Louise Nealon: ‘There is an overwhelming silence and shame in Irish culture’
She never thought she’d be good enough to write, but her debut novel sold for a six-figure sum
Author Louise Nealon: Despite her obvious talent, she encountered much discouragement along the way.
Irish author Louise Nealon became a literary sensation last year when her debut novel, Snowflake, was sold for a six-figure sum. Shortly afterwards, film and TV rights were snapped up by Element Pictures, the same Irish production company behind the seven-times Bafta-nominated adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
But Nealon’s trajectory has not been as smooth as that paragraph might suggest. She’s talking over Zoom, from her “mammy’s good room” in her family home, a dairy farm in Kildare where she grew up.
Nealon studied English literature at Trinity College Dublin, but took a year out because of anxiety and depression. She returned to college the following year, and completed her degree, followed by a masters in creative writing at Queen’s University Belfast in 2016 and, in 2017, she won the prestigious Seán O’Faoláin International Short Story Competition.
She always wanted to be a writer, ever since she was a child, but it never seemed like a realistic possibility. The third of four children, Nealon says she was obsessed with books, preferring to stay in her classroom reading at lunchtime instead of playing in the yard with the other children. Her goal back then was to become the author Jacqueline Wilson’s editor, as a kind of consolation prize for not being a writer herself. “I never thought I’d be good enough to write,” she says.
Despite her obvious talent, she encountered much discouragement along the way.
“All of the advice I got around writing was don’t make it your full-time job, find something else to do. I remember chatting with a guidance counsellor leaving college and I said all I want to do is be a writer and she told me that’s not realistic, and I burst out crying.”
Nealon’s debut novel, Snowflake, tells the story of Debbie, a young girl living on her family’s dairy farm with her mentally ill mother, Maeve, and her uncle Billy, who lives in a caravan on the farm and has a problematic relationship with alcohol. Meanwhile, Debbie is struggling to negotiate the alienating transition from school to university, from farm to big city, from childhood to adulthood, which is something Nealon can relate to. She was unprepared for the experience of going to college and all the change it entailed.
“I was 18 and I looked like someone had lost their child in Trinity. I was wearing a complete culchie outfit of my good pair of jeans and a camogie top that I thought was cool, and traipsing around the arts block with muck on my shoes.”
She didn’t know it then, but she was suffering from anxiety and depression. “That was the toughest year of my life. I’m still on medication now and I accept that I’m probably going to be on medication for the foreseeable. When I got the book deal, the first thing I did with the bit of money was I went back to therapy. I found a brilliant therapist. I’m aware now that I had really bad experiences with therapy and with mental health professionals, but there are unbelievably good eggs out there too.”
One such good egg, she says, was the doctor who took out his prescription pad and wrote the words Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes on it to help Nealon fall back in love with reading. And it worked.
She says she has made the decision to speak openly about her personal mental health struggles in the hope that it might help others, but also because she wants to “own” her story. “I feel very strongly about not being ashamed of that,” she says.
In a few short generations, Irish people’s relationship with shame has evolved but it still sits firmly on a spectrum encompassing self-loathing and worthlessness, inferiority and resentment, which Nealon addresses in Snowflake.
“There is an overwhelming silence and shame in Irish culture. I think Edna O’Brien was the first person to unpack that silence for women and look what happened to her. Family secrets and shame within Ireland stay hidden, they don’t get expressed. And we wonder why there are so many Irish writers… It’s because we can’t say the truth in real life.”
She called her novel Snowflake, she says, because she wanted to reclaim the term that has become a pejorative collective noun for her entire generation.
“I know our generation are seen as quite naive but I think there’s a strength in that, in naivety. Young people now with the internet, they have all the answers so they can pretend to know things. Whereas, pre-internet – we didn’t get the internet until 2009 in our house – if you didn’t know something, you either kept quiet about it or you asked. There was no sneaky googling. I would say we have created a world in which it’s scary to be naive and not know anything so people pretend to know things and that reinforces a perfectionism and a cynicism. That’s the thing about sex as well, we’re expected to know all these things about sex and we don’t.”
She elegantly critiques modern-day sexual mores in the novel, taking in everything from virginity to one-night stands and the paradoxical elements of her generation’s attitudes to sex.
“My generation is very confused about sex because we’re not sure what we’re supposed to be doing. You’re presented with ‘it’s pleasure’ and ‘you should enjoy it’ but there’s a massive responsibility that our generation is ignoring and you can’t ignore your feelings just to seem cool.”
After graduation, and against the odds, Nealon forged ahead with her writing. The year she spent studying in Belfast (the writer Louise Kennedy was in her year) “took me down a peg or two”, she says. She wasn’t top of the class and she says that helped her to realise that comparing herself to others was not helpful. “Which is why it’s very difficult when someone asks me about say the likes of Sally Rooney. I’m a reader and I love her books but it’s not helpful or healthy for me to compare myself to her in any way.”
Forgive the comparison, but unlike Rooney, Nealon will not write the screenplay for Snowflake. “I think it would be a mistake for me to assume that because I wrote the novel, I am the best person to adapt it for the screen. Having said that, screenwriting is something that I would definitely like to have a go at later on in my career.”
For now she’s focusing on her second novel. “You know how people don’t tell anyone about a pregnancy before the 12-week mark because they’re not sure if it’s a viable pregnancy… Well, it’s like that,” she says of her second book, “only it’s been a lot longer than 12 weeks.”
She is considering moving out of the family home, and is looking at places by the sea in Dublin. “But it’s so expensive! I’m so worried about spending money, it’s so bizarre.”
It would be tempting to view Nealon as a particularly delicate type of snowflake. She appears gentle and kind, self-deprecating and thoughtful, fragile even, but to define her as such would be erroneous. Considering her achievements and the obstacles she has surmounted, there must be steel and bloody-mindedness and determination in there too. “I have been underestimated my entire life,” she says. “I’m still getting called a ‘good girl’ even though I’m 30 years old.”
She turned 30 recently and is looking forward to a new decade. “It hasn’t been the easiest decade of my life,” she says, referring to her 20s. “It’s been really messy and that’s why I find it quite bizarre that I’m seen to be successful now because I had just gotten used to being a failure.”
I wonder if the difficulties she has encountered and overcome over the past 10 years might, in fact, have contributed to her ultimate success, that “tincture of bad luck” that the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Ford describes as being important for a writer’s development.
“I really do think that the book wouldn’t exist if I had had that charmed life,” she says. “I wouldn’t have had the material for the book. I might have been on-the-surface happy but that’s not me. I can’t live on the surface. I have to life in the mess of struggling and trying to figure out the right way to do things when there is no right way. You just struggle through.”
Snowflake by Louise Nealon is published by Manilla Press