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Interview: Louise O'Neill

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Louise O’Neill is the award-winning Irish author of a debut that’s stirring up the YA world with its darkly powerful story – Only Ever Yours. Louise kindly agreed to chat with me about the inspiration behind the novel and what the experience has been like for her.


Q. Hi Louise! Before we get onto the questions about Only Ever Yours, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

A. I live in Clonakilty, a small town in west Cork. I studied English Studies at Trinity College Dublin and then completed a post-graduate diploma in fashion buying at DIT. I moved to New York in 2010 to work for the senior style director of ELLE magazine. I left New York to return to Ireland and begin work on my debut novel, Only Ever Yours. I love reading, yoga, the theatre, wandering around art galleries for hours, and going for long walks in the countryside by myself. My goal in life is to be kind to everyone I meet. Some days that's easier than others.


Q. What authors did you read growing up, and who most inspired you? Can you name a particular book that left an impression on you?

A. I read voraciously as a child but there are certain authors I remember being particularly enamoured with. C.S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman were favourites. Paula Danzinger, the Babysitters Club, and the Sweet Valley High were also. My mother would buy me and my sister a lot of books and these tended to be classics (Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden) or books by Irish writers. (The O' Brien's Press logo was a huge part of my childhood.) As a teenager, I read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I've been very vocal about the impact that book had on me. It changed my life, really. It introduced me to feminism, it gave me a vocabulary with which to express myself, and it was a huge influence on my own book.


Q. What has it been like, having your debut novel published and shortlisted for multiple awards (as well as winning at the Irish Book Awards last year)?

A. As this is my debut novel, this is the only experience of being published that I have had - so in a way, I have to remind myself not to take this for granted. To win awards is so wonderful especially as it is a marker of how much work my editor, Niamh Mulvey, and all the team at Quercus have put into this book. For me, the most gratifying thing is to meet people who have read the book and have connected with it on such a deep emotional level. That's why I wrote OEY in the first place.


Q. So - Only Ever Yours. I am aware the idea for the novel had roots in your own personal experiences - would you mind telling us a little about that?

A. Looking back at Only Ever Yours, I can see how my personal experiences have influenced the book. I attended an all-girls convent school from the age of 4 until I was 18 so I'm very familiar with the dynamics of a single sex education. I also battled with eating disorders for many, many years and those body image issues are very much reflected in the pages of this book.


Q. What did you find to be the easiest and most difficult aspects of writing Only Ever Yours?

A. This book just seemed to flow, freida's voice came through very strongly from the beginning and I never suffered from writer's block. Some parts of the book were difficult to write because they were so fraught, emotionally, and brought up some painful adolescent memories. I was crying while I wrote certain scenes- which is why I could never write in coffee shops ala JK Rowling!


Q. Which character in the novel do you personally most identify with, and why?

A. There are aspects to all of the characters that I can relate to. While freida is not based on me, her vulnerability and uncertainty with who she is as a person is something I can definitely empathise with, especially when I was younger.


Q. Only Ever Yours conveys young women with multiple body-image issues, under the constant scrutiny of social media networks. Did you intend to cover such a vast range of issues, and how do you feel about the social media lens through which much of the modern world is seen?

A. I actually had to cut quite a lot from the book. My wonderful editor highlighted many passages where I was overloading with yet another 'issue', and a lot of it wasn't adding to the story. I'm not against social media, I'm very active on Twitter and I love it. I think social media can be a great way to meet like-minded people, to share ideas, and to help with the quick, efficient dissemination of information. The danger lies when we become reliant on 'likes' and 'favourites' for our sense of self worth. True self esteem can ONLY come from within.


Q. The ending is quite shocking and bleak - I personally found the novel all the more powerful for this - but, playing devil's advocate, do you think it might be difficult for readers to filter a positive message from what they've just read?

A. I always planned for the book to end this way and I feel it's the only way the book could end. It needs to be shocking, otherwise the message of the book is lost in a way. Dystopian fiction is supposed to act as a warning, as a parable for us - and if there had been a happy ending, then what would we have been warned about?


Q. As dystopian novels go, the world of Only Ever Yours is wonderfully detailed and believable. How much of the world outside the school have you thought about? Might we ever see another book or story from you that explores it?

A. I didn't think too much about the world outside the School because freida doesn't know anything about it and I wanted to convey that sense of confusion. I'm not planning on writing anything else in this genre for the foreseeable future but if I was to return to the world of Only Ever Yours, I would like to write a prequel from Darwin's perspective to explore the ideas that gender stereotypes are harmful to men as well.


Q. Lastly, can you tell us a little about upcoming projects or plans? I believe you also have a second novel - Asking For It - coming out later this year, can you reveal anything about that?

A. My second novel, ASKING FOR IT, will be published by Quercus on September 3rd. It was inspired by the Steubenville case but I have based the narrative in a small town in west Cork. It deals with issues of rape culture, victim blaming, and consent.


Huge thanks to Louise for the interview. She can be found on her website at louiseoneillauthor.com, or follow her on Twitter: @oneilllo.

Edited by Nollaig

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Great interview!


Thanks for asking the questions, Noll....it has provided some insights. I can imagine attending an all-girls convent school during formative years would have a huge impact. I'm not surprised Louise read The Handmaid's Tale and that it had such a large impact on her.....I think anyone with an interest in dystopian fiction (especially involving women's issues) must have had a keen interest in that book.


I really do hope that Louise decides to explore more of the outside world. Darwin's perspective would by default include the outside world, as he is in a place that is the opposite of where freida was - ie. a place where he has power and influence.


She also makes a good point about the ending. If there was a happy ending, then the book would have lost all it's impact (in my mind).


Lots of things to think about.

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Yeah, I would like that too, but I can understand that world-building wasn't her aim, so with the point of the story made there's no real need to go back and flesh it out. I haven't read The Handmaid's Tale! I need to read that book.

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Congratulations for the interview. The two books approach interesting and delicate subjects, but proper for the young adult genre in order to warn and advice young readers about them. I should start walking in the countryside as well.

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Wow. Thanks for snagging this interview. Very interesting answers that only make me want to read the book even more. Now I just have to wait for it to come out in the US :(


Her second book sounds like it will be fantastic as well judging from the title and the topic it explores.  :smile:

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