Louise O’Neill: ‘My career took off. My life changed. And I fell apart’

‘It felt like a lot of people really hated me. I suppose I felt really scared a lot of the time’

When I arrive at the hotel in west Cork where I’m meeting Louise O’Neill, her publicist is there instead, with a message to say that Louise is very sorry but she wanted to let me know she is running five minutes late.

Almost exactly five minutes after our appointed meeting time, O’Neill arrives, embarrassed by both her uncharacteristic lateness, and her shoes – neutral slip-ons which don’t quite match her vibrant print dress. The explanation for each is the same: her adored dog, a collie-corgi cross called Cooper, vomited on the pair she was planning to wear just as she was going out the door.

Her publicist says with a laugh that she hadn’t been going to get into that. I ask if she minds if I include it in my article. “Oh God, of course you can,” O’Neill replies.

She wouldn’t know anyway, she adds, because she never reads anything that’s written about her. She learned after the publication of Asking For It – the novel that catapulted her into the public eye in 2015 and whose phenomenal success lead to, she will tell me later, the worst year of her life personally – that no good comes of reading anything about yourself.

Her dad Michael, a butcher in Clonakilty and the manager of the successful Clonakilty GAA football team – who shares her streak of being “really hard on yourself, always expecting the best from yourself” – told her once that if you believe the good about yourself, then you also have to believe the bad. “Maybe you’re better off letting all of that go,” he said. She took his advice.

She made a decision that she wasn't going to "open Pandora's box…I don't want to read Amazon reviews or Goodreads reviews." She won't "Google or search my name on Twitter. Because [if you read something negative] you don't ever forget it."

You see influencers who have become famous because they have great fashion taste. And now all of a sudden, it's like, 'excuse me, I want to know what you think about Ukraine?'

Instead her mother or her boyfriend – journalist and author Richard Chambers – scans her published interviews and tells her if she has said anything "career-ending". Chambers also manages her Twitter after she quit the platform in 2018, because being on it was giving her anxiety. "Whenever I opened the app I was like, 'Oh God, who's going to shout at me today'?"

She finds the pressure on social media “to have a fully formed opinion instantly almost unbearable.

“I want to take some time to formulate my thoughts – and when you have a column” – since 2016, O’Neill has written a weekly column for The Examiner, recently moving to the Sunday Times – “you have to do that, you have to take some time to do the reading.”

On social media there’s no little room for taking your time to do the research, for changing your mind or for nuance.

“You see influencers who have become famous because they have really great fashion taste, or they have a beautiful home, or they’re a wellness influencer. This is their area of expertise. And now all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘excuse me, I want to know what you think about the geopolitical situation in Ukraine’?”

She took a prolonged break from Instagram and only recently returned to it, but it has never felt as addictive to her as Twitter once did. Having Chambers manage her account works well most of the time. She laughs as she recalls that he once forgot which account he was on and tweeted something about a Bohs match from O'Neill's account. "I was like 'Richard, come on, that's very off-brand'."

She is more alert than most people to the hazards of social media, both as a result of her own personal experience – more of which later – and her research for her brilliantly acerbic and unexpectedly moving new book, Idol. One of its themes is the ease with which contemporary culture can build people up and break them down. Set in the US, the novel is about a Gwyneth Paltrow-style Instagram influencer, Samantha Miller – “an incredibly, charismatic, beautiful, gym-honed, macrobiotic dieting paragon of virtue”, as O’Neill describes her -- who writes an essay about a sexual experience she had with her best friend in school. After it is published and goes viral, she finds that her friends remembers the encounter very differently.

The novel touches on sexual consent, friendship, the fallibility of memory, social media and the idea of “conspirituality” – the term given to, O’Neill explains, the area online “where conspiracy theories and spirituality intersect”.

It is her best work yet – darkly funny, biting, clever and unsettling.

“I felt like I was really pushing myself with this book. I was trying to write about [all of those themes] without – well, no one wants to read like a morality tale. The story has to be the main thing. I suppose what was really interesting about this book is that when I finished, I still felt like I didn’t have any answers.”

The novel explores the deep, all-encompassing friendships common among teenage girls and knowingly contrasts them with the illusory sense of intimacy we develop with people we know only from their online presence. “These people, particularly in the wellness space, are selling authenticity. They’re selling this idea of being real. But the truth is that as soon as you lift a phone up to your face to take a photo, or put a video on Instagram, you are performing authenticity.”

She doesn’t mean by this that they are “necessarily scam artists. I don’t think that they are doing this wanting to cheat people – I do genuinely think a lot of them have gone into this wanting to help people be healthier or to release trauma.” But they offer a promise that can’t be fulfilled.

In the book Samantha’s followers desperately want her to fix them. “So many of us – and I definitely speak for myself when I was younger – feel broken in a lot of ways, and you really do want someone to fix you. And then if that person disappoints you, or if it turns out that actually they can’t fix you – because how could they – that obsession or that love can very quickly turn to hatred.”

We talk about how the character of Samantha is a product of a culture which demands that celebrities and well-known people give more and more of themselves in exchange for our most valuable commodity: our attention. This leads to what might otherwise be a slightly uncomfortable moment, because, even though we’re having a very enjoyable afternoon together in a beautiful west Cork hotel on a sunny Tuesday, we both know we’re engaged in precisely that dance. A less forthright interviewee might gloss over this, but not O’Neill.

Being interviewed is like someone handing you an essay going, 'here's what I thought of our meeting'

“It’s funny, I suppose, it can feel like a game in a lot of ways. This is a transaction. We’re here having tea and I like you and we’re having a great chat, but I’m here to talk about my book and you’re here to get a good piece. There’s kind of almost like this battle of, like, how much am I prepared to give in order to do that?”

My impression of her is that while she is a warm and generous interviewee, and enormous fun she knows exactly how much she’s prepared to give of herself, and that she rarely reveals more than she intends.

“Maybe now. In the beginning I think I would have almost overshared because there was a part of me that wanted to be really honest. So much of that, I think, was because of having had an eating disorder, and so much of that is about silence and shame and lying and concealing. So that when I started to recover I was like, ‘oh, no, I just have to be really open and really, really transparent’.”

Even now reading interviews about herself is an unsettling experience that she prefers to avoid.

“The first couple of interviews that I read, I felt really strange afterwards. It made me feel like I was eavesdropping on someone else’s thinking about you and hearing someone else’s opinion of you.”

Being interviewed “isn’t normal”.

“It’s like someone handing you an essay going, ‘here’s what I thought of our meeting’.”

As she gained more experience – she now has five novels and a retelling of the Little Mermaid under her belt – “it has been more about protecting myself and being like, I don’t necessarily want to reveal too much, or to come away from an interview feeling unsafe or feeling vulnerable.

“I think it is trying to find that balancing act as well. But I’m not an influencer. With [the character] Sam, she has three million followers and all of these brand deals. She’s selling herself,” she says, deftly bringing the conversation back to what we’re here to discuss.

Often what people call cancel culture is more like consequences culture. If someone is called out for something and they give a genuine apology, I do think people are okay about it

O’Neill is frequently credited with creating unlikeable but compelling female characters. I wonder if it annoys her when people say this because, after all, why does the starting point for women have to be likeable?

“It’s funny you should say that because one of the reasons why I stopped reading reviews was that I did find the criticism of Sarah [the lead character from her 2018 novel about obsessive love, Almost Love] as unlikeable as quite upsetting.” (The first line of The Irish Times review goes: “How unlikable a protagonist can the reader stand? This seems to be the challenge O’Neill has set herself with Almost Love.”)

The kernel of an idea that would become Idol came to her years earlier, in 2014, when she read an essay by Lena Dunham, an American writer and creator of the HBO series Girls.

“She talks about how, when she was seven and her sibling was one, she spread open her sibling’s vagina to look inside. I remember the reaction at the time was really divided. Half of people thought this was child abuse and she should be prosecuted. And the other half thought this was just kids being kids. I was so struck by how the same event could be interpreted in such wildly different ways.”

This is true not just of events, but also of words – the throwaway remark to a journalist over tea in a nice hotel that becomes controversial, or the piece you wrote when you were starting out that looks very different in 2022 than it did in 2002. Does she worry about that – the idea that, as a colleague jokingly puts it, we’ve all already written or said the thing that will one day end our career?

"Marian Keyes, who is very good friend of mine, gave an interview to [a newspaper] and they asked her about cancel culture. She said anyone with a long career will know that there are things they said at the beginning of their career that they would rather take a bullet to the head than say now." But all you can do is acknowledge that you are a product of your culture and your time and apologise and learn.

“I read columns of mine that I would have written 10 years ago, and I think it’s interesting how much my worldview or my feminism has really shifted.”

Still, her own perspective is that “often what people call cancel culture is more like consequences culture. If someone is called out for something that they said or did when they were younger and they give a genuine apology, I do think people are okay about it. It’s when someone gets very trenchant and digs their heels in that just exasperates it.”

During our more than two hours together I get the sense that O’Neill is in a very happy place, that she is finally comfortable in her own skin and able to wear her success lightly. Her writing has a self-assurance and room for ambiguity that hints at the confidence that, for many women, comes in your mid-to-late 30s. But it wasn’t always like this. In June she will be five years recovered from an eating disorder that had followed her for the best part of 20 years.

Can she say that she is recovered or will she always be in recovery? She had this conversation with her dad recently. “He said, ‘I suppose it’s something you never get over.’ And I said, ‘no. I can’t believe we haven’t had this conversation. I feel fully recovered.’ I feel like I have a healthier attitude to my body, to weight, to food than loads of women I know that never had an eating disorder but grew up steeped in diet culture.

“I think it’s really important for people to know the full recovery is possible. Because for years I thought that like I would only be 80 per cent recovered or 90 per cent recovered. But I felt it was very manageable. I was like, ‘oh, this is fine, I can manage this’. But then when something happens that throws you off balance…”

For her that something was the year 2016 and the aftermath of Asking For It, her novel that shone a spotlight on sexual violence and sexual consent pre-MeToo.

“It was the most success I’ve ever, ever had with a book. My career took off, my life completely changed. And I just totally fell apart. I just could not handle it. It was awful. Honestly, it was the best year professionally and the worst year I’ve ever had on a personal level. I had a massive relapse. And I suppose that is the danger of not being fully recovered.”

Why does she think it happened?

“Part of it was the book did really well. And there are a lot more eyeballs on you. I was quite high profile at the time, doing a lot of TV and radio. It felt like a lot of people really hated me. I suppose I felt really scared a lot of the time.

“I remember my dad saying to me, ‘just delete your Twitter, just come off social media’. Because you’re being met with this barrage of either hatred or people telling me their stories.

“It was very humbling to bear witness to people’s stories. But there was a sense that I was running on empty. I would do a long event, and then you do questions and answers, and then people are coming up and talking to you. And I would go back to an empty hotel room and feel completely hollowed out. To fill that up I was either restricting or binging and purging. It was almost like a comfort.”

When things get busy I have systems in place – whether that is the gym, or my therapist, or the meditation, the scaffolding that keeps me on an even keel

She developed what she sees as similarly addictive behaviour around social media, “where even the negativity and the trolling felt like an adrenaline spike”.

“And I couldn’t walk away from it. It was attention, whether that was negative or positive. There was something about it that I felt jolted by or alive in some sort of very toxic, dysfunctional way. It was so similar to an eating disorder in that [feeling of] ‘this is really harmful, I hate the fact that I’m doing this and I hate the way this makes me feel. But I can’t stop.’ It’s not a coincidence that I started recovery in 2017 and I gave up Twitter in 2018.”

In the run-up to the publication of a new book – and all the attendant anxieties that brings – she is especially mindful of her mental and physical health.

“I go to the gym regularly, I try and eat regularly, I try and eat less sugar at this time, just to keep things on an even keel. I try and get enough sleep. It’s as easy and as complicated as that.

“I’ve just learned over the years what works and what doesn’t. It’s about trying to be disciplined or trying to be... I was going to say be strict on myself, but I don’t know if that’s the right terminology. Because I think I can be very hard on myself. I think it’s just trying to challenge that when those thoughts arise. I don’t know if you ever fully arrive.”

But she says “when things get busy I have systems in place – whether that is the gym, or my therapist, or the meditation, the scaffolding that keeps me on an even keel”.

She doesn’t want to suggest, though, that “because this has worked for me it will work for everybody. I don’t think that’s helpful. And I also think it can be quite harmful.”

Now, she decides after giving it some consideration, she is perhaps the happiest she has ever been. She renovated a little farmhouse near to her parents’ house in west Cork, getting the work finished just before the first lockdown.

Like most people she found the pandemic tough – it was hard being away from Chambers for long periods. “But I don’t want to sound self-indulgent. People were going through such incredibly difficult times. I definitely think it has taken some time after the pandemic to sort of reclaim that joy. But I think that there’s so much now that I feel really excited about. I am really excited about this book.”

She’s happy where she is in her personal life too – but some things she doesn’t want to share. “I’m really happy where I’m at in terms of my recovery and my health. I feel like I’m in a really good place.”

Louise O’Neill won’t read this, but I feel like she is too.

Idol is published by Transwold. If you need help with an eating disorder contact Bodywhys on (01) 2107906 or bodywhys.ie

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