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'Developing Alannah was exhilarating because I could use her to channel a raging faith in the power of emotion' - Niamh Campbell on the thrill of creating a protagonist

Author reflects on the exhilarating and difficult journey of creating her heroine for 'This Happy'

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Niamh Campbell: ‘I was kind of like Marianne in Normal People, except plain, poor and given 
to partying too hard’

Niamh Campbell: ‘I was kind of like Marianne in Normal People, except plain, poor and given to partying too hard’

This Happy by Niamh Campbell

This Happy by Niamh Campbell

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Niamh Campbell: ‘I was kind of like Marianne in Normal People, except plain, poor and given to partying too hard’

Strolling with my sister and her baby shortly before the Covid-19 shutdown, we fell into one of those instalments of the never-ending conversation that goes on between siblings throughout life, reflecting this time on celebrity crushes.

"All of your crushes since you were a teenager," she pointed out, "have been bad guys. You still fancy rock stars. None of them have been family men. Like, not even reasonable men."

It was so true it stopped me in my tracks. I searched my soul for some inclination towards a Ryan Gosling or Ed Sheeran, but there was none.

"Yeah, you should reflect on that," she advised.

These are not trivial concerns. Rock stars are one example from the pantheon of universal archetypes we engage with as we grow. Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey maps life as a mythical quest presenting obstacles, lessons and symbolic figures like the mentor, the goddess, the temptress, the father. The hero is male. You can map yourself on to it as a woman, but it doesn't gel so well. Which is not to say your life is any less of a quest.

I grew up in a small town. I was mad for music and books and, from these, concocted an imagined future of adventure as some kind of passionate Eurotrash, part of the first firmly post-Catholic generation of a class now able to go to university with grants. I spent the Celtic Tiger studying and alienating everyone; when it crashed, I went abroad with my Swiss boyfriend. I was kind of like Marianne in Normal People, except plain, poor and given to partying too hard. Bond-watching the adaptation of the book simultaneously with my sister recently, she texted: "Marianne is so annoying." I objected: I felt seen.

When I began to write my novel, This Happy, I fictionalised the emotional arc of living your twenties in a condition of witless intensity so risky it amounts to a form of self-harm. When I 'fell in love' for the first time, it was so dizzyingly foolish and, in retrospect, patently pathological - symptomatic of mental illness coloured by lust, to give you the tl;dr version - it derailed my life. When I 'fell in love' for the second time, I still hadn't learned to stop filtering out the red flags blazing merrily all around like the banners of a medieval jousting tournament. You don't even want to hear the tl;dr version of that one.

When I fell in love for the third time, slowly and sincerely enough to remove the scare-quotes, it was instructive but still, in the end, quite brutal. I was older and had circled back from wild abandon to care, the desire to build something and not just live through a series of high-voltage experiences, but I didn't know yet how to care for myself.

Developing Alannah, the protagonist of This Happy, was exhilarating because I could use her to channel a raging faith in the power of emotion by having her make godawful decisions and put herself at the mercy of the man she idolises. Although the story is made up, literalising my inner life like this let me explore the worth and derangement of passion in a relatively safe space. I was 27 when I began the book and I treated writing it like a religious experience. Early passages drew on my dream-notebooks and old diaries. I needed to do this to alchemise atmosphere and revisit memories of distress. At times, it was difficult.

The second phase of development happened, for the most part, when I began to have readers - to publish short pieces - and editors. I was 30 by then and the older Alannah, also 30, had lost a lot of her illusions. Just not enough illusions to prevent her from making what I felt was another godawful decision (to get married), since I still needed her to do this so I could continue to explore the emotional weather of my thoroughly modern girl. I allowed her to graduate from passionate to mildly conniving. I wanted to express something I had come to understand about Alannah and about myself - that this young woman is lost, unprotected, headstrong and mistaking lonely masochism for independence.

You come to feel sorry for your characters and protective of them. When I named Alannah, I thought long and hard about what I should call her. It had to be something someone born in the late Eighties, in a small Irish town, was likely to be called - nothing nobly symbolic or heavy-handed, no Eurydice or even Iseult, way too Trinity and posh - and Alannah is both a common anglicised Irish name (more so than Niamh, really), and a name that comes from the term of endearment 'a leanbh', meaning 'child'.

I learned this, interestingly enough, from the Kate O'Brien novel Mary Lavelle: a story of one lonely girl's brave and erotic attachment in the 1930s to a married foreign man. In this book, a bunch of viperous women who meet for tea and gossip on the regular cluck 'alannah' at one another with the easy insincerity we would now apply to 'babe' or 'hun'. The book was banned in Ireland, of course, because it depicts adultery and lesbianism sympathetically through the lens of a quintessentially lovely Irish girl. When I read it at college, I thought, how fearless, how wonderful! When I reread it recently, I thought, crikey Mary, mind yourself. Be okay, hun.

'This Happy' by Niamh Campbell is out now, published in trade paperback by W&N, €17.99

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