Photo credit: Lynn Rothwell
Megan Nolan's heartbreaking and strikingly honest debut novel Acts of Desperation was published in March 2021 by Jonathan Cape in the UK and Little, Brown in the USA, and is being translated into eight languages. We recommend it highly.
Megan Nolan is an Irish author living in London. Her essays, fiction and reviews have been published in The New York Times, The White Review, The Sunday Times, The Village Voice, The Guardian and in the literary anthology, Winter Papers. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.
How do you think that writing a novel has changed you as an author? Has this process taught you any lessons that writing essays or columns maybe could not?
The primary thing it taught me was to have some patience and humility. I’m not saying I have a lot of those qualities now, but I think I have more than I did before I wrote Acts of Desperation.
The wonderful thing about some of my early essays was that I would often be writing them as pieces to be read aloud at spoken word or gallery events, so, much like a stand up comedian, you could come up with something in the morning and have people hear it and react to it by that night. Journalism isn’t so different, you get the piece turned around and out in the world fairly rapidly in most cases. So the novel was a huge challenge on a personal level because I had no way to access validation for it before it was written. I was impressed and shocked in a way, because I always think of myself as a very libidinous, lazy, impulsive person. I am surprised I managed to put so much thought and effort into something I couldn’t foresee the outcome of and couldn’t receive any praise for until I’d done the whole lot. It made me understand myself as a more resilient and capable writer than I would have predicted.
Your father, Jim Nolan, is a playwright. Would you say that you had an artistic or literary upbringing which might have encouraged you to become a writer yourself?
I think I had a lucky upbringing in that there were lots of books around and regular cinema and theatre trips which is not something all children have access to, but it was a normal childhood. I think when people hear that he is a playwright it sounds like we lived in some really literary rarefied situation but the theatre company he founded was very embedded in the community of our town and his writing and life are also. He felt like a normal dad to me, albeit an exceptionally involved and sensitive one. The example of growing up around a jobbing artist was certainly an important one though, I’m sure, to see him go away and isolate to write his plays and also to see him doing non-writing jobs to make up the bills- both important skills.
Acts of Desperation contains autobiographical elements and your previous works feel very personal as well. Do you think that writing about some of the topics covered in this novel (youth, family, growing up, your hometown) was a necessary step for taking new directions in your work?
Yes I think so. It’s not that you can only touch those subjects a certain number of times, after all they are foundational for most people, but I wanted to write Acts of Desperation as the final or most singular expression of many ideas I kept touching on and circling back to in essays and stories. I wanted to say what I wanted to say about that painful time in a young person’s life in a definitive way (definitive for me that is, rather than literature) so that I could stop trying to portray it. And it worked, I don’t think about those things in the same way any more, I am ready to work on new areas now.
What do you think about the fact that female suffering is still such an important, and relatable, subject in literature and art?
It’s a difficult area. Naturally when I was a bit younger and less self aware, the magnitude of my suffering was so blinding I couldn’t think about much else. And that suffering was real and life-ruining and I wouldn’t ever dismiss it as trivial. At the same time, as I’ve grown up a bit naturally I become more aware of the various kinds of suffering in the world outside of my own, and it isn’t that we must categorise them in terms of severity, but the awareness does make my concentration on the psychic trauma of young women namely myself seem somehow embarrassing at times. But I don’t have a stance on it yet. The embarrassment seems to me also suspect, as suspect as the solipsism does.
You signed a two-book-deal with Jonathan Cape. Are you already writing your next work? Has the pandemic been ideal for writing or just the opposite?
I am writing the second book at present, very slowly. I’m trying to be patient with myself and not expect it to be something wonderful as soon as I begin, which is difficult because like most writers I have a very ill ego which needs to believe I am either the best or worst person alive at any given time. But I am enjoying the novelty of a very different setting and style and circumstance compared to Acts. The pandemic has honestly not affected me one way or another. I’m always a work-shy slow procrastinator so it’s been the same as ever.
Are there any Irish books or authors that are particularly important to you?
The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien has a special place in my heart because I worked as an assistant stage manager on it in my early twenties, quite a pivotal point in my life.
Probably the first modern Irish novel that blew me away and made me see Irish writing as something other than necessarily nostalgic and antiquated was Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, the mere thought of which still brings tears to my eyes.