AWARD-WINNING author, feminist and activist, Louise O’Neill, doesn’t feel nervous about the stage adaptation of her best-selling novel, Asking For It.
The novel, which tells the horrifying tale of a young woman who is gang-raped, with the focus on the aftermath involving social media shaming, is targeted at young adults but has been widely read. It is a devastating — and timely— examination of rape culture and its effects on the victim.
Clonakilty-based Louise is confident that the much anticipated play, adapted by Meadhbh McHugh in collaboration with Annabelle Comyn for Landmark Productions, will be a success. It runs at the Everyman from June 15 to 23 and will also be staged at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in November
“I’m very familiar with the work of Landmark Productions and the calibre of what they do is phenomenal,” says Louise. “And Julie Kelleher, artistic director of the Everyman, is someone whose taste and artistic vision I really trust.”
Louise says that “from very early on, it was obvious to me that I was going to have to see the book as a separate entity to myself in a way I don’t really see the other novels I’ve written”.
The author, who has five books to her name, adds: “I have a sense of ownership over them in a way that I don’t have with Asking For It. It became clear that people were really taking the story to their hearts. Given the impact it had culturally and then the impact it seemed to be having on men and women and also on survivors, meant that it would have been too overwhelming to take responsibility for all that.
“I had to separate myself from it in order to continue writing and see myself as an author, rather than someone who would feel compelled to always write novels that would have the same kind of social impact. That would have been impossible to achieve.”
Louise never predicted that Asking For It would take off the way it did.
“I actually felt terrified the whole way to publication. I felt a certain responsibility that I wanted to do the story justice. My greatest fear was that it would prove hurtful to survivors (of sexual violence) and that I would inadvertently reinforce unhelpful stereotypes about sexual violence in the world we live in that continues to trivialise violence against women.
“I had Mary Crilly from the Sexual Violence Centre read it and I got a barrister to read it to ensure I hadn’t made any glaring mistakes or inconsistencies.”
Having attended the first rehearsal of the stage adaptation, as well as having been at the first read-through of the script, Louise feels that Maedhbh McHugh “has done an incredible job”.
The novel was partly inspired by a case in the US. The Steubenville High School rape in 2012 happened when a high-school girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was publicly and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her peers, some of whom documented the acts on social media.
Among those convicted in a juvenile court for the assault were two high school football players. Louise recalls a US TV reporter saying ‘it was a terrible day in court with young men’s promising futures ruined’.
“I’m paraphrasing here,” says Louise. “It was the first time I realised that rape culture is where we focus on protecting perpetrators and the victim becomes almost invisible.”
The Belfast rugby rape trial earlier this year, which ended in acquittals, “highlighted some issues regarding the judicial system which need to be looked at”, she added.
Louise is very much in the public eye these days with the recent publication of her first adult novel, Almost Love and The Surface Breaks, a feminist rewriting of The Little Mermaid.
She finds being in the spotlight “challenging sometimes — it can be difficult because that’s not really why you become an author. But at the same time, because I have a voice and a platform, it became obvious that I have a responsibility to use those to amplify other women’s voices and to call out injustices.”
The day before votes were cast for the abortion referendum, Louise wrote in the Guardian: “I have gone to bed for too many nights over the last two months wondering why my country seems to hate women so much.”
Happily, she awoke to a new dawn on May 26. Louise canvassed with the West Cork Together for Yes group.
“There was an incredible energy when we went door to door and I met some really lovely people. It was inspiring to see people of all ages give up their free time and energy for a cause that we all believed in so much.
“I thought we would win but I could never have predicted by such as landslide. It’s so wonderful. I feel as if I’m living in the compassionate Ireland I always dreamed of.”
Louise describes herself as very driven and very ambitious.
“Sometimes, they can be seen as dirty words for a woman. I would hope that is changing.”
When she was younger, Louise, now in her early thirties, wanted to be an actress.
“In some ways, I think writing and acting are very similar in that it’s about putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and inhabiting a different world and having enough empathy for someone else’s motivation.”
Louise did a lot of acting in her teens. She then decided to study English literature at Trinity College Dublin.
“I then went into fashion working with Elle magazine in New York. It was very hard work and very long hours. I was interning as an assistant stylist for the senior style director of Elle. It wasn’t for me in the end. I still really love fashion.
“I think of it as an art form, but I knew early on that this wasn’t going to be the job for me. I needed more creative freedom and I wasn’t organised enough. You have to be super-attentive to details and highly organised as a stylist.”
Having had an eating disorder, Louise is vigilant about taking care of her health and mental wellbeing. She lives with her parents, a butcher and an English teacher, who are very supportive. Louise once asked her father what one needs in life in order to be happy.
“He said: ‘Your health, a goal to work towards. and someone to share it with.’”
Louise has all that, including a relationship with a guy “working in media”.
A seminal book for Louise’s feminist development was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
“A teacher, Miss Keane, gave it to me when I was 15. I really felt that book gave me the vocabulary with which to articulate myself and it remains a really important book in my life in general.”
The TV adaptation of the dystopian novel makes for harrowing viewing, but she says: “It’s necessary reading, not necessary watching.”
Louise’s recently published novel, Almost Love, about a difficult relationship between a young woman and an older man, has been criticised because the main character is not likeable. But Louise doesn’t buy this line.
“I think it’s really important to see a different representation of a woman. This expectation that women are going to be nice and likeable is very gendered and is something that is worth challenging. Again, I feel like I have an opportunity to interrogate those ideas in my writing.”
Louise has a strong work ethic and says there is always more to be achieved. She usually writes every day but at the moment is busy doing publicity for her new books and the play.
“Writing is a bit like exercising. If you don’t do it regularly, you fall out of practice. I have a very strong work ethic. The harder I work, the luckier I get. I’m hoping to start my new novel at the end of June. I have a very clear idea about it and I’m very excited about starting it.”
Asking for It previews at the Everyman from June 11 to 14, opens on June 15 and continues until June 23. See www.everymancork.com