‘There’s a feeling of: it’s okay to have sex, but not too much sex’
Louise O’Neill’s second novel is inspired by victim-blaming after assaults at US high schools
In recent years, young adult fiction has moved from the fantastical and the dystopian to an altogether more compelling and trickier terrain: real life.
Cork-born author Louise O’Neill married dystopia and unflinching realism in her beguiling debut Only Ever Yours, setting the action at an all-girl “academy” in the near future. The 30-year-old managed to capture the low-level hum of teenage anxiety, the cutting politics of school cliques and the insidious nature of body-image obsession, prompting Jeannette Winterson to observe that O’Neill writes “with a scalpel”.
O’Neill was basking in the warm glow of critical acclaim when, in 2012, she came across news footage of the Steubenville High School rape case, in which a teenage girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was sexually assaulted by her peers, some of whom documented the acts on social media. A similar case in Maryville, Missouri, surfaced at about the same time.
“I was fascinated where, in these small communities, there was horrific victim- blaming after [the incident], and the communities really wanted to protect the perpetrators,” says O’Neill. “CNN talked about how these boys’ lives were ruined, and I didn’t understand how a girl was assaulted and her life would never be the same again, but the sympathy appeared to be completely with the men.”
With that, the inspiration for O’Neill’s second novel, Asking For It, was born. The stories of “Slane Girl” and “Magaluf Girl” broke online while O’Neill was writing the book, giving her further impetus to get the story out there. The book is a searing read, and takes place in small-town Cork, where 16-year-old Emma is popular, pretty and confident. The perpetrators in O’Neill’s tale are local GAA heroes; “nice” boys from respectable families. Emma is not without her flaws; by turns she is manipulative, callous and superficial – a deliberate character drawing on O’Neill’s part.
“She was even more of a bitch in the first draft,” says O’Neill. “I wanted to get away from idea of the ‘perfect victim’, which is a real problem in society. Like, we’ll only feel sympathy for someone who has been raped if they’re middle class, white, not a sex worker; if they weren’t promiscuous, drinking, taking drugs; or not wearing a short skirt. I wanted to make the reader nearly complicit, because you don’t like her at times. Again I wanted that sense where you, the reader, realise you had these underlying prejudices, that you were nearly sort of blaming her.”
Asking For It provides a grim commentary on the inner workings of the Irish teenager. Emma’s chief concerns during sex are whom her partner may or may not tell afterwards, and she is hugely concerned with her appearance.
“It’s a commentary on how girls have been socialised to believe their worth very much equals how attractive you are, especially to men,” says O’Neill. “It’s a very, kind of, precarious position on which to base your self worth. Given that Emma lives in a very small town, there’s a feeling of: it’s okay to have sex, but not too much sex.”
O’Neill undertook much research for the sake of veracity: she visited the Rape Crisis Centre in Cork, had a barrister read over the manuscript, and spoke with sexual assault victims. Many had never reported the incident to the Garda Síochána, much less taken the perpetrator to court. And once O’Neill opened up to friends about her latest writing project, she was staggered to find a number of sexual-assault victims within her own social circles.
“This book was really difficult to write,” says O’Neill. “I was having nightmares of being raped, which were very intense. When I write, I’m like a hermit for six months: I don’t go out, don’t drink, don’t have sex . . . I put every single part of me into this. I was probably very difficult to live with, and by the time I was finished, I was really burnt out.”
Close friends and associates have already tweeted of their strong emotional reactions to Asking For It. The book is certainly uncompromising, offering little consolation, but it was O’Neill’s intent to spur people into thinking – to infuriate them.
“My dad said, ‘A lot of people will read it and a lot of people may realise they have been raped, and male readers may realise that they have raped,’ ” says O’Neill. “The reason I wrote both of my books was to start a conversation and to create that reaction.”
Yet holding a mirror up to rape culture can draw a different kind of attention, not least online, where misogyny, both casual and directly, is rampant.
“I’m a little concerned [about the reaction on Twitter] with this book,” says O’Neill. “I tweeted a link on rape culture a few weeks ago, and some guy, who doesn’t even follow me, took real offence to it. He said something like, ‘It’s not something you’ll have to worry about . . . you’re too ugly to be raped.’ ”
The fallout Emma experiences in her small Cork town after a sexual assault also gives O’Neill’s novel much of its impact. As might feasibly be the way in a small town, her father and mother end up having the most dispiriting reaction to Emma’s assault.
“I think in her father’s eyes she is ‘ruined’ a small bit, because he wants to see her in a certain way,” says O’Neill. “If it was my mother, though, she’d have hired a hitman.”
Still, O’Neill grew up amid a similar topography, in Clonakilty. “My mum says now, ‘We always knew you were special,’ whereas years ago it was, ‘We always knew you were different,’ ” says O’Neill, laughing.
“Becoming a teenager, I tried very hard to fit in and be who I thought others wanted me to be,” she says. “I had anorexia from the age of 14, which was like this huge secret, and it does make you very secretive about things. Going to an all girls’ school, I didn’t feel safe saying what I wanted to. And from a young age I wasn’t sure if marriage and having a family was for me. My parents could see I was struggling, and they’d say things like, ‘Maybe for a quieter life, it’s best not to say X, Y, or Z.’ You just don’t want your kid to be bullied or isolated or lonely.”
O’Neill would leave Clonakilty, stopping off initially at Trinity College and Dublin Institute of Technology before fleeing to New York and securing a job as an intern at Elle magazine. It was a stressful and demanding job, doing little to help a young woman with a dormant eating disorder. The problem resurfaced, and O’Neill sought help for the condition right before her 26th birthday.
Newly healthy, she returned home to Cork to figure out her next move. She had attempted to finish a writing debut twice: first at 19 and again at the age of 24. Neither made it past the 10,000-word mark.
“I’d had the idea about Only Ever Yours in New York, but when I moved home and I was slightly regressing, the voice of the characters came through much more strongly,” she says. “I was struggling with a lot of anger towards my entire adolescence, a lot of anger about how I always felt a little different.”
This personal experience has proved invaluable in writing the young adult fiction that has garnered O’Neill acclaim and awards galore. She is part of a new wave of young adult fiction writers who present uncomfortable issues to young readers: death (John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars), eating disorders (Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls), suicide (Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why), domestic violence (Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park), and gender transitioning (Lisa Williamson’s The Art Of Being Normal). O’Neill has found ample elbowroom amid this busy market, amassing her own legion of devoted young fans.
She has left her hometown behind yet again, moving to Dublin over the summer. Not that she has had much time to get used to her new surroundings: after our interview, she is bound for the UK, and later, for New York, where she has sold the film rights to Only Ever Yours.
Real success appears to be hers for the taking, and O’Neill appears more than ready for the ride. Amid it all, she is still very much a typical 30-year-old, albeit one with a brilliantly blazing feminist streak. “My Tinder bio reads: ‘hobbies include: reading literature, going to the theatre and burning the patriarchy to the motherf***ing ground’,” she says, laughing.
Asking For It will be published by Quercus on September 3rd