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Desperate times

London-based Waterford author Megan Nolan told David Hennessy about her debut book Acts of Desperation.

London-based author Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts of Desperation has been earning her acclaim.

This came as little surprise to many as Nolan, from Waterford, already had an established reputation as a writer. Her essays, fiction and reviews have been published in The New York Times, The White Review, and The Guardian, and she writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

Megan told The Irish World of the reaction to the book: “It’s been great. The first couple of weeks it was quite overwhelming really. I had to do so many events and bits and pieces all in quite a tight time frame but then once I had a chance to step back and relax a bit, it made me very happy and I’ve been really particularly the reaction in Waterford and Ireland it’s been really nice.”

Acts of Desperation depicts an intense and destructive relationship between the narrator and Ciaran, a man so attractive she can’t believe it.

They become a couple despite him being odd and rude to her friends and still being obviously and openly hung up on a previous girlfriend.

Infatuated, she ignores every danger sign and succumbs to his controlling nature, which includes lecturing her about flossing her teeth and discouraging her from seeing her friends.

Most authors are delighted to find their work has been relatable to people. In this case, is it perhaps a bit depressing how relatable it is? Exactly how many women speak about knowing this sort of relationship? “Yeah, I think even if people haven’t experienced a relationship like that a lot of people have given up a lot for a relationship that they then regretted doing. Obviously everyone has to sacrifice to be in a relationship in some way if you’re committed to a relationship so it’s not that sacrifice is a bad thing necessarily but I think, especially when you’re younger, you can sacrifice things that you shouldn’t give up.

“Even if you’ve never been in an abusive relationship I think that’s probably a very common experience that people have taken away from the book and especially a lot of women have contacted me to say that they relate from their younger years. They made decisions in order to hang on to guys that they wouldn’t make now if they had the chance again where they gave up a lot whether it was to do with work or friendships or family or whatever it might be. That they had prioritised a boyfriend above everything else because I think it is something that is thought, the most important thing is to have a guy in your life and everything else comes second and then we end up regretting it later in life. Most of the women that I’ve chatted to have been talking about that experience.”

Mostly written between 2016 and 2019, Megan’s time writing happened to coincide with movements like #metoo and the opening up of conversations about toxic masculinity and the victimisation of women.

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Did things like this affect her writing, even subconsciously? “No, I had established what I was up to with it already by the time that stuff started happening.

“I guess it maybe changes the audience that might read, questions that come up about it. I knew what the story was, that never really changed very much.

“I think it does maybe raise questions that are different now than they might have been. If I brought out the same book in 2016, I think it might have had a different reception.

“There’s been a conversation opened up since that stuff started happening in the media especially where I think before when you came across sexual stuff and crime was always about the worst kind of crime. It was about the black and white cases and then obviously the existence of those movements kind of brought up the fact that the power dynamics are not always so clear cut and it’s comparatively minor incidents that also need to be addressed even if they’re not crime.”

The book also talks about how when women say no, they continue to be pressured for sex.

“I think there’s an idea that it’s not wrong to do that because you’re just convincing someone who might really want to do it but they’re afraid to say yes. They feel they know better than them what they want. There’s a feeling of, ‘It’s not actually wrong, I’m not actually physically harming anyone. I’m just being a cheeky chappy and trying to talk her around’. They might think it’s just words but if you’ve been socialised to say yes and to give in to things, you have to be very firm with your nos in that situation.”

Megan has described the book as hard to write. We have to wonder if it is hard to talk about as well: “Sometimes. There’s certain parts of it that are, the personal and a bit more invasive questions can throw you off a little bit.

“I think I struggled a bit with striking that balance. I think everyone’s been really nice for the most part.”

What makes reading Acts of Desperation so difficult to read, is that the abuse if you can call it is so subtle. It could just be Ciaran’s silent treatment of his girlfriend when she has done something he doesn’t like.

“There’s nothing totally shocking that she can reveal to her friends. If you experience physical violence, you probably know that it’s wrong whereas if you experience low level passive aggression constantly there’s not really a big reveal that could shock.”

Reading the book, you may become like one of the protagonist’s friends who understandably don’t like Ciaran at all.

“I don’t think anyone likes him really. I think some people can identify with why she’s attracted to him but I don’t think anyone likes him. I think some people see some context that isn’t even there and suggested reasons why he has these emotional barriers to do with his own family background and stuff.”

The readers do get to meet Ciaran’s father who it seems is as cold to his son as his son is to his lover.

“Some people read that and therefore have a bit of sympathy for him and contextualise him a bit in that way. Others see him as a total villain. I don’t necessarily, I think the family stuff is important to have in. He’s not just born as some totally emotionally cut off person because there are reasons why he has become like that.

“For her, one reason why she is so attracted to him apart from being good looking and charismatic and enigmatic or whatever you want to call it, I think that he’s got that quality of being enigmatic and aloof. It’s not that he’s necessarily so funny and brilliant or anything but the very quality of his aloofness is its own sort of attraction for her, I think.”

Later on in the story the lead character starts to cheat with other men behind Ciaran’s back.

“I definitely wanted to show that it’s not just that she’s a victim and he’s the bad guy and that’s the end of the story.

“There’s little things, all their baggage in the relationship and they don’t really address it or work through it and then they sort of end up exploding it onto the other person either with her in a very explosive way or with him a little bit at a time all the time.

“There was a choice. I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t coming off as though she was innocent. I wanted to make sure that it’s clear that she was playing a part in their unhealthy behaviour and it wasn’t as if he had a big grudge against her or he was malevolent towards her with a big plan to hurt her.”

We keep referring to the main character in the book as the narrator. This is because she is never named meaning it can feel as though reading a diary. Why is this perhaps why Megan did not give her a name? “There are a couple of reasons. I wanted to suggest she didn’t have an outside identity prior to this period that they were together and the lack of a name is one way to suggest that.

“Also, I think I liked the idea of the readers getting these uncomfortably intense insights into what she really thinks. I didn’t think of it as a diary specifically but definitely it was glimpses into her interior.

“Also, one came to me and then it seemed a bit false to think, ‘Oh God, should I call her Jessica or whatever?’ It just felt more natural not to.”

Acts of Desperation is also a snapshot of life in the years of young adulthood when the narrator’s lack of comfort in her own skin makes her seek anything to take her out of herself such as drink, drugs, sex and food.

“I think she doesn’t have any plans for her life so she is able to do as she pleases. When you do have that experience, all you can really think about is the day ahead of you and what’s going to make that tolerable or pleasurable so those things, drinking and even sex, are things that you can have some control over and introduce them to your day if you really want to. And that’s all she really has at that point in her life that we meet her at.”

Megan reflects on our attitude to alcohol in particular.

“I don’t know if there’s any difference between Ireland and England in this. I think maybe it’s just that I moved here at an age in my life where I was naturally drinking a bit less.

“It was so the norm when I was in Dublin that you would get fully drunk, not just having a few drinks but you get really drunk at least a few times a week. It wasn’t even a question in my head that you wouldn’t do that. Pretty much everyone I knew did it.

“I still do drink, it’s not to sound patronising at all to anyone but it would have been nice if it hadn’t always just been a given that that’s what everyone did. You’re not presented with any socialising options alongside that. When you’re an adult, the expectation is that that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

The end of the book sees an explosive act of violence while he get to see the narrator years later living a different life and far away from Ciaran.

“Now that she’s realised she doesn’t have to be in love with someone to be a valid person, I don’t think that means she’ll never have a boyfriend again or she’ll never have a partner or a lover again. I reckon it’s just a matter of her understanding that it can’t be the only thing in her life and now that she has had that realisation, she will go on to have relationships that are different and good for her as a person.”

How would the couple in the book have coped with being stuck together in lockdown? “I think she would have quite liked the idea at first because that’s what she wanted, to keep the relationship in very simple terms just the two of them where you create this world and nobody else can come in.

“I think she probably would have been quite excited by the idea at first but in the same way as we see later in the book, that imagined fantasy of, ‘If it’s just the two of us, everything will be alright’ is not true and I’m sure that would have become clear very quickly.”

How has Megan got through the last year? “It’s been tough not getting home. I usually go home three or four times a year so it’s the longest I’ve ever not been home. I’ve obviously missed my family and my friends there. Also, I live alone so it’s been a very difficult year. I basically saw nobody for five months so it’s been a very surreal year.”

Megan has resided in London for six years and is based in Camberwell.

“I call it home now. I don’t know how long I’ll stay here but least for the foreseeable. I really like the south east and I’ve pretty much lived in this kind of area since I moved over so I feel at home here.”

How does it feel to be mentioned in the conversation about exciting younger generation of Irish writers that includes Sally Rooney and Naoise Dolan? “It’s nice. I think they’re both great. We’re all similar ages, I think that’s why we’re being spoken about in the same sort of group. They’re great. I don’t have any problems with that statement.”

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan is out now on Jonathan Cape.

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