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Louise Nealon: ‘There is a reason why the vast majority of readers are women. We tell ourselves stories to survive’

Nealon’s debut novel, Snowflake, is this year’s One Dublin One Book choice

What does it mean to you that your debut novel Snowflake is this year’s One Dublin One Book choice?

It means a lot. I’m grateful and excited to introduce more readers to the book.

How would you sum up Snowflake? And how significant is the title?

Snowflake is a novel about trying and failing to stay sane in an overwhelmingly mad world. Snowflakes are formed by particles of dust, and can only exist in flawed temporary states. We have a lot in common with them.

It was originally set in the US. What made you bring it back to Ireland?

I had the idea for the novel when I was 18, when my imagination was directed by Hollywood. With time, I realised that the story belonged at home.

You describe yourself moving to Dublin as a lost culchie and you initially dropped out of Trinity. How big is Ireland’s urban-rural divide?

I grew up on a dairy farm less than an hour away from Dublin city centre. For me, the urban-rural divide exists internally, and differs from person to person, I suspect.

You struggled with depression and your GP prescribed reading Marian Keyes, “as an example of a person who struggled in their 20s and early life and she went on to have a successful career”. Did she help?

There is something medicinal about Marian Keyes’s books. She’s wonderful.

You’ve said: “Dublin has a habit of showing people who they are.” Tell us more. And how did Belfast compare?

Last summer, I went to a book launch in Hodges Figgis. I was near the entrance, about to go upstairs, when a homeless man collapsed outside the shop and shouted for help. People continued to pass him on the street while he shouted repeatedly, “Why isn’t anyone helping me?” I stood there for a moment, staring at him until I realised that I wasn’t going to help him either. I went upstairs to the book launch.

Dublin shows us who we are by how we choose to spend time in the city. Living in Belfast has made me confront other parts of myself. I used to make stupid jokes about the North. I don’t do that any more.

You viewed yourself as a failure for your entire 20s. Why?

I would wager that a lot of writers, published and unpublished, see themselves as failures. We’re an egotistical bunch.

Tell us about your path to publication. The Irish Times played a small part?

I met my agent, Marianne Gunn-O’Connor, thanks to The Irish Times. She read What Feminism Is, which won the Sean Ó Faolain international short story competition judged by Paul McVeigh, on the website and asked me for coffee.

What Feminism Is was likened to Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person as they shared a “bad sex” theme. Was it tough to write? Is standing up to shame a motivator?

The first draft of What Feminism Is flew out of me. It took some time to refine it. Shame is a natural human emotion. It’s how we choose to deal with it that interests me.

Has fiction caught up with exploring female psychology after decades of relative neglect?

It’s not a matter of catching up. Female psychology is forever evolving. What it means to be a woman is changing and will continue to change. There is a reason why the vast majority of readers are women. We tell ourselves stories in order to survive.

Your English teacher was a big inspiration?

Yes, she was the first person I knew who wrote. When I dropped out of university, she reached out and invited me for coffee. It meant the world to me.

Your goal was to become the author Jacqueline Wilson’s editor as you couldn’t envisage being a writer yourself?

My mother brought me up to meet Jacqueline Wilson at a book signing in Eason’s in O’Connell Street. I was second in the queue, armed with a stack of her books with notes I scribbled in the margins. When the time came to meet her, I couldn’t speak. She had short, spiky hair and rings on every finger. My mother had to tell her my name. I adored her. I still do.

Writing and storytelling have given you a sense of agency. What do you mean by that?

Writing helps me inhabit my life, from the inside out.

You are currently working on your second novel. What is it about?

Liam Foley, a hurling legend, dies by suicide. The events of the novel take place three years later, when his daughter’s wedding brings about a reunion. The story follows his wife Helen, his daughter Lucy, and Niamh, a close family friend, three women who know the circumstances that led to Liam’s death and the effect it has had on their lives.

Which other projects are you working on?

I’m working on the project of keeping myself sane while writing this second novel.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

No, but I would love to visit Naples to see the place that inspired Elena Ferrante to write the Neapolitan novels.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

“Nature doesn’t aim, it plays.” It is a quote by a scientist, CH Waddington. I often tie myself in knots thinking about writing instead of doing it. All the best writing comes from play. That doesn’t mean writing is easy or fun – it’s quite often the opposite – but it helps to find the energy in what I’ve written and let that be my guide.

Who do you admire the most?

People who try their best to help others.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

Book: Girl in the Making by Anna Fitzgerald, which is just out.

Film: Past Lives.

Podcast: Things Fell Apart, hosted by Jon Ronson.

Which public event affected you most?

It would be absurd not to mention the war on Gaza.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

I have been lucky enough to travel to a lot of places, but nowhere has made a lasting impression on me more than Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway.

Your most treasured possession?

A tattered, childhood pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

A tattered, childhood pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Dermot Healy, Jean Rhys, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Anne Frank, George Eliot, Sylvia Plath.

The best and worst things about where you live?

I live in Belfast. I consider it home. It makes me sad that when I tell people this, they are interested to know why I feel at home here in a way they wouldn’t if I told them I lived in Galway or Cork.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing, and keeping the unknown always beyond you.” – Georgia O’Keeffe.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

I can’t choose between Elizabeth Bennet, Jo March, Lady McBeth and Winnie the Pooh.

A book to make me laugh?

The Satsuma Complex by Bob Mortimer.

A book that might move me to tears?

The Celestial Realm by Molly Hennigan.