Creating character and delivering them to the page are essential elements of good story telling, and writing a dark character can be extremely tricky. Alison Wells, one of the writing.ie bloggers has a degree in psychology, so she was the perfect person to get to the root of Liz Nugent’s character Oliver:
From its shocking beginning Liz Nugent’s Unravelling Oliver attempts to unpick the trajectory of and motivations behind Oliver Ryan’s journey to the moment of his crime against his wife, Alice. As in real life, the reader is immediately compelled to try to make sense of this heinous act. We want to know how it happened and what kind of person the criminal is…
In this cleverly written debut novel, Liz Nugent uses the narrative device of a multitude of voices, each with their own version of the story. It’s an effective method, but why did Nugent choose to tell the story in this way? Liz explained to me: “I think that was a deliberate ploy to keep the reader interested! I wanted Oliver to be despicable but I needed him to be an enigma too, so I wanted to present to the reader how other characters might perceive him while gradually revealing the pieces of the puzzle that is Oliver.” Oliver comes across as an arrogant and cold individual, does he care what others think of him? “It matters enormously,” says Liz, “he seeks respectability and acceptance.”
With the use of many voices the ‘truth’ of Oliver’s life becomes somewhat subjective and makes for interesting reading as each interpretation adds to the picture. I wondered if Liz Nugent wanted to give the reader a more nuanced picture of Oliver and the ultimate crime? She agrees: “I think it was important to see that Oliver was not thoroughly evil. He is, to some extent, a victim of his circumstances. He had choices along the way and he made the wrong ones, but at immense cost to himself. As a result, he grew to be incapable of loving another person but that is not how he started out.” Indeed, we, as readers, in searching for answers to his horrific crime, find ourselves instead understanding more of where Oliver was coming from. Nugent felt it was important to create this tension. “When other characters tells of his boyhood, his college days, his sexual charm and attraction, he becomes a more rounded character, but also a more sympathetic one,” she says. Yet we also get an insight into the mind of a criminal and Oliver’s more chilling characteristics. In a previous interview Liz has said “when people do terrible things, they will always defend and justify their actions.” Liz reiterates: “Oliver commits a series of ‘crimes’ throughout the novel but he does not see them as crimes, more as the unfortunate consequences of choices he felt he made out of desperation and ultimately, out of rage.”
Unravelling Oliver began as a short story that was broadcast on RTE as part of the Frances McManus competition. I ask Liz, how – when the story was expanded into a novel – she came up with his important backstory and the intricate mosaic of his motivation. “I needed to answer the central question posed in the first line,” she tells me. “Why would an upstanding successful and outwardly charming man beat up his wife for the first time in his 60s? It had to have been really bad for him to lose control. I don’t want to give anything away but I had to collapse his carefully constructed house of cards.” As the story develops, some of the background takes place in France, I asked Liz where her ideas for this part of the book originated. “I spent a week in a Chateau near Bordeaux with my family in 2004,” she says. “I read up on the local history and learned about the Nazi round-ups in the region.” These events stuck with her. “For a few years afterwards, I wondered how the local people had come to terms with what happened at that time and how resentments might have festered and I saw an opportunity to include that in my story but I love France so I wanted to represent the French people well.”
Other elements of the story originated out of the experiences of her own father. “He was sent to a boarding school at the age of ten when his mother died suddenly of a burst appendix,” she reveals. It was a live-changing experience for her father. “I don’t think he ever got over the trauma of it. I don’t think his father ever meant to be cruel, but he married again very quickly afterwards and my poor shell-shocked Dad did not see eye to eye with his new stepmother.” So the emotion of her father’s experience was poured into the book.” Nugent emphasises, “I must stress that Oliver is nothing like my lovely Dad! But I think when I wrote of the abandonment that Oliver experiences, it came out of that truth.”
One of the strands of the book is the story of Oliver’s relationship with a little French boy and his grandfather, told mainly from the points of view of Michael and Veronique I ask Nugent how important this strand was to explore Oliver’s more humane side. “I wanted to show what was possible for Oliver, how, if circumstances were different, he could have been a great son and a doting father and to show him what a good paternal relationship could be. It was the longing for this sense of family that drove Oliver to make his first catastrophic mistake.”
Indeed there were many places where Oliver’s story might have taken a different turn, Nugent agrees “There are several points in the story where Oliver could have been ‘saved’. I introduced those moments to increase the tension and create a little sympathy for Oliver. If Laura had not quarrelled with him and delayed him on the night of the fire for example, his entire life could have been different. Or if Oliver’s stepmother had been allowed to raise him, it is likely he would have developed a relationship with his father. These incidents highlight that he is a victim of his circumstances.”
Indeed, reading the book I was struck by how the narrative suggested that background, personality and particular instances of circumstance all combined to bring about the ultimate conclusion. I pressed Nugent to say, whether, in her opinion, then there is absolute ‘evil’.
“I tend to think that very few people are actually born evil, although I saw a documentary about Moors murderer Ian Brady that made me question that!” Nugent did not want to create a “cartoonish” purely evil character. “I never set out to condone what Oliver had done but I wanted the reader to understand him.” Liz admits that when she finished writing the novel felt huge sympathy for Oliver. “I was taken aback that my editor immediately labelled him as a monster! I think that if I was an old friend of Oliver’s and if I knew all of the circumstances (of course Oliver does not tell anybody all of the circumstances) surrounding his background and upbringing, I might go and visit him in the asylum.”
What then does Unravelling Oliver have to say about nature versus nurture? Nugent says that in writing this complex psychological novel she did not intend to make a statement in favour of either. She pinpoints the events in France as those “that turned Oliver to the dark side.” Despite his virtual abandonment as a child, he could still form bonds and close relationships up till that time. Nugent concludes “perhaps it was neither nature nor nurture that shaped the ‘monster’ he became. I think it was trauma, shame, guilt and pride.” Readers will have to explore this fascinating novel themselves to see if they agree.
Unravelling Oliver is in all good bookshops and available online here.
Liz Nugent has spent the last 20 years working in Irish film, theatre and television. For the last decade, she has been an award-winning writer of radio and television drama and has written short stories for children and adults. She has also written a novel, Unravelling Oliver, published by Penguin.