Above: Louise with her sister Michelle and parents Marie and Mike O’Neill at her book launch in Clonakilty.
Author Louise O’Neill chose her hometown of Clonakilty to launch her first novel ‘Only Ever Yours’ on Saturday July 15. Later she answered some questions for Mary O’Brien about the book and her next step.
A lucky omen, the sun broke through the clouds for the first time all day just as Louise and her family arrived to a round of applause from the large group of supporters who had gathered in Astna Square to celebrate her achievement. Rachel Conway, Louise’s literary agent, had flown over from London for the occasion and told the gathering about the battle between five agents to represent Louise, which she likened to an episode of Game of Thrones. “I was thrilled to be the victor as this was not a book or an author that I wanted to let go. This book is worryingly close to reality and I want to thrust it into the hands of teenagers and urge them to read it,” she said.
Rachel went on to read a letter from Louise’s editor at Quercus Publishing, Niamh Mulvey, who was unable to attend the launch but who wrote warmly of her relationship with Louise and described her as “an exciting new talent”.
Renowned author and journalist Jonathon Self has been coming to Glandore for many years and has become a firm friend of the O’Neill family. At the launch he spoke of his admiration for Louise as an author, “It is a risky thing, writing your first book. Louise sacrificed a glamorous life in New York to move home and spend every waking minute writing or thinking about writing.”
He also spoke of his admiration for ‘Only Ever Yours’, “Authors live in a permanent state of doubt as to how good is their book is but I have no doubt in my mind; ‘Only Ever Yours’ is better than good. This book will stimulate debate and is the rarest of all beasts – a really important book.”
Louise, have young adults asked you any surprising/ really interesting questions about your book?
When I began writing ‘Only Ever Yours’ I didn’t actually intend for it to be a Young Adult novel, and my publisher would argue that it is “sophisticated YA literature with crossover appeal”. As a result, the age of readers has varied, from twelve year-old girls to a man in his seventies who declared it was “the best book he had read in years” (I loved this man, obviously.) What I have found fascinating is the different interpretations of the novel’s meaning and of the characters themselves. One reviewer remarked that she could not bring herself to ‘hate’ freida, the main character although she could tell she was ‘meant to’, which was never my intention. A professor of dystopian fiction at UCD who is planning to write a paper on ‘Only Ever Yours’ told me he thought the main characters were gay – again, not something I had considered. However I’m loath to disagree with any of these interpretations – I believe that once the book is published it belongs to the reader. We all read through the prism of our own experience, which is why the same book will never mean the same things to any two readers.
It’s a dark and hopeless story and I felt anxious reading it. Did you consider how you wanted to make readers feel when writing this book?
I always wanted the novel to be hard hitting because I felt there was an underlying message to ‘Only Ever Yours’ that needed to be heard. Besides that, I tried not to think about any future readers. I had a story that I wanted to tell and I tried to tell it in the best way I possibly could.
For parents who want to buy ‘Only Ever Yours’ for their child, is the material too dark for younger girls or what age would you recommend?
This is very much dependent on the reading ability and maturity of your child, boy or girl. I had always thought 14 would be the cut-off age, but my 12 year-old cousin has read it and loved it. I think the best thing to do would be for the parent to read ‘Only Ever Yours’ first and decide if you think it’s suitable for your child.
What kinds of emotions did you personally experience during the writing of this book?
The best way to describe myself during the writing of this book is obsessed. I couldn’t think about anything else, I was so full to the brim with this story that I even dreamt about it frequently. I felt so passionately about the story, I felt that if I could do it justice (which I don’t think any writer ever feels that they do) it could be important.
Some parts of it were painful to write, and I did sometimes cry – which is why I could never write in a coffee shop or any other public place!
Did you know what the ending was going to be right from the start or how did it develop?
I knew what the ending (and the last sentence) was going to be from the very first day that I had the idea for the novel.
How would you like to see your book affecting young women’s choices today?
The one thing that I wanted to achieve with this novel was to make the reader, male or female, question our culture a little bit more. There are so many patriarchal elements to our world that are completely illogical once you stop and analyse them but which we accept because that’s the way things have always been. For example – women must always change their name when they get married. Children must always take their father’s surname. WHY THOUGH? Why, why, why, why?
What changes would you like to see in relation to society’s attitude towards young women?
There are so many. One that really bothers me is the pervasive double standard surrounding female sexuality. Young women are taught that while it’s OK to dress in a provocative manner like their favourite female celebrities, they face condemnation if they go any further. (see Slane Girl, the Magaluf Girl etc.) They must look sexy without actually being sexual, a confusing message at any age not to mention for an adolescent.
The book is already enjoying such success. How do you think you will cope with this pressure? Is it something you think or worry about?
I’m editing my second novel at the moment, and it’s a very different experience this time. In some ways there is a lot more pressure because the reaction to ‘Only Ever Yours’ has been so positive, and that creates its own anxieties. However I’m pretty adept at managing that now, I have a support system in place that helps me to cope with pressure. I’m also looking forward to doing my Hermit Act, hiding away from the world, and immersing myself into my writing. All that matters, really, is the work itself.
Do you think your book would make a good film?
Yes! While I know every author probably thinks that, I’m a very visual person and this book came to me in pictures rather than words. I’ve also been told that I have an ear of the cadences of the spoken word as dialogue is a strong point in the book, something I attribute to the amount of theatre I was exposed to out in Rossmore over the years.
What actresses would envisage playing the roles of freida and isabel?
I had the idea that the girls would have been designed according to ‘prototypes’, so would have been based on actresses and models from our world. So freida would have been based on the Freida Pinto prototype, isabel on the Isabel Lucas prototype.
Is your next book also for young adults and can we expect similar thought-provoking themes?
The main character in my next novel is 17, and yes – it’s dealing with some very dark issues again. I’m planning on making my third novel a comedy, if only to give myself a break!
In the Arts & Entertainment section Louise continues her column on the process of becoming a published author.