Ahead of her Irish Book Award win for debut novel, Only Ever Yours, I speak with author Louise O’ Neill about her struggle with eating disorders, life in New York, her road to recovery and return to her native Cork.
“I attempted my first novel at 19, my second at 24, but it wasn’t until I moved to New York that the desire to try writing as a career began to take hold” Like a lot of us out there author Louise O’ Neill knew she had a novel inside her, but didn’t have the courage to unlock it, until now that is. With her debut novel Only Ever Yours receiving rave reviews form the likes of Marian Keyes, who dubbed it as “utterly magnificent”, it’s clear that O’ Neill’s success won’t be just another one hit wonder in the crowded world of chick-lit fiction. In fact, in many ways O’ Neill’s novel doesn’t even fall into the chick-lit genre. It’s dark and sinister undertones make it as eerie and as haunting as a Hitchcock creation, rather than a predictable romance novel.
Having suffered from bulimia and anorexia since her tender teenage years Louise O’ Neill has credited these heart-breaking experiences for inspiring her writing. “Firstly, it has given me a deep well of past pain and frustration from which to colour my characters. Secondly, through my years and years of therapy, I’ve learned to analyse myself, and my behaviour. This is essential to be a writer as you need to have an understanding of people’s motivation and why they behave as they do” This is certainly relevant with regard to the psychology of main characters Freida and Isabel who feature in Only Ever Yours. Living in a world where women are trained to serve men and become picture perfect brides, an atmosphere of competition and rivalry brews throughout the book. This sense of rivalry undoubtedly stems from O’ Neill’s own experience of living and working in New York, one of the world’s most materialistic cities.
Having completed a degree in English in Trinity College Dublin and a postgrad in Fashion O’ Neill moved to New York to work for the famous Elle Magazine. During this period in O’ Neill’s life her desire for perfection increased, thus giving fuel to her eating disorders. It wasn’t until sitting in a bustling Starbucks outlet watching a woman eat a muffin so easily that O’ Neill began to question the distorted nature of the fashion industry and of New York city “I didn’t understand why she seemed able to eat that muffin in such a casual manner, while I felt I was having an existential crisis at the very thought of it. Suddenly, an image flared in my mind. It was of a girl in a bikini and a bald woman in a black cloak, holding a red marker like a blade. The woman circled the girl drawing circles around her ‘defective’ body parts while the classroom of girls shouted, ‘Fat, Fat, Fat’. It was incredibly vivid. I grabbed my notebook from my bag and I stayed there scribbling notes for what felt like hours. That notebook was the basis for Only Ever Yours”
Now in recovery from her battle with eating disorders O’ Neill has returned to her native Clonakilty home. Not many would trade the teeming New York streets for the West Cork landscape, but the author insists it was the best possible decision that she ever made.” When I moved back from New York I had expected to hate living at home again, but I fell in love with it, with the beauty of the landscape, the kindness of the people, the languid speed at which life is lived. There was so much space, not just in a geographical sense, but mentally as well. I felt like my mind was clear. I needed that to write”
At the moment life is certainly looking pretty well for Louise O’ Neill. Having turned her back on the fierceness of the fashion industry, O’ Neill attributes her recovery to the fact that she reads less magazines (probably not a great advertisement for Verge then!) “When I’m writing I don’t think about what I look. I don’t wear makeup and I basically live in my pyjamas. It’s not a pretty sight. I rarely read magazines these days, and the less you read them, the less you want to consume, to buy; the less you believe that buying this dress or that pair of shoes will make you happy. I feel like I’ve swung from one extreme of caring too much to the other of not caring at all, and hopefully I’ll end up somewhere in the middle”
Louise O’ Neill’s debut novel Only Ever Yours is out now