Megan Nolan: ‘Some people believe that writing about important social or political issues is not a good idea.’
Megan Nolan, a 33-year-old columnist and writer, was born in Waterford and currently resides in London. Her debut novel, Acts of Desperation, tells the story of a self-destructive millennial involved in a degrading affair and was nominated for the Dylan Thomas prize. It also won the Betty Trask award and has garnered praise from authors such as Marian Keyes and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Nolan’s second novel, Ordinary Human Failings, has been longlisted for the Gordon Burn prize and shortlisted for the inaugural Nero fiction award, set to be announced on January 16th. It centers around an Irish family who becomes the target of media scrutiny after a toddler is killed on their south London estate in 1990.
Did this book intentionally deviate from Acts of Desperation?
I must refrain from criticizing that book, as it would be disrespectful to those who enjoy it. I have received heartfelt messages, especially from young women, about how much it means to them. The dramatic elements in the novel were an attempt to release myself from topics I had previously written about in personal essays. The reason my book “Ordinary Human Failings” is so different is because I lacked the confidence to write a family saga similar to one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Franzen, in my first attempt. However, the success of “Acts of Desperation” gave me the courage to try. Before, publishing a novel seemed like an unattainable goal, but it surprisingly happened without much difficulty. While writing was a challenge, the process of getting published was unexpectedly smooth, making me feel foolish for worrying about it for so long. I convinced myself to push through and write a more traditional novel, despite feeling unsure about it.
What brought you to the storyline?
Gordon Burn wrote about the Sutcliffe murders in his book, “Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son.” According to the book, a tabloid reporter offered Peter Sutcliffe’s family a hotel stay, alcohol, and money in exchange for their stories. This made me consider a hypothetical crime that could lead to such a situation. Some may argue against writing about controversial topics, but I personally felt invested in understanding the intricate thought processes of individuals capable of violence and harm, especially young people. I also recognized the tendency to simplify and overlook the root causes of such behaviors.
What do you believe is the reason behind the recent increase in fascination with crime-related storytelling?
After the rise of the internet, we have had several years to contemplate the surge in interest for true crime, which has had a disturbing impact on our innate desire to witness disturbing content. It is normal to be curious, but it is not normal to have an infinite supply of twisted material readily available for viewing.
How do you approach writing scenes that involve bodily experiences, such as drunkenness, sex, and pregnancy, which are some of the most vivid passages in the novel?
I have methods to enhance my senses: I write in bed at night, in the dark, while listening to white noise. This helps me enter a heightened state of focus. I don’t do this the entire time, as that may seem strange, but it does aid me in envisioning the physical aspects at certain moments.
Do you identify yourself as an Irish author?
I have a strong sense of being Irish, but I do not consider myself an Irish writer apart from its literal meaning. I have not been a part of any literary circles in Ireland and it has been almost ten years since I lived there. This can be uncomfortable at times, as I do not want to appear as though I am rejecting Ireland or thinking too highly of myself. I have never been nominated for an Irish award, which makes me wonder if it is because I left the country. This year, I am moving from London to New York indefinitely. New York is a more lively and enjoyable city, with better parties. Book launches in the UK can be dull and brief events, with a glass of wine and a speech before everyone goes home. It is refreshing to be in a more celebratory atmosphere and feel a sense of community with people who share a passion for the same things as me.
Which did you discover first, fiction or journalism?
As a child, I loved reading newspapers but I held novels in higher regard due to their ability to transport me into various perspectives. If one could truly comprehend the inner thoughts of every individual they encountered, it would be difficult to function normally – one must toughen up to navigate the world. Novels provide a temporary escape from the sorrow of this reality.
Do you remember the initial moment you experienced that feeling?
When I was young, my parents split up and both of them often changed homes and had new relationships, causing my life to feel uncertain. Although I cannot recall feeling unhappy or unstable, I did feel lost. During this time, around the age of eight or nine, I was drawn to books like The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, which feature solitary children attempting to find connections with others. These stories made me realize that others also struggle to connect with the world.
What inspired you to write?
Experiencing a romantic life during adolescence is when one becomes aware of the enigmatic nature of people’s intentions and longings, and how little influence one has over others who are not compelled to fulfill one’s desires. I began writing poetry, a practice I continued until around the age of 22. I was particularly fond of TS Eliot’s work and spent a considerable amount of time emulating his famous piece, The Waste Land, which my father owned in a well-read condition.
What have you been reading recently?
Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane was a fantastic read. I also recently finished Alive, which tells the story of the rugby players whose plane crashed in the Andes. I found the negotiations between them to be intriguing. A decade and a half ago, I watched the movie with a friend who asked, “If we were in a plane crash, would you eat my body?” My response was, “Yes, I would eat your body.” She then asked, “What if I asked you not to and then died?” To which I replied, “I would tell you I wouldn’t, but then I would still eat you.”