Described by The Guardian as the “best Young Adult fiction writer alive today”, Louise O’Neill’s name has been mentioned in almost every home, school, nail salon and WhatsApp group this year. Her books, ‘Only Ever Yours’ and ‘Asking For It’, provoke conversations surrounding the ideal female body, rape and consent. Conversations which the media and society have avoided, subjects which are intrinsic to women but their voices have been silenced.
Within the past two years, Louise has amassed a gargantuan number of awards but in my humble opinion, her finest accomplishments have been encouraging women to use their voice, particularly online, and her miraculous ability to make the most controversial topics mainstream.
External to her writing, Louise is kind with an acerbic wit. She is as personable over a vegetarian lunch date, as she is on Twitter. We spoke about female friendship, feminism and the definition of success. I can’t wait to hear what you think.
How would you describe yourself, both personally and professionally?
That’s tough. Professionally, I would describe myself as very ambitious and driven. I am a very hard worker, I’m diligent and I find it hard to say no to opportunities. I’m dependable and I’m capable. My editor, publicist or agent have never worried about what I might say or do in an interview, for example, I am quite able to handle myself, if that makes sense. I’m just so great, Sinéad [laughs].
Ha! Of course! Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?
I have a history of eating disorders, over-achieving and being a bit of a perfectionist ties in with that. I have always been very self-disciplined, which I think comes from my father. He is one of the most self-disciplined people I’ve ever met. However, I actually think I’ve had to let go of that behaviour because perfectionism is an unhealthy trait to have. It paralyses you.
Yes, and life isn’t perfect. People aren’t perfect.
Sometimes we learn more from those imperfect moments than anything else.
Exactly and especially with writing, I had this constant fear that I couldn’t do it because it had to be perfect. I didn’t want to start writing until I was confident that what I produced would be a masterpiece that would win the Booker Prize.
Or the Young Adult Book Prize of the Year? [laughs]
[laughs] Yes, that!
How did you manage that self-doubt?
Being completely honest, it paralysed me for years and left me incapable of doing anything as regards to writing.
Is that what took you to New York?
I’m not sure but perfectionism definitely didn’t help when I was in New York. I was working in a job that, to quote to Meryl Streep, ‘a million girls would kill for’, but within two weeks of being there, I knew that I had made a mistake. It wasn’t due to the people I was working with because they were incredibly talented and extremely passionate about what they were doing but it never sat comfortably with me. I expected to be an expert in my role almost immediately and when I wasn’t, I felt very impatient, frustrated and disappointed with myself. Instead of giving myself time to realise that I would eventually improve, I labelled myself as just not being good enough.
Was that fear of failure unique to your experiences in New York?
No, often I would have had an initial interest in pursuing a hobby or a line of work but psychologically, I decided that if I didn’t become an expert at it immediately, I would quickly lose interest and become bored with it, so I never bothered. It’s a really terrible trait to have.
Speaking of traits, how would you describe yourself personally?
I would consider myself to be passionate, opinionated, self-critical and critical in general. I can be impatient but I think I’m very kind. It’s probably the trait that I like most about myself, I make every effort to be as kind as possible to the people that I meet.
We spoke briefly about your time in New York and whilst there, you were working for ELLE Magazine but how has your relationship with fashion evolved since then?
We’ve spoken about this before – the fashion industry has a huge number of issues which it needs to overcome. From race, to its fetishisation and obsession with thinness and youth…
Yes, and its lack of representation of people with disabilities and how inaccessible it is to such a large cohort of the population.
Exactly, it’s a discriminatory business but on the other side, it’s an art form. The best people who work in fashion are artists. When some of the industry’s best stylists, photographers and designers collaborate, they create art.
It is! For me, I didn’t find it very creatively fulfilling, perhaps that was due to a lack of control. With writing, there are fewer hierarchies and you have the opportunity to create something in your own right.
It’s a different power relationship. What were the key things which you learned in New York?
I relapsed and then started to recover whilst I was in New York. I began to see an excellent therapist and nutritionist, a big part of the process was an internal examination. I had to discover who I was, what I believe in and what I wanted from life. The more I started to examine myself, the more I began to evaluate the world in which I was living in and the society which housed me. I had always considered myself a feminist but it was during those therapy sessions what I really began to understand and articulate what was important to me.
What made you return home?
The fashion industry perpetuates society’s ideals of what a women should look like and after much discussion with my therapist, I was no longer sure that working in industry that contributed to making women sick and feel less, was something that I could stand over. It was a personal choice.
Speaking of personal choices, you’ve been very vocal about your experiences of having an eating disorder. Do you feel a pressure to be a spokesperson?
Sometimes it can be a little over-whelming – while I wanted to write these books and bring the topics which they deal with to the forefront, sometimes it can be a little frustrating if the entire conversation circulates solely around anorexia but on the other hand, on the topic of rape and consent, which is discussed in ‘Asking For It’, I believe it’s a vital conversation which society needs to discuss. I am more than willing to put head above the parapet and be a spokesperson because I fundamentally believe that integral changes need to be made to our society to eliminate this issue.
How do you manage the personal and professional entities of yourself within those discussions?
It can be incredibly personal. For example, if I’m on a panel discussion with a number of authors, a question might arise from the audience regarding a son or a daughter’s eating disorder and I am fearful of monopolising that forum and bringing something which is so personal to an individual into such a public space.
Are you concerned about being appointed an expert within the public forum?
It’s really difficult, while I can talk about my experiences, I’m not a doctor and I would hate to be perceived as lecturing others on what is right or wrong for them as every experience and recovery is unique.
Did that public honesty have an impact on you?
I gave a huge amount of myself when ‘Only Ever Yours’ was released, I made myself very vulnerable and my own recovery took a dive because of that. The book was released in July and by the autumn time, I realised that my behaviour at meal times was a little strange. Constantly talking about having anorexia probably wasn’t healthy. I tried to give less of myself when promoting ‘Asking For It’. That’s not to say that I was dishonest or unauthentic but I made a conscious effort for the discussion to be less about me and my experiences and a more holistic conversation circulating rape and consent.
Attaining that balance is extremely difficult. As women, for so long, our existence has not been recorded and our experiences have not been validated or spoken about. Then, when you’re in a position where you can articulate those moments, the debate regarding how much of that you permit to others is very difficult to argue.
Yes, especially in relation to topics such as rape or abortion – not that I am attempting to correlate the two – but often, people say that they do not know someone who has had an abortion or who has been raped, you do but there is such stigma attached to it, that women are fearful to speak out and are silenced. As you said, it’s a difficult balance to strike and ensuring that I look after myself is something which will permeate through 2016.
To talk a little about the craft of writing, what was your timeline regarding your two books? You wrote them at the same time, right?
Yes, I did. I finished writing ‘Only Every Yours’ in August 2012. I started editing it and sending it to publishers in November. I had meetings in January 2013 and signed the deal with Quercus in May. It felt like a very long time but others in the industry tell me that it actually happened quite quickly [laughs]. Along with my editor Niamh Mulvey, we made corrections and edits from June until December. ‘Only Every Yours’ was then finished and I started writing ‘Asking For It’ just a month later in January 2014. I wanted to have the first draft completed before ‘Only Ever Yours’ came out, which was completed in May 2014 and then Asking For It was released in July 2015.
The topics which both books discuss could be considered quite harrowing. Was the research emotionally difficult?
‘Only Ever Yours’ was inspired by real life events and if I’m honest, not too much research was required. Also, because it’s a dystopian novel, the distance between me and the subject matter was much more explicit. ‘Asking For It’ was a little different, I wrote the first half of the book without any research – I used my experiences of living in a small town and going to parties to create the novel’s world. It was the second half of the book that required a huge amount of time and energy. Mostly, that’s because of the way in which I write.
As a child, I always believed that I would become an actress. I loved the idea of immersing yourself in a role and living their experience. Even though the ambition to become an actress didn’t manifest itself, that experience lends to how I write. When crafting the story, I become the character almost – which is great fun for my parents. More than once, they’ve asked me why I’m behaving like a petulant 18 year old when in fact, I’m 30 [laughs].
Your poor mother [laughs]. Immersing yourself into an experience as visceral and painful as that must have been challenging?
By the end of writing ‘Asking For It’, I was burnt out. Rape is probably the one thing women fear most but also, probably think is almost inevitable. Even just recognising that mentality is disturbing but researching women’s stories, reflecting on my own experience and admitting that to my parents, was painful. That’s on me though, as lots of writers create stories about difficult subjects and aren’t as personally imprinted by their work as perhaps I am. Being able to have a sustainable writing career with a personal distance from the subject matter is something I am going to have to cultivate and work on over time.
Over the year, we’ve had several conversations surrounding the importance of friendship but what does female friendship mean to you?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve amassed this group of incredibly close female friends. I mean, you’re one of them Sinéad but it’s amazing how important they have become to me as I’ve matured. There is something so powerful about the moments when women come together to support and encourage each other.
Yes, and to positively challenge each other too – not in a way that belittles one another but that provokes discussion and awakens new thinking.
I completely agree, if I used a term regarding little people that was disrespectful, as a friend, I want you to tell me that and teach me the appropriate language.
Exactly, in the same way that I want to learn the most respectful way to speak about your experiences and those which are different to mine. That’s friendship to me.
I think female friendship is so important because that network encourages women to reach their potential and to attain positions of power, to begin challenging conversations and change the status quo.
I agree and I really think that it’s only then that change can be sustainable in society as we are no longer attempting to imitate masculine behaviours or interests to provoke change but our concerns, experiences and interests are valid and authentically debated.
Yes, that is so empowering and powerful. I do have male friends but that shared experience among women is tangible but difficult to define.
Speaking of successful women, your success – however you define it – appeared to escalate quite quickly. How have you managed the personal and professional implications of that?
It was easier when I was living at home in Clonakilty. Yoga and walking through the countryside were part of my daily routine and if I’m honest, I was quite removed from it. Moving to Dublin, it has been a little trickier to manage the noise, in a sense. I don’t think I’ve fully figured out a solution just yet, but at the moment, I’m exhausted. Looking back at interviews I’ve done throughout the year, I can’t help but see how physically tired my body and face are. At the moment, I feel like I’m running on empty and just hoping that it will be alright eventually [laughs]. There are a hundred authors who would kill for the opportunities that I’ve had this year but I’m tired. Nothing a trip to Monart won’t fix [laughs].
On the night of your book launch, I was standing in front of a group of teenagers who were talking about how personable and honest you are on social media. Is there anything you won’t discuss online?
It’s funny that you say that because I love social media. Facebook is mostly friends and family and surprisingly, for that reason, that’s probably the platform where I’m least personable. I like Instagram but Twitter is where I’m most comfortable online.
In saying that, I won’t talk about an argument I’ve just had someone, or that I’m tired, or if I’ve woken up and gained a pound and struggling to eat my breakfast. I don’t broadcast that kind of information. Online, I try to be funny or politically engaged – using it to talk about feminism or rape culture. Then, there’s a small part that’s dedicated to self-promotion [laughs].
How do you feel about having to promote your work and constantly admit your brilliance [laughs]?
I’m very comfortable with it actually, Sinéad [laughs].
Ha! I still find the question, ‘what do you do?’ difficult to answer. It’s narcissistic to list your achievements and accomplishments but you don’t want to undersell yourself either.
If I meet someone in person, I’ll never really talk about work and then I’ll get a text from a friend asking why I didn’t tell them that I sold the movie rights to ‘Only Ever Yours’ [laughs]. It’s awkward.
It’s part of the job, though and if something happens, I’ll publish it to social media and I refuse to feel shame in doing that. For the first few weeks after a book is released, I might retweet some praise and thank the person who sent it but after a month, I’ll stop and thank them privately instead. However, if someone writes a review, it’s respectful that I tweet it or if someone interviews me, it’s only fair that I share that.
It’s about being kind and expressing that characteristic in person and online.
Absolutely. I never wanted to feel like I didn’t do enough to get my book out there. For ‘Only Ever Yours’, Quercus were amazing but it was my debut novel – I used every contact I had to gain publicity, to write articles and features that would benefit my profile and to be interviewed about the book. I hustled really hard and fortunately, I didn’t have to do that with the second book. In Ireland we have the phrase ‘She really wants it’, in relation to ambition and it’s almost an insult. I made a decision very early on that I did really want it and I refused to feel ashamed or embarrassed because of that.
Success does not happen by being shy and retiring [laughs].
Yes, I didn’t give a shit if people thought I was vain.
Louise, you are vain [laughs].
How very dare you, Sinéad Burke [laughs]. A huge part of being able to become a writer after feeling like an impostor for so long was freeing myself of other people’s criticisms or assumptions. I don’t care what they think – I don’t search for my name on Twitter, I refuse to read the reviews on GoodReads and I never look at the comments below articles I’ve written or interviews I’ve been part of. I don’t need that negativity in my life.
Has your definition of success changed since the books have been published?
The goal posts are constantly shifting. At the start, my sole objective was to write the book. Then, it was to get an agent, a publisher, a release date. Following that, I wanted it to do well and after that, I wanted to sell the movie rights [laughs].
My one issue at the moment is that I don’t have the time to revel in each of those successes. The only time that I did feel I was able to appreciate the moment was during the Late Late Show. It was the best experience that I’ve had professionally, so far. I turned off my phone, my family were in the audience and I really reveled in the moment but everything else has been quite manic with each opportunity blending into the next. But has my definition of success changed? I want the books to resonate with people and I want to feel creatively fulfilled.
Over the past year, you’ve been incredibly busy with a variety of different projects but are you particular about what you say yes to?
At the beginning, I said yes to everything. Much like a freelancer, I felt that if I didn’t, I was worried the work might not come up again.
As you become more successful, you have to be cognisant of your brand and be conscious of who and what you align yourself to. She says, sounding like the quintessential millennial… [laughs]
I’ve started to become a lot more aware of that. I’ve also had to put a monetary value on my time, energy and work.
As an Irish person, it’s so rude to discuss money and your financial worth. It takes a lot to get over that.
I know but it’s now the first question I ask [laughs]. It’s fine in email but in person, I’m still a little awkward about it…
The idea of telling someone how much I’m worth and then witnessing them disagree with that fills me with tension. We’ll move on…. quickly. Were you particular about who you sold the film rights to?
As soon as I started to talk with Adrienne Becker (CEO of Killer Films), I couldn’t help but be impressed her boundless energy and enthusiasm for the project. She’s an incredible person and was really passionate about making the film a success – not for commercial reasons – but so that the message of ‘Only Ever Yours’ could be witnessed and experienced by as many people as possible. That really struck me and I was amazed by how much I trusted her almost immediately. She has fascinating ideas about casting and I am just so excited to see the project come to life under her guidance.
When will production begin?
The current aim is that it will begin late next year or early 2017.
Will you have much involvement?
Being completely honest, I don’t know anything about making a movie, how to finance a project or how to cultivate the accompanying soundtrack. Instead, I want to collaborate with brilliant people who do have those skills and to trust their creative vision. A book is a very different entity to a movie. Whilst the latter will be influenced by the former, in a sense, my job is done. I need to go back to Clonakility and write my third book.
Before you rush back to West Cork, as ‘Louise O’Neill’ the author, what has been your most challenging and successful day, thus far?
The most successful day was probably my appearance on the Late Late Show. For an Irish person, it’s the pinnacle of achievement and I was so proud of the interview too. I felt extremely exhilarated after it and surrounded by family and friends, I got to appreciate the moment.
The most challenging day was probably when I received an email from a woman asking me to write a letter to a young girl who was in hospital with anorexia. I sent the letter and a week later, I received an email from that same woman who told me that the girl had died. It’s very self-absorbed to say that it was a shocking moment as I can’t begin to imagine what her family experience and I would hate to appropriate that pain or grief but I was so upset and fearful…
That it could have been you?
Most definitely, it could have been me. An eating disorder is like a spectre.
Every now and then, it flairs up.
Yes, exactly. For years, I wanted a perfect life with a perfect career but over the past few years, I’ve really began to appreciate that the best of life is recognising the highs and lows. When you accept that nothing is perfect and what a drain of your time and energy it is to strive for that perfection, you become more content within yourself. I’ve accepted that I’ll probably always be a little bit uncomfortable around food and maybe I’ll always get a little bit anxious before a big meal but it doesn’t control me anymore, I control it. The thing is, everyone has their shit.
Everyone has their own unique challenge. For some of us, it’s obvious – for others, it’s not.
It’s really important that we’re aware of those unique difficulties – it makes you feel less alone. We’re all doing the best we can and sometimes, that just has to be good enough. There is real freedom in that.
Interview originally published Dec 30, 2015