Louise O’Neill: ‘The hardest place to maintain my feminism is in a relationship with a straight man’
Author Louise O’Neill on her new novel, getting used to fame and why living with her parents is a sanctuary
Novelist Louise O’Neill pictured in Clonakilty, Co Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
When her dog was alive, Louise O’Neill used to sit with it in a bright room off her family kitchen. This was one of her ways of relaxing. The quiet was sometimes interrupted by the sound of Sacred Heart Secondary School’s bells, where juniors wear a green jumper, and seniors wear a red one. Green and red. Go and stop.
It’s this house in Clonakilty, Co Cork, where she grew up after moving, aged four, from nearby Inchydoney, that O’Neill has consistently returned to. Back to the family home built around two pre-Famine rooms with old beams. Back to her parents, a butcher father and an English-teaching mother who stopped working when she had Louise’s older sister, to whom the teaching baton was passed. Back to the quiet and the stillness. Back to where the dog used to be. Back to the school bells and distant uniforms. Go and stop.
Go. In her early 30s, living with her parents is a grounding and protective force in O’Neill’s life, which appears to move at white-knuckle speed.
O’Neill has achieved success with unnerving momentum, practically carpet-bombing publishing, film, and theatre. Her first two novels were aimed at the “young adult” demographic, but are widely read by not-so-young adults. Only Ever Yours was about girls raised in schools where they are trained to please men. Asking For It was about what happened in the aftermath of a rape at a house party.
In 2018, there are two more books, Almost Love, out early March, which is concerned with the toxic aspects of heterosexual relationships, and The Surface Breaks, out early May, with its shut-up-and-take-my-money elevator pitch of a feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid.
In 2015, the opening line of a Guardian interview described her as “the best YA fiction writer alive today”. In 2016, she authored an RTÉ documentary on sexual consent. Killer Content (Carol, Still Alice, Boys Don’t Cry) optioned Only Ever Yours and are currently casting its film adaptation. Asking For It was optioned for television, but languishes in development limbo. This year, Landmark will produce the stage version of Asking For It, which will run for a fortnight at the Everyman in Cork and another fortnight at the Abbey Theatre. Her column in the Irish Examiner is chiefly orientated around distilling and teasing out gender politics through a sharply focused third-wave feminist lens.
It’s worth bearing in mind that all of this has happened since her debut novel was published in July 2014.
Profile-building is not for everyone, but O’Neill pursues and recoils from it in equal measure. As a public speaker, she displays a knowing confidence sometimes to the point of making jokes about how self-assured she is. Yet simultaneously, a preoccupation of her daily life is self-care, recovering from an eating disorder which damaged her to the point of a doctor saying she could potentially have a heart attack in her mid-20s. Stop.
Ritual in the library
As a child, O’Neill went to the local library every Saturday, and when her family’s butcher shop closed early every Wednesday, to a bookshop to select a book. Her early obsession with Enid Blyton blurred reality, culminating in a request for a talking squirrel from Santa. The ritual in the library was to pick three books, one of which had to be a classic, such as The Secret Garden. When she was about 12 years old, her mother expanded the choice beyond the children’s section, partly in response to O’Neill’s affinity for the Sweet Valley High books, the series created by Francine Pascal which her mother thought was “complete garbage”.
Progressing to the adult section she gravitated towards Alex Garland’s The Beach, Orwell’s 1984, and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Her school had a well-stocked library. Crucially, a teacher, Ms Keane, one day handed her Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “I remember putting it down and looking up, and I genuinely felt that the way that I looked at the world had changed,” she says.
Years later, sitting in a cafe during a blizzard in New York and reading the type of magazine that circles celebrity cellulite in photographs, O’Neill wrote down this line: “They’re bred for beauty.” A scene conjured itself in her mind, bald women in black robes drawing red circles on a teenage girl’s body while the chant “fat, fat, fat, fat” rang out. That became her debut, Only Ever Yours, a book she says she wrote “in a fever dream”.
I had this strange, indelible sense that I had to be the person to write those books - that it was meant to be in some way
O’Neill always wanted to write, “but I thought I was gong to write Marian Keyes novels, that it would be about difficult subjects but they would be funny. As you can tell by how hilarious all of my novels are, I think Marian is pretty safe.”
Keyes comes up a few times. O’Neill is both a fan and a friend. “I laugh a lot, and I try to be really positive and upbeat, and constantly looking for the silver lining. I am an absolute Pollyanna. But as soon as I sit down . . . I don’t know. As soon as I sit down, it’s not how it comes out. I don’t know if that’s where it’s manifesting itself, that part of me that I maybe try to not look at, or try to not focus on, dwell on. When I write, that’s where I’m the most honest, so that’s where a lot of the pain [comes out], or darkness, or a lot of the fury, the anger, that maybe I don’t tend to express in my everyday life or with my family or friends.”
A sort of destiny
O’Neill has a sense of a sort of destiny. She thinks about things that she wants, then works hard, and then achieves them. “I had this strange, indelible sense that I had to be the person to write those books,” she wrote in 2015, about Only Ever Yours and Asking For It, “that it was meant to be in some way.”
From relatively early on in her life, O’Neill says she had the ability to imagine something and for it then to happen, a specific experience at summer camp, for example. She used to watch the reality TV show The City, a spin off of The Hills, where the lead “character”, a real person, worked at Elle magazine in New York. When O’Neill sent her CV to Glamour magazine, someone at that magazine floated the possibility of an interview with Elle. The day after she arrived in New York, she found herself moving through the exact office she had pictured herself working in. She worked there for a year.
“See the things that you want as already yours,” Rhonda Byrne wrote in The Secret. By the time people were talking about that book, the ideas that underpinned it, revelatory to many, were already familiar to O’Neill. She read Louise Hay’s You Can Heal your Life, when she was 16, and was attracted to new age literature. Her father is interested in sports psychology and warned her of the perils of negative self-talk. If she said something like “don’t forget . . . ”, he would correct her saying something like “you should really say ‘remember’, because what your brain is absorbing is a message to forget”.
I felt really exhausted and I also felt that I couldn’t say I was exhausted because it felt like I was being ungrateful. This was everything that I had ever wanted
We interpret the power of manifestation – or at the very least, prediction – as a plus, to aim our potential towards achievements. But the power does not only reside in the positive.
Depths of bulimia
Once, on a train from Cork to Dublin, heading back to Trinity College where she was studying English, and in the depths of bulimia, O’Neill was at a stage of struggling where she felt she couldn’t ask for help. Instead, she wrote down a number, a weight, thinking that if she ever got to that weight, her ill-health would be so physically obvious that she wouldn’t need to verbalise needing help. Just before she was hospitalised, a doctor weighed her, and she was the exact weight she had written down on that train journey.
When O’Neill returned to her family home in Clonakilty from New York on September 1st, 2011, she was making progress having suffered a bad eating disorder relapse. She had around €50 in her bank account. Her boyfriend had just broken up with her. She was unemployed. But what she did have was time and space. There were the fields that stretch beyond the windows of that bright room off the kitchen, where in early January of this year, the family Christmas tree competed for space with wicker furniture. There were the school bells she could hear when she sat in that room. And there was an idea.
The following February, her parents bought her a laptop for her 27th birthday. A week later, she began writing Only Ever Yours. With a target of 1,000 words a day – a rule she still adheres to when writing – she wrote seven days a week. She finished the book on August 31st, 2012, almost a year to the day of her return from New York.
Asking For It, published in August 2015, is a remarkable book that arrived at an equally remarkable moment as discussions about women’s experiences appeared to monopolise public discourse. Only Ever Yours was a hit, but Asking For It became a totem of the times. In 2016 O’Neill was everywhere, so much so that her own personal discombobulation resulted at one point in her checking in for yet another flight and, when asked the standard question about what her destination was, she answered: “I don’t know”. It is hard not to follow this kind of anecdote with concerned laughter.
When things started to take off, she found the experience “kind of isolating, actually . . . Also I felt exhausted. I felt so tired because it was constantly travelling and talking and talking about the book and talking about the issues around the book, and trying to keep that momentum going and keep that conversation happening. I felt really exhausted and I also felt that I couldn’t say I was exhausted because it felt like I was being ungrateful. This was everything that I had ever wanted.”
One of the reasons O’Neill lives at home is to to move away from a public-facing persona and come back to herself.
“You know what that’s like when you’re in that very frantic, very high-voltage, very fast-paced energy? And it’s not sustainable, and it burns out really quickly? I know it’s something I can do . . . but when I’m doing that constantly, I feel hollow and empty and I just need to go home. What am I going to fill this [emptiness] with? When your go-to ‘fill this with’ is an addiction, I just have to be so careful. That’s what I found after 2016.”
What the Irish philosopher John Moriarty said about wildness – “Unless there is wildness around you, something terrible happens to the wildness inside of you. And if the wildness inside of you dies, I think you’re finished.” – resonates with O’Neill. It’s this desire for particular surroundings that pushes her away from cities. She wants to be alone in nature, somewhere without a phone, preferably with a waterfall or a mountain.
She has nearly always felt highly strung. Sometimes, as a “very intense” child, she would sit outside at night and stare at the stars for hours, thinking about how huge the universe is and who would remember her if she died. The universe was enormous, she thought, but perhaps if she were famous, then people would know her, thus occupying a larger space in it. Sometimes still, if it’s a clear night, she’ll wrap up warm, lie with a blanket outside and look at those stars again.
So the desire to be known was there from a young age, yet when her writing career began to take off and she started to occasionally be recognised, she recoiled. Being seen is different from being known, of course. “Not that it happened all that often, probably two or three times a week, but every time it happened I started feeling really self-conscious… Because 2016 was…” she trails off into a sigh.
“I just wasn’t prepared for it. I wasn’t prepared for the attention. I wasn’t prepared for a lot of the trolling. I found it really difficult to eat. I think because a lot of that was about having to go on TV, having to get my photo taken, starting to feel very aware of how I looked, how my body looked, how I was presenting myself. I was really, really struggling and going through a difficult time personally. I think when I came home, my parents, they just took care of me. I’m single. I don’t have ‘a person’. So I think my parents were ‘my people’.”
On New Year’s Eve at the end of 2016 she thought: “I can’t do this any more. I physically will not survive. I physically won’t survive another year of this if I don’t take care of myself.”
The money she has earned from her writing has allowed her to approach her wellbeing in a multifaceted manner, a specialised eating disorder therapist, an online coach, a nutritionist, yoga, an alternative therapy once a week – acupuncture, massage, reflexology – and she joined a gym. She is aware of the privilege of a situation where she was able to “throw some money at . . . It seems like wellness, particularly when it comes to mental health, is only really available to those who have the funds to avail of it, which is morally reprehensible.”
In 2017, she invested in her recovery and her health. And she also finished two books.
The professional tasks O’Neill sets herself seem to be unrealistic (finish two books in the year you’ve dedicated to wellness). And it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to link O Neill’s drive and focus as characteristics that emerged from or correlate with addiction.
“I haven’t really thought about that before. God. I think you’re probably right. You’ve just reminded me of something my therapist said to me, because we were talking about how I hadn’t taken a holiday in ages, and was constantly working, working, working, pushing myself. And she was like, ‘Why do you do this?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I have a very strong work ethic, and I am very driven, and it’s working so far, everything is going really well.’ And she was like, ‘Actually, that’s part of your eating disorder.’
It felt like all these women I knew were really successful, really intelligent, really gorgeous, really funny, so accomplished, yet they all had these stories of degrading themselves or debasing themselves
“I hadn’t realised that before, that that voice in my head telling me that I need to work twice as hard, is part of it. God. Ugh . . . I’m having a crisis of faith here. Oh my God, I thought this was a good thing . . . People with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists, tend to be overachievers, tend to do very well in school, because it is this real drive, and you’re constantly pushing yourself past what actually is your own capacity.”
(She resolves to raise this matter at therapy, and later reports back, “When you had said to me about the work ethic and the drive and wondering whether that was linked in with having an eating disorder, I brought that to therapy because I thought it was an interesting point. I think there is something in me that I feel like I need to be working hard, and that things need to be difficult. I do think there’s a part of me that in order for me to be worthy or deserve to do well, it needs to be difficult. I think that is something I need to look at.”)
In mid-January, O’Neill says she is more nervous about this book than her others. In the past, she thought it was easy to be rational about these things, but she’s found herself increasingly anxious about its publication.
“I want it to do well. I want it to resonate with people. And I know you can’t control that.”
A separate entity
She is trying to separate herself from the book, to see it as a separate entity, to not take potential criticism of it as a personal attack. “That’s me being quite rational about it,” she says. “If you had talked to me this morning when I was having a 40-minute conversation with my agent where I was like,” she pauses to adapt a comedic crying voice, “‘WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?’ then you would have definitely said ‘that woman is completely irrational! But right now I’m feeling quite rational.”
Almost Love is a ferocious critique of the flawed behaviours people can succumb to in relationships. It is raw and causes a discomfort, perhaps similar to how uncomfortable O’Neill felt when she read Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. “I recognised aspects of myself in it,” she says of Kraus’s cult novel, “and then I started having conversations with loads of women I knew, and it felt like all these women I knew were really successful, really intelligent, really gorgeous, really funny, so accomplished, yet they all had these stories of degrading themselves or debasing themselves.” Or acting ‘crazy’ in relationships? “We won’t get into that!,” O’Neill replies, “Whenever a guy goes ‘all my exes are crazy,’ I’m like ‘What did you do to them?’”
I think a lot of men are going to hate this book so much,' O’Neill says, 'Really hate it'
“I don’t know how she does it,” Sarah Breen, co-author of Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling, tweeted, “but @oneilllo [O’Neill’s twitter handle] has written another protagonist that I simultaneously couldn’t stand but was also rooting for. Almost Love is excellent.”
O’Neill is particularly animated on the topic of how female authors are viewed versus male authors. “As soon as you use the word ‘commercial’ or ‘women’ it seems as though it’s not seen as art any more. It happens all the time. I know with this book [Almost Love], the first thing that someone is going to say – and I’ve had it already – ‘is it about this ex?’ No. That’s not how fiction works.”
O’Neill once had a man come up to her who thought Asking For It was a memoir. “Eh no, that was fiction. I wasn’t gang-raped and the photos circulated on the internet! . . . There is this assumption that when you’re a woman that you are transcribing your diaries.”
She recalls a talk she did with the authors Lisa McInerney and Rob Doyle. “Rob got up and read a short story about an author called Rob Doyle who lived in Paris. It was an absurd story, because that’s the style of his writing, kind of Flann O’Brien-esque. Anyway, he sat down, and it was very funny, he did a brilliant reading of it. The character was quite obnoxious. And if I got up and read a short story about a writer called Louise O’Neill who l lived in Clonakilty, there’s no way anyone would just accept that was fiction.”
This is on her mind because of the complexity and sometimes facepalm-frustration of the decisions the lead character makes in Almost Love. “I think a lot of men are going to hate this book so much,” O’Neill says, “Really hate it. ‘She’s such an asshole!’ Yeah, what can I tell you?Women are also complex, multi-faceted human beings! This pressure on women to be likeable . . . Women can be assholes and make terrible decisions and cheat on their husbands, and also be incredible friends and really good at their jobs and take care of their ageing parents . . . I think the conflation of female authors with their characters is Larry David versus Lena Dunham, how we conflate Lena with Hannah much more strongly than we do Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he’s given that space to be an asshole in that show and that’s fine, whereas with women we have to root for you, we have to really like you. Do you? I’m not sure.”
Cult of ‘likeability’
Part of the reason that O’Neill feels exercised by the cult of “likeability” is because she recognises how she too has a tendency to fall under its influence. “I think the reason I keep coming back to this is that I feel it so strongly. I have to really watch myself, the urge to be charming, and make this person like me, and really win them over.”
On the eve of Valentine’s Day, at a talk in Trinity College, O’Neill has already won over a packed room of mostly female students. It’s at Trinity where O’Neill began to feel freer to be who she was. When she says that, two young women sitting beside each other in the audience share a look and nod in agreement. At the top of the room, one of the two women interviewing O’Neill questions what could be construed as an absence of female solidarity in her books. O’Neill discusses that, and then talks about social media, a space where, O’Neill says, “you’re just comparing your insides to everyone’s outsides”. The interviewer praises that remark. “Yeah,” O’Neill says, acknowledging the praise, and deadpans, “If I was Oprah I would say that’s a tweetable moment.”
Later she says something that cuts through the room with its honesty, “The hardest place for me to maintain my sense of feminism is within a relationship with a straight man.” “She’s so fab,” a young woman at the back of the room says when the talk is over.
As the room clears, O’Neill talks to anyone who approaches her, and then skips the organised post-event drinks next door, choosing instead to walk back to her hotel.
“I’m practising self-care,” she says, retiring for the evening.
It’s a clear night. The stars are out again. Stop, and go.
Almost Love by Louise O’Neill is published by Riverrun on March 1st