The write stuff

Louise O' Neill

Posted on: 7th April, 2014

Category: Arts & Entertainment

Contributor: West Cork People

Louise O' Neill’s debut novel, Only Ever Yours, has been described as ‘The Handmaid's Tale meets Heat Magazine’, and has received a glowing endorsement from Jeanette Winterson who said, “O' Neill writes with a scalpel”. It will be published by Quercus in August 2014. Louise is a native of Clonakilty. Over the next six columns/editions Louise will describe, step-by-step, how she went from that initial idea for a novel to signing a two book deal with a London publisher.

Writers often talk about their childhood incarnations as the ‘nerdy kid’ who ‘read all the time’. It’s akin to when supermodels recall being teased for the crime of being too tall and too thin; we all pretend that it’s something that we’re embarrassed by when truthfully I suspect we’re secretly a little proud of this early indication of the path our future selves will follow. So yes, I will admit to living up to the cliché. Reading was my favourite pastime as a child. I read voraciously, I often preferred books to people, the punishment my parents meted out for any particularly nefarious crime I committed was to ‘ban reading’, like something out of Ray Bradbury novel. In those desperate times, I took to reading the back of cereal boxes and washing instructions on clothes. I was incredibly popular, as you can imagine.

At 18, without a clue in the world what I wanted to do with my life besides getting drunk on Saturdays and kissing as many cute boys as I could find, I decided to read English at Trinity. My main criteria for this choice was a)It was very, very far away from home and b) figuring that since I liked to read, English Studies was an easy option. I imagined myself like an Evelyn Waugh character, hanging out with intellectuals in tweed jackets and leather elbow patches, all of us dropping witty bon mots like the spiritual descendants of Oscar Wilde. ‘Oh Tristan, stop it, you’re just wickedly funny’, etc. In truth, I found the course difficult that first year, the standard of academic writing something that I was unprepared for, and my classmates dauntingly brilliant. I loved the texts we were reading, and the lecturers were world class but I found the critical analysis oppressive, leaving little or no room for creativity. In my spare time, I started writing terrible, Sylvia-Plath style poetry, and short stories, which were thinly veiled autobiographical tales. In second year, I began my first attempt at writing a novel, but abandoned it after the first 10,000 words. Everyone wants to write a novel, I’d tell myself. What makes you think you’re so special?

I graduated from Trinity. I completed a post-graduate degree in Fashion Buying, and I moved to New York, to work for the then senior Style Director of Elle Magazine, and street style superstar, Kate Lanphear. I had a job ‘a million girls would kill for’, a boss who was kind and fun to be around no matter how stressful the work was, and I was living in the Greatest City In The World™. ‘And are you happy?’ My father asked me when I came home for Christmas, fashion-thin and worn out. ‘No.’ I answered honestly. ‘I’m not. I want to write. That’s what I want to do.’

‘Well, write then.’ he told me. ‘Get up at 5am and write before going to work. Write on the subway. Write in bed before you go to sleep.’

My father is the sort of man who thrives on self-imposed challenges, on tightly organised schedules, on taking pride in doing a job perfectly, all attributes that are reflected in the manner in which he runs his butcher shop in Clonakilty. I couldn’t explain to him that twelve hour days on my feet, sometimes without a lunch break, meant to that the subway ride home was often spent pretending to fall asleep so I wouldn’t have to give up my seat for the pregnant woman opposite me. (I still feel bad. Honest!) So, I left New York and came home to Ireland in 2011, saying I needed some ‘space to breathe.’ My relationship broke up, and I couldn’t find a job, giving me all the space I could ever want, and I didn’t know what to do with myself besides watching a worrying amount of One Direction interviews on YouTube and marvelling over Harry Styles’ hair. When people asked what I was going to do now that I was home, I said I was going to try and write a novel, of course.

September passed. Then October, November, December, January. I had been home nearly six months when my birthday arrived in February. I tore the paper of my parent’s present eagerly.

A new laptop.

‘For your novel!’ My mom said, delighted with herself.

Oh crap, I thought, pretending to smile gratefully at her. I’m actually going to have to write the damned thing now.

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