- 19 Apr 18
Having written the zeitgeist-defining Asking For It, Louise O’Neill’s latest novel, Almost Love, confirms her status as one of Ireland’s foremost contemporary authors. Photography: Miguel Ruiz
Perhaps the most sought-after novelist in Ireland at the moment, Louise O’Neill is at the homecoming end of a lengthy press run when she speaks to Hot Press from the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. She suggests that people are “sick of seeing my face” (she’s featured in multiple newspaper interviews recently, and also made a memorable appearance on The Late Late Show), but warns/promises that they’re likely to see a lot more of her in the months ahead.
“I have the next book coming in May,” she tells me, “and that’s already picking up now. So this would usually be winding down at this point, but because of The Surface Breaks, it hasn’t been.”
Following The Surface Breaks – O’Neill’s feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid – there’s the premiering of the stage adaption of Asking For It in June. Then in the midst of it all, Almost Love continues to fly off the shelves; O’Neill continues to pen a widely read Irish Examiner column; and the author herself continues to do book tours up and down the country. Meanwhile, talks are underway for TV and film productions of some of her earlier works, and more ideas are being discussed for the near future. Never mind the effort that must go into finding the inspiration for her searingly relatable writing – it’s incredible that O’Neill manages to find time for it all.
“The thing is, the work is the antidote,” she admits. “To anxiety, to fear about how it’s all going to be perceived. The routine of sitting down at my desk – there’s a really healing thing in doing that.”
In a revealing interview with Una Mullaly at the start of this year, O’Neill talked about how she adhered to the rule of writing 1,000 words a day, no matter what, and that this gave her a sense of being grounded. Despite this, she admits that she over-exerted herself while promoting Asking For It, which led to a period of mental and physical exhaustion. Did she take steps so as not to repeat this for her new book?
“It was very different this time,” she nods, “because I treated this like a marathon. I went to the gym every second morning, I didn’t drink, I went back to the hotel room every night after an event. I mean it was still gruelling – it’s always gruelling doing back to back interviews – but I didn’t feel as depleted. It didn’t destabilise me in the same way as the Asking For It tour did.”
The idea for O’Neill’s newest novel came about in 2016, and was partly inspired by her reading of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick.
“That was just one of the most cringeworthy books I’ve ever read in my life,” she shares. “It wasn’t just because it was about obsessive love, but because reading it made me think, ‘God, why is this book making me feel uncomfortable? Why do I recognise parts of myself in this character?’ I think I recognised elements of the younger Louise in the main character, and thought it was interesting. That was back in May, and by June I started working on my new novel.”
Almost Love follows the story of Sarah Fitzpatrick, an art school graduate and secondary school teacher, who falls into an unhealthy relationship with a wealthy, successful man 20 years her senior. At the surface level, it’s a story about obsession and desire, but beyond that, it’s an honest and complex examination of why people allow themselves to fall into relationships that are unhealthy and harmful.
“I’ve been in therapy since I was 17,” says O’Neill, “so I’m really interested in psychology and why people behave the way they do. I was trying to understand why a woman would behave like this, and I knew that the character would have to be quite damaged, but also quite selfish. There was a lot of talk around the book, with people dismissing Sarah as this awful person, but for me, I think there’s so much more complexity when you’re writing a character who has all these psychological layers, rather than someone who’s this cookie-cutter paragon of a woman.”
Beyond the standard literary reviews, perhaps the most interesting reactions to Sarah’s character came from the readers who flooded O’Neill’s Instagram/Twitter DMs with stories about how they, too, had been Sarah in the past.
“I’d seen in a couple of reviews about how awful Sarah was, but then there was an avalanche of messages I received from everyday people who were saying ‘I’ve been Sarah’, or ‘This has made me wake up to my own behaviour’. The number of people who were just happy that I’d written a flawed, human woman – that was incredible.
“It was important, I think, because women often aren’t allowed to make mistakes in the same way that young men are. We’re not allowed to be as fucked up. So I felt like the responses vindicated my writing of a character who was flawed.”
As well as the central story, the novel tackles themes of class, status, and country vs city perceptions in Irish society.
“I’d actually started off saying, ‘This isn’t going to be a political book’,” she smiles. “But when I read back I thought, ‘Jesus there’s so much in here about sexual politics, and the power dynamics that wealth, class, privilege, age and status all have in a relationship.’
“I think everyone has been in one of those relationships where there’s been an imbalance. It might not necessarily be outward or social power dynamics – but it could be when one person is more into a relationship than the other, or vice versa. It all becomes confusing, especially as a young woman where you’re sort of conditioned to prioritise the male voice and male pleasure over your own.”
The last time I interviewed O’Neill, she spoke about her experience of writing Asking For It, and the difficulties of immersing herself in such a dark story of sexual assault. Did she invest herself similarly in the writing process for Almost Love?
“I did,” she nods. “It’s been really interesting this year, because I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can take a step back from my work and not be so invested. With The Surface Breaks, I had a lot of fun with that because it wasn’t my story, I was just retelling The Little Mermaid through a feminist lens. I think going forward, I’d love to be able to create some distance between me and my work, so I don’t feel like I am carving myself and putting it on my page. But then… I don’t know. I feel like that’s the only way I know how to write, and it’s been the most effective way of writing for me. I think the next book will be interesting to see how I approach that.”
“Carving herself and putting it on the page” might just be the perfect metaphor for O’Neill’s raw, realistic and relatable form of writing. She’s already floated ideas of writing a memoir, a TV pilot and a play (although she can’t share anything more on that front for now). Wherever these ideas do end up taking her, it seems like it won’t be long before she’s sharing them with the rest of us.
We’d better get used to seeing Louise O’Neill’s face.
Almost Love is out now on Riverrun.