Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards Best Newcomer: Louise O’Neill

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult
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By Louise O'Neill

It was November 2013. My mother was sitting in front of the TV, nursing a cup of coffee. “That’ll be you next year,” she said, tilting her head towards the screen. It was the morning after the Irish Book Awards, and interviews with the winners were being shown on Ireland AM. I laughed out loud. Those people, in their tuxedos and floor length gowns, seemed as if they lived on another planet. I was in the throes of the final edits on my debut novel Only Ever Yours; the days spent veering from overwhelming joy that my dream of being published was coming true and nauseating panic that the book would fail miserably. Any vanity and sartorial flair that I had ever possessed had given way to overdependence on yoga pants and a propensity to forgo wash my hair. I was, to put it mildly, not red-carpet ready.

So to find myself at the 2014 Bord Gais Energy Book Awards, and to be nominated for Newcomer of the Year was a little surreal. I sat at a table between my agent Rachel Conway, and my editor Niamh Mulvey, waiting for my category to be called. I couldn’t decide which I wanted more, to win or to lose. At least if I lost, I wouldn’t have to get up in front of hundreds of people and give an acceptance speech. Brendan O’ Connor was calling out the names of my fellow nominees, and I was reminded once again of how competitive the short list was.

And then he said my name.

The people at my table erupted into cheers, pulling me into rough hugs before I could walk on stage, feeling as if I was wading through water.

How was this happening to me?

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I didn’t have a lifelong burning ambition to be an author. I always wrote; I kept journals and diaries, I wrote short stories, song lyrics that sounded like Courtney Love and poetry that emulated Sylvia Plath. Writing, like reading, wasn’t something that I wanted to ‘do’, it was just something that I was. I had to write but I never considered it as a career choice. A brief flirtation with the idea of becoming a nun was soon cast aside when I reached the age of 12, discovered boys, and began to understand what ‘celibacy’ meant.

Louise O'NeillIt was only when I started studying English at Trinity that I began to give the thought some more consideration. While I enjoyed the texts we were assigned, I found academic writing difficult. I wanted to be the one creating the stories, not trying to do a Freudian reading of Dracula. (Hint. It’s always about sex.) So I tried to write my first novel at 19, a thinly veiled takedown on an Evil Boy who had done me wrong. I moved on swiftly, and promptly lost interest in the story. The second time I tried to write a novel I was 24, living with the nicest boyfriend that has ever existed, and wondering why I felt like I was being buried alive. That too proved unsuccessful.

I was 25 when I moved to New York to work for the Senior Style Director of ELLE magazine. I was working with talented, creative, inspiring people, on set with A-list celebrities, handling clothing and jewellery worth millions of dollars. I was so lucky. I had the best job in the world. I was living in a city that I loved so much I wanted to make like that woman who tried to marry the Berlin Wall.

Why wasn’t I happier?

I’ve often found that jealousy is one of the quickest and easiest ways of figuring out our own, often hidden, desires. I quickly noticed something. When a friend told me about a promotion that they had received at an art gallery, or the job interview they landed at Vogue, or when their boyfriend had proposed – I could feel genuinely and truly happy for them. But when people I knew talked an idea they had for a novel, or a gig they landed writing a column for a national newspaper, I felt like a knife edge was twisting in my stomach. I tried to smile, to cover up this itching envy as best I could, but all I could hear in my head was ‘That should be me. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I should be doing.’

So I left New York, my heart feeling like it was breaking as I did so. I moved back in with my parents for the first time since I was 18, learning to negotiate an adult relationship with them that had healthy boundaries. And I said I would take a year to try and write my first book. It felt as if everything I had ever wanted was resting on this moment. If not now, when? When would I ever get a chance like this again?

I became a hermit. I didn’t go out, I didn’t drink, I swore off boys (my favourite pastime!). I woke at 5.30am every day to sit and write. It was just me and my laptop, day after day, while I tried to do justice to this story that I felt might be important. I didn’t know if it was any good. I didn’t know if it would ever be published. All I knew was this story was inside me, filling me up until it felt like it was smothering me, and the only way that I could breathe was to let the words out on to the page.

Day after day. Another thousand words here, and then another thousand words there. And then, finally, finally, finally, I had a book.

“Look,” I said to my mother, holding it out to her. “It’s got my name on it! And all those words. I wrote them.”

It still doesn’t seem possible in a way.

(c) Louise O’Neill

About Only Ever Yours

Freida and Isabel have been best friends their whole lives. Now, aged sixteen and in their final year at the School, they expect to be selected as companions – wives to wealthy and powerful men.

The alternative – life as a concubine – is too horrible to contemplate.

But as the intensity of the final year takes hold, the pressure to be perfect mounts. Isabel starts to self-destruct, putting her beauty – her only asset – in peril.

And then into this sealed female environment, the boys arrive, eager to choose a bride.

Freida must fight for her future – even if it means betraying the only friend, the only love, she has ever known…

Only Ever Yours is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here.

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