly encouraging. Also by going to creative writing workshops I would meet other people who you encourage them and they encourage you and it does help. I think writers are notoriously insecure creatures. That’s just part of it and they think, “Oh, it’s not very good,” or they tend to doubt themselves. I suppose you can get the few odd ones who are very sure of themselves, but most aren’t. Poets in particular are delicate souls sometimes.
I recently did an article on the connection between Scotland and Dunedin. How do they compare in reality? Is it a similar city? Did the similarities make it easier to move to New Zealand?
I was only in Scotland for three years, and I was living in three different parts of Scotland. So, St Andrew’s is in Fife, and Aberdeen is in Aberdeenshire, and Glasgow is in Lanarkshire. Scotland is very like Ireland in the sense that, depending on where you go, the local identity or personality can be very different. It’s probably like New Zealand. In the sense of probably Northlanders are quite different than, say, down south. We started off in Wellington then we lived in Kapiti. This is my first time in the South Island, and all the names are Scottish. The first time I came to Dunedin I thought the outline of the city was very Scottish. The way things are up in the hills, the old buildings, the old railway station, and then when you walk down George Street it’s a very Kiwi town. It’s sort of a balance between the old and the new, which I hadn’t come across before in New Zealand. In a lot of other old towns in New Zealand, a lot of the buildings are really gorgeous, but they’re colonial New Zealand buildings. Whereas the railway station here and St Paul’s Church and those kind of things very much remind me of the old world. Certainly the weather is very similar. A lot of people have Scottish heritage and Scottish names.
I think what will be interesting in the future here is that, of course this was founded by Scots, but I think more will come out about the Northern Irish influence in Dunedin. Because I know about my partner’s family, they came out in the 1860s to Otago, the gold-rush, and they were from Northern Ireland. Certainly there were people from what we call the Republic, which wouldn’t have been called the Republic back then, there would have been people from the south, but mainly a lot of them were from the north. I think a lot of that is starting to come out. And also, of course, the English. People forget the huge influence of the English in New Zealand, with maybe a smattering of Welsh, too. There’s a little bit of everything. I think New Zealanders are becoming more and more interested in their history.
Do you have any sage advice to offer young budding writers like myself?
Read, read, write, write, write. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like having two arms – if you just write you’re not really informing the writing by reading. Experience is good, too; it doesn’t have to be travel necessarily, or international travel, could be just going somewhere new and getting ideas. Even to a park. Because at a certain point the mind empties out and you have to fill it again. A self-belief is important and for some people that comes quite young, because they’ve been encouraged a lot, and for other people it comes later. I honestly don’t think that if I’d – say if this had happened to me 10 years ago – I don’t think I would have been ready. It doesn’t matter how old you are. A big thing has been made about Eleanor Catton winning the Man Booker at 28, but some people are very mature at 28 and I think this is the case here. Some people haven’t got a clue what they want to do at 28 – some people don’t have a clue what they want to do at 48. So it’s really more about the individual.