Louise O’Neill

Posted by Sue Leonard on Sunday 27th May 2018

When I first met the novelist Louise O’Neill in 2014, she had just released Only Ever Yours, her dystopian YA debut, and was reading in the Bantry Bookshop. Attending, I was impressed with her charm and humour when all the audience questions turned personal, concentrating on the eating disorder that had her hospitalised at 21.

We chatted afterwards, and it was clear that the 29-year-old had a steely determination along with prodigious talent. We’ve met often, since, at book events over the years, and it’s been no surprise that her success has grown. She is, after all, a self-confessed perfectionist.

“I’ve always felt that I had something to prove,” she says, agreeing she was an over-achiever.  “I took it to an extreme. It was, ‘I have to be the thinnest; the best in school. I have to work the hardest.’”

The reason she didn’t write at eighteen, was that she feared her book mightn’t be the best.

“If I didn’t try, I couldn’t fail,” she says. That’s why having studied fashion buying at Trinity College Dublin, she set off for New-York and worked for a year at Elle magazine.

Only Ever Yours got Louise noticed, garnering prestigious prizes; there is now a film in production; but it was the follow up, Asking for It, describing the aftermath of a gang rape at a teenage party that propelled her into the stratosphere. Why then, did it leave her feeling lonely?

“I wanted it to do well – it was all I’ve ever wanted – but I didn’t realise the attention that was going to come with it, or how uncomfortable I was going to feel with that.

“I lived in Dublin for a year. I was out all the time and I was drinking constantly, and I wasn’t eating properly, and I was running myself into the ground. I wasn’t writing, and also not exercising.

“I remember going home and Dad sat me down and said, ‘Everyone is talking about your second book, but I want you to remember the message of your first one.’ He said, ‘Your hair looks as thin as it did when you went into hospital.’” I thought,  ‘enough is enough’. And I went home to Clonakilty to write.’”

Our conversation is peppered with references to Louise’s Dad. A butcher, he’s a massive support, and also a fine critic.

“He’s a huge influence. If I’ve written something my mother will say, ‘this is brilliant! You are a genius!’ but my Dad will be specific. He’ll say, ‘This, on page 76, is really insightful.’”

As she talks about the joy of running in the gym, and of yoga – in terms of how far she can go, and what poses she can achieve, it strikes me that, even in this, Louise seems set to challenge herself.

I say this, and she laughs.

“You’re right! I might mention that to my therapist.” She attends every week, as part of her regime in keeping well. “And I do catch the ego coming in. I will look at someone in yoga and say, ‘Oh, I’m better than that!’ Then, in the next pose, I’m struggling, and that person is doing brilliantly.”

Starting Almost Love, her recently released third novel was certainly a challenge. Her first for adults, she had the greatest trouble starting it.

“I was supposed to start in January 2016, and didn’t until maybe July, because every time I sat down to write I was paralysed by the success of Asking For It, and the weight of people going, ‘What’s the next issue going to be.’ I don’t want to be pigeonholed.”

Instead she decided to write the sort of book she wanted to read. And though Almost Love – which centring on love addiction, and uncomfortable, obsessive desire could be said to mirror the issues that have emerged since the Weinstein scandal broke, Louise began the novel long before that hit the headlines.

Before penning the novel she spoke to many friends – people she describes as beautiful and clever, with impressive jobs.

“They’re really driven and ambitious, and every single one of them had a story of how they had, basically, degraded themselves. They described it as a fit of lunacy and, looking back, felt haunted by the fact that they weren’t a victim, but a willing participant in it. I thought, this is something I want to explore.

“I was thinking this was not topical in the way the other books were when Weinstein hit, and it’s more timely than ever. It’s about how power and privilege and sex interact, but I’m broadening the conversation, because it’s not so much about sexual violence but about sexual politics in general.”

A young art teacher, Sarah, falls for Matthew, the high-profile father of one of her pupils. They meet in a seedy hotel room whenever Matthew can spare the time, and although the sex, for Sarah, is highly unsatisfactory, she would do anything to make him love her.

“I feel so much sympathy for Matthew,” muses Louise, “because he is in love with his ex-wife and he has never promised Sarah anything. He emotionally manipulates her and uses her for sex, but I’m interested in how, when we are hurt, we hurt other people.”

Admitting that she carries the guilt for the way she lashed out when a long-term relationship ended, she mentions that she’s fed up with the way some reviewers have focused on Sarah’s unlikability.

And though, she agrees, this isn’t surprising, since Sarah is toxic towards Oisín, her current boyfriend, and behaved appallingly badly to her most loyal, loving friend, Fionn. But those critics have been missing the point.

“Sarah is deliberately a damaged, toxic individual because of everything that has happened in her past. She doesn’t have the emotional reserves to deal with the trauma over Matthew, and that’s why she behaves the way she does.”

I simply adored this book, not least for Louise’s depiction of the art world. I couldn’t put it down, and consider it her strongest yet. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a comfortable read. Far from it. I could see my unfiltered self in some of Sarah’s actions. And surely, I’m not the only woman to have allowed a man to treat me badly?

“The book’s just come out and I’ve already had over a hundred messages from women wanting to tell me their stories, about ‘their’ Matthew. They’re saying, ‘this is uncomfortable because I have realised that I am more like Sarah that I would want to admit.’”

Along with everything else, Sarah feels blocked. She can’t paint, and her frustration adds another layer to her poisonous nature.

“I absolutely love art. As a creative person, when you are finished with something you need to refill the well. I like music and the theatre, but I’m inspired by art because it’s non- verbal. It feeds that primal part of me. I love wandering round galleries for hours and just feeling it.”

At 33, life is good for Louise. She has another book, The Surface Breaks, coming out in May; the play of Asking For It can be seen soon in Cork, and then Dublin; and she’s in the process of buying a house in West Cork.

“My career has dominated for such a long time. It was all I prioritised. Now I have to have other things.”

Turning thirty, she says, was a shift.

“And in the last year the strides I’ve made in my emotional wellbeing and sense of self have protected me from the realities of being an author.”

Having won so many prestigious awards, Louise’s ambition is to write better books and garner more readers. Oh, and she’d quite like a relationship.

“I would love a Fionn,” she says, laughing. “ Fionn is like a wish fulfilment. He is that guy who, in your twenties, you think is too nice. Then in your thirties, you go, ‘Where is my Fionn?”

Almost Love by Louise O’Neill. Riverrun: €15.99 Kindle: €8.50.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 31st March. 2018

© Sue Leonard. 2018 

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