SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author LOUISE O’NEILL about FEMINISM, INSPIRATIONAL WOMEN and her latest works …
International bestseller Louise O’Neill is one of modern Irish fiction’s most distinguished voices; whose books are consumed by adolescents and adults alike. The feminist author’s clear-cut, provocative prose examines societal issues with a fine-toothed comb. Her analysis of rape culture, gender equality, mental health and body image, destructive behaviour and sexual politics, has asked many important questions and started conversations that were perhaps waiting to be had.
Originally from West Cork, Louise once lived in New York, where she worked for the illustrious Elle magazine for a year. It was during this period that inspiration struck for her first book; she soon returned to Ireland and began writing it not long afterwards.
Louise’s debut Young Adult title, Only Ever Yours, won Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2014, as well as the inaugural YA Prize and the story has been optioned for film. Her enormously popular second offering, Asking For It, won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2015 and topped the Irish charts for months on end. The New York Times called it ‘riveting and essential.’ In addition to penning fiction, Louise is a columnist with the Irish Examiner and in 2016 presented Killer Consent, a documentary for RTÉ.
This year will elevate Louise to dizzying heights with two more books. Her absorbing first adult novel Almost Love uncomfortably reminds us of obsession’s slippery slope, while The Surface Breaks is an exciting feminist re-imagining of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Little Mermaid. Asking For It has now been adapted for the stage, and is produced by Landmark Productions and the Everyman theatre. The show will premiere in Cork in June before heading to The Abbey theatre in November.
Louise O’Neill lives with her family in Clonakilty, Co Cork.
Almost Love (€15.99) is published by Riverrun and available from bookshops nationwide. The Surface Breaks is published by Scholastic and due for release in May 2018.
I am currently based in Clonakilty, West Cork, which is where I grew up. Sometimes I find it difficult to believe that I have returned, because I was so eager to escape small town life as a teenager, but as an adult, I find my life here incredibly peaceful. Everything just feels easier in the country and I have created a very healthy routine for myself – I attend sunrise yoga classes four times a week, I walk on Inchydoney beach daily, and I buy as much local produce as I possibly can at our farmer’s market on a Friday. My one vice is penny sweets from Paddy Meade’s newsagents but I’m trying to stop. I love De Barra’s folk club, Deasy’s of Ring, Gearoidin’s café, and of course, O’Neill’s butcher shop, but there are so many incredible places to drink and eat in Clonakilty. There has always been a huge sense of community, enterprise, and creativity in this part of the world and I am very proud to call it home.
As a child, I split my time between our home in Clonakilty, and my grandparents’ farm in Rearour, Ahearla. We spent nearly every weekend ‘Over Home’, as we called it, and most of the summer holidays too. I think that is why my sister and I became such great readers. There was only one television (and two channels, naturally) and with four uncles to compete with, we were never guaranteed that we would be able to watch shows that would interest us. Thus, we brought stacks of books with us, and if anything reminds me of my childhood, it is that. My sister and I thrown in front of a crackling fire, the promise of a whole new world caught between our fingertips. The Late Late on in the background, the smell wafting from the kitchen as my Grandmother baked a sponge cake with apples from her garden. And I remember feeling completely safe and loved, as if nothing bad could ever happen to me there.
When I first moved back to my parents’ house, I took over one of the spare bedrooms to use as a writing space. It had a desk, a chair and, perhaps most importantly, a bed for Essential Writing Naps. (Yes, they are essential.)
It looks more like an office now, with the printer, shredder, files, foreign editions of my novels stacked on book shelves – but I’ve insisted on keeping the bed. (Essential Naps. Remember?) I have little prayers and incantations blu-tacked to the walls, as well as photographs and paintings that I was using as inspiration while writing Almost Love. There is a large window overlooking the front garden, where our dog was buried after he died a year ago. He used to sit on my lap when I was writing, sometimes staring at the laptop as if critiquing my work. I miss him every day but it’s nice to be able to look out at the garden and think of him.
I’m lucky enough to live in a town that has not one, but three bookstores: Clonakilty bookshop, Kerr’s Bookshop, and Coughlans Bookshop. I love all of them equally, and have spent many happy hours in each. Wandering around bookstores is one of my favourite things to do. If I could bottle the smell of paper and wear it as a perfume, I would. I love when a store is welcoming and warm, and gives the customer space to browse without feeling under pressure to buy anything. But the best thing about independent bookstores is the booksellers themselves. A great bookseller will demonstrate an enthusiasm and expertise that is utterly priceless – and that is an experience that cannot be replicated online.
On her nightstand
Because of my job, I am sent a huge amount of books in the post every week. This is wonderful, obviously, but I am beginning to feel guilty about my ever-expanding ‘To Be Read pile.’ All these books towering on my nightstand, staring at me, begging to be read. I am constantly afraid that they’re going to lead a mutiny and smother me in my sleep. All of the following are proof copies and I am determined to read them very soon. Honest.
The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla, A Spoonful of Murder by Robin Stevens, Motherhood by Sheila Heti, America is not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, Last Letter from Istanbul by Lucy Foley, Bookwork: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan, Remember This When You’re Sad by Maggy Ban Eijk, and The Queen of Bloody Everything by Joanna Nadin.
This might sound horribly indulgent, but I made a resolution in January 2017 that I would go away for one night every two months. I usually pick a hotel that is within a relatively short distance from Clonakilty such as Castlemartyr Resort, the Europe Hotel, or the Cliff House, and when I set off, I always leave my phone at home. This part is crucial, as it affords me an opportunity to properly switch off. When I arrive at my destination, I go for a walk, I take a swim, or I sit by my window and watch the world go by, and it feels as if I am coming back to myself in some inexplicable way. Our lives are so noisy these days, we have to make a real effort to try and connect with the stillness within us. If you can’t get away to a lovely hotel (please don’t hate me!) then take a retreat at home. Turn your phone off, draw a bath, listen to some soothing music, and allow your mind to settle.
On New York
There were many parts to my life in New York that I loved. Getting the subway every morning and crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, catching a glimpse of that famous skyline… well, that always gave me a thrill. Besides the incredible array of choice in bars, restaurants, and clubs, I loved the easy access to some of the world’s best art museums; in fact, the Elle office was in Midtown, so I would often pop in to MoMA after work. That fed my creative soul. I also made some wonderful friends while I was there. New York is the sort of place where most people are ‘blow-ins’ and because of that, they make a real effort to be inclusive. What was I happy to leave behind? The noise. It was only when I returned to Clonakilty that I realised how much I had missed silence, how much I had been craving it.
I find the idea of being a ‘role model’ a little bit scary, because it seems to suggest that I’m perfect or that I have all the answers. Neither is true. I’m constantly learning, asking questions, and my feminism is always evolving as a result – intersectionality and the rights of trans women are issues that I am increasingly concerned with. I am very proud to know many other Irish women who identify as feminists, and to be part of that tribe of fierce warriors is an honour. For me, feminism really just means equal rights and opportunities for men and women. Feminists want to create a world where we are all free to be our true selves, rather than feeling under pressure to conform to societal expectations of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.
On new work
2017 was a slightly manic year trying to get all this work finished but I’m very proud of both books. Almost Love is my first novel for adults. It’s about a young woman called Sarah who becomes involved in a toxic relationship with an older man and the subsequent effect that has on her relationships and more importantly, her sense of self. It’s about addiction, obsessive love, and the ways we inflict pain upon ourselves. My second novel, The Surface Breaks is a feminist re-telling of The Little Mermaid for young adults. I was commissioned to write this book by Scholastic, and it has been a dream project. There was so much in the original fairytale to work with – the fact that that she literally gives up her voice and mutilates her body in order to find love – and I think it’s an interesting parallel to the pressures some young women currently face.
I’ve adored Marian Keyes from afar for years. I loved her books, I followed her on Twitter, and I was convinced that if we ever met that we would be great friends. We did meet and we did become great friends, and that friendship has been such a loving and supportive one. I feel very lucky to know her.
I was also honoured to meet Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when I worked on the No7 campaign with her in 2016, and Laverne Cox came to the launch of my first novel in New York which was generous of her! Both of those women inspire me in different ways.
On what’s next
Obviously, I have the two novels coming out this year, but I’m almost sick with excitement about the stage adaptation of Asking For It. Premiering in the Everyman in Cork this June before going to the Abbey in November, I have high hopes that this is going to be a very special piece of theatre. The movie of Only Ever Yours is still in production, which is almost too overwhelming to think about, and I have so many ideas about the sort of projects I would like to do next. I’d love to try writing for television, or even writing a play of my own. I would love to write a memoir (much to the terror of my immediate family!) and I’m already thinking about ideas for my fifth novel. My brain is busy…
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