Tough Conversations

Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It has been selected for UL’s One Campus, One Book campaign. She speaks to Seán Lynch about her experiences as a writer and activist.

Starting tough conversations has become a trademark of multi award-winning author Louise O’Neill. From the small town of Clonakilty in West Cork, she has become one of Ireland’s leading voices on sexual consent, violence and rape.

It has been quite a journey for Louise.

She dreamed of being an author from a young age but she struggled with her writing while studying for her BA in English at Trinity College Dublin. The “art of academic writing practiced at university” is very different to the expressive style with which she feels more comfortable, she notes.

“Creatively, I felt quite stifled,” she says. This, she believes, prevented her from pursuing her dream sooner.

After completing a postgraduate diploma in fashion buying, Louise moved to New York in 2010 to intern as an assistant stylist for the senior style director of Elle Magazine, Kate Lanphear. Experiencing anorexia and bulimia for much of her life, she suffered a relapse while in New York.

“I started seeing a very good therapist and a big part of my growth was letting go of worrying what other people thought of me and letting go of a tendency towards perfectionism.”

This change in perspective helped Louise to be less intimidated by the idea of writing a novel.

On her return to Ireland a year later, she began to draft Only Ever Yours. Feminist ideals heavily influenced the themes in her debut novel, which is set in a dystopian future where women are created for the pleasure of men.

“When I was young, it was the Spice Girls who were my introduction to feminism but it was my parents who were very encouraging in teaching me that I could do whatever anyone else could.” 

Ireland is a country which continually tried to control women’s bodies, vilified women’s sexuality and it really stuck with me how relevant it is in Ireland. That was the catalyst for Asking For It.

Louise began reading feminist literature as a young adult. “I had internalised quite a lot of misogyny and ideas of masculinity and femininity. I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to express my sexuality in the same way that was so normalised for my male peers.”

She believes that mandatory sex education classes should be rolled out in all schools throughout the country. “In the current system, there’s never any mention of gay, or transgender sex and it doesn’t discuss things like desire, pleasure, mutual respect and boundaries. Consent is never even mentioned,” she states.

According to Louise, ideas around gender and sexuality need to be discussed more outside of a university environment.

“The real problem with judging how the younger generation learn and interact online is that it’s elitist. If information is not coming through an academic language, then it’s seen as worthless,” she says.

Louise wrote her second novel Asking For It with this in mind. She wanted to discuss the issue of sexual consent in an accessible way for young girls. In the first draft of Only Ever Yours, she had wanted to explore the idea of legitimate rape. Her editor believed that the issue was too important to end up as a footnote in the novel, so it was removed.

Following some high-profile cases in the United States and what she saw in the media’s treatment of women, Louise couldn’t stop thinking about the issues of rape and consent.

“Ireland is a country which continually tried to control women’s bodies, vilified women’s sexuality and it really stuck with me how relevant it is in Ireland. That was the catalyst for Asking For It,” she says.

The book has sparked many conversations around issues of sexual consent and rape culture. Interest in the novel has elevated Louise’s profile and while she sees her role in discussing these issues as positive, she says it has been challenging to manage alongside her writing.

“I started to feel quite guilty because it felt like if I didn’t keep talking about these issues and raising my voice, they were going to fall out of public view. But I am a writer and that is something that is difficult to balance.

“I did withdraw in the last year but it really has been about figuring out how to navigate that uneasy existence between being a writer and also wanting to use my voice for something greater,” she explains.

Louise sees social media as a way to balance her writing and activism. Despite some negative experiences online, it has opened her eyes to other perspectives.

“Twitter introduced me to ideas around race, gender, intersectionality and sexuality that, growing up in a very monocultural town in Ireland, I wouldn’t have had access to,” she says.

Encouraging aspiring authors to let their writing flow and to not expect too much of themselves, she adds, “if I can do this, anyone can”.

“If you have a first draft, no matter how rough and messy, you can work with it, chisel it and shape it into something that is worth publishing,” she says.

“Believe in yourself, believe in your voice. Don’t try to copy anyone else, there’s only one of you.”

Brave is a word often used to describe Louise for igniting difficult conversations with her writing around rape, consent and victim blaming. The word doesn’t sit easily with the author.

“If someone is involved in a hit-and-run no one would say they are brave for telling their story but because of that element of shame that people attach to survivors of sexual violence, that’s why we think people are brave for talking about it,” she says.

In its selection as UL’s One Campus, One Book campaign, Louise believes talking about these issues means society is beginning to accept that women “should be able to live in this world without paying the price of sexual violence”.