Author Liz Nugent told David Hennessy how her recent longlisting for a prestigious crime writing award came after a tough year that saw her hospitalised and lose her father, why she would not be a writer if she hadn’t been left with a brain injury after an accident when she was six and how Irish crime writing women won’t be silenced now after being silent for so long.
The Dublin author Liz Nugent’s latest book Our Little Cruelties has been praised by everyone from Graham Norton to Mariane Keyes.
Her previous novels Unravelling Oliver, Lying in Wait and Skin Deep have also each been Number One bestsellers in Ireland and she has won four Irish Book Awards (two for Skin Deep).
Her recent longlisting came after a tough year.
Not only did Liz fall and dislocate her kneecap and fracture her patella and tibia landing herself in hospital for the start of 2020, she would also lose her father later on in the year.
Liz told The Irish World: “I literally wrote nothing in 2020.
“I was in hospital for a long time so I had only just got out before lockdown started. I was kind of in lockdown in hospital so nothing really changed for me other than the view from the window.
“Because I was on so much heavy medication, it meant that I couldn’t write. I couldn’t drink. Socialising was out of the question anyway and then everything was okay but there was nowhere to go and we were told not to visit our friends. All of my communication was on zoom or on the phone so it was very isolating but I have a very lovely and understanding husband who kept my spirits up.
“Then with my Dad, he was in a home so there were four months in his last year that I couldn’t see him at all and that was heart breaking because we knew he was deteriorating. He had dementia and we knew he was getting worse but we couldn’t visit him. We couldn’t see him and then when we did see him, he hadn’t missed us. He hadn’t realised.. He wasn’t aware of the lockdown. He wasn’t aware of coronavirus. That was even sadder in a way because he hadn’t noticed that we hadn’t been visiting.
“My Dad died in November, not of Covid. That was a shocker. We were able to be with him when he died. All nine of us were able to be with him when he died. They gave us a special room in the hospital in Ballinasloe which is near where he lived so that was extremely kind.”
Was it harder to grieve due to lockdown and the limits it put on things like numbers at the funeral? “There was a limit of 25 at the funeral and to be honest I have to say I think it was a big relief for me because I didn’t want to be standing hands with a hundred strangers. I was glad that it was such an intimate funeral.”
One of nine children, Liz’s siblings and other family along with partners and close friends completed the 25 in attendance. Liz’s father had been sober for years and many of those that he had helped get off the drink were compelled to stand outside as a mark of respect.
“It was actually quite a relief. He had been forty years sober. When we came out into the church yard a lot of his friends from Alcoholics Anonymous were standing by outside and that was lovely. That was very touching that all those people came to stand outside and pay their respects. We were really grateful for that. It was very moving but very peaceful.”
Liz may have done no writing in 2020 but the year did see her work being widely appreciated.
Graham Norton said Our Little Cruetlies was, ‘Brilliantly observed family life and a plot that is part rollercoaster, part maze.’
Marian Keyes said it was ‘Magnificent. Her best yet, and that’s really saying something’
Louise O’Neill said it was ‘utterly compelling’ while Sebastian Barry described it as an ‘incredible achievement’ and ‘Genius’.
“It’s fantastic. Graham Norton spoke about it, Sebastian Barry talked about it. I was really thrilled that Marian Keyes commented on it. I was really thrilled that it got that reception from such a broad range of writers and people from all walks of life, that it seemed to have quite a broad appeal.
“I got messages from grandparents and teenagers. I’m lucky in that I seem to write books that appeal to all ages and all sexes.
“My reader base is very broad. I’m very grateful for that.”
Our Little Cruelties finds three brothers at a funeral with one of them lying in the coffin. Having grown up competing for their mother’s unequal love, the competition continues into adulthood until one of them is dead.
It seems the idea of a dysfunctional family with many secrets is one many elate to.
“I think everybody experiences their growing up differently. If you were to ask me and my eight siblings to describe an incident from our childhood, you would probably get nine different versions. I think everybody experiences these things differently and everybody likes to read about families that are really screwed up because it either makes them feel like, ‘Oh thank God my family weren’t that bad’, or ‘Oh my God, I so identify with that, my mother was exactly like that’.
“Even back to Shakespeare and his dysfunctional families whether it’s Lord and Lady Macbeth or King Lear and his three daughters, dysfunctional families have been part of the literary cannon for hundreds of years going back to the Greeks with Medea murdering her own sons as revenge for her husband cheating on her, it goes all the way back.”
Liz’s most recent accident was not her first time in hospital. At the age of six she suffered a brain injury which left her with dystonia, a neurological hyperkinetic movement disorder.
Had this not happened, she does not believe she would be a writer.
“I think I definitely wouldn’t have been a writer without that happening because I don’t think I necessarily have been a reader. Because I couldn’t do sports much and I couldn’t partake in a lot of extra-curricular activities in school because I walked with a limp and I couldn’t use my right hand. I had to change from writing with my right hand to using my left hand because my right hand no longer worked.
“I escaped into books. Books were my escape into other lives and other worlds and I was a voracious reader from the time I was in hospital.
“Nowadays when a kid goes into hospital, you probably just give them an xbox or an iPad and they don’t notice that they’re not at home but in my day, I’m 53 now so when I was a child I just had books and that was my escape.”
Liz does not like to be defined by the condition. She is a writer with a disability rather than a disabled writer. She is revolted when people describe her as brave.
Has she always just got on with it? “I suppose in my teenage years I would have been extremely self-conscious about having a limp but once you get into your thirties, you just learn to accept yourself and know that: This doesn’t define you, you can do anything, you don’t have to be limited by this.
“I remember at one stage having the option to be on a long term disability allowance but if I went on that allowance it would mean that I could never work, that I could never have a job.
“I just kind of thought, ‘No, the options shouldn’t be so bleak, so black and white’. I was kind of horrified by that. I chose not to do that.”
Liz would study acting at the Gaiety School of Acting, but soon switched to stage management. She toured the world with Riverdance as a stage manager and later moved into television where she worked on Fair City.
“I was interested in theatre from an early age and I, probably foolishly, went to the Gaiety School of Acting in my early twenties and did some training as an actor. Obviously I wasn’t going to get parts but I had developed a huge interest in the text we were studying so I worked backstage in theatre for 15 years.
“I ended up working on Riverdance for two and a half years touring all over the world and that was a wonderful experience and a real eye opener and getting to see the world and getting to meet people from all different walks of life and different cultures. That was an extraordinary I have to say.
“I loved that and I loved my theatre. Then I drifted into television work and worked on Fair City for over eleven years and I have to say I didn’t enjoy that as much. I just preferred the live experience of theatre.”
Liz is returning to theatre as she starting writing a play commissioned by Landmark theatre company before the accident.
“I’m actually writing a play but because the theatres are closed, God knows when it will go on, probably 2024 before it actually hits stages.”
Liz has judged for The Irish Times Theatre Awards but found that writing a play is harder than she would have anticipated.
“I was absolutely immersed in theatre but when I came to write a play I realised, ‘Oh my God, that doesn’t mean you know how to write one’. It’s like watching your mother driving a car when you’re a child or whatever. Being in the passenger seat doesn’t mean you know how to drive.
“It’s a very different discipline to writing a book because in a book you can have people that have long conversations that have all kinds of revelations but in theatre you have to make that visual otherwise you may as well do it on the radio.
“You have to keep in mind at all times the visual aspect of what’s going to happen. It is quite a different medium to work in.”
Before any of that experience, Liz spent some time in London arriving in 1985.
“I was in London for two years. I worked in loads of different jobs. I worked for a construction company and I worked in a dole office which was very handy when I was writing Lying in Wait because I had a character who was in the dole office and I worked in a medical records office in Barnet General Hospital and I waitressed. I did all kinds of different jobs when I was in London those years so that was an eye opener.
“I found London difficult in that it’s so vast. It was hard to have a social life. The first time I was there, there was tonnes of us. It was summer, hundreds of us and we all lived in a close knit group but then they all went back to college and I stayed on. I stayed on in London and I found those years quite lonely because I didn’t have that support network of Irish pals. I made Indian friends, Caribbean friends, Welsh friends and Scottish friends and English friends. I mixed and made another community for myself and that was great. I missed the Irish ‘craic’, I missed the ability just to talk sh*te.”
Asked if she ever experienced any anti-Irish feeling at the time, she says: “I never did. I had grown up a stone’s throw from Bob Geldof and at the time, Live Aid was on and Bob Geldof was one of Britain’s greatest heroes. Everybody thought I sounded exactly like Bob Geldof because I have the same accent. That was the only thing. Some people used to call me Bob but it was a compliment. I never experienced any prejudice whatsoever. None. I can’t think of a single time that I experienced any anti-Irish prejudice in work or outside work. Maybe I was lucky but I just didn’t.
“I’m very grateful to Bob.”
On more recent visits to London, Liz has got to stay near Waterloo and take in a show at the National Theatre or visit a museum and experience the city in a way she couldn’t when she lived here.
“I never saw St. Paul’s Cathedral when I lived there, I only saw it afterwards when I went back as a tourist.
“When I was living in London, I was in flats in Finchley or Ealing or Islington or whatever and I would get the bus or tube into work and have no idea what was above ground. I would be getting the tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden not realising that they are literally beside each other.”
Liz thinks there is a poignant reason that so many Irish women are now coming out with crime tales that reflect on difficult issues from our past.
“If you look at the Irish crime writers, the majority of them are women and the majority of them are women who might have come of age sometime in the 80s when the Catholic church was kind of supreme and over everything and women had very little say and very little control in their lives.
“The church kind of ruled the government in some ways. The children’s pension was handed over the father who would often go off to the pub and drink it, wouldn’t feed his family. There was no divorce, there was abortion, there was no contraception so women were forced into having children that they may not necessarily have wanted. I think it was a very, very tough time for women.
“If you look at the crime writing people now, a lot of those issues come up with women who grew up in that era. We’re all looking back at the Kerry babies case or the Granard case of Anne Lovett or all the various things that were going on at the time and looking back at the unfairness of it and the cruelty of it.
“We feel that we were silenced for so long that you’re not going to shut us up now. We’re going to keep talking and we’re going to keep telling the truth about what happened.
“I think I play that out in all of my books. Misogyny is kind of a running theme but this time I decided to do it from a men’s point of view.”
Liz admits to finding men easier to write due to their more straightforward nature.
“They’re more straightforward because they tend to say what they think. Women are more hidden about what they think- Not that they’re lying but they’re more likely to second guess themselves. They’re more likely to not be confident to make bold statement while men will often- and I’m not saying all men obviously- will often speak their opinion as fact and women are far less likely to do that.”
Liz is not the only Irish writer to make the prestigious longlist with Jane Casey and Brian McGilloway among the others to be honoured.
“The writing community in Ireland is pretty small and because we all attend the same festivals, we all know each other and it’s incredibly supportive.
“We are incredibly supportive of each other. I’m as happy for other people’s success as they are for mine so it’s a very tight knit community and all get together at book awards- Of course we haven’t been able to for the last year but we all go to each to each other’s book launches and support each other as much as we can.
“That includes Irish writers living in the UK like Jane Casey and William Ryan. They are certainly part of our tribe and we don’t forget them. It’s a nice community to be in.”
Our Little Cruelties is out on Penguin Ireland.
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