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'Like so many Irish authors, the dole allowed me to write' - Nicole Flattery

When Nicole Flattery returned from New York jobless and disenchanted, she decided to move west and write. Three years, one literary prize and a six-figure book deal later, the Westmeath debut author is our newest rising literary star


Recognition: Flattery won the White Short Story Prize in 2017. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Recognition: Flattery won the White Short Story Prize in 2017. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Recognition: Flattery won the White Short Story Prize in 2017. Photo by Steve Humphreys

In 2017, Nicole Flattery won the White Review Short Story Prize, which if you haven't heard of it is the award for hungry writers. She flew to London, attended a hot literary party in her honour, then came home and cashed in a cheque for £3,000. She was 27.

Back in Galway, she went into the Social Welfare office to explain where the money had come from. "The woman was my mother's age. She said, 'you're a great girl, you must be very good'."

For this writer, it was a meaningful endorsement from inside the system that had supported her while she did nothing else but write. "The dole allowed me to do these things. It has for so many writers in Ireland."

It is exactly two years later, and Nicole is drinking coffee in the Library Bar in Dublin. The actor Stephen Rea is at the next table having a hushed conversation. "Is that Stephen Rea?" she whispers excitedly, unaware, it seems, that there is more than one interesting person in the room. Her debut collection of stories, Show Them A Good Time, is about to be published here by The Stinging Fly Press and there'll be a UK launch next month after Bloomsbury snapped up the rights in a reported six-figure two-book deal. Flattery's next book, a novel, is slated for publication in 2021.

Frank O'Connor wrote that good short stories are always about "outlawed figures wandering about the fringes" rather than "normal" characters - the preserve of novels. The isolated, exploited, emotionally abused characters in Flattery's stories carry on this fine tradition, but are chillingly current.

She grew up in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, where her mother was as an accountant and her father an English teacher. Speech and drama classes had a profound effect. "You would leave school, go into a space where you got to do something different to your ordinary life. It was very freeing. I always loved improv. In drama, the whole idea is there are no wrong impulses."

Flattery studied Theatre & Film at Trinity and credits Irish playwrights - Beckett, Enda Walsh, Marina Carr - as big influences, next to David Lynch and Wes Anderson. Studying plays in particular taught her the rigours of writing dialogue, and the power of a good setting. "I put characters in small places. That's a real playwright trick, just get them all into a tight space."

Flattery did a master's in Creative Writing at Trinity, but "didn't write much". For a few years she worked in various minimum-wage jobs, "trying to stay alive and things". A greeting-card shop, selling cards for "way longer than anyone should do that job for". The cloakroom of a pub/nightclub, checking in coats and "sometimes losing coats and things".

Writing a play was an obvious thing to do, and she had written a "really bad" play while in college. A novel seemed "too daunting", but short stories were a way in: "I like a good sentence, and I think stories give you that."

Her fiction first saw the light four years ago, when she was working as an intern at the Lilliput Press. Her friend, the writer Thomas Morris, then editor of The Stinging Fly, asked to read a story she was working on about a young woman who discovers a hump on her back.

"He made me do several drafts," says Flattery. "It's a good thing to send someone back again to keep trying. A lot of editors don't do that."

It is unusual, but not surprising, that after 'Hump' was published, an agent took her on immediately (Tracy Bohan, who also represents Nicole's good friend Sally Rooney). The story was extremely funny, intimate and disturbing. She moved to New York and landed a job as assistant to a top literary agent, from which, after "a fraught few months", she was fired. (She describes the debacle in a personal essay in The Stinging Fly, 'Dance, Sing, Earn Your Keep': "She would just look at me in a way that said: if I had hired a person to be incompetent, I couldn't have found anyone better.")

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"I guess work, the precarity of work, is definitely a theme in the book. The title story is about the JobBridge scheme. All the frustration I felt towards that," she says, referring to the story which begins: "The schemes were for people with plenty of time, or people not totally unfamiliar with being treated like shit".

Alienation runs through the stories, peopled by nameless women in meaningless roles, who are often seduced by powerful, awful men. And no matter now bleak, there is always plenty to laugh at. The woman in the story 'Parrot', who temps and makes poor romantic choices: "She treated these temp jobs like cocktail parties, draping her sparkling self across surfaces, trying to dazzle in a limited amount of time."

The narrator in 'Hump', whose predatory boss "had a way of looking me up and down like I was a CV full of errors and misspellings".

And the frightening circumstances of the girl in 'Track', who is swept into a relationship with a wildly narcissistic comedian, set in a lonely, almost post-apocalypitic New York City.

That story won her the White Review prize, and around that time the publisher of Stinging Fly, Declan Meade, proposed she work towards a collection. She had returned from New York "a little bit disenchanted, not very happy. I didn't feel like coming back up to Dublin. I thought, I guess, I can write. I chose to go to Galway.

"That was a great time," she says. "I had been on the dole for quite a while. Your confidence gets kind of low, any writer will tell you that. Everything felt kind of impossible."

In contrast to her stories, Nicole is softly spoken, unassuming, not given to linguistic pyrotechnics. She admits that attention doesn't sit naturally with her. That White Review party was, she recalls, "surreal - I'd never been at a party where that many people wanted to talk to me. I don't think I want to do that again."

She seems happier discussing her favourite writers - Laurie Moore, Maggie Nelson, Mary Gaitskill, Jane Bowles, Ottessa Moshfegh - and her favourite play - The Walworth Farce - than unpacking the motivations behind her own stories or revealing the secrets of her craft. She will say that she is "not a very disciplined person, I don't think. I'm quite easily distracted."

She writes "on anything". "Notebooks, little receipts. Really messy," and handwrites in "terrible handwriting". "I can't type directly into a computer, it just doesn't look right to me."

This new star seems not so much reluctant as insouciant, unfazed by the likelihood of success. She is about to fly to New York where she will continue research for that next novel, Nothing Special, which is based on two teenage girls working in The Factory for Andy Warhol. "It's going to be tricky," she says, just as we say goodbye. "I wonder how much I can get away with."

Quite a lot, if her short stories are anything to go by. Nicole's ex-boss, the literary agent, really missed a trick.

'Show Them a Good Time' by Nicole Flattery is published by The Stinging Fly Press

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