Liz Nugent: ‘People have accused me of being brave, but what is brave about surviving?’

‘I am not a disabled writer. I’m a writer who happens to be disabled’

Liz Nugent was on her way to brunch at a friend’s house last November when she tripped and fell, dislocating her kneecap and fracturing her patella and tibia. It was a bad accident by anybody’s standards, but for the crime writer it was devastating. Since falling from a staircase aged six, she has lived with a neurological disorder called dystonia, which resulted in tonal dysfunction in her right leg and arm. Because of this condition, her body went into spasm as she lay on the ground after the fall. She waited for the ambulance, knowing her kneecap was “in the wrong place”. The pain was “excruciating”.

“I was taken to James’s Hospital and put in a brace,” she says, sitting exactly according to her physio’s instructions at the table in her sunny kitchen in south Dublin. It’s a couple of days before widespread restrictions are put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I came home and then two mornings later I turned over in my sleep, and my kneecap dislocated again . . .”

She spent six weeks in St Vincent’s Hospital, and six weeks in the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook, waiting for the bones to knit. “Normal people,” she says, “wouldn’t have had the spasm reactions” which is why her recovery was so long and slow. She came out of hospital at the end of January.


She finds it easier to write from the male point of view, saying men have 'fewer thoughts' than women do

Nugent, whose just-published fourth novel Our Little Cruelties is full of dysfunctional characters, doesn’t really write about “normal people”. The book was completed before she fell, the final draft handed in last August. That was something, considering she could barely write a text message for weeks – “I was on very strong medication” – never mind write or do edits. Social media was her main distraction, as she just about had the attention span to scroll. She was grateful for the steady stream of friends and unexpected visitors who turned up at both hospitals to lend their support.

It was a grim time. The medication she was on to stop the spasms is also used as an anti-depressant. “I can’t say they worked in that way, I was fairly depressed. When you can’t walk for three months that happens,” she says.

She asks if I mind her smoking. I don’t. She is a full-time smoker since her accident, having previously only indulged while out socialising and drinking alcohol. As she puffs on a cigarette, she explains that while in the Royal Hospital she was asked if she was a smoker, and she told them “only when I drank”.

“A couple of days later an occupational therapist came to me and said, do you have any cigarettes with you?” At this stage, Nugent hadn’t smoked for six weeks, having been in hospital after the accident, but she did have a pack in a bag. “She said: I’m really sorry about this but for health and safety reasons we need to know you can light a cigarette, smoke a cigarette and extinguish a cigarette without setting fire to yourself.”

So that night, in a freezing shed outside the hospital, for the first time in 10 years she had a cigarette without a drink. “And it was so nice,” she says, exhaling. “I ended up smoking three cigarettes every night in there and now I am back on the fags without the drink.” She finds the story “hilarious” but wants to make sure it’s clear that taking up smoking again was her responsibility, and the occupational therapist was “only doing her job”.

As with all of Nugent’s books – Unravelling Oliver which launched her as a fresh voice in the psychological thriller genre, and both What Lies in Wait and Skin Deep which followed – the reader is thrown straight into the action in her latest novel. There is no slow build-up, just an immediate confrontation with some pretty despicable people.

“I learned that from TV I think,” she says. “The Sopranos was the first show that didn’t do big introductions to the characters, same with Breaking Bad. You’re right into the story from the beginning, with no frame of reference for anybody. I’ve learned a lot from those writers.”

The new book tells the story of three Dublin brothers, and from the beginning we know one of them has been murdered. She finds it easier to write from the male point of view, saying men have “fewer thoughts” than women do. “I’m not saying they’re stupid, but they are much more straightforward,” she explains. She tells a story of when she first met her husband Richard McCullough, a sound engineer and multi-instrumentalist.

“I’d be in a huff about something, and I’d be like I’m fine, and I would expect him to ask me more questions. I was playing a game called ‘guess what’s wrong with me?’. But he thought I was fine because I said I was fine.”

“Women overthink things, I know I do and most of the women I know ...”

She may find it easier to write men, but the three brothers in the book are complex characters. William is a piece of work, a misogynist, “not a nice guy”; Luke is a popstar, his already significant personal issues exacerbated by celebrity; and Brian, while is some ways a sympathetic character, uses his mental health issues for personal gain.

The book explores the reason why each brother is so damaged, and much of it can be traced back to the family they grew up in. “I tried my hardest to write a nice mother, but this one just emerged,” she says of the narcissistic matriarch in the book.

I ask why she likes to write about dysfunction. She says she is “fascinated” by people. “When you grow up with a disability you are always a little bit on the outside. So you become an observer. You’ll find many writers were sick kids.”

She credits her mother Siobhán for the well of resilience she is able to draw from. She was never excused from games because of her disability, and it helped that she came from a big family – her mum and dad had six children together before they split up, and her father John has three children from his subsequent marriage. “We are a very tight-knit gang,” she says. “I love them all.”

I’ve interviewed Nugent before and she has always struck me, I tell her, as being dogged and confident despite the challenges she has faced since childhood. For example, while working in a creatively stifling job on the RTÉ soap, Fair City, mostly in an admin role, she kept entering writing competitions, one of which eventually led to the publication of Unravelling Oliver, an international bestseller.

“People have accused me of being brave, and I feel, what is brave about surviving and living and getting on with things? I’ve had this disability since I was six, when I had the original brain haemorrhage. You can’t expect the world to suddenly adapt to you, you have to adapt to the world.”

Now, as well as dreaming up the next novel, she is writing a play commissioned by Landmark theatre company before the accident

That approach has changed a bit though, I counter. A lot of current activism around disability suggests the world should adapt and become more inclusive of people living with all kinds of challenges. Does she agree?

“Well, I do and I don’t,” she says. “I think a lot of people identify themselves by their disability. That’s a great shame because there is a lot more to me. I am not a disabled writer. I’m a writer who happens to be disabled. And you know, I’m not so bad. There’s nothing I can’t do. I can cook. I can eat. One of the best things about coming out of hospital is being able to make myself a sandwich ... if you can have a sex life, employment and enjoyment of food, that’s everything.”

And then a beat, a smile. “I don’t miss skiing.”

Nugent gives a lot of herself in interviews. For example, she has spoken about how one day after meeting Richard, they were discussing whether they would have children together. They decided not to. “I have people very close to me who have really struggled to conceive and it’s heartbreaking for them and for me watching them go through that. But I never had the feeling of wanting to be a mother. Both of us agreeing on this made the relationship so much easier.” They met 20 years ago, when Nugent was 32 and Richard was 27. “Neither of us have changed our minds, so we’re happy.”

Her parents split when she was a child, and at the time her father was drinking heavily. “He’s an alcoholic, but he’s been sober for 40 years and helped a lot of other alcoholics in that time,” she says. He is in a care home now. She hopes he will see the summer, but “he definitely won’t see Christmas”.

“He told us two years ago he was ready to go ... he couldn’t wait to meet his mother again. He’d never darken the door of a church but he has a huge devotion to the Virgin Mary.” Her mother Siobhán, now 87, she says will outlive them all; she enjoys life, shopping in Zara, her friends, her daily Irish Times.

Nugent once tried to be an actor, turning up for her course in the Gaiety School of acting in crutches. “Not surprisingly”, acting didn’t work out, so she went into stage managing, first in Ireland and later touring the world with Riverdance.

Now, as well as dreaming up the next novel, she is writing a play commissioned by Landmark theatre company before the accident. She doesn’t want to say much about it, but does reveal that the opening scene is a middle-aged woman who wakes up with the pizza delivery person, a young man, who delivered her takeaway the night before. “It’s a lighter piece, which will go into a dark place,” she says. “It was a thrill when they asked me, because I was an assistant stage manager for a long time before progressing to stage manager and then production stage manager on Broadway. I’ve come full circle now, being commissioned by one of the best companies in the country run by one of the best women in the country, Anne Clarke. To write a play is an enormous privilege, and I just hope I can do it justice.”

Nugent’s books are commercially successful, and she has a growing number of fans hungry for her next work. Is she happy in terms of where she is at in her writing career? “I once heard somebody say that you have to have written five books before you can be considered a proper writer, so when I have the next one out, then I can be a writer,” she says.

Our Little Cruelties is published by Penguin Ireland