Finding yourself in middle age can come as a bit of a shock. Add to that shock, the creeping suspicion that you might be past it, might have missed out on your chance to be the thing you always dreamed of being, whilst moving into a three-bed semi-D in suburbia, and you’ve got perfect conditions for a mid-life crisis. Writer Sophie White’s latest novel The Snag List explores that very question.
“For our generation, reaching those impasses is different to how it might have felt for our parents and their parents,” White says, “because we’ve come up in this age of endless possibilities. And yet, when it comes down to it, we all get shunted down into the same confines. Do we get to a point in our lives where we have to accept that some things are now off the menu, out of reach, we’ll never be able to go back and do that thing?”
White has become something of a figurehead for young female creatives. At 37, she is a master multi-tasker, moving fluidly between media as a journalist, literary essayist, novelist, podcaster, and co-founder of the online subscription publication, the Rogue collective.
Oh, and she is a wife and mother of three young sons too. She is aware that it’s a high level of output, even by media standards, but she says she likes to do a lot of different things.
“I have a very, very busy mind. I have a medically busy mind. I’m bipolar and I do feel aspects of mania in my make-up.” But there are downsides too, she says. “In this late-Capitalist shitfest, being productive or busy-busy-busy is rewarded and it’s legitimately a negative thing. That’s not a weird humble brag,” she laughs. “I genuinely have to watch it in myself because the wheels can come off.”
The Snag List was written during a particularly busy time for White. “I had a baby two weeks before lockdown was called, and I was writing The Snag List, and I was really worried because my husband works in live events and nobody knew what was going to happen and I had been about to take a maternity leave of sorts and I just felt ‘I can’t risk it’.
"Suddenly it was just important to say yes to every bit of work coming my way no matter what. I ended up in St John of Gods. I had a manic episode and a breakdown. I was promoting my new book [Unfiltered] and I had this really surreal thing where I was in the psychiatric ward in a pandemic and there was a magazine in the common room that had a picture of me in it talking about my new book. I can’t tell you how surreal that was.”
White was born in Dublin in 1985 and is the only child of Sunday Independent features editor Mary O’Sullivan and the late Kevin Linehan, who was head of entertainment for RTÉ. She studied sculpture at NCAD before becoming a chef and subsequently a writer.
The Snag List focuses on three thirty-something women dealing with their own identity crises. Whilst living in a vaguely dystopian luxury suburban housing complex called Monterey Valley, the women compile a snag list for the builder, but they quickly develop their own personal snag lists for their own lives. Does White have a snag list herself?
“I’ve gotten more optimistic as I’ve gotten older. And I have more of a sense of possibility now than when I was younger, when taking risks felt very dangerous. I really wanted to be an artist but I had a breakdown at the end of college and that did kind of derail things but I could have gotten back on track if I had been more willing to take that risk or if I’d felt more robust in myself to plunge head-on into creative life and risk all the failure that comes with it,” she says.
Has getting older changed her attitude towards taking risks? “I do appreciate getting older and being able to find out that all of these things can hurt but they won’t take you down. Now more than ever I’m more and more excited with every year about work and the things I want to make and do. When you’re older you become liberated and that’s what I wanted to chart in The Snag List, that it doesn’t matter if it is too late because we’re still telling our story all the way through.
"I think regrets are useful. They spur us. I like that the characters in the book think they’re exploring if it’s too late to tick these boxes off but what they end up discovering is it’s a continuum and as long as you’re willing to dare you will be surprised by what can still happen for you and what will keep happening for you.”
White has another novel due out with Tramp Press this Halloween, a literary horror novella called Where I End, and another novel with Hachette Ireland in spring 2023. Which brings us back to the subject of her unstoppable productivity. “I think it’s a personality thing, a byproduct of the illness maybe. It’s something I’m trying to work on and cure myself of. I would like to get better at slowing down,” she says.
For those familiar with White’s non-fiction work, which focuses on difficult personal experiences – a drug-induced breakdown, her grief at the loss of her father to Alzheimer’s, aspects of motherhood – her novels are warm, funny and entertaining with a touch of satire. They poke fun at her much-maligned millennial generation and include some cringe-worthy sex scenes for light relief.
There are serious undertows beneath the humour too, for example in how she tackles whether marriage is fit for purpose. “I’ve seen marriages evolve and it can be really uninspiring. I think it’s a thing in the whisper network of women in their thirties, this thing of I’ve got four kids aged five, ten and fifty, the bumbling husband thing. There’s this underlying dissatisfaction in the women of these relationships.”
It’s this kind of willingness to probe beneath the surface that has won White many of her admirers. When Deirdre Morley killed her three young children in 2020, White wrote a powerful article about mothers and mental illness entitled ‘I have what she had.’ Corpsing, her collection of essays published by Tramp Press, has become an iconic work about one woman’s negotiation of female adult life.
Does that honesty come at a high price in her own life? “I think if you do anything and put it out there in 2022 you get a hard time,” she says. “I’ve experienced that over the years. It’s definitely something to be weathered and I’m really sensitive and I can’t change that. It does really hurt. But so many people message me about my fiction to say it’s got them through a tough time and I think that’s amazing.
"I’ll die proud knowing that the two big things I’ve heard from readers is either they read Corpsing and they felt less alone or they read my fiction and it got them through a hard time. I think that’s something truly to be proud of.”
- The Snag List is published by Hachette Ireland.