‘You realise most people on Twitter don’t know anything’

Caroline O’Donoghue, author of the acclaimed debut novel Promising Young Women, on writing and the promise of a better life

Caroline O’Donoghue: “I find it hard to believe in a character if I can’t envisage them spending a day at work.”

Caroline O'Donoghue is the author of the acclaimed debut novel Promising Young Women. Originally from Cork, she now lives in London, where she works as a journalist for The Irish Times and numerous other publications. She talks about her work and career to Darran Anderson, author of Imaginary Cities.

Did Promising Young Women originate from a single idea or did it gradually evolve?
When I started, I thought it would be a fun romantic comedy, like a Helen Fielding or a Nick Hornby book because I think I have a tone of voice that falls in line with them. I didn't envisage it becoming this gothic spiral. The central character, Jane, started quite like myself but she became completely her own person. We have very little in common other than we were both struck by this intense loneliness in our early to mid-20s. Being an immigrant to London [from Cork], I found myself adrift for a long time and I found my tribe very much on the internet.

At first, I did the classic thing of “write what you know”, as all young writers are told, and made observations of people in the advertising world around me that were amusing and curious. There was a joke I used to make with people in the agencies I worked in, where you see essentially men in their 50s and women in their 20s continually working in teams together and you can see them sucking the youth from their bones. And the 50-year-old men are really 350.

That's the terrible secret. We're vampires.
It's a joke I'd make with my older male colleagues, many of whom were lovely, alongside others who were creeps. So that's where the gothic element came in.


You write at one point of being "in London but not of it".
I've been here seven years but I've only felt that this is a place I understand and feel comfortable with in the last two. I think that happens a lot of people. We tend to move from provincial areas to the capitals. Very few people move from huge world city to another. The geography of London alone is bamboozling. I spent an eternity trying to match up the Tube map with the actual physical geography. That's compounded by the fact that you're young, early in your career, with no money so you probably live in Zone 3 or beyond. So you're always that neighbour poking their nose over the fence to see where the real London is. I'd go to Shoreditch because I knew things happened there but you could never seem to find where that good party was. That's the monstrousness of London; you always feel like a better party is happening around the corner but you aren't invited, you don't know where it is and you wouldn't know what to do when you got there.

That seems to reflect in your main character's experience. She's trying to find a rock to cling to in the midst of this deluge, whether that's the big city or just modern life.
She's been sheltered firstly by the boyfriend whose looked after her. She was in this numbing comfort zone and then she no longer is. Plus, she's in a profession that's uncertain. You look on Twitter and there seems to be millions of people who are incredibly sure of their opinions. They know exactly what they feel about Israel, Corbyn, Brexit, the Tories. And you realise most of these people don't know anything but they so want to feel sure. If we look at characters who Jane looks up to, who seem to have everything together, they still fall prey to the same vulnerabilities.

Something that's always annoyed me about literature is how authors opt for supposedly lofty topics and ignore the actual process of living; their characters don't have to work or eat or engage with modern technology but your book is different…
We're singing from the same hymn sheet. I find it hard to believe in a character if I can't envisage them spending a day at work. It's like when a little girl is playing with Barbie and Ken says, "Ok Barbie, I'm off to work now" and the little girl will stare at Ken for a second and then just fling him over her shoulder. I feel that's what authors do. Or at best, the person disappears to work where they do a series of amorphous tasks with no definition or meaning and we wait for them to come home and continue the narrative where they left off. And it's just not true. The literal tasks that make up people's days come to define them in such incredibly deep ways, which I feel a lot of people in fiction just ignore.

The dysfunctional nature of work is there too.
I think anyone whose encountered classism, racism or sexism in the workplace has a moment when they acknowledge it but then think "What's step two?" Often there is none. I don't think most people realise HR departments are generally there to protect the company. If you're experiencing prejudice, however subtly, first you have to prove it, which is difficult and uncomfortable. Then what happens? You're not going to get promoted for "being difficult". It's like mental health issues – all the press is "talk about it". You see stickers in pubs in Ireland, "Men, talk to your friends about your troubles". It's obviously an admirable idea but what if someone does talk to their friend and their friend says, "Mate, I think you should see a therapist." And the reply will be "I can't afford one." We need viable step twos not just repeating step one over and over.

The title Promising Young Women is double-edged, given how that unrealised potential is ground down or compromised.
You get this in the book world. There is so much press about debut novelists especially women like me – white women who are blonde, live in the city and understand media. "Hot new thing on the rise" – that's the language around female art when it is burgeoning. Friends who are novelists tell me, "Hold on to that debut novelist feeling for as long as you can" because once your second, third, sixth novels come, if you're lucky enough to have them, people won't be quite as interested. Even within this industry, they're asking "who's the next fresh face?" Female art is talked about like it's initially all promise and then it's old news. There's no space left for general thriving, for realising promise.

With female success stories, people love adding asterisks. Even Beyoncé, who is incredibly successful, someone will pop up and say “Well, do you realise they are 10 writers on such and such song?” The asterisk is always implicit, and people are encouraged to add their own. Women even do it by doubting themselves and being unable to take compliments.

Things begin to descend for Jane and the book takes on a surreal quality that oddly deepens the realism.
As I was writing, I was also rereading Jane Eyre and I realised it's more or less the same arc. Jane Eyre is a workplace romance; add a HR department and it could be now. And there are weird supernatural elements that never get into the film adaptations, like when Rochester dresses up as a gypsy and when she can hear him calling across hundreds of miles. You write about the impossible because it's the only way to adequately describe how it actually feels. You make all that stuff external. Toni Morrison does that exceptionally well with topics that push against what it's actually possible to envision in the modern world. The psychic weight of the things she's dealing with is so heavy she had to create a new language and a new series of references. This is how it looks, she implies, because this is how it feels.

Throughout everything, there's still the promise of a better life, often by letting loved ones back in.
I hadn't intended that but it became very important. Jane and I's family situations are very different. I grew up in a very loving stable family while Jane's is more dysfunctional. What I felt we had in common was a similar worship of our mothers. Jane is ashamed of what she's doing and she can't confront her mother who is the one person in the world who knows who she is and loves her for that. And that is the beginning of the end of her grip on reality. My mother found those scenes, though very different from my own, very emotional because when I first moved to London I was unhappy and isolated, and there was a time when I stopped answering the phone to her because there was only so many ways I could lie about being happy. Everyone has their own personal moment like that. And you get through it and you know it'll never be like that again.

  • Promising Young Women by Caroline O'Donoghue is published by Virago. Darran Anderson is author of "Imaginary Cities and Tidewrack" (forthcoming).