Louise O’Neill: ‘I try and constantly cut back on the excess in my writing’
‘Writing is the way in which I can make sense of the world. I always say that I feel like a shadow, a spectre at the feast when I am not writing. I write myself back into existence’
Louise O’Neill: I don’t have a child but I think I would really enjoy reading Where the Wild Things Are to them. Of course, my child would be such a genius they would emerge from the womb already able to read, so my skills would be redundant. Photograph: Anna Groniecka
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
The first book that I remember making an indelible impression on me was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I’m a voracious reader so it takes a lot for a book to capture my imagination the way it did. I felt changed in some integral way after I finished it. It was my first proper introduction to the ideas of feminism and has shaped the way I view the world.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I loved Roald Dahl, the Narnia series, and anything by Enid Blyton. The Magic Faraway Tree was a particular favourite. As a pre-teen, the Sweet Valley High books and The Babysitter’s Club series were an obsession.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Oh, I have so many. The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, Amongst Women by John McGahern, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Your Voice in my Head by Emma Forrest, Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
What is your favourite quotation?
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Like any bookish teenager, I’m going to have to say Jo March in Little Women.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Marian Keyes, without a shadow of a doubt. If she was a man, she would be lauded for tackling such serious subjects while still managing to make the reader laugh out loud. She makes it look so easy – which it is not.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
I’m travelling so much at the moment that it’s easier to read on my Kindle but I will always prefer a print version. I’m one of those people who likes to go into bookshops just to get that “new book smell”.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. The illustrations are truly stunning.
Where and how do you write?
I write in a spare bedroom in my parents’ home. I wear my pyjamas, bed socks, and my dad’s old fleece, and my dog sits on my lap. I like to be at my desk by 7am at the very latest.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
I will admit that I haven’t read all of Ulysses, I only read sections while at university. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed it but it definitely redefined how I viewed fiction. I saw what risks could be taken if you were brave enough.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
I had to do a lot of research for Asking For It. I spoke to rape victims, I visited the Rape Crisis Centre, I read a lot of non-fiction books written by survivors of assault, I spoke to a barrister and a solicitor to make sure that I didn’t make any glaring errors.
What book influenced you the most?
As a writer, I would say John McGahern’s Amongst Women. He never feels the need to show off as a writer, his sentences are so spare and deceptively simple, and yet all the more powerful because of that. I try and constantly cut back on the excess in my writing, and hopefully the book has more of an emotional impact as a result.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
Emer O’ Toole’s Girls Will be Girls. I think it’s an incredibly engaging book. Feminist theory can be so dense and alienating to many readers, and I think Emer has managed to break down quite complex ideas and made them much more accessible.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
There are so many excellent YA novels around today that I wish I had access to as a teenager: David Levithan’s Every Day, Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal, Holly Bourne’s Am I Normal Yet? explore gender identity, trans issues and mental health in ways that don’t feel didactic. It would have been wonderful to start thinking about those subjects in greater depth when I was younger.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Set yourself a date that you will finish the first draft and then just keep going, no matter how awful you think your writing is. The first draft of everything is shit, to quote Hemingway, but you can always edit it afterwards. You can’t edit a blank page.
What weight do you give reviews?
I try not to give them too much weight. It’s always nice to know that people appreciate your work but I don’t get too excited about good reviews or too disappointed with poor reviews. I write the book the best way that I can. My editor and I work very hard to polish it to the highest standard. I can’t control anything after that.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
Yikes, that’s a big question! I don’t give too much credence to those “death of the industry” stories. People will always be interested in reading stories – that’s just part of our human nature.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
I really don’t pay too much attention to trends. I think that’s a really bad idea as a writer because you could end up writing a book that you don’t believe in because you think it will suit the market. I just want to write stories that I feel passionately about, regardless of trends.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
Reading has made me more empathetic as a person. When I read, I become completely absorbed in the story, almost becoming the character themselves. I have lived a thousand different lives in a thousand different eras, and I think it has made me more compassionate and less judgemental of other people.
What has being a writer taught you?
Writing is the way in which I can make sense of the world. Sometimes, I’ll have no idea how I really feel about a subject and it’s only when I sit at my laptop and the words begin to flow, that I understand. I always say that I feel like a shadow, a spectre at the feast when I am not writing. I write myself back into existence.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Marian Keyes because I love her, Roxane Gay for feminist Real Talk, Shakespeare and Jane Austen for some tips on how to stay relevant hundreds of years after your work has been published. I would love Margaret Atwood to be there but I’m afraid that I would be too intimidated by her brilliance and end up completely mute.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
The Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl used to make me laugh hysterically as a child. I re-read them recently and they still hold up. Marian Keyes always makes me laugh out loud.
What is your favourite word?
Problematic. It’s definitely the word I use most often anyway. (After patriarchy, obviously.)
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
The roaring twenties in London. I would have drunk all the gin and danced the Charleston every night so that would be the perfect setting for a book.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
I honestly don’t think I can answer this. Primarily because I never re-read my books once they’re published so the details can get a little hazy.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
I recently made the mistake of reading A Little Life in public places. I sobbed on buses, on the train, in coffee shops all over Dublin. It broke my heard.
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
I don’t have a child but I think I would really enjoy reading Where the Wild Things Are to them. Of course, my child would be such a genius they would emerge from the womb already able to read, so my skills would be redundant.
Asking For It by Louise O’Neill is published by Quercus Children’s Books
If you have a question for the author, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Louise O’Neill will discuss her work with Laura Slattery, Sorcha Hamilton and Sarah Gilmartin in association with the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, October 8th, at 7.30 pm, which will be recorded for a podcast on irishtimes.com the following week. Tickets €5/€3, and €7 on the door.