When Louise Nealon received an email telling her she had won the 2017 Séan Ó Faoláin Competition, she thought it was spam. “It can’t be me. I haven’t even been published before,” she said to Patrick Cotter, the competition organiser and director of the Munster Literature Centre.
But Paul McVeigh, the competition judge and award-winning author of The Good Son, had make no mistake in picking out Nealon’s excruciatingly good short story, What Feminism Is.
When it was published on the Irish Times website under the headline, You've read Cat Person, now read this Irish bad-sex short story, it became one of the most-read stories for days.
Leading Irish agent Marianne Gunn-O’Connor got in touch seeking an introduction and today, just a little over a year later, Bonnier Books has announced that it has acquired Nealon’s debut novel, Snowflake, and a follow-up in a six-figure deal.
Gunn-O’Connor has also sold film and TV rights to Element Pictures, the team responsible for current BBC hit Normal People, adapted from Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel.
Snowflake, described by the publisher as “an exquisite coming-of-age story”, will be the lead literary debut from new imprint Manilla Press in 2021. Margaret Stead, publisher for Manilla Press and Zaffre, said: “Snowflake is a brilliant novel, with huge heart and a raw, honest, hilariously funny and real look at coming of age, mental health, at the meaning of home. Louise Nealon is a huge talent and we are so pleased and proud – and excited -– to be publishing her at Manilla Press next year.’”
Nealon, 27, studied English literature in Trinity College Dublin, and then completed a masters in creative writing at Queen’s University Belfast in 2016. She lives on her family farm in Co Kildare, where she divides her time between reading, writing and milking cows.
The debut author said: “In early March, I got a phone call from my agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor, who read out an email from Margaret Stead of Bonnier Books UK. That phone call changed my life. It is a dream come true to be represented by an agent and a publisher who believe wholeheartedly in the story that I am trying to tell. I am so grateful that the team at Manilla Press have the same grá for these characters as I do. I am looking forward to post-lockdown celebrations, but for now, I am dancing around my childhood bedroom in a Harry Potter dressing gown.”
Describing the roots of her novel, she said: “When I was 18, I woke up in the middle of the night convinced that the dream I just had belonged to somebody else. I was a university dropout and had been diagnosed with depression. My dream was immediately dismissed as a delusion. I always wondered what would have happened if I had been allowed to dwell on my dream world for longer. I began to write down those dreams that didn’t belong to me.
“I have been driven to tell this story for a decade. It is the reason I became a writer. There is a buffer of silence around mental illness that psychiatry has failed to penetrate. When I was unwell, psychiatry did not raise me out of the depths of despair, but reading literature did.”
Gunn O’Connor said: “I fell in love with Snowflake from the first chapters Louise shared with me. I knew I had to find a very special home for it. Margaret Stead and Kate Parkin of Bonnier Books UK acted like lightning and pre-empted in a six-figure offer, for their new literary imprint Manilla Press. There was no doubting their passion and vision which they matched with a robust offer and a killer proposal, outlining their vision and what they could do for Snowflake.”
Louise Nealon on her debut novel, Snowflake
When I was eighteen, I woke up in the middle of the night convinced that the dream I just had belonged to somebody else. I was a university dropout and had been diagnosed with depression. My dream was immediately dismissed as a delusion. I always wondered what would have happened if I had been allowed to dwell on my dream world for longer. I began to write down those dreams that didn't belong to me. That's how I met a girl called Debbie and her uncle, Billy.
Debbie White lives on a dairy farm in rural Ireland. Her uncle Billy lives in a caravan in a field at the back of her house. Debbie’s mother, Maeve, is obsessed with dreams. She teaches Debbie from a young age that while people exist as individuals on a daily basis, at night, the boundary between us disappears. According to Maeve, sleep is not a solo activity. When we drift into the realm of the unconscious, we all share dreams. Maeve has dedicated her life to researching these dreams from the confines of her bedroom.
Debbie has an ambivalent relationship with her mother. She has always been close to her uncle Billy, who assures her that Maeve is mad and university is her one-way ticket to freedom. However, as Debbie moves from the familiarity of her rural home to the anonymity of the city, her sense of identity is challenged. She finds it increasingly difficult to navigate her way through life. She also begins to have strange dreams.
The title, Snowflake, addresses my generation who are often referred to as snowflakes in a disparaging way. A snowflake is a rare and wonderful thing. The six arms of a snow crystal reflect the internal order of water molecules. Like human cells, it reflects nature at its best. Snowflakes are also flawed. They are irregular in structure – evidence that nature is capable of failure, not just humans, which is a relief.
At its heart, Snowflake is a coming-of-age story about Debbie leaving home and beginning to make her way through a world that constantly threatens to obliterate her sense of self. Snowflake explores the fine line between what our fickle society considers sane and insane. There is an Irish proverb, “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine,” which translates as, “People live in each other’s shadows.” The characters in this novel rely on each other for shelter. It turns out that they have a lot to teach each other.
I have been driven to tell this story for a decade. It is the reason I became a writer. By telling Debbie’s story, I am trying to get at a psychological realism. There is a buffer of silence around mental illness that psychiatry has failed to penetrate. When I was unwell, psychiatry did not raise me out of the depths of despair, but reading literature did. I found therapy frustrating and expensive, but reading was free, in every sense of that word. Immersing myself in the world of a book has always been a magical, life-affirming activity.
Fiction has a dreamlike dimension that invites us out of our sense of self and into someone else's imagination. It brings us in touch with a wisdom that is buried deep within us, a kind of fantastical knowledge that invites endless possibilities. I think I have secretly known that literature has the ability to save lives, ever since I was a child reading Alice in Wonderland, poking the pop-up book and reading Alice's worry: "I wonder if I've been changed in the night."
Read The Possibility of Snow by Louise Nealon, part of The Irish Times summer fiction series in 2018