LOUISE O'NEILL: Nothing should undermine our desire to call ourselves artists

What voices are being lost to us because making art has increasingly become the preserve of those who have the fiscal means to do so? asks Louise O’Neill

As I write this column, I am just back from a two-week trip to promote my new novel. Although I am, of course, exceedingly grateful for the media attention — how else are people going to know that the book is available? — it is still one of the strangest parts of being an author.

You go from leading a solitary life, just you and your laptop, to being thrust onto television screens and covers of magazines, trying your best to be charming and eloquent and persuade people that your book is worth their money.

(I no doubt failed in the task, no need to seek me out on social media to tell me.)

When Asking For It was released in 2015, I found the press tour to be a relentless experience, leaving each interview feeling as if my insides had been carved out of me.

This time, I was better prepared, behaving as if I was training for a marathon. I ate regularly (note to new authors — always carry a green juice and a protein bar in your bag at all times), I went to the gym every second morning, I went straight back to my hotel room after events, ordered room service and had an early night, rather than going for drinks. I was surprised by how much less gruelling I found it to be this time around, almost enjoyable in fact, despite an important national TV show in the UK cancelling my appearance because of the whole ‘Russia poisoning spies’ story.

(You’ve gone TOO FAR this time, Russia. You are on my list.)

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Guess what? I wrote a book! I know, I know, I’ve been super quiet about it (lol) but today is the day that my third novel will be unleashed upon the world. The fact that it’s coinciding with a national emergency and Ireland being brought to its knees is, um, just a weird coincidence! (Please go buy it as soon as the shops are open again, I BEG YOU.) In all honesty - I worked bloody hard on #AlmostLove and I’m proud of it. It’s about addiction and obsession and power and privilege and the damage we inflict upon each other and on ourselves; it’s possibly my favourite out of my three novels published so far. I really hope you enjoy it.

A post shared by Louise O' Neill (@oneilllou) on

The last event was in Glasgow and it was chaired by Sasha de Buyl-Pisco, a fellow West Cork woman. We had a wide-ranging conversation about a multitude of topics but there was one question that stuck with me. Sasha said she was interested in the role that art and creativity played in my new novel, Almost Love, because Sarah, the main character, is a frustrated artist who has become an art teacher at a fee-paying school in Dublin.

I’m not an artist, Sarah thought. Artists create art, Sarah’s art was trapped in her fingertips, like dirt gathering beneath her nails.

As Sasha asked me about art, and about who has the right to make art, it seemed somewhat amusing that it was she that asked me that question.

When I was a child, I thought her mother (Tina Pisco, a novelist and poet) was the height of glamour — an artist, bohemian — but I also thought she was different to me and my family in a way I couldn’t properly articulate at that age. It was fine for other people, people like Tina, to make art. But who was I to claim I could do the same?

That resistance was internal, it certainly wasn’t coming from my parents who drove me to acting classes and encouraged me to go to drama school when I finished my Leaving Cert. I chose English Literature at Trinity instead, because it was ‘safer’, and I still remember my father telling me how sad he was that I wasn’t following my true dreams. When I said that I wanted to write a novel in 2012, they bought me a laptop with Word installed for my birthday. Coming home from the book tour this week, I found that they had completely refurbished the spare bedroom that I have co-opted as an office, transforming it into a proper writing room.

So while my parents always believed in my artistic ambitions, it is still, even now, three novels published and another one due in May, difficult for me to use the word ‘artist’ in relation to myself. It seems too pretentious and self aggrandising and altogether too embarrassing a proposition. That discomfort has left me fascinated with the idea of art in general.

One of the central themes in Almost Love is the idea of art and who gets to make it. I wanted to explore how dangerous frustrated artists can be, both to themselves and to those around them.

But of course, that’s not the only issue that faces the aspiring artist. I’m also interested in how the ideas of class and gender intersect with art, how we still appreciate male art more, how we ascribe a grandeur and importance to art created by white men that is less easily afforded to women or people of colour. And while I may have felt that calling myself an artist was ‘embarrassing’, at least I could afford to do so.

When I worked at Elle, most of the interns working at the magazine were relatively privileged, as they were the only ones who could afford to work for free and live in a city as expensive as New York. I was no different, and I was also lucky enough to be given the space and freedom to write when I returned to Ireland without worrying about how I was going to feed myself.

What voices are being lost to us because making art has increasingly become the preserve of those who have the fiscal means to do so?

How can we ensure that the budding artists, writers, musicians, and actors out there are supported in their endeavours to create meaningful work? Because nothing — not class or gender or privilege or a sense of awkwardness around the term itself — should undermine our desire to call ourselves artists.


READ: The Endless King by Dave Rudden.

This is the final book in the much praised Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy, and the strongest one to date.

Rudden is a beautiful writer, and this is a gripping, exciting novel.

SEE: Grief Is The Thing With Feathers has been adapted for stage by Enda Walsh, and offers what can only be described as a spellbinding performance by Cillian Murphy.

Another stunning piece of theatre from Landmark Productions.


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