Chapters and verse

University of Otago 2014 Burns Fellow Majella Cullinane has been working on a novel about a young...
University of Otago 2014 Burns Fellow Majella Cullinane has been working on a novel about a young man in the Wellington region growing up at the turn of the 20th century and being conscripted for World War 1. Photo supplied.
This year's Burns Fellow at Otago University came to writing by a circuitous route. Charmian Smith talks to Irish-born writer Majella Cullinane.

''I was always interested in books and writing but never knew how to go about it,'' Majella Cullinane explains.

The Irish-born writer and 2014 Burns Fellow at Otago University wanted to travel so after completing a degree in English literature and Italian in Dublin, did an English language teaching qualification and travelled for a few years.

She met Andrew Court, her New Zealand partner, when they were both teaching English in Spain.

One of her roundabout ways of approaching writing was to try publishing, so she did a master's degree in Oxford and got a job back in Ireland, she said.

''Editing wasn't really for me. As I said, I was getting round to going in the right direction but going in a long-winded sort of way. Then about 2003, during the boom in Ireland, everyone was buying houses and I had a good job. It's a cliche, but I'd reached the crossroads: is this what my life is going to be, living in a commuter town in Ireland?''

She welcomed redundancy when it came because it was an excuse to get back into writing, she said.

''From the library I got myself a teach-yourself-how-to-write-poetry book and just picked up on the tips there. You have to read a lot of poetry - of course as an adolescent you would have done a bit in school but you wouldn't really have read outside the canon of what your teachers were telling you to read - so [I was] just reading very widely and writing and experimenting.''

She joined the Irish Writers' Centre in Dublin, which offered courses and readings and she met people with similar interests.

Then an Irish arts council grant for professional training enabled her to spend a year on a creative writing course at St Andrews, Scotland.

She loved the beach, the old town, the old university and particularly the companionship of people with similar interests.

Scotland also felt like a home away from home, as her parents had lived there, she said.

This was followed by fellowships in Aberdeen and Glasgow, teaching and doing part-time creative writing.

Then the recession came and her partner, who works in IT, suggested they come to New Zealand so they moved to Wellington.

She felt homesick that first winter, she said.

''I really like Thorndon and the botanic gardens but with the Tinakori hills looming down on you and the mists coming in and the southerlies, it's very dark and gloomy.

''But then I think what made it for me was having [son] Robbie there. I felt after that it gave me a greater connection to the place, things like Plunket and the mums groups.''

Their son Robbie is now 4.

Then they moved to the Kapiti Coast for three and a-half years, which they enjoyed more than Thorndon. Andrew had to commute two hours a day but she worked at home teaching creative writing online for Massey.

They love Dunedin: the pace of life, the weather, which reminds her of Ireland, and Andrew can work from home.

''Another thing about Dunedin I found fantastic is the warmth of the people and the writing community as well. They've taken me and it's been really lovely. I haven't had that since St Andrews 10 years ago. I'm loath to let it go. It's been lovely.''

Cullinane (39) and her family plan to stay in Dunedin for another year or two at least.

Her first collection of poetry, Guarding the Flame, was published in 2011.

It came from an idea of writing about women from Irish myth and history, and many of them are dramatic monologues in the voices of women like Nora Barnacle, James Joyce's partner, or Sionna, the mythical goddess of the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland.

Others were inspired by her experience of pregnancy and birth, she said.

''Poetry has always been big in Ireland. There are a number of great poets and it seemed a natural place to start. Irish writers are also known for their short stories,'' she said.

''I do short stories as well but they are really hard to get right. I'm not saying poetry isn't, but I find for me short stories are the most challenging.

Whereas with a novel you can spread your wings a bit and explore different things, in a short story you have to fit a lot into a limited space. In many ways it's much more about what you are leaving out than what you are putting in.''

This year with the luxury of time she has been working predominantly on a novel, apart from writing Cut Away the Masts, poems for a song cycle Mozart Fellow Jeremy Mayall set to music which was performed at Otago Museum last weekend.

''It almost feels like I'm cheating on the novel. Some people can wear two hats at one time but I find they are totally different ways of thinking.''

The seed of her novel has been going round in her head for some time but it's morphed hugely, she says.

It's about a young man in the Wellington region growing up at the turn of the 20th century and being conscripted for World War 1.

A lot of books have dealt with aspects of the war, particularly trench warfare and Gallipoli, and the nurses, but she wanted to explore a different aspect.

''It's about a young man who - and there were many - didn't like going off in a massive rush and joining up. He only takes part in the war because in 1916 they bring in conscription.

Loving Dunedin ... University of Otago 2014 Burns Fellow Majella Cullinane has been working on a novel about a young man in the Wellington region growing up at the turn of the 20th century and being conscripted for World War 1.

PHOTO: SUPPLIED''I WAS always interested in books and writing but never knew how to go about it,'' Majella Cullinane explains.

The Irish-born writer and 2014 Burns Fellow at Otago University wanted to travel so after completing a degree in English literature and Italian in Dublin, did an English language teaching qualification and travelled for a few years. She met Andrew Court, her New Zealand partner, when they were both teaching English in Spain.

One of her roundabout ways of approaching writing was to try publishing, so she did a master's degree in Oxford and got a job back in Ireland, she said.

''Editing wasn't really for me. As I said, I was getting round to going in the right direction but going in a long-winded sort of way. Then about 2003, during the boom in Ireland, everyone was buying houses and I had a good job. It's a cliche, but I'd reached the crossroads: is this what my life is going to be, living in a commuter town in Ireland?''She welcomed redundancy when it came because it was an excuse to get back into writing, she said.

''From the library I got myself a teach-yourself-how-to-write-poetry book and just picked up on the tips there. You have to read a lot of poetry - of course as an adolescent you would have done a bit in school but you wouldn't really have read outside the canon of what your teachers were telling you to read - so [I was] just reading very widely and writing and experimenting.''

She joined the Irish Writers' Centre in Dublin, which offered courses and readings and she met people with similar interests. Then an Irish arts council grant for professional training enabled her to spend a year on a creative writing course at St Andrews, Scotland. She loved the beach, the old town, the old university and particularly the companionship of people with similar interests. Scotland also felt like a home away from home, as her parents had lived there, she said.

This was followed by fellowships in Aberdeen and Glasgow, teaching and doing part-time creative writing.

Then the recession came and her partner, who works in IT, suggested they come to New Zealand so they moved to Wellington. She felt homesick that first winter, she said.

''I really like Thorndon and the botanic gardens but with the Tinakori hills looming down on you and the mists coming in and the southerlies, it's very dark and gloomy.

''But then I think what made it for me was having [son] Robbie there. I felt after that it gave me a greater connection to the place, things like Plunket and the mums groups.''

Their son Robbie is now 4.

Then they moved to the Kapiti Coast for three and a-half years, which they enjoyed more than Thorndon. Andrew had to commute two hours a day but she worked at home teaching creative writing online for Massey.

They love Dunedin: the pace of life, the weather, which reminds her of Ireland, and Andrew can work from home.

''Another thing about Dunedin I found fantastic is the warmth of the people and the writing community as well. They've taken me and it's been really lovely. I haven't had that since St Andrews 10 years ago. I'm loath to let it go. It's been lovely.''

Cullinane (39) and her family plan to stay in Dunedin for another year or two at least. Her first collection of poetry, Guarding the Flame, was published in 2011. It came from an idea of writing about women from Irish myth and history, and many of them are dramatic monologues in the voices of women like Nora Barnacle, James Joyce's partner, or Sionna, the mythical goddess of the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland. Others were inspired by her experience of pregnancy and birth, she said.

''Poetry has always been big in Ireland. There are a number of great poets and it seemed a natural place to start. Irish writers are also known for their short stories,'' she said.

''I do short stories as well but they are really hard to get right. I'm not saying poetry isn't, but I find for me short stories are the most challenging. Whereas with a novel you can spread your wings a bit and explore different things, in a short story you have to fit a lot into a limited space. In many ways it's much more about what you are leaving out than what you are putting in.''

This year with the luxury of time she has been working predominantly on a novel, apart from writing Cut Away the Masts, poems for a song cycle Mozart Fellow Jeremy Mayall set to music which was performed at Otago Museum last weekend.

''It almost feels like I'm cheating on the novel. Some people can wear two hats at one time but I find they are totally different ways of thinking.''

The seed of her novel has been going round in her head for some time but it's morphed hugely, she says.

It's about a young man in the Wellington region growing up at the turn of the 20th century and being conscripted for World War 1.

A lot of books have dealt with aspects of the war, particularly trench warfare and Gallipoli, and the nurses, but she wanted to explore a different aspect.

''It's about a young man who - and there were many - didn't like going off in a massive rush and joining up. He only takes part in the war because in 1916 they bring in conscription.

 

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