How Megan Nolan wrote the explosive romance in Acts of Desperation
Megan Nolan has been building a career in the U.K. journalism industry for several years — she writes regularly for The Guardian, among other columns — but the young author is set to jump across the pond thanks to her much-hyped debut novel. Acts of Desperation, out today, is the latest book to draw comparisons to Sally Rooney, so it feels prescient to get the similarities out of the way first. It's a Dublin-based story, written by an Irish author, focused on young creatives (or, rather, aspiring creatives) in a complicated relationship. But while the comp might help lure in new readers, it's worth knowing this novel as a separate — and deliciously darker — entity. Here, Nolan speaks to EW about her entry into the literary world and what she hopes we'll all take away from her work.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For the uninitiated (read: American) readers among us, could you tell us about your path to authorship?
MEGAN NOLAN: It was 2015 when I first got paid to write. Before I moved to London, I lived in Dublin, where there is a strong spoken word scene — I was writing mainly for performance, but I decided to publish one of my pieces that I'd written for a spoken word night on Medium. It got picked up by some Irish websites and passed around on Twitter, and that was the start of things. I never thought writing was something I could do for a job, I thought I would always be doing it in my spare time — mostly because the kind of fiction that I love to read and that I was seeing as successful wasn't the sort of thing that I'm good at writing.
What style is that?
In short: Big, meaty books that are some sort of family saga. A life told from beginning to end and really intriguing plot points. I knew I wasn't good at worldbuilding in that way, and so I assumed that meant I couldn't write a novel. It took me a while to understand that I didn't have to write that kind of book, that I could try something different.
From our side of the pond, it seems as though Ireland is having a bit of a literary boom — does it feel busy or crowded?
I didn't have much of a literary community in Dublin, since I dropped out of University. I think that's where a lot of people that American audiences would know get their start; authors like Sally Rooney or Naoise Dolan have literary communities that originate at universities like Trinity.
How did the idea for Acts of Desperation come about?
I had originally thought I might write a hybrid of essays and creative interludes, but when I sat down to actually write the idea was very simple: I wanted to write a relationship from beginning to end. I was interested in depicting the female protagonist's obsession and single-mindedness about this relationship. So I guess it was less the relationship itself I wanted to portray and more her willingness to debase herself for it. I also wanted it to be quite intense and quite short because I thought the heightened emotion wouldn't work with a very long book.
Your protagonist is involved with Ciaran, who doesn't treat her very well, to put it bluntly. Was it hard not to get emotionally involved with the story or take sides?
There are moments of the book that are low points — when their relationship is deteriorating — and I felt those were very draining to write because I felt sorry for her. But I think a lot of people hate Ciaran more than I thought they would. From my perspective, she is behaving violently [towards] him, too, by putting all of this projection onto him about things that he didn't actually feel or say.
Do you have a message about relationships or gender politics that you're hoping people glean from the book?
I think this changed a bit as I got into the book, but before I started writing it I was trying to say — as much to myself as to anybody else — that it's not always a good thing to prioritize romantic love, to make that the center of your life and the thing you put all your energy into. Obviously, my narrator's version of that is quite explosive and not typical for most people, but I had just become single myself for the first time in my adult life and I was trying to deal with that. I was trying to not feel like a failure because I wasn't with anyone, and also reckoning with how much I've allowed myself to be decimated by men. By the way, I had put all my energy into relationships.
Did you gain clarity for yourself through writing the book?
I definitely felt better afterward because you can write versions of experiences that you had in a different way than they really took place. When you leave [the narrator] at the end of the book and she's alone, she's 23 or 24 — it took me four or five years longer than that to be okay on my own and be able to start a new part of my life.
Did it feel like people in publishing understood the book, as you were selling it?
Mostly yes, but I remember some people had the reaction: I'm sick of these bad-girl stories. I just thought, she's not a bad girl. She's not portrayed as a person who is constantly pleasant, but she's also not some crazy party girl. It's just a very particular time in her life. I didn't want people to think that she's someone who will never be happy — lots of people have stints of extreme unhappiness in their lives at different points, and it doesn't mean you're always going to be like that.
Do you feel like the current American tendency to compare Irish books to other famous Irish authors is fair?
I never really heard those comparisons when I was selling this book to publishers, it's really only come up now that the book is coming out to readers. I understand the comparison because I think it allows people to communicate something about the book really quickly and easily, and obviously, it's flattering to be compared to Sally and Naoise. But the only thing is that I find it embarrassing for them. [Laughs] It's awkward to think of them having to share press stories with me, like if I ever ran into an author and knew that we'd had a headline together. At least I don't run into people right now.