Cork author Louise O’Neill reflects on the teenage years that inspired her sensational new novel.
Louise O’Neill won the Young Adult Book Prize for her debut novel, Only Ever Yours. Her follow-up, the remarkable Asking For It, has been lauded as the book every teen should read.
When Emma, a self-obsessed, small-town teen, is raped by the local football team – the attack subsequently posted on social media – the community turns on her; she shouldn’t have been drunk, she shouldn’t have dressed provocatively.
Here, Louise reflects on her own teenage years in West Cork, the insecurities, false smiles and loneliness that at times shaped her school years – and would ultimately serve as an inspiration for Asking For It.
When I was a young child, my family lived by Inchydoney Beach. It was different then to what it is now, more isolated, almost feral; facetious plans constantly afoot to blow up the causeway and to declare the island as an independent colony.
I felt like I was half child, half mermaid, seaweed in my hair and the tang of salt on my skin; barefoot and brave, caring little for what other people thought.
I was loud and brash and full of questions and wonderings and why is the sky blue and why is the grass green and why and why and why and why.
Wild imaginings and made up stories swirled in my mind, dripping out of my mouth, until I could see that other people didn’t think the same way that I did.
And I learned to stay quiet. I learned to shape myself into something more palatable, something that they would understand.
AM I GOING TO BE OK?
After the success of my first novel, Only Ever Yours, I was asked to visit schools, to talk to the students, to give them the benefit of my wisdom. I don’t have any wisdom, not really.
Just be yourself, I tell them, but I’m really telling myself at 15. Just be yourself. Accept who you are. Care less about what other people think of you and more about how you feel about yourself.
Are you listening, 15-year-old me? Are you listening?
I have re-visited my old school many times now and I feel a little dizzy walking through the front door, as if the veil covering the space/time continuous becomes translucent, as if I might fall back in to the past. Some students always ask me questions.
Did you like school?
Did you like living in small town?
Did you fit in when you were our age?
And I know what they’re really asking. Am I going to be OK? Is this going to turn out alright? Will I survive this?
DO I REALLY EXIST?
Sometimes when I’m with people I went to school with, they talk about those days. The best time of my life, one of them will say, God, I’d love to be 16 again and they share memories, passing one back and forth between them.
Do you remember? Do you remember? They laugh easily. Their laughs always seem so easy.
Sometimes when I’m back at home, I feel as if I’m dissolving, like I’m not real, like I have never even existed. I float out of my body, away, away, and I hide myself somewhere safe. The body that I leave behind bares its teeth in false smiles.
— 17 again.
— On the edge of the group, their shoulders meeting, not enough space for one more.
— Not enough space for me, to be precise.
— Not wanted,
— Not Unwanted, exactly, but politely tolerated.
The sensible me, the adult me, knows that none of this is true. These feelings are not real; they are cobwebs, the dusting of previous lifetimes across my eyeballs. All of this is in my head.
(Sometimes what’s in your head feels the most real.)
My home town is small and beautiful. Narrow, winding streets full of houses painted in the colours of the rainbow. A beach that will steal your heart, offer it as a sacrifice to the sea gods.
The people are friendly, and kind, and will ask you questions about who you are and where you have come from and that they hope you enjoy your holiday. They are sincere.
They will love you. They will love you so much that you can’t breathe and you won’t ever be able to leave, no matter how much you want to. I was ready to leave at 18.
You were always different, my mother says repeatedly. Ever since you were a very small child, I could tell you were different.
I didn’t want to be different. Being different meant being alone. Being different meant being lonely.
I chose a university that was the furthest away I could think of. With each mile travelled, I expected to feel less isolated. My new life would begin there, I told myself. I would be happy and healthy. I would be free.
I spent my first year in Dublin afraid of how big everything was. The city, the intellect of my fellow classmates, my dreams. I spent most of that first year bent over a toilet, vomiting up those too-big dreams.
I wanted to be skinny going home, so skinny that I would look like an entirely new person. Maybe if I looked different, I would feel different.
How’s it going, a friend asked. It was my first weekend at home. She was sitting with a couple of the others, all watching television. None of them turned around to look at me.
(All I wanted was for someone to look at me and see that I was afraid. Just for someone to see me.) Great. I said. It’s going great.
THE STRUGGLE TO ESCAPE
I moved to New York in 2010 to work for a fashion magazine. It felt like a city made up of people escaping from their own small towns.
Everyone I met had their own stories of lunchtimes spent eating sandwiches in toilet cubicles, of being laughed at for buying vintage clothes instead of at Old Navy.
Some had spent 18 years afraid that their classmates would figure out that they were the only gay in the village, then told stories of what happened when their fears were realised; sniffing the air and hungry teeth, smelling someone different.
I tried to explain what the place I came from was like, how beautiful it was and how wonderful the people were, how kind, but how I felt like I would never be able to escape.
That I would never be my own person, that I would always be a collection of myths and history and stories — but none of them were mine, they belonged to my grandfather or my father, but were tattooed on to my skin without my permission. I have spent a lifetime trying to burn them off.
SO MANY RULES
Sometimes I have nightmares about home. School corridors and exam halls and sitting in class wondering if my skirt felt tighter against my waist than it did the day before.
I moved from group to group, collecting new friends each year, waiting for them to get sick of me. People always get sick of you, in the end.
When I think of school, I think of sitting on benches, legs stretched out in front of us, arguing about who had the thinnest thighs.
When I think of school, I think of walking towards glass doors and comparing my body with hers in the glass, hoping that mine would be thinner.
When I think of school, I think of shopping for clothes and talking about who wore the smallest size.
When I think of school, I think of the rumours that a girl in our year was a lesbian and that she watched the rest of us getting undressed for P.E.
When I think of school, I think of the swimming classes we took in 4th year and how you could sit in a balcony watching the others in the pool if you had your period, and we would talk about the girls, about whose body was the best, and I didn’t swim for the rest of that year.
When I think of school, I think of whispered conversations about who had had sex, how far other girls had gone, how much they had been willing to give away.
When I think of school, I think of rules. So many rules, that it would be easy to forget them.
When I think of school, I think of that girl who didn’t make eye contact with me for an entire year and how impossible that was to explain to someone else without sounding like I was making it all up.
When I think of school, I think of how by the end that year I thought she was right, I didn’t deserve to be looked at anyway.
NOT A REAL FAMILY
My father grew up here as did his father, and his father before him. They have owned the same shop on the main street since 1919, an O’Neill man of every generation inheriting it.
My father did not have any sons to pass the shop onto. It will die with him. Only two girls? People would ask when my sister and I were children. No boy?
Our family is not a real family without a boy to carry on its name.
THIS TOWN HAS ITS WAYS
My mother is not from here but, strangely, she attended my school as a boarder. She hated it.
She left this town and she swore she would never return. She met my father and married him and has lived here for the last 35 years.
This town has its ways, you know.
YEARNING FOR SOMETHING
When I lived in New York, I would dream about home. I would dream about green fields and narrow streets full of people who knew my name. I would wake up and I would be gasping, my chest hollow.
I was empty, a universe of blank space spreading between my ribs, and I would yearn, I would yearn, I would yearn. I would yearn for something that I could not name.
I hated my home town. I hated it, I hated it, I hated it. (The opposite of hate is not love, but indifference.) I loved my home town. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.
In New York, I was anonymous, I could do whatever I wanted and be whoever I wanted. And no one would care.
(But. But. But no one would care. No one cared at all.) I think living in small town is like being a celebrity. Everyone knows who you are and everyone is interested in your business.
In a small town you are always watched.
(But at least you are seen.)
THE SEARCH FOR ATTENTION
Everything that I did, I wondered what people at home would think about that.
Everything I achieved, I wondered if people at home would be impressed.
If I could be the best, and if I could be the most successful, and if I could be rich and powerful and happy and beautiful, maybe I could show them all.
Show them all that I am worthy. Prove that I am good enough.
A SIGNIFICANT REALISATION
It took me a long time to realise that none of the people I worried about ever spent their days thinking of me. They were living their own lives. I am not that important.
It took me a long time to become less self involved.
FORGETTING THE GOOD BITS
When I talk about school, some friends are shocked as you always seemed so happy. Others say that I am lying, that they were there too and it is not as I say it is.
There will be some, I am sure, who will comment that I was cruel too, in my own way, that I hurt their feelings, and I smiled as I did do.
If I did, I am sorry. I am so sorry.
I keep forgetting the good bits, I guess.
It’s funny, isn’t it? The things you remember and the things you forget.
A MIXTURE OF LOVE AND HATE
I returned home in 2011, without a job or a boyfriend or a plan. Settling myself into the single bed that I slept in as a child, the covers and my memories wrapping around me, snug as a bug in a rug, good night, don’t let the bed bugs bite.
I feel as if I am a teenager again and there are slammed doors and raised voices and I never asked to be born’s, my long suffering mother throwing her eyes to heaven, and when I begin to write, the voices that come are teenagers, and the school that comes is made up of rooms and corners from my old school.
When I come to write my second novel, Asking For It, the story that demands to be told is about an 18-year-old girl living in a rural Irish town who is gang raped by members of the local football team, her community turning against her, the pages pulsating with petty, small town paranoia.
Is it based on your own home town, journalists ask me, and I know, I truly know that it’s not, that the people I grew up with are far kinder than those depicted in the book. But I can’t explain how I feel. I am a writer and I cannot find the right words.
I love this place and I hate this place and I love this place and I hate this place and I love this place and I hate this place and I love this place and I love this place and I love this place.
I needed New York to give me ambition, to give me energy and fight and swagger.
I needed my home town to give me space and time and room to breathe.
Sometimes I feel that I have failed by returning here.
Sometimes I feel that I have become whole by returning here.
I write and I write and I write. I write until I make sense of my life. I write myself back into existence.
Louise O’ Neill is the author of the multi-awarding winning novel, Only Ever Yours. Her second novel, Asking For It, is published by Quercus PHOTO CREDITS
Location: Dunowen House, Ardfield
Clothes: Gooseberry Boutique, Clonakilty.
White Fawn Boutique, Clonakilty
Hair: Una at Ikon Hair Salon, Clonakilty
Makeup: Cathy at Emer Ryan Beauty & Skincare Salon, Clonakilty
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