GeekPlanetOnline Interviews

Michaela Gray interviews Louise O'Neill, author of Only Ever Yours.


GeekPlanetOnline Interview: Louise O'Neill



Louise O'Neill hails from Cork where she studied English and Fashion, and has interned at Elle Magazine in New York. Her powerful debut novel, Only Ever Yours, paints a chilling portrait of a world in which women are valued only for their looks and are treated as property - a world closer to our own than we would comfortably care to admit. Michaela Gray caught up with Louise to discuss the novel, feminism and key literary influences.


For the benefit of anyone out there who hasn't seen me going on about it, can you tell us a bit about Only Ever Yours?

Only Ever Yours is a feminist dystopian novel which has been described as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls. It is set in a world in which women are no longer able to give birth to daughters. Faced with the inevitable extinction of the human race a decision is made to create the Schools, enclosed environments in which girls are ‘created’, bred for their beauty and raised to be subservient to men. The story centres on one ‘eve’, as the girls are called, freida, and her best friend isabel. Both are in their final year at the School and nervously awaiting their Ceremony in which they hope to be chosen as companions – wives to rich and wealthy men. The alternative – life as a concubine or a chastity – is too horrible to contemplate.


One of the things which struck me about Only Ever Yours is that it could as easily be an "adult" book as it could YA,  since it has very adult  themes. Was YA always intended to be the target audience and if so, then why?

When I was writing Only Ever Yours I didn't actually intend to write a YA novel. I knew the main character was going to be 16 and that she would be in her final year at school, but I was more concerned with doing justice to the story itself than thinking about the eventual (if any!) target market. When I started to edit it I could see that in some ways, subconsciously at least, it almost read like a love letter to my 16 year old self, to all those feelings of alienation and loneliness and insecurity that I fought so hard to hide from those around me.

My publisher would argue that Only Ever Yours is “sophisticated YA literature with crossover appeal”, and due to the wide variety of people who have read the book so far I would have to agree. I've had girls as young as twelve and men in their seventies telling me how much they enjoyed it – I guess it depends on the reader themselves.


Only Ever Yours feels like a very personal story while at the same time being one that women everywhere can relate to. How have your life experiences informed or inspired the novel?

I've heard people say that every début novel is semi-autobiographical. I'm not sure if I would entirely agree with that as freida is not based upon me, she’s a very different person to who I am now, and to what I was like at 16. However I did take certain experiences and fictionalise them because it lent an honesty to the narrative that I felt was important. Some aspects of my life informed Only Ever Yours more directly. I went to an all girls school from the age of 4 to 18, so I'm very familiar with the dynamic of a single sex environment. I spent a summer volunteering in India where I first read about sex-selective abortions. A lot of the body image issues in the book were inspired by my own struggles with anorexia and bulimia and subsequent hospitalisation from same at the age of 21. And, of course, my weariness of the objectification of women and the obsession with female beauty was most definitely as a result of my time working for a fashion magazine in New York.


If you could go back and give yourself advice as a teenager, what would it be?

On a practical level I’d tell her to stop reading magazines and start reading Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi! I’d tell her to be more open and honest about how she’s feeling. I’d remind her that she’s not the only person who feels insecure at times, no matter how confident everyone else appears to be. I wish that I had just accepted myself, and told myself that I was good enough as I was. That I didn't need to be perfect or the ‘nice girl’ all the time. I have so much advice I have to give her but I’m sure if I could go back and talk to her, she probably wouldn't listen. Would anyone? We all have to learn through our own experiences and mistakes.


I really enjoyed the Margaret Atwood vibe I picked up in Only Ever Yours. Can you tell us a bit about your literary influences (either authors or characters?)

Atwood has been an inspiration to me, although it seems almost arrogant to say that. She is intimidatingly brilliant, and her work is beautiful and inventive and thought-provoking. I am, as you can probably tell, a huge fan. I would also cite Huxley and Orwell as influences in this novel, but I think that most people who write dystopian fiction are going to be influenced by them on some level. I love the almost stark style of writing in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. John McGahern, an old favourite of mine, is also a very clean writer, every sentence feels deliberately pared down, nothing is wasted. I tried to do that with Only Ever Yours – whether I succeeded or not is another matter.

On a personal level, my favourite authors include Curtis Sittenfeld, Donna Tartt, David Mitchell, Angela Carter, Marian Keyes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Judy Blume, Emma Forrest, Jeanette Winterson, Paul Murray, and Sylvia Plath – but I don’t know if I can see their influence on my own work.


You've had a really varied career already. How did you go from working in fashion to writing and how much of a negative impact do you think the fashion industry has on teens today?

I have always loved writing. I've kept a journal since I was 8, I wrote short stories and bad poetry, and I attempted my first novel when I was 19, the second when I was 24. I ended up working in fashion because I had a good eye and because I thought it looked glamorous and exciting and cool. I was a lot more concerned with how things looked to those on the outside than how I felt about them on the inside. I initially thought that I might write about fashion, become a Suzy Menkes type journalist, but when it came down to it I couldn't lie to myself. I didn't feel passionate about fashion, I didn't care enough. That’s not a judgement on the industry, I just had to be honest about how I felt my creativity could be best utilised.

As for the fashion industry in general, that’s a tough question for me to answer. Fashion can be so beautiful, some of what the great designers have made in the past and continue to make, are masterpieces. I've seen photos and editorial shoots that are so aesthetically pleasing that they are like an art form. However, the industry is very much connected to the fetishisation of extreme thinness, and there can be no doubt that is harmful to teenagers as it promotes a very limited view of what it means to be attractive. Of course, it’s not just fashion that does this. I would argue that many of the tabloid magazines with their ‘circles of shame’, could be a lot more harmful to a teenager’s mental well being than a Grace Coddington editorial in American Vogue.


I really admired the way you weren't afraid to explore mental health issues such as body dysmorphia, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Is mental health something you feel very passionately about?

It really is. A big reason for this is because of my own struggles with mental health issues, but also because a large number of my friends suffer with similar issues, albeit perhaps not as dramatically. Yet it’s a subject that people really don’t feel comfortable talking about. If someone damaged their knee and had to visit a physiotherapist, I imagine they would be very open about that. If they had an episode of depression and started seeing a psychiatrist? I'm not so sure. There is still a stigma attached to mental health and addiction, a belief that the sufferer is ‘choosing’ to be afflicted in a way.


What parts of Only Ever Yours did you find the most challenging, and what did you find the most enjoyable?

When I'm writing – and it’s going well – it’s the most connected I feel to something greater than myself – it’s better than meditation, or nature, or prayer, or even yoga. It’s an absolute state of presence in this moment. The Power of Now, as they say. I wrote the book in sequence without editing it. I didn't even look back over the previous sentence I wrote in many cases for fear I would stop the flow.

The part that I disliked, and continue to dislike, is the editing. I find it very anxiety provoking, and I really cringe when I have to re-read my own work. The only way I can describe it is that it’s similar to listening to your own voice on tape for hours on end.


What are you most enjoying about being a début author?

There is something very wonderful, and very strange, about having strangers tell me that they've connected with my work on an emotional level. I spent so long working on this book without any promise that it would ever be published. It was just me and my laptop and this story that I desperately wanted to do justice to. To have that story out in the world, and to have people responding to it the way they have been, is a (sorry to use a cliché!) dream come true.


Do you have any other projects you'd like to tell us about?

I'm working on my second novel at the moment, but I'm too superstitious to say much about it. I will tell you that it’s based in Ireland, that the main character is 17, and that – surprise! – it’s dealing with some very dark themes.


Interview conducted by Michaela Gray. Our thanks to Louise O'Neill for taking the time to speak with us. 

Read Michaela’s review of Only Ever Yours.

Photograph courtesy of Paddy Feen.