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11 October 2015

Louise O’Neill: “I just love teenage girls. There’s something about that age that is so painful and so raw”

The author of Only Ever Yours tells June Eric-Udorie why she’s tackled the issue of consent in her new novel.

By June Eric-Udorie

Every word that comes out of YA author Louise O’Neill’s mouth is filled with a spirit of defiance against sexism, misogyny and patriarchy. Her first novel Only Ever Yours earned her comparisons to Margaret Atwood and she was praised by the likes of Marian Keyes and Jeanette Winterson. The Guardian described her as “the best YA fiction writer alive today” and I find it hard to disagree with this sentiment. And did I mention that the film rights to that novel have now been sold?

She doesn’t shy away from hard topics: Only Ever Yours tackled the problems with beauty, objectification and patriarchy and her new novel, Asking For It tackles consent and rape culture. But O’Neill wasn’t always sure about feminism, describing her first views of feminism as a “mixture of The Spice Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale”. In my view, that isn’t such a bad place to start, but I refrain from telling the author this. Speaking to her now, it’s obvious that she has some very clear views on feminism.

At the start of our interview, I’m a little hesitant about asking O’Neill questions that may be too personal. I’d read about her struggles with anorexia and bulimia and even though I wanted to explore it and the impact it had on her writing, I was conscious that I didn’t want to create an uncomfortable atmosphere. So I tiptoe around the question, silently hoping that she touches on it. Eating disorders and low body confidence are so widespread and common for millions of girls and women. But I quickly learn that I don’t have to worry about asking the hard questions. O’Neill is always ready to tackle anything and plunges into passionate responses that draw on personal experience. It is why I admire her: her honesty is humbling and she’s not afraid of being vulnerable. Instead, she uses that vulnerability to make the stories she tells so frighteningly relatable to readers of all ages.

Only Ever Yours came from a place of frustration and a desire for change. “I became quite disturbed by this culture in which women are put under so much pressure in order to conform to an often unattainable idea of beauty and the negative impact that it can subsequently have on their mental health. I think I was so tired of being made to feel because I was a woman that my value was very much correlated to how attractive I was, or how thin I was, or how sexy men found me.” She then says, “I was a strange precocious child, growing up in a small town, I always felt that I had to conform to fit it. By the age of 13 and 14 I was very practiced in the art of pretending to be something I was not. I think when you do that it’s a pressure cooker and it has to come out somewhere. In the public and at school, I was putting on this act of being really confident and then I would go home and make myself sick or not eat my dinner because I needed somewhere to be the outlet for that stress to maintain this perfect image. And as I edited Only Ever Yours, I saw the raw pain that was shaping the narrative”.

Naturally, I ask O’Neill on whether or not she’s felt her books have had some sort of impact. She talks about how humbling it is to hear from her readers: “Every day I get emails from teenage girls that say my book introduced them to feminism or radicalised them.” One woman wrote to say that she hadn’t weighed herself since finishing her novel. “I just think, ‘wow’, I am just one person. And I think that’s the thing, it needs to be a collective effort, everyone has to play their part to burn the patriarchy to the motherfucking ground. Let’s all get the matches!” O’Neill says this with such a strong sense of purpose, that as I sit there in my school uniform, completely burnt out and exhausted, I feel compelled to just do something. What she says next strikes a chord with me. “To be honest, I just love teenage girls. There’s something about that age that is so painful and so raw. God, I remember it so well. Teenage girls are just the best. This is why I get so angry when people make fun of fangirls. Teenage girls bring passion and real sense of engagement to everything – whether that is books or bands.”

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The most haunting thing O’Neill tells me during the hour-long chat I have with her is a harrowing story of a girl that had passed away due to anorexia. In that moment, there’s a sense of total sadness and I’m completely silent as she recounts the tale. “I had one experience where someone got in touch and asked me to write to a girl with anorexia. So I wrote the letter and 2 weeks afterwards, the person got touch with me again and said she had died.” When she finishes with that tale, I’m bewildered by just how the society we live in can have such a negative impact on girls. Soon after this, O’Neill comments on how it makes her angry that people expect her to be grateful for the strides that have been taken for women’s equality. “I’m not sure why you’re expecting me to be grateful that I live in a country that allows me to vote and own property but I still don’t earn the same as a man for doing the same job. Rape convictions are so dismally low. Sexual violence against women is trivialised and treated like a joke a lot of the time and domestic violence is still an unspoken horror story in so many people’s homes. There’s so much work that needs to be done. We need to shout about it at every turn and I get why people might say ‘feminists are so angry. they never shut up!’ But we can’t let any joke or any trivial little piece of sexiam go past without trying to challenge it in some way.”

She begins to rant a little, but I like that about her – I like to see the raw passion and fire she has for making the world a better place for women and girls. She says, “People always say women are just naturally more empathetic and women are just naturally more intuitive and it’s like we’re not. We’ve be taught since we were children to read other people’s body language, to sense when people are upset, to be people pleasers, to keep the peace, to be nice, polite, good girls. And it’s just bullshit. It’s just another way to keep us silent and under control.”

Our conversation moves onto the subject of her new novel, Asking For It, in which she raises a lot of questions about rape culture and consent. The story is about Emma O’Donovan, an 18-year-old girl who goes to a party and is raped, but has no recollection it, but slowly begins to put the pieces together. In an interview with the Guardian, O’Neill said, “I came across two different cases – the Steubenville case and the Maryville case in the US – which were very similar in that they were small towns in the US in which the football team were the local heroes, and at a party the two young girls in both cases passed out and were gang-raped by members of the team. And in general the local community really rallied round the men rather than the victims. I was so interested in this and also by the fact, especially with the Steubenville case, that they took videos and photographs and posted them on Twitter and YouTube and Facebook without any sort of concept that that is public and what they’ve done is illegal.” With me, she adds: “The story is quite harrowing and by the end I was having nightmares about being raped because I’d immersed myself so much in the character of Emma.”

As I read Asking For It, I was interested as to why O’Neill had chosen to make Emma such an unlikeable character. When O’Neill begins to answer, I am slightly ashamed by the hidden sexism in my question. She laughs, and then she says: “You only get that about women. The male anti-hero is very much celebrated in pop culture and in literature. I want to tell women that there’s a world of difference between being likeable and being nice. But I suspect I wanted to subvert that trope of what kind of victim we feel sympathy for. We have a finite amount of sympathy, and if she’s been drinking, or wearing a short skit or taking drugs or had many sexual partners, or she’s a sex worker, then we lose sympathy and suddenly she was asking for it. I did that with Emma so the reader is almost complicit in blaming her and begins to think about these prejudices.”

On the issue of consent, it’s clear that O’Neill has some very strong opinions. “People can look at the last case in the book and think that was definitely rape. But in the scene with Paul, it was clear that she didn’t want to have sex with him, she asked to go back to the party but he kept going. Now that is really common. In one scene with Jamie and Emma, they’re having a conversation and Emma says ‘You didn’t say no, you said you didn’t say no’ and then Jamie says, ‘Yes, but I didn’t say yes either’. And that is at the crux of this idea of dubious consent. I think girls need to be taught to say no and we need mandatory sex education programs. They tend to focus on reproduction, avoiding pregnancy and STIs, but the issue of consent is so vital. Young men want to conform to the idea of hypersexuality and a lot of the time that means that they will push a girl past her comfort zone because they just want to go back to the lad and say ‘oh yeah, I fucked her’. We need to train young men to actively learn to ask for consent. And we also need to teach them that if consent hasn’t been given and if they go ahead, then they are a rapist. Young men that don’t realise what they’re doing is wrong because they haven’t had that conversation. I mean, some of them are just arseholes, but there are a good number that need to be taught.”

The last question I ask O’Neill is what it’s like to be a woman in Ireland. Her answer is preceded by a sigh: “We live in a country where Irish women aren’t trusted to have control over their own bodies. We’re living in a country where a woman is likely to face more time in jail for taking a tablet or a pill to induce an abortion than a man is probably likely to face for having raped her. It’s frustrating but frightening. When I think about the Savita Halappanavar case, a woman who was denied an abortion and subsequently died from septicemia, I get goosebumps. The life of that child is more important than a woman’s. That’s scary, thinking that as a woman, if that had been me in that situation, I would have died.” In that moment, I’m saddened by how far we still have to go. And then I’m reminded on this International Day of the Girl that there’s a new generation of girls and women, just like Louise O’Neill, who are coming forward with their voices loud and strong, demanding for change. It’s only a matter of time.

Asking For It is on sale now