Bestselling author Louise O’Neill on why she is drawn to the dark side of life in her writing…
After reading After the Silence, a woman I’m friendly with texted me. “I often marvel,” she said, “at how warm and sunny you are but how able you are to access all this dark and difficult stuff. It’s like two different people.”
I’ve always seen myself as someone who has a great capacity for joy, a glass half-full, never-give-up, always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life type of gal. I love to laugh, if that doesn’t make me sound too much like a woman in a probiotic yoghurt commercial. My boyfriend will shake his head and say, “you are so delightfully weird,” as I show him a new move I’ve developed called The Toothpaste Dance and insist he join in, or when I repeat everything he says back to him in a baby voice, like we’re seven years old. (Actually, that’s probably more annoying than funny.) I’m a lot sillier than what you might think from skimming my Irish Examiner column, or listening to interviews with me. And I’m certainly not what you might expect from reading my books.
The thing is, when I decided to become an author, these aren’t the books I thought I would be writing either. I loved Marian Keyes and I wanted a career like hers; I wanted to write laugh-out-loud, clever books with important issues at their heart. Even now, I still yearn to write a romantic novel, one that is irresistibly charming. I read the Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling books with a forensic eye, trying to isolate the quality that makes them so comforting, how Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen have created a character so innately loveable, and I still come up short. I didn’t imagine a career for myself where I would be writing about body image and eating disorders, as I did in Only Ever Yours, rape culture and sexual violence, as in Asking For It, or coercive control and domestic abuse, which I explore in my new novel, After the Silence.
But when I sit down at my desk and open my laptop, this is what seems to spill onto the page: Pain. Fear. Darkness. I’ve written dystopian and contemporary and fantasy novels, (After the Silence is a psychological thriller), and yet no matter the genre, each has a female protagonist who is trying to overcome abuse of some kind. The question that comes up in interviews, time and time again, is this – why do you write these sorts of books? What is it about this subject that keeps drawing you back?
I suppose the short answer is that I am a woman, navigating the world in a female body, a world that wasn’t designed with me in mind. I’ve spoken extensively about my eating disorder; I developed anorexia when I was 14 or 15 and I would oscillate between that and bulimia for almost two decades. Once I began to consider the impact of growing up as a girl in a patriarchal society, one that told me that weight and beauty directly correlated to my worth as a human being, I could understand why I believed that it was my duty as a woman to take up as little space as I possibly could.
Coupled with a sexual trauma as a teenager that I was too afraid to talk about for fear that I would make things ‘awkward’ for the man who had assaulted me – male comfort must always be prioritised under the patriarchy! – I turned against my own body. I began to see it as the battleground where the war had been fought and lost. I stayed quiet for years, growing sick on my secrets as I made myself small and nice and pleasant. In trying to make others see me, I couldn’t see myself anymore.
Once you realise these things, once you see the pattern emerging and you come to understand that this isn’t just you that this is happening to, it’s every woman in every country, your shame hardens. It crystallises into something fierce. Fury rises in you, as you count the years you have lost. And then something else happens too, as you watch your friends, beautiful, funny, smart women who all have their own stories to tell, their own sorrows to carry, start to have babies of their own.
Little girls with bright eyes and loud laughs, girls who carry themselves with such joy. And you see a future where they will have that joy coaxed out of them, at first slowly and then all at once, and they will think it’s their own fault – you can barely stand the fear, and so I do what I always do when I’m afraid – I sit at my desk and I write. I write for the little girl I once was, and the half-broken creature I became, smiling through the pain. I write for all those coming up behind me, and the women they’re destined to become, if only they are allowed the chance. I write and I write and I write.