Never let it be said that Sophie White isn’t a woman that can multi-task. During our lengthy Zoom interview, the Dubliner manages to breastfeed her three-month-old son Sonny, barely flinching when he spits up (“it’s like a one-man artisanal ricotta company here,” she quips). Her other sons, Rufus (6) and Arlo (3) are playing nearby in her Irishtown home. Job done on feeding her youngest child, White picks up a half-made garment, knitting and purling away as she talks in an unbroken stream about her complicated relationship with social media.
I suppose it’s no wonder that White can multi-task, given that she has managed to master a multi-hyphen career. Originally a fine-art graduate, White had a career in art of photography in mind, as she was reluctant to get involved in the “family business” (her mother Mary O’Sullivan is a writer and features editor at the Sunday Independent, while her late father Kevin Linehan wrote comedy sketches before being responsible for some of the biggest shows at RTÉ, including Eurovision 1993 in Millstreet, as the station’s head of entertainment).
Yet after time spent in New Zealand and France, the sirensong of the family trade won out in the end. A journalist and columnist, White also co-hosts three podcasts. There’s the Mother of Pod comedy podcast; The Creep Dive, a look at the weird world of social media; and The Vulture Club, a pop culture podcast.
After writing Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown in 2015 – a recipe book-cum-memoir charting her own mental health challenges – White has turned what’s left of her hand to women’s fiction.
Last year her lively debut, Filter This, was a deep dive into the compellingly dysfunctional world of Instagram and influencer/blogging culture, featuring Ali, a woman who fakes a pregnancy online to amass a following as a “mumfluencer”. Once she is found out, a very public fall from grace ensues. The accidental social media post that becomes a bigger ruse is fast turning into a literary trope of its own, but White still creates a character to root for. All the while, Ali is dealing with her father’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s disease.
The end result is a glossy and giddy read, and like all good commercial fiction is a fine tango between light and shade. But even White had no idea how dark the subject matter was.
“People kept saying to me, ‘wow, that character is very dark’, while I just thought faking a pregnancy was almost like a little project for Ali,” she notes. “Once I started researching that world though, I realised that nothing goes dark enough. For the Creep Dive, I’ve researched people that have not just faked pregnancies, but faked cancer, and even made up a kid and posted that he has died in a car accident. I couldn’t stay ahead of the craziness I saw. Every time I thought, ‘wow, this is way too much for the book’, I’d research it and it already would have happened.”
Building on Filter This, White’s new book Unfiltered is a sequel to her debut.
The reader is reunited with Ali, on the morning of her father Miles’s funeral. There is now a real pregnancy, after a brief dalliance with an on-off boyfriend, and this time, the announcement happens in a way she might not have planned. Amid it all, Ali’s online following is still healthy, as her “fans”are on tenterhooks to stay close to the drama. And despite her moment of ignominy, Ali is still drawn to the flame of Insta-fame.
A number of characters are evidently inspired by real-life instances of influencers. Belle Gibson, the Instagrammer who posted about “curing” herself via clean eating has seemingly provided some inspiration for one subplot. In Ali’s “Catfishers Anonymous” meetings, readers might well be reminded of Clemmie Hooper (@motherofdaughters), the influencer who created a pseudonym so that she could engage with people making negative comments about her.
White is all too aware that the darker recesses of the culture are a rich seam to mine. In a world where cancel culture is rife, the stakes are always perilously high.
“You can see how it’s a slippery slope,” notes White. “It’s not like online is a separate location to us, that’s over there, that we can visit. It’s so in our lives. You see the real-world effects of online behaviours all the time. That whole idea of ‘don’t put that picture online, it might show up in a job interview’ seems so quaint now.”
White writes with authority on social media obsession, which makes her next revelation a bit of a surprise.
“I didn’t get a smartphone until I had my second baby,” she notes. “When my first book came out in 2015, I wasn’t on any [social media platform], and my publisher was like, ‘just pick one to promote your book’,” she recalls, “I was so late to the party – it was already in full swing. I really felt I couldn’t catch up with this stuff. It’s funny; a few years ago, it felt so not Irish to be posting about your achievements and trying to write the perfect humble-brag.”
After I finished my first book, my first thought was, ‘wow, I’ll never do that again’
Yet this late adopter soon fell for social media’s charms, hard.
“Oh god, I’m thirsty for the likes,” White notes, only half-joking. “It’s very intoxicating. It’s so shallow, but look, the whole mechanism is built to encourage addiction. The whole dragging down of the screen to refresh your feed deliberately mimics a slot machine. It’s so tacky, but it’s very hard to dismiss that validation machine.”
As a journalist, White is more than used to writing about herself and her personal life, from post-partum depression and breastfeeding to her early dalliances with drug taking (including an instance which led to a nervous breakdown at the age of 22). White is by her very nature an open book, flitting from describing her boobs (“like a deflated nylon stocking, if I’m honest”) to having a psychiatrist in lockdown (“I’d hate to be auditioning a new therapist on Zoom right now”) with endearing candour.
Yet she admits that fiction is an easier fit for her now than the confessional soul bearing she has done in the past.
“After I finished my first book, my first thought was, ‘wow, I’ll never do that again’,” she says. “Every time I go to write a column I write from a place of, ‘how can I even subject people to this?’ But look, if it pisses people off, it at least gives them a bit of entertainment for a few minutes.
“[Getting trolled] is crushing, but the only pay-off I really found about opening up personally was that people get in touch and show you a lot of solidarity. With fiction, it’s much easier, you just give your point across to a character to say, and let them be the bad person. It’s quite cowardly, really.”
In Unfiltered, White writes with particular acuity about Ali’s parental grief; something that’s been borne from real-life experience. After being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease over a decade previously, White’s father Linehan died in May 2017. Pregnant with her second son, White was also attempting to write Filter This, and the experience with her own father soon made its way into Ali’s life.
“He died a few months after I’d started working on the first draft and to be honest, initially it was laziness that made me write about it,” admits White. “There had to be a reason that Ali was such a crazy bitch, and this was a reason I knew all about.”
I have no idea why we call it grief. I was pissed off with the lack of relief. It’s one of the hardest things to discover, that you cannot just make your way through it
Alzheimer’s is a particularly cruel and harrowing long goodbye, and White admits that she ran the gamut of emotions during her father’s battle with the illness.
“You hear about all the stages of grief, like anger and denial and all that s**t, and I remember thinking this isn’t anything like I was promised it would be,” she recalls. “As I worked through the book, the character of Miles started to become more and more like my dad. It was almost an exercise in making a portrait of him, and in that way, it kind of became a healthier process.
“There are parallels [with my own experience] in the book, but let’s just say the stuff in the book is sweeter. You’re trying to make it escapist and enjoyable, but you also have to do justice for the people going through the experience.”
Linehan struggled with Alzheimer’s for over a decade before there was “an abrupt drop off in his health about six years ago”, when he was just 58.
“He had basically checked out completely mentally, and that was extremely painful,” White reflects. “You really lose sight of who they are, and it becomes very shocking, and it completely clouds who they were for you.”
When Linehan died, White waited for the release of relief that she was told to expect. It didn’t come.
“There was just this smothering, suffocating guilt,” she recalls, “I have no idea why we call it grief. I was pissed off with the lack of relief. It’s one of the hardest things to discover, that you cannot just make your way through it.”
Currently working on a third work of fiction, White admits that she has added a passage about Ireland’s Eurovision sweep in the 1990s. “It’s almost like I’m putting little Easter eggs out for my dad,” she smiles.
White jokes around that it’s probably no coincidence that she began to see the lure of Instagram around the time her father was seriously ill. “I’d be there on Instagram sitting in my dad’s room at the hospice and I’d be looking for a selfie spot while also thinking, ‘what the hell, is this my life now?’” she smiles. “But I guess you can see where the escapism comes in.”
Unfiltered by Sophie White is out now via Hachette Ireland books