Friday 15 December 2017

Louise O'Neill: A tale with lots of light and dark

Katy Harrington hears how Louise O’Neill created a dystopian world of women bred to please men

Weighty Issues: Louise O’Neill’s novel deals, among other things, with the issue of body image, a theme of which she has personal experience. Photo: Michael McSweeney
Weighty Issues: Louise O’Neill’s novel deals, among other things, with the issue of body image, a theme of which she has personal experience. Photo: Michael McSweeney

Katy Harrington

Louise O'Neill doesn't strike me as your average 29-year-old. She's a clean-living, yoga-practising, teetotaler home bird (although that wasn't always the case). Her literary tastes (with Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath and Philip Pullman among them) suggest a taste for the dark side and she is a fully paid up member of whatever wave of feminism we are on now. Oh, and she's just written Ireland's first (and only?) dystopian young adult novel.

In person, O'Neill couldn't be brighter, cheerier or funnier, despite being nervous about her first interview. We meet, fittingly, in a coffee shop housed in a former Cork city library. Reading is part of O'Neill's make-up. Her mother is an English teacher, her father an avid reader, and so she found herself with her head buried in a book for most of her childhood. Instead of being forced to read, she was threatened that her books would be confiscated when she misbehaved. It might seem inevitable then that O'Neill would turn to writing, but her own story has far more twists and turns that that.

O'Neill attended an all-girls convent from age four to 18 where she encountered a "competitive female dynamic". She is quick to point out that far from being genetic, she believes girls are "conditioned to compete…and to compare themselves with one another." Academically, O'Neill flourished, to say she was a teacher's pet, or a nerd might sound unkind, but she was (and still is) a perfectionist, used to being top of the class. As well as good grades, O'Neill recalls the positive attention she received from classmates when she lost weight. In her head, she thought "If they say I look great after losing this much weight, what will they say if I lose more?" Losing weight became another thing she was good at, but she wanted to be the best - and so anorexia took hold.

After reading English and History at Trinity College, she decided to pursue a career in fashion, completed a post-graduate in Fashion Buying and Management at the Dublin Institute of Technology and moved to New York in 2010 to intern for the senior Style Director at ELLE. Far from The Devil Wears Prada bitch-fest she was expecting, everyone was "really nice".

People are almost disappointed she says to hear that she was "treated well", surrounded by "brilliantly talented people…and made good friends". For the most part she loved the work (despite an incident when she accidentally crushed a very expensive designer hat) but it wasn't all glamour and good fun. "Fashion is a stressful job, the hours are long, the pay isn't great…if you want to succeed you need to be obsessively in love with the industry".

She wasn't obsessive about fashion, but she was about her weight and the industry's "fetishisation of thinness" did nothing to help a dormant eating disorder. Within weeks of starting at ELLE, the problem resurfaced. When she returned home for Christmas she was "gaunt", weighing at least a stone and a half (21lbs) less than the minimum weight recommended for her height. In the ELLE offices she was often told how perfect her body was, this was not an opinion shared by her parents when they saw her.

After Christmas, O'Neill retuned to New York where she continued to lose weight. It wasn't until February, as she ushered in her 26th birthday that she decided to get help. She saw a therapist and a nutritionist once a week, her therapist deeming her case "severe" and advising immediate inpatient care. "I don't think she was counting on my level of determination", says O'Neill who was hell-bent on getting better out of hospital, and she did. When she left New York she was "the healthiest I had been since the age of 14."

And here she is, happy, healthy and a few weeks away from becoming a published author before she's hit 30. Her parents, who she lives with
in Clonakility, are listed in the book's acknowledgements as her "two favourite people
in the world" along with a
sister Michelle, a teacher, who at times was more excited about the novel than she was. Her life of meditation, yoga and walks with her beloved dog on Inchydoney Beach sounds idyllic, but O'Neill is ambitious too. She gets up early, writes all day and looks after her health - late nights and boozing would get in the way of finishing the second installment in her two-book deal.

The timing of O'Neill's first release comes as dystopian fiction is part of the zeitgeist again. Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy The Hunger Games sold over 27 million copies and when the first movie adaptation opened it took $214.3m worldwide, surpassing Twilight and making vampires look passe.

The futuristic world that O'Neill imagines in Only Ever Yours is one where girls 'chastities' and 'eves' ­- are bred to be the perfect homogenous trophy wives - placid, agreeable and beautiful companions to wealthy and powerful men. Those who don't make the cut become concubines.

In Only Ever Yours elements of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Orwell's 1984, The Bible and Donna Tartt's A Secret History convene on a teen bubblegum set. In the twisted ­- but scarily recognisable - world of O'Neill's debut, schoolgirls can choose between the 'BeBetter' buffet with zero-cal options or 'Fatgirl' food, they are pumped with 'BeautyTabs', weighed daily and brainwashed with messages like 'I am a good girl, I am always agreeable, I always do as I am told ' while they sleep. They see TV shows programmes like The America-Zones Next Top Concubine and ads for vaginal bleaching creams while they post messages like 'Fat women should be made obsolete' on social media.

Inspiration struck on a snowy January day in New York. When the subways shut down O'Neill took refuge in Starbucks and ordered a green tea. Opposite her, a girl was her eating a muffin. "I was thinking about how much I wanted a muffin. This mental battle of wits was playing out in my head: 'what's the harm? No. But I'm starving. If you eat that muffin you'll get fat'. I knew it was illogical but I felt that if I gave in, that would prove that I was weak, and didn't have any willpower. I was fascinated by this girl next to me eating her muffin, and wondered why she didn't seem to be having an existential crisis about her decision to have one."

Then an image "flared" in her mind. A classroom scene "where a bald woman in black robes was standing next to a teenage girl in her underwear, drawing red circles of shame around any defective body parts, while the rest of the schoolgirls chanted 'fat, fat, fat, fat.'" The idea became the cornerstone of her book.

She also drew on her experiences volunteering at a children's orphanage in Kolkata in India where she became aware of sex-selective abortions, high rates of female infanticide and the concept of "eve teasing", a euphemism for harassment and molestation of women in public. Mirrors and that sense of "always looking at yourself from the outside" are a central theme too, inspired by a wall of mirrors in the fashion closet at ELLE.

Having two failed attempts at writing her début at novel behind her, one at 19 ("lost interest") and again at 24
("fell at the 10,000 word mark") she returned from New York on September 1, 2011 and made a pact 
with herself that she would have a novel written within a year. She completed the first draft of Only Ever Yours one year to the day later, ever the good student.

Only Ever Yours is published by Quercus on July 3, €9.99

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