Megan Nolan: ‘Dublin wasn’t ever good for me’

Megan Nolan: started working on Acts of Desperation in 2016. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
The 30-year-old writer on dropping out of Trinity, leaving Dublin and her debut novel

In the autumn of 2019, the Irish writer Megan Nolan made headlines when it was announced that her novel had been acquired by publisher Jonathan Cape in a two-book deal. The publisher called the book “masterful and riveting” and praised Nolan as having a voice that was “fresh, searching and addictive”.

That sort of high praise would not have come as a surprise to anyone who had been following Nolan’s career. Over the last few years, the 30-year-old has emerged as one of the best regarded writers of her generation. Best known for her personal writing, she has written for the likes of the New York Times, New Statesman, the Guardian and the Sunday Times, to name a few.

In the past, she has written about everything from body image to the Irish-English relationship. Her work can be characterised by its wit and candour. Very often, she writes the sorts of pieces that strike a chord with readers and get passed around social media. The supermodel Tyra Banks once tweeted at her: “You have shared a perspective that I have never seen, read or heard. I bow down to you and your prose.”

Next month sees the publication of Nolan’s novel Acts of Desperation, a searingly honest examination of romantic obsession. Set in Dublin, the book traces the beginning, middle and end of a relationship between the unnamed female narrator and Ciaran, her cold, inscrutable boyfriend. Told through an interior monologue, it touches on themes of codependency, addiction, self-harm and body image.

“It’s sort of an attempt to psychologically investigate that dynamic of a woman obliterating herself to be with a man who, from the outside, is very much not worth her time,” says Nolan, speaking from her home in London.

The book has already generated advance praise, with Norwegian author and literary titan Karl Ove Knausgård calling it “a love story like no other”.

So how exactly did Nolan end up penning one of the year’s most anticipated debuts?

We might be short of money for something else but my dad would always make sure I had enough for new books

Megan Nolan was born in Waterford city in 1990. Her parents separated when she was young, and she grew up splitting her time between both of their respective homes. (Her father is Jim Nolan, the well-known playwright and theatre director.)

She says she had a “lucky upbringing” in that she had access to a number of creative outlets. As a child, she was involved in Little Red Kettle, a well regarded youth theatre company in the city. When she was older, she signed up to a three-month creative writing course with Waterford Youth Arts, which was “really useful” for her.

Both parents influenced her creative development, she says. “We might be short of money for something else but [my dad] would always make sure I had enough for new books,” she says. “Even that sort of thing was very important.”

No surprise then that she was bookish at school. “I wasn’t ever really excellent academically but I was studious enough, and I liked being good at school,” she says. “And then that sort of all changed when I got to transition year.”

With the weight of exams off her shoulders, she says she became more outgoing. She made new friends. She did fun things like take part in a local production of Les Misérables. Later, she joined a band called You’re Only Massive and gigged around the country with them. As a result, she gradually lost interest in school.

“I was still really into the subjects I was good at,” she says. “I really liked English and history but apart from that I sort of lost the need to be the clever girl in school. I still tried but not in the same way. It didn’t have the same meaning for me anymore.”

After completing the “horrendously stressful” Leaving Cert, she went to Trinity College to study French and film studies. It wasn’t her first choice. She had wanted to study English there, but didn’t get enough points.

“I sort of had this thing in my head of, ‘Oh I know I could do English somewhere else but I want to go to Trinity’ so I just went there and did those things,” she says of settling for her second choice.

At 18, she moved into a house share and started college. Coming from Waterford, Nolan says she was immediately struck by some of the differences between herself and her classmates.

“I was a bit taken aback that so many people had gone to a private school because I just didn’t realise that was such a thing in Ireland,” she says. “It was a bit strange to realise that there was this class distinction that I never really thought about before I went to college. I didn’t grow up with lots of money at all but I didn’t feel that different from my friends who did have a lot of money. As in, we didn’t do different things or look that different from each other even.”

Many of the people she encountered in Trinity seemed to carry themselves with a level of self-assuredness that was alien to her. “I thought I was confident before I met these people but I was confident in my own personal life whereas they were confident in the world,” she says.

Within a few months, it became clear she was struggling in her course. “I was super into the film side of things but I was just not good enough at French,” she says. “Having gone to two or three months of lectures and being really lost, I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to do the degree but I struggled on for a bit anyway.”

Eventually she dropped out. She says she spent the next two years trying to recover from the experience. “I’ve written a bit about this before but I went into it thinking that I was clever and that I’d be able to figure it out even if I didn’t immediately,” she says of her time in college. “And then when that wasn’t true it was really identity-shaking that I wasn’t clever enough to figure it out.”

A decade on, does she have any hang-ups about not having a university degree?

“No,” she says. “To be honest it’s literally made no difference to what I’ve ended up doing.”

Megan Nolan: ‘In terms of the narrator there is quite a lot of stuff that is me in it. The feelings are real but the events are not. That’s what I say’. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Megan Nolan: ‘In terms of the narrator there is quite a lot of stuff that is me in it. The feelings are real but the events are not. That’s what I say’. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

After dropping out, Nolan got to work. She stage managed a youth drama production in Waterford. In Dublin she worked in the fashion retailer Forever 21. She waited tables in Jo’Burger, the now-shuttered burger joint.

In the meantime, she continued to hang out and socialise with the friends she had made in Trinity. Like many people her age, she partied.

“I was going out way too much and because I didn’t have a plan for my future it was easy to just do that sort of thing and rely too much on the appeal of going out,” she says.

It was, in retrospect, not good for her.

“That was the only thing I had that made me feel good, and that’s obviously not a very healthy dynamic to have in your life,” she notes.

Around this time, she was writing very little. “I could literally count on one hand the number of things I wrote, I think,” she says. She did, however, dabble in different creative pursuits. For instance, she regularly took part in Voicebox, an alternative comedy night hosted by her friend, the late Cian Hallinan.

“He had me on doing this sort of satirical segment called Voice of the Youth because I was a lot younger than him, and I would do a comedic round-up of what was going on that week in the news,” she recalls. “It was super fun and it was my first experience of writing something that was then performed.”

Later, she started performing at Monthly General Meeting, a variety night that showcased up-and-coming creatives in the city. She would write “David Sedaris-esque” essays and read them aloud.

“As I was writing those, I was finding it quite satisfying but then I realised I wanted to write something not necessarily comedic every time,” she recalls. “That was when I started writing personal essays, I think.”

In late 2014, she published an essay about her experience of travelling to the UK as a teenager to get an abortion. It had initially been written to be read aloud, but she was pleased with it and decided to post it online where it quickly gained traction.

The essay was something of a breakthrough for Nolan in that it was the first time a piece of hers was widely read and shared. She was taken aback by the scale of the attention it received but had no regrets about publishing it.

“Because my politics around [abortion] are pretty solid and always have been, it would never have been a secret from anyone I knew, and I wasn’t ashamed of it in that way,” she says.

“I remember my Dad calling me after I put it up. He wasn’t angry with me or anything but he was worried for me. He was worried that I would get negative attention. I remember having that conversation with him and just thinking, ‘I’m not ashamed of it so you can’t make me ashamed of it. It’s not something I feel bad about so there’s no real way for you to hurt me with it.’ That’s sort of the way I’ve felt going on. Whenever I do write personal stuff it’s like, ‘I wouldn’t be writing it in public if I felt bad about it.’”

Part of why it took me so long to produce the first draft is that it’s so draining to sit there and write these things and be crying when you write it and feel really caught up in it

In 2015, Nolan decided to move to London. It was a sudden decision prompted by “a hard time” she was having in her personal life. She was having relationship issues and messing up at her office job. She needed to start anew elsewhere. “I just sort of thought, ‘Oh you know what? I can’t really deal with these issues I’m having in Dublin anymore. I’m just going to leave.’”

She settled quickly in London and befriended a group of people she knew through her ex, many of whom were artists. They were kind to her and brought her along to galleries and performances. Soon, she was doing readings at different events around the city. It was after one of these events that she was approached by her literary agent, who signed her up after hearing her read one of her essays.

When she wasn’t writing, Nolan was busy trying to make ends meet. She worked part-time at the Guardian in different administrative roles and took extra gigs from a temping agency. “I didn’t have anything else going on so it was really hard to string together those two bitty jobs to make enough money to get by,” she says.

Her luck changed when a commissioning editor contacted her asking if she might write an opinion article on Pope Francis’s decision to soften the ban on divorced people receiving Communion. This helped kickstart her freelance journalism career. Pretty soon, she was contributing to many of the UK’s leading newspapers, magazines and websites.

In 2016, she started working on Acts of Desperation. She had been awarded a modest grant from the Ted and Mary O’Regan Arts Bursary, a scheme that offers financial support to Waterford creatives. She knew she couldn’t make the money last in London and decided to decamp to Athens where she sublet a cheap apartment and wrote what would end up being the ending to the novel.

Once she returned from that first writing trip, she started to carve out chunks of time where she could work exclusively on the novel. “What I would tend to do is try to work quite a lot and produce a few more articles than I would normally in order to save up some money and I would do that for a month or two to accrue enough to take a couple of weeks off then,” she explains. It took her three years to complete the first draft.

Megan Nolan, moved to London in 2015. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien
Megan Nolan, moved to London in 2015. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

Parts of the book are extremely raw and intense. It required her to dig deep and excavate parts of herself. Because of that, she says she found the writing process challenging at times.

“Part of why it took me so long to produce the first draft is that it’s so draining to sit there and write these things and be crying when you write it and feel really caught up in it,” she says. “In terms of energy, you can’t sustain doing that every day for three years.”

The author Eimear McBride once remarked that there isn’t a female author alive who hasn’t been asked of their characters, “It’s really just you, isn’t it?”

In Nolan’s case, however, there are clear and obvious parallels between herself and the narrator. Is she anticipating questions about how much of the book is based on real life?

“I think it’s a fair enough question,” she says. “I don’t mind being asked it but obviously there’s no real way to quantify that. The only thing I have said that I want to make clear is that it’s not a real relationship. It’s not based on a real person. As in, the character of Ciaran is not like any of my boyfriends.

“I’ve had very nice boyfriends in general and the whole dynamic of the relationship is drawn on observations of loads of different relationships and different aspects of them. It’s not one person at all.

“In terms of the narrator there is quite a lot of stuff that is me in it. The feelings are real but the events are not. That’s what I say.”

With Acts of Desperation, Nolan has written a great Dublin novel. For a long time, her relationship with the city was fraught and coloured by her experiences there. This year marks six years since she left Dublin for pastures new. How does she feel about it now?

“It just wasn’t ever really very good for me to be there,” she says. “It’s hard to regret it because all the friends that I made there are still my friends. You wouldn’t want to not have gone there but at the same time it was the setting for not a very happy time in my life.

“I think I felt some resentment towards it. Because I left it I felt angry that I hadn’t made it work, that I had left and I had never made a success of myself in Dublin.”

More recently, however, that has changed.

“For Christmas 2019, I had a really nice homecoming that made me feel differently. To be honest it was partially because I had sold the book and I felt way more confident in myself professionally.

“It was like, ‘Oh I’m coming back to Dublin and I’m able to feel good about myself and not ashamed of myself in this place.’”

Acts of Desperation is published on March 4th by Jonathan Cape