‘THE ideas for the books came when I slowed down,’ is how multi award-winning author Louise O’Neill explains her decision to base herself in her home town of Clonakilty.
But maybe it’s not surprising that the one-time New York resident and Elle magazine stylist feels so comfortable working from West Cork.
This corner of Ireland is steeped in culture, with award-winning actors, writers, broadcasters, artists and chefs more plentiful than the autumn Montbretia.
And yet, as a teenager, Louise experienced that universal sense of youthful claustrophia – ‘I couldn’t wait to get out. I thought it was so boring, I hated it.’
Arriving in New York, having studied English at Trinity and Fashion at DIT, she discovered she ‘loved’ her new adventure in the Big Apple.
But, despite living this glamorous life, it wasn’t long before the shallowness of some parts of the fashion industry began to irk her. She became aware of the ‘commodification of the female body’ and so were sown the seeds of an idea that was later to become her controversial but addictive debut novel, Only Ever Yours.
The first book, winning plaudits and gaining fans within days of its release, told the story of young women chosen to become companions for men – but only if they could reach the heights of absolute perfection demanded of them.
‘But, you know, I still love fashion. It’s too simplistic to say fashion is evil, or to dismiss it. It has problems, but it is still an art form. It has issues regarding race, the fetishism of extreme thinness, and with the #metoo campaign, there is a lot of talk about sexual abuse, but of course that industry is not alone in that.’
But because New York, she discovered, wasn’t conducive to her own creative process – at least, not her writing – she came home.
‘I have always had such a busy mind,’ she says, but realised when the noise and ‘distraction’ of NYC were left behind, great ideas took their place – in the sanctuary of her home town.
The theme of ‘home’ is one that comes up several times in O’Neill’s books – her second book, Asking For It, tells the tale of the rape of a young girl at a party in her hometown, and the explicit photos which go ‘viral’, involving some of the town’s most respected young boys.
‘Okay, I set it in Clonakilty, because I know Clonakilty and I grew up here, but it could just as easily have been Ballinasloe or Letterkenny, and no, it’s not based on any story I heard at home,’ she says, adding that she was influenced by the 2012 Steubenville High School rape case in the US, and the incident, in 2009, when a queue formed outside a Tralee courthouse to empathise with a Listowel man accused of raping a woman in a town carpark.
Her book is harrowing, explicit and shocking for parents of any teenagers today. It has become a cult classic amongst teenagers themselves, because there are so few novels depicting the incredible struggles of teens who are already finding it challenging to negotiate adolescence, while every mistake is visually documented and broadcast to the world.
‘Quite a few people said to me – “I don’t think that would ever happen in Ireland.” But no woman said that to me.’
Louise says too many readers jump to the assumption that her work must be autobiographical. ‘As a writer, you don’t want to transcribe your diaries. You take threads from articles you’ve read, from friends, from magazines, from your childhood … and spin them into something new and different.’
Having always had a love of acting, Louise says the writing process is not that different: ‘It is similar to being an actor – you put yourself into the shoes of your character.’
Indeed, she describes the theatre as her ‘first love’, so she is very excited about the upcoming opening night of her play Asking For It, which has been transformed for the stage by theatre company Landmark.
Landmark is one of the most respected production companies on these islands, with an incredible track record that includes working with Enda Walsh, Colm Toibin, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea, and many more.
The play will premiere in the Everyman in Cork in June – something that is very special for Louise, despite the fact it will be staged at the national theatre, the Abbey, some months later.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ she says, ‘it’s such an honour to have it at the Abbey. But I am just delighted that the world premiere will be in Cork.’
Louise says she knows very little about how Landmark is treating her novel, but she has total faith in the team behind it. So much faith, in fact, that the first time she will see it will be on that opening night – in Cork – in the company of her parents and sister.
Meanwhile, she is in constant contact with another production – this time the movie of her first novel Only Ever Yours by US company Killer Content. As we meet, she says the company is in the middle of several weeks of negotiations with a top actress – one of her ‘idols’ – to play the role of ‘chastity-ruth’.
But beyond that, she cannot go, she says, with a coy smile.
She is also about to launch her fourth book – The Surface Breaks – described, rather mysteriously, as a feminist re-telling of The Little Mermaid. ‘Because this wasn’t my story, I felt I could let my imagination roll with it,’ she says.
Published on March 1st, her latest novel, Almost Love, is another can’t-put-downer about an affair between a young teacher and her 20-years-older lover. Desperate for his affection, the young Sarah practically prostitutes herself to be with him. It’s a theme that Louise has discovered is more universal than she realised. ‘The number of people who said to me, “Sarah is me” is incredible. And there was even one guy who said “Mathew – that’s me”.’
She says she had intended to try and stay away from politics, or a book ‘with a message’ but, unbeknownst to herself, this became a story of ‘sexual politics’.
Louise has really become synonymous with modern feminism in Ireland, and she is happy to use her profile to push for more equality and to broaden the conversation. She is vocal about her campaigning to repeal the 8th Amendment, and the day after we meet she is off to attend a ‘campaigning workshop’ in Cork. ‘This is not a moral issue,’ she says, ‘it’s a medical issue, a health issue.’
She feels it’s an issue whose time has come, and is hopeful the debate can continue without people ‘shouting at each other’.
It’s no great surprise that a young woman with such strong opinions has attracted her fair share of haters and online trolling. But she has taken a step back from social media, to distance herself from some of the more appalling comments.
‘I try to protect myself as much as possible now. I just don’t reply – it’s negative energy. And I don’t look at reviews, either. Part of me feels, well, the book is done. I can’t change it now.’
This certainly seems like the year when it is all happening for Louise O’Neill. But she actually directs me back to 2016 when she now feels, with hindsight, that she was heading for a big fall.
‘I suffered from chronic insomnia for about six months,’ she says, ‘I just wasn’t prepared for the level of attention I got, and all the travelling.’
She has been very open in the past about her struggles with an eating disorder, and how Clonakilty – and the warm arms of her family – became her refuge.
‘I was finding it much more difficult to eat,’ she says of her annus horribilis, ‘and I realised I needed to prioritise my recovery.’
So she did what she always does when she feels like she might be starting to lose control – she came home. Now, despite the early starts for writing, Louise makes sure her days also include yoga (four times a week), walks on Inchydoney beach, and the use of relaxation techniques.
‘I live a very simple life here,’ she says, beaming, ‘but it’s the healthiest I have ever been.’
• Almost Love was published on March 1st.