- 03 Feb 21
A serial prize winner for her short stories, Danielle McLaughlin has now written her hugely anticipated debut novel, the gripping The Art Of Falling. Photo: Claire O'Rorke
A celebrated short story writer who has won both the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award and the Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction, Danielle McLaughlin can expect further acclaim for her debut novel The Art Of Falling. It tells the compelling story of Cork-based gallery curator Nessa McCormack, who has to deal with the fallout when her husband has an affair with the mother of one of their teenage daughter’s school friends.
Further complicating matters, a woman is claiming she is the true creator of Nessa’s latest artistic project, a piece by deceased sculptor Robert Locke, and a past relationship has come back to haunt her. It’s a wonderful read, filled with wit and psychological insight, more than justifying the lofty expectations surrounding it.
Notably, one of the main themes of The Art Of Falling is how people negotiate long-term relationships, particularly as they approach middle age.
“It’s definitely in there,” agrees Danielle, speaking down the line from her Cork home. “It wasn’t that I set out to write with that in mind. At the start, it was very much about this character, this feeling and a sense of struggle that came to me. I know I’m making that sound very airy-fairy, but it did begin with a particular character and situations grew around that. The artwork in the book was also there from the beginning. I wasn’t writing to any particular theme, but they made their way in.
“I do think that is one of them: the challenges that long-term relationships sometimes survive and sometimes don’t. A related question is what people in long-term relationships – and particularly middle-aged people – decide to put up with. Maybe they fail to sufficiently interrogate what they’re doing and why. Do people stay because they’ve maybe forgotten about options? Or do people stay because they’ve learned how to negotiate life in a particular way, because they’re getting something very worthwhile out of their relationship?
“I suppose there are complexities and contradictions in there, but they’re in my main character as well. She’s someone who, although she’s middle-aged, hasn’t got it all figured out – she has a lot to work out for herself as a person yet. She has age but maybe not too much wisdom yet, though hopefully she has opportunities to acquire some.”
One of the questions the reader contends with early in the book is why, after her architect husband’s infidelity, Nessa still chooses to stay with him. Was it something Danielle herself grappled with as she created the novel?
“Not as I wrote it,” she replies, “because I had a very clear feeling of what the character would do. Now, stepping back from the book and looking at it, I know very much still that is what the character would do. Not at all necessarily what I do, and I’ve also maybe started doing a little bit of psychoanalysis from a distance. You go, ‘I wonder why?’ I think some of the clues as to why she puts up with certain things are perhaps there, in terms of what she got from her parents’ marriage through learned behaviour.
“It seems to me, even though it’s not detailed too much in the novel – it’s maybe glanced upon – that her parents’ marriage wasn’t a particularly happy one, but it still continued on. So it could be there’s an element of learned behaviour, in terms of how she as an adult has approached her own relationships. I’m just thinking this as I’m talking now, but it might be another way in which the past keeps asserting its influence in Nessa’s present.”
McLaughlin herself has had a fascinating rise to prominence. A solicitor for most of her adult life, she didn’t take up writing until just over a decade ago. Though a writing workshop with Nuala O’Connor provided the initial spark for The Art Of Falling, McLaughlin published numerous short stories before its completion, scooping coveted literary gongs and eventually publishing the acclaimed collection Dinosaurs On Other Planets. Was she surprised at how quickly things took off for her?
“Yeah, I was massively fortunate,” nods Danielle. “I’m very much aware that’s one of the things with the writing life, isn’t it? Some people can have great luck and good fortune, and other people can do really brilliant work, and not necessarily have the same luck or recognition. It’s one of the heartbreaking things about the arts sector, actually: there’s no way of knowing why some work gets a lot of credit and recognition, and other very good work doesn’t. That said, I’m delighted for the good fortune that came my way.
“It was a big surprise – it was the last thing that I would have expected, especially because I was writing short stories when I won the prizes. With short story writers, it’s not often that any significant money comes their way, so I was very lucky to win prizes. It’s almost unreal in some ways, but it was fantastic.”
Away from writing, is Danielle into music or TV shows?
“I was never that into music,” she reflects, “but years ago, when I was a teenager, I remember being at a particular venue and getting totally swept up in the band who were playing. I thought they were so powerful and I seemed to be the only person there really paying attention. And do you know who the band, turned out to be? Aslan!
“As for TV, our family have been enjoying The Crown, we have one episode left. It’s funny, occasionally my husband or I will point out what’s going to happen with a particular historical event, and our kids will go, ‘Spoiler!”
• The Art Of Falling is out on tomorrow (February 4), published by John Murray.