Interview – One Dublin One Book 2022 – Nora by Nuala O’Connor

One Dublin One Book is an annual initiative, celebrating reading for pleasure, which encourages everyone to read the same book during the month of April. A Dublin City Council initiative, led by Dublin City Libraries, the chosen book is traditionally a book connected in some way with the capital city and, to complement this synchronised reading of the book, a dynamic and varied programme of events is organised in collaboration with the chosen book’s author.

Last year’s book was Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, which received a huge response. Previous titles include Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy (2019), Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown Trilogy (2015) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey (2010).

In the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, this year’s chosen book is NORA by Nuala O’Connor; a lovingly composed and vividly conjured re-imagining of the life of Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s true love, life companion and muse. The novel charts their initial meeting in Dublin, before sweeping us away across the cities of Europe, on a tumultuous journey marred by financial struggles and uncertainty, but propelled by the intense and passionate love they shared. 

While the primary aim of One Dublin One Book is to encourage everyone to read this book in the same month, this naturally provides a space for wider discussion and debate surrounding the book to emerge; further supported and expanded by the carefully curated programme of events, which includes everything from panel discussions, readings and book club events, to musical performances, photography, an audio-visual exhibition and there is even an afternoon tea party thrown in for good measure.

There is no doubt that NORA contains all the ingredients sure to elicit rich and inspired responses: a passionate, strong-willed and witty leading lady, who also shows us her more vulnerable, practical and introspective side; a portrait of a shared life which swings from the day-to-day struggles of putting food on the table to the glittering literary and artistic social circles of 1920s/30s Europe; the intimacy of a deeply passionate love; the highs and lows of complex family dynamics; and an alternate view of one of the 20th century’s most important writers. I read NORA last year and absolutely loved it, so I can highly recommend people get their hands on the book, dive in and join the conversation. 

With just over a month to go until April kicks off, I caught up with Jackie Lynam from the Dublin UNESCO City of Literature office, part of Dublin City Libraries, to find out a bit more about this initiative.

Can you tell us about One Dublin One Book’s beginnings? 

It started in 2006 with At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien. At that stage the campaign was called Dublin: One City One Book and the aim was to encourage people to read the same book during the month of April and to attend events themed around the book. The aim is still the same although the name changed last year to One Dublin One Book. The initiative originated in Seattle and we were delighted that the librarian who dreamed up the idea – Nancy Pearl – took part in an online event last year when she interviewed Rónán Hession about his book Leonard and Hungry Paul.

NORA by Nuala O’Connor is the chosen book for this year; a wonderful book, and an especially fitting book for the centenary of Ulysses. Can you talk to us a bit about this book, and how it’s such a good fit for this initiative?

NORA is a wonderful, engaging novel about Nora Barnacle and her life with James Joyce. Nuala has re-imagined their story, based on thorough research. It begins in June 1904 when Nora meets James Joyce and they fall in love. She gives up her life and family in Ireland in search of a better life in Europe where they move from city to city. Nuala paints a vivid portrait of Nora’s adoration of James, as well as her frustration at their nomadic and financially unstable existence. We wanted to mark the centenary of the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce while honouring a contemporary Irish writer so this book fits that criteria perfectly. And we’re confident that after reading NORA, it will entice people to read Joyce’s work.

Nuala herself wears many creative hats: she is a writer, poet, editor and curator. Can you talk to us about the experience of working with the chosen authors each year when creating the programme for the month?

We work very closely with the authors to create a programme that reflects the themes of the book and their own particular interests. The process starts months before the programme is announced. We are led by their ideas as well as those of our partners who also organise events. 

Because the book differs each year, it offers us the chance to collaborate creatively with different partners. In 2016 we partnered with Belfast Libraries when Fallen by Lia Mills was the chosen book, with Clare Libraries in 2019 with Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy, and this year because of Nora’s and Nuala’s connection with Galway, Galway Public Libraries have created an event especially for One Dublin One Book. Most years the authors take part in several events during the month and we build up a close working relationship with them during the campaign. 

Taking the chosen book as a starting point, for collaborating with other individuals and organisations in the creative sector, seems like a great way to expand our reading of the book, and gain new perspectives on themes covered. Can you talk to us a bit about this aspect of the initiative?

From the very beginning our aim was to get people talking about the chosen book. It’s like a very large book club and the events provide an opportunity for readers to come together in person or virtually to hear more about the themes in the book and the inspiration for the book. It provides different perspectives on the reading experience through panel discussions or at the Q&A at the end of the events.

This is a Dublin City Council initiative, led by Dublin City Libraries. This is a great time to remind people that libraries are more than just a place to borrow books from. They create and grow communities of readers, and can open up a whole new experience beyond the individual reading of a book. Could you talk to us a bit about Dublin City Libraries at the heart of this initiative?

The project is led by Dublin City Libraries with several hundred copies of the One Dublin One Book title bought every year by them as well as e-audio and e-book versions. But we also have great support from the other library authorities in Dublin – DLR Libraries, Fingal and South Dublin – so it really is a Dublin-wide library initiative. The libraries were closed last year for many months, so we’re delighted to be able to welcome back readers and members of the local community to a space that they can relax in free of charge, and meet other readers and engage in discussions about books and much more. Although our digital services have increased enormously, we have missed that personal interaction.

This initiative is called One Dublin One Book, and many of the events will be taking place in Dublin. However, with some events outside Dublin and so much conversation around events now also online, I imagine people all around the country, even the world, will be able to join in this communal read, should they wish to?

Absolutely. We welcome readers wherever they are in the world to join in as we read NORA in April. Last year’s events were all online and we were delighted to reach people around the world and hope to do so again this year. The programme has a range of in-person, online as well as a few hybrid events where the events will be streamed live. So we look forward to having a global conversation this spring about Nora Barnacle and James Joyce.

And lastly, a few parting words from One Dublin One Book…

If you are intimidated by Ulysses and James Joyce I would encourage you to pick up a copy of NORA – it’s a fascinating portrait of the woman who inspired one of the world’s best known books. She deserves a bigger audience. And I promise you, it’s a fantastic read.

***

The One Dublin One Book initiative runs for the month of April.  Many of the events happen around Dublin but the programme also takes us West to Galway, across the water to London, and a little stretch further again to Warsaw and Monaco. With many of the events online, and most of them free, this is a very accessible programme.

NORA can be purchased directly from publishers New Island or from most national bookshops, and can also be borrowed from participating libraries nationwide in hard copy, e-book or audio book. All information on the book, as well as full details on the initiative and this year’s programme of events, are available at the One Dublin One Book website.

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A big thank you to Jackie for taking the time out to talk to me in what was a very busy week leading up to the official launch of One Dublin One Book 2022.

Nora by Nuala O'Connor with tote bag and notebook by At It Again
Special One Dublin One Book edition of NORA by Nuala O’Connor with tote bag and notebook by At It Again

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