Irish author Louise O'Neill: 'I spent so many years trying to pretend to be something that I am not'
Published 09/09/2015 | 08:49
If you are not yet familiar with writer Louise O'Neill, you soon will be. The 30-year-old's second book, Asking For It, has just been released to rave reviews and talks are already under way about a film adaptation of her first book Only Ever Yours.
In fact, as you read this, Louise will be en route to New York city where the crème de la crème of the US film industry will be wining and dining the exciting new literary star at a dinner party in held in her honour. The world is buzzing about Louise's fresh and fearless writing.
It is a far cry from the position in which the Clonakilty native found herself just four years ago; leaving New York, where she had worked as an intern to the senior style director with ELLE and returning home to her parents' home in Cork feeling somewhat lost.
"I think in a lot of ways you can get stuck in a job because you are good at it," Louise explains. "I was good at fashion, I was working with this huge magazine and one of the most important people in the fashion industry; but I wasn't happy.
"I think because I was in therapy I was really questioning everything too."
Louise had begun to see "an amazing therapist" in New York after a dormant eating disorder, which she had suffered from since the age of 14, reared its head.
This experience, for obvious reasons, heavily influenced her first book Only Ever Yours, a novel which has been described as The Handmaid's Tale meets Mean Girls and has as one of its many themes a huge emphasis on body image and how the world's warped perceptions of such effects women and girls.
"I came to the end of my visa, I broke up with my boyfriend, I moved back home and all of a sudden for the first time I didn't have a plan," Louise explains.
"I did my undergraduate, I did my postgraduate, I moved to New York, I was going to move to London with my boyfriend and then none of that worked; it all fell apart and I had no plan. So I had to think 'well what do I actually want to do now?'"
The answer, Louise found, lay in writing.
"I remember I was going back to New York after Christmas and my dad dropped me back to the airport. He said 'are you happy?' and I didn't have a chance to go 'Oh, yes so happy! I have the best job in the world!'" Louise sing-songs. "I just said 'no' and he said 'well what would make you happy?' and I said 'I really want to write.'"
The following September Louise returned to Ireland.
"I think sometimes the universe works like that, it makes everything implode and then you have this opportunity of a lot of time to do what you really want to do," Louise smiles.
"I was so lucky in that my parents were really supportive and said 'you can stay here, we will support you,' so I had that luxury; I was young, I didn't have any children, I wasn't married, I didn't have any responsibilities. I didn't have anything to do except be so selfish and just tell the story, and it was great. I will never have that again."
Louise set herself a goal of finishing her debut novel within 12 months, which she dutifully accomplished. Then after she had sent her manuscript off to publishers, she quickly began her second novel in the hope that whatever the feedback might be, she would not let it taint her work.
"I kept thinking about it and I kept imagining myself having written the book and imagining the launch," she beams a wide grin.
"I know that sounds really bizarre, but I am really into positive visualisation, so I always had this feeling it is going to happen even though I hadn't started writing.
"I didn't have any idea of how I would get there, but I knew it would happen, I thought 'I am going to publish a book and it is going to be a success.'
"It's difficult to figure out how I am going to find that time again where I can just be a hermit and really focus," Louise laughs.
"I don't think I realised at the time how incredibly lucky I was for the six months when I was writing that first draft I didn't see anyone, I didn't go out, I didn't drink, I was just so obsessed with it."
Although Louise's books are aimed at young adults, she does not shy away from the dark. Stark and poignant questions about society and particularly how women are treated, jump up from the pages and punch you in the stomach. In her new novel, Asking For It, Louise deals with rape and a small town community's response. It is a brutal, honest and heartbreaking book.
In a one line, elevator pitch, neither of Louise's novels may sound like viable commercial bestsellers, but the power behind her unique voice is exactly that; these are books which have been written without commercial success in mind and by doing so Louise has managed to stand out from the crowd.
"People tell me a lot that they think I am brave and I don't really feel like I am brave," she smiles. "Especially with the second book people have said it, but as a writer, I suppose you write the story that comes to you and you write it in a way that you feel it needs to be told.
"Both of these books were topics that I felt very passionate about, that I really felt a kind of personal affinity with. So the only way I knew how to tell those stories, even though they were fiction, was to be as honest as I could," Louise adds.
Asking For It was inspired by a number of recent rape cases here and particularly the Steubenville and Maryville cases in the US.
"I really didn't have to look too far to see how rape culture is very much entrenched in our society and how victim blaming is a huge part of that," Louise says. "And I really tried with Emma, I didn't want her to be this perfect victim because I think we still have this idea with rape that it is someone that you don't know and you are pulled down some ally way and they have a knife.
"A huge majority of victims will actually know the person who rapes them. I always wanted to get away from those - 'well how much did you have to drink? What were you wearing?' questions, putting all of the responsibility and blame onto women that we need to make sure that we don't get raped and if it does happen to us then it is our fault."
Louise believes that her time in therapy was a huge help in terms of having the confidence to write exactly what she felt like writing.
"I spent so many years trying to pretend to be something that I am not, and now I am just very much like 'this is who I am as a person, this is who I am as a writer, this is how the story needs to be told,'" she explains happily. "I suppose honesty in all facets of my life has become really important to be."
Louise couldn't be better company; she is witty, intelligent, humble and honest. Despite the huge success of her debut novel and now atop the cusp of an extremely promising wave with the second and a film almost in the works (although not dotted lines have been scrawled upon just yet) she is infectiously excited and genuinely grateful for each and every victory.
An avid reader since childhood, Louise was punished when she misbehaved by having her books confiscated.
"My mother was an English teacher; she gave up when she had myself and my sister and my dad would read a lot as well," Louise explains. "There were always loads of books around and my mother would have brought us to the library and the book shop.
"We were really encouraged to read; it is just a really huge part of my life and my identity. I don't watch television, so it's one thing I just take such immense pleasure in."
"I have been very lucky with my parents too because they are very progressive in a lot of ways," Louise adds.
"My mother would never have called herself a feminist, but my parents would have both had very feminist leanings in the way they acted and behaved.
"I think that people are really waking up to the fact now that we don't live in a post-feminist society; that all of the work hasn't already been done.
"We need access to safe, legal abortion, that we need stricter rape laws and convictions; we need equal pay because we are still not getting that either. So when you look at all of those things it is really impossible to say that we are living in an equal society."
Since the film and TV industry big hitters have started calling, Louise has had her pick of dream deals, but has taken the time to weigh each offer up carefully.
"There was interest from a really great independent film company here in Dublin and then there was also interest from two pretty huge TV production companies in the UK," Louise tells me. "Then this woman from the US got in contact and she was just incredible, she was a real feminist, she was really passionate and she really believed in the message of the book; she wanted to make sure that the message was disseminated as widely as possible and that's really all I have ever wanted as well.
"I mean it is lovely to have people tell you that your work is incredible and for the sales to be good, but at the end of the day I really wanted women and young girls and men too, to read this book and to really think about living in a patriarchal society and other issues," she adds.
"So when she said that it made me feel like 'Yes, this is someone I really want to work with.' It has been back and forth for a while and we are just about to sign now."
'Asking For It' published by Quercus is available now
Update: Louise has signed a deal for a film adaptation of Only Ever Yours