Cork writer Louise O'Neill: ‘I try to live my life in blissful oblivion’

Cork writer Louise O’Neill is among those at the West Cork Literary Festival this week, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork writer Louise O'Neill: ‘I try to live my life in blissful oblivion’

Louise O'Neill, author. Photograph Moya Nolan

BESTSELLING writer, Louise O’Neill is off to Los Angeles for meetings with a writer, director and film producer to discuss bringing her award-winning dystopian novel, ‘ Only Ever Yours’ to the big screen.

The Clonakilty native, who will be interviewed at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry on July 10, says bringing books to the screen takes a long time.

“So I’ve learned not to get too excited until the day the cameras start rolling.”

Louise is not one to bask in glory. When I comment that her latest book, ‘ Idol’ is still number one in the Irish bestsellers’ charts, she says she had no idea.

“The publisher called me after the first week to tell me the figures. I always say I don’t really want to know after that. I like to go - ok, the book is going to do what it’s going to do. I can’t control it. Does it do any good keeping an eye on it? I kind of want to get back to work and focus on a new book. I don’t read reviews or interviews. After week one, I don’t look at the charts.”

While this seems to point to an absence of vanity - given that ‘ Idol’ has received very favourable reviews - Louise says it’s more about self-protection.

“My dad told me years ago that if you believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones as well. There’s a great deal of wisdom in that.”

Having had negative experiences on Twitter, Louise’s partner, Richard Chambers (author and Virgin Media news correspondent) manages her Twitter account.

“I try to live my life in blissful oblivion,” she said.

Louise wrote a weekly column for the Irish Examiner for six years. She now writes a column for The Sunday Times. Working on her own suits her just fine.

“Writing is a really solitary job. Obviously, when I get to the editorial process with my books, it’s more collaborative. But I’m not in the same room as the editor. I’m very happy in my own company. It’s interesting because my mother is a pure extrovert and gets her energy from being around other people. I have very close friends that I love spending time with but I like my own company.

“As a child I was always happier with my head stuck in a book. The only time my mother was called into my school to talk about me, the teacher was saying that I was reading too much. 

"I was reading at lunchtime, I didn’t want to play with the other kids, I was reading under my desk when I was supposed to be doing maths. I just love reading. It’s a pleasure and is my greatest escape. I feel very lucky in my job which relates to that.”

But Louise, aged 37 didn’t always want to be a writer. She briefly thought about being a nun, saying the solitude would have suited her. But what she really wanted was to be an actor.

“But in a way, I think acting and writing are very connected. You are creating characters and creating another world. It’s story-telling and kind of make believe. Acting was my first love.”

While doing her Leaving Certificate, Louise thought about applying to study theatre at university or going to acting school.

“I must be the only person whose parents were disappointed when I decided I would study English and not acting. 

"They had really encouraged me to do acting but at that point, I was very much struggling with an eating disorder and I was afraid of the rejection that is all part of the actor’s life. So I decided to become a writer where there is no rejection whatsoever,” she says, laughing.

She moved to New York in 2010 and worked in a fashion magazine. When she returned to Ireland a year later, she began working on ‘ Only Ever Yours’, her first novel.

Louise O'Neill Picture: Miki Barlok
Louise O'Neill Picture: Miki Barlok

Louise recently celebrated five years of recovery from her eating disorder. She doesn’t consider herself to be ‘in recovery.’

“I would very much say I am recovered. When I went into hospital at 21, someone there said to me that recovery takes two to five years. I was thinking that seemed like an inordinately long time. But with every year, I could see how innate and embedded the recovery becomes. It comes naturally to me now.

“A lot of people think you don’t fully recover. They think it’s similar to an alcoholic’s addiction, that you’re always an addict. With food, because it’s so much a part of your life, recovery is possible. 

"I met this amazing woman in the Eating Disorder Centre Cork who said to me that full recovery is possible. ‘I believe you can do this,’ she said to me. After seventeen years of struggling with it, to have someone who had that vision for me was really powerful. Five years felt like a real milestone. To celebrate, my partner and myself went out for dinner.”

Idol’ has been described as “fresh, glamorous, and surprising...” by Marian Keyes. Its main character, Samantha Miller, a social media influencer, has everything going for her, as far as her young female fans are concerned. She tells them how to live, how to be happy, how to find and honour their ‘truth.’ Her career is booming, having just hit three million followers. Determined to speak her truth to her adoring fans, she has written an essay about her sexual awakening as a teenager with her female best friend, Lisa. She had never told a soul about it but now, she is telling the world. The essay goes viral. But then, years after they last spoke, Lisa gets in touch to say she doesn’t remember the encounter that way at all. Her memory of that night is far darker. So it’s Samantha’s word against Lisa’s. Whose ‘truth’ is really a lie?

Louise, who is working on her seventh novel, says that as a writer, she usually has something that she wants to say.

“There are certain themes I return to. They’re things I’m working out myself or trying to process. The story and the characters have to come first. I would never sacrifice the story to an issue. For me, a good book has very strong writing, a great hook and a feeling that the author has something to say.”

What Louise loves about her job is its constant challenge.

“I can never get bored. It feels like I’m always pushing myself. That’s what I want from a job.”

As someone who likes routine, Louise is at her best writing every morning. She is looking forward to the West Cork Literary Festival where journalist and author of ‘ The Visibility Trap,’ Mary McGill will be in conversation with her.

“‘ The Visibility Trap’ is about sexism and social media. Mary McGill is a fascinating woman. I’m really excited to be talking to her. Her book is so much of what ‘ Idol’ is about.”

Louise is interested in wellness culture and new age spirituality. “I’ve been following a lot of gurus online, during the pandemic. It’s very interesting to see how many of them started to post quite extremist and quite right wing information about the pandemic and the vaccine. The term, ‘conspirituality’ has been coined. It’s where conspiracy theories and spirituality meet. It has been interesting to write about a character who is at the heart of that.”


Louise O’Neill will be in conversation at the West Cork Literary Festival with Mary McGill at the Maritime Hotel at 8.30pm on July 10. Admission: €20.

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Echo 130Echo 130

Podcast: 1000 Cork songs 
Singer/songwriter Jimmy Crowley talks to John Dolan

Listen Here

Add to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more