The debut collection of Irish writer Nicole Flattery, Show Them A Good Time (Stinging Fly Press, 2019) was named one of the top 12 books to read in January by Time magazine. In their themes — especially the power equations between young women and older men — Flattery’s stories tread territories similar to those by Irish literary sensation, Sally Rooney.
Flattery, 29, who got a six-figure advance from Bloomsbury for the UK publishing rights, is hailed as the next star among the damburst of Irish women writers to have achieved global fame. Excerpts from an interview:
What triggered and shaped the stories in your debut?
The eight stories in Show Them A Good Time were written over a period of four years, from my mid-20s to late-20s. They are a reflection of my life at the time — primarily concerned with work, personal and familial relationships, friendships — although with a dark, surreal twist. In a broader sense, several of these stories grapple with millennial (although I hesitate to use that word) concerns: financial instability, workplace dissatisfaction, an uncertain future. They are both personal, and, in their way, political.
Do your women characters mirror the lives of young women in Ireland?
I never set out to write a book solely about Irish women but, as I was working, a number of political issues, particularly the abortion referendum, were foremost in my mind. It seemed disingenuous not to give consideration to that in my own work or, at any rate, what I was consuming and thinking about naturally seeped into the stories. I never intentionally set out to address any ‘issues’ but writing doesn’t happen at a remove from your own life. I can’t say I represent young Irish women but I’ve found the last number of years in Ireland a hugely energising and mobilising time for women.
Some of your stories unravel the power imbalance between young women and older women. How do you look at the gender dynamics in Ireland, especially in arts?
It’s the first time I’ve encountered this question. I think young women, particularly those from a lower class, can be treated with an ugly dismissiveness, but by older women and men. I’m aware of power, and how it can corrupt, and certainly all the stories in the book are playing with that. I studied theatre in college and I remember playing an improv game where each person was given a number to denote their status, and then we all entered an imaginary party. It was strange, and distancing, to watch our interactions. I’ve also been at real-life parties where someone with power, and usually, money announces their arrival as if we should, in some way, be delighted. That person is nearly always lame. It’s impossible, as a writer or a person in the arts, to live and work without being aware of your own status, which is constantly shifting. My advice would be this: don’t take any of it too seriously. It’s very funny if you pay close enough attention.
Irish women authors have made their mark recently, with many winning major awards, including the Man Booker Prize. What led to this, considering the country has been dominated by male writers?
It’s due to the new freedoms afforded to women. Also, publications such as The Tangerine, The Stinging Fly, Gorse and The Dublin Review offer space and encouragement that other countries might not be lucky enough to have. I’ve also encountered mentors, through these outlets, that gave me the confidence to continue with my work at difficult times. We also have a very supportive Arts Council. I’m very inspired by the writer Anne Enright. I think we’re about to see a whole generation of Irish women writers who grew up reading her spiky and fearless prose, and it’s going to be bracing.
Could you tell us about some contemporary women writers who must be read?
I will start in Ireland — Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home (2018), which was published by The Stinging Fly Press in late 2018. A subtle book of stories about lives in Belfast that has a powerful cumulative effect. Jan Carson, Sally Rooney, Lisa McInerney, Anna Burns are just a selection. My own personal choice would be Elske Rahill, whose book Between Dog and Wolf (2013) found me at the exact right time. Outside of Ireland, I like Ottessa Moshfegh, Halle Butler, Jen George. I’ve recently started reading the work of French writer Annie Ernaux and it’s blowing me away.
What are the dominant themes addressed by Irish women writers ?
Sally Rooney, in both her novels, has explored how we communicate, not just the new technology, but also how we often hide behind humour, irony or cruelty. She also tackles sexuality with ease. Frances, the 21-year-old protagonist in Conversations with Friends (2017), is confidently bisexual and it’s not a ‘coming-out’ story. I think that sexuality is certainly a dominant theme of Irish female writers. Writers such as Anne Enright and Edna O’Brien paved the way for this. I often think about how one female writer has to do the difficult groundwork so another can follow, more easily, in her footsteps. I also like how we are moving away from the novel, which seems to be in a state of flux, and other forms are coming to the forefront. The essay, for example, is experiencing a resurgence. Sinéad Gleeson’s essay collection Constellations: Reflections From Life (2019) is a searing investigation of the female body. We should make space for all the new forms of writing and not concentrate only on the novel. No one way of expression should be considered superior to another.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘We are moving away from the novel: Nicole Flattery’
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