Louise Nealon was 18 when she had a dream that belonged to someone else. “The dream was not very alive. It was just a general feeling of being disembodied. What I remember more than the dream is the feeling of disappearing completely from myself.
It may sound like an experience of a nervous breakdown, and Nealon, now 30, did suffer from anxiety and depression as a college student. But she deliberately reverted to the surreal experience of dreaming someone else’s dream as the inspiration for her first novel, Snowflake.
She now says sharing her dream world with others while writing has helped her regain good sanity. As a writer, she can be “genuinely” herself.
His decision was validated by the recognition that Snowflake has received since its publication this year, and which culminated this week by winning the Independent Sunday Newcomer of the year at the An Post Irish Book Awards.
She says she is “thrilled” even to have been on the shortlist along with the five other books that were nominated, which she all adores: Diving for pearls by Jamie O’Connell, Dinner: a tragedy by Sarah Gilmartin, Una Mannion’s A crooked tree, by Fiona Scarlett Boys don’t cry and Eimear Ryan’s Hold one’s breath.
Eimear Ryan and Nealon are close friends. Both play camogie – Ryan is an inter-county camogie player for Tipperary, and Nealon has played camogie for his native Cappagh, Co Kildare. Indeed, Louise says, Ryan offered her her first “paid job” as a speaker at an event promoting women in sport.
She jokes that her camogie club’s votes won her the award, but in fact the public vote is outweighed by that of an “academy” of literary experts comprising writers, librarians and scholars. booksellers and Independent Sunday literary editor Madeleine Keane.
Such an award, says Nealon, validates the work of writers and “celebrates all the different ways we can use our imaginations for a living.”
Nealon’s writing career really started to take off when agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor spotted her award-winning new Seán Ó Faoláin “What Is Feminism?” in the Irish time in 2018 and made contact.
Last year, their combined efforts were largely rewarded when Snowflake was acquired for a six-figure sum by Manilla Press along with a second novel, which is still a work in progress and which Nealon is silent on.
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Film and TV rights were sold to Element Pictures, the company that transformed Sally Rooney’s film Normal people in the multi-award winning television series.
Since the book deal was closed, Louise Nealon has been living the dreams of others – those of most writers on the planet.
The novelist says she “still hasn’t figured out” this degree of success and fears that upkeep of the advertising machine will give her the full-time job of “pretending to be a writer”. She explains: “I try to make intelligible answers but I am far too close to the book to put it into words.
But its current success has been very hard earned. She spent her 20s trying and failing to tell the story of a woman who dreamed of other people’s dreams, including a year at Queen’s University Belfast where she earned a Masters in Creative Writing.
The novel only really took off when, as she puts it, she “met” her characters and “rooted” the action in her native Co Kildare.
The story of Snowflake takes place on a small farm where a young woman, Debbie, comes of age under the shadow of a mentally unstable mother, Maeve, and in the care of her uncle Billy, who lives outside in a trailer. Maeve and Billy are both clairvoyants, but while his powers of divination are sought after by the local community, his are in the process ridiculed.
Debbie receives a ticket to freedom in the form of a place in an English class at Trinity College where she befriends a wealthy city dweller called Xanthe and slowly returns to loving and understanding her home and family of mystics.
Nealon wrote the book on her parents’ dairy farm in Cappagh, Co Kildare, where she grew up, near the Meath border between Enfield and Kilcock.
While her family supported her writing, society as a whole seemed obsessed with money and career to a girl who was reaching adulthood during the time of the Celtic Tiger.
A few weeks ago, she visited her old high school in Kilcock and, she says, her English teacher remembers asking the class, “Who’s going to do English in college?” ”
No hand was raised. From the back of the class, a girl said, “I want to be able to buy nice things.
Contemporary Ireland left little room for a dreamy girl whose father called her “the fairy.” Being a dreamer didn’t seem like a viable option, she says, “In the age of social media, it’s about presenting a very clear image of yourself to the outside world in a way we didn’t have. not before. It was a watershed moment when Facebook took off. I didn’t really care much about my social life until I realized that everyone had one and I didn’t. I started to feel really depressed.
What the disembodied eye of the smartphone and the camera of the pornographer have done to youthful sex is terrifyingly clear in the novel. His characters don’t have a lot of sex but they are obsessed with their ability to please others.
The reality of sex as a performance for young people is far from funny, however: “It’s not what a man expects from a woman, it’s what she thinks he expects”, Nealon said.
One of her funniest images can be found in her short story “What is feminism?” When a young woman talks about her sexual experience as feeling like the corner of a hot press into which a bulky sleeping bag is pushed but continues to fall.
She describes young women preparing for sex as they would for an exam, but adds that young men are also “victims” of societal demands that previous generations simply did not feel. “It’s incredibly damaging and it’s something we don’t talk about.”
When I suggest that the relationship between men and women is going through a traumatic readjustment, Nealon laughs and jokes, “That’s why I’m single,” but refuses to comment further.
Relations between women seem to interest him even more than relations between the sexes. She adores Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels which, according to her, have broken the taboo of describing female friendship in all its intimacy, jealousy, love and hatred.
“I got into the habit in my late twenties of expressing my jealousy towards my friends and it really helped our relationship. I was surprised when they also said they were jealous of pieces of me. I discovered that we all have very low self-esteem and that we always project what we want to be onto each other, ”says Nealon.
She is fascinated by the dynamic between younger and older women. “I see so much beauty in older women. I admire my mom so much and it hurts me when she doesn’t see what I see. But I repeat the same pattern.
Nealon believes intergenerational trauma is also at the heart of Irish women’s low self-esteem. “My grandmother had to give up her job when she got married. Not so long ago. We’re actually part of a much longer journey and all of these superficial changes in society, if we choose to go any further, they’re small changes.
Going “further” is, she says, where “mysticism comes into play.” Nealon strongly believes in tapping into the spirit world. “We don’t know everything,” she said. Maeve, a mother’s space cadet from Debbie, whose most memorable scene involves jumping into a coffin and landing on the corpse, is a mystical character that Nealon based on “Worst Case For Me If I didn’t… didn’t. … “
Stick to it, I suggest?
She describes Brigid’s use of objects like seashells and crosses and dandelions when writing Snowflake as “key gates” in the world of his characters, the points at which Nealon’s world “kind of intersected” with that of his fictional characters.
When I suggest that she means that they are symbols, she insists that they go much further: they are the keys to the “spirit world” of her fiction. How firmly she believes in this alternate world is clear in the way she talks about her characters as if she didn’t make them up. “Debbie lives next door to me in Kildare,” she said casually.
Nealon grew up on the farm with his brother and three sisters in what appears to be a comfortable environment. “I have to point out,” she says, “that I didn’t grow up in poverty. And neither does Debbie.
When she arrived at Trinity College Dublin at the age of 18, she discovered that she and her background were looked down upon. Just like Debbie.
It’s a real moment in Snowflake when Debbie crosses herself after seeing an ambulance pass by and her friend Xanthe notices it’s a “cute” thing to do. Nealon also found out that she was dated in Trinity and expected to be much more innocent than the townspeople.
She takes the opportunity to Snowflake to ensure that agriculture and the land receive the respect they deserve. Vegans who say ‘dairy takes babies off their mothers’ don’t really win the debate with Billy replying,’ What are we f ** king supposed to do? Leave the calf there so that it grows enough that mom and son can start to overlap?
She also doesn’t mythologize the earth, but the novel makes a case for people to connect with both the earth and with each other. And above all to give yourself time for the survival skill of daydreaming.
I suggest she is really arguing against an economy that seems to demand more and more hours from its workers and leaves no time for thinking, let alone dreams. She agrees that she is “privileged” to be able to spend her days writing, but says she worked hard for it.
Grateful how she is to win the Independent Sunday Newcomer of the Year award, she’s dying to stop doing interviews and return to writing full-time at her home in Belfast, a city she’s grown to love as a master’s student and “isn’t done yet” because it’s “gas” and people are “so warm”.
Perhaps she is finally learning to follow her own prescription: “I think women being radically kind, not to each other, but to themselves – and supporting each other in that – is a starting point for the healing we need to do for what society has given us is not us.
‘Snowflake’ is now available from Manilla Press