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By Emma-Louise Boynton
egan Nolan’s debut novel Acts of Desperation is a searingly honest portrayal of romantic obsession. A coming-of-age novel told through the prism of a deeply dysfunctional relationship, in the book the Irish author explores codependency, anorexia, alcoholism and familial dislocation, unflinchingly describing the uglier sides of her characters.
Published a year into national lockdown, the narrator’s underwhelm at the banality of life feels particularly of-the-moment: “One of the saddest things to feel is that nothing in the world is new, that you have exhausted all your interactions with it.”
Megan Nolan joined The Stack for the first instalment of our Culture Shot Book Club to discuss Acts of Desperation, why she writes and what’s next.
I never expected to make money from writing
After dropping out of university I had a series of jobs – waitressing and working in retail – alongside which I was writing, but very sporadically. Whenever something came into my head, I’d have a go at it: a story, a poem, an essay. When I was about 24, I began to think about writing in a more serious, career-minded way. Even then, it wasn’t really something I expected to make money from. One of the reasons I eventually started writing professionally was that I’m not good at having an office job. I’m not suited to it. At around 26, after many failed experiments with that sort of working lifestyle, I thought, ‘‘Well, the only thing I know I’m any good at is writing’.
Darkness helps me concentrate
With my journalism, I’m more adaptable in terms of where I work and often write in cafes or shared workspaces. When it came to the novel, however, I needed a private space where I could be peaceful. Somewhere I could work in the dark too, as sometimes I need to have the lights off to concentrate. I wrote part of the book in Greece, where I rented a flat for a few months. I got a bursary from an arts council in London of around €1,200.
In London, that doesn’t last you very long so I thought I may as well use that limited amount of money to rent somewhere cheaper, where I could buy myself some more time. Greece sounded like a dreamy set up. I was more disciplined writing the book than I had been before, since I knew I had a limited amount of time. Because I was in this amazingly beautiful place, if I wanted to go swimming all day then I’d do that and then just work all night.
‘When you appreciate the variety of books that are out there, you begin to see you can write a novel even if it’s not the classic Dickensian novel you may have grown up reading.’
It was hard to switch off from the more upsetting scenes
I wrote the final section in the book, when she [the narrator] is in Athens, while I was in Greece. I wanted to write the vaguely redemptive ending before I wrote the rest of it, so it wasn’t a very harrowing experience. But when I got back to London, there were parts which I struggled to write. I found that when I wrote a scene in the book that was quite upsetting, it was hard to switch off and have a normal time afterwards.
I started writing the novel without a plan
I think perhaps I didn’t need a plan because the basic plot is so simple – there is a relationship and it ends. That’s the trajectory of the book. I didn’t plot it out any more intricately than that until I was about a third of the way through – that’s when I began plotting things out. I had a board with the timeline and played around with when they’d have arguments, at what point their relationship would happen and so on.
I did very little research for the book
As the book is set in cities I’ve lived in and is contained in the relationship between two people, there wasn’t much research to do beyond drawing on my own observations of men I or my friends have been in relationships with, which come together in the character of Ciaran [the narrator’s emotionally abusive boyfriend]. He was a character I’d thought a lot about who reflected different dynamics I’d seen in my own life and in the lives of friends.
It took three years to write, but I took breaks from it
There was a six-month stretch when I wasn’t working on the book at all. Then I had to reacclimatise myself with the story and read over what I’d done. Generally though, I felt the characters were people I knew and it didn’t take too much to get back into a groove with them. The next book I’m writing will be a full-time process as I have an advance for it. It will be interesting to see if there’s a different intensity with the characters when you get to see them all the time.
Coercion in sex is a common experience for women
I don’t think I’d write a very good book if I had a moral issue to prove to the reader – that’s not the kind of writing I’m good at. But, in retrospect, I can see that what I wanted to portray was the ordinariness of coercion in sex.
When you describe all the issues covered in the book, she [the narrator] sounds like this sort of hapless woman who has attracted every bad issue on the earth, but in reality most women experience a bunch of the things she goes through. The scene towards the end of the book when a male friend continues to pressure her into sex, even though he’s heard her say no, was something I was really interested in exploring because I think it’s a common experience for women.
I was surprised by some of the feedback
Someone who interviewed me said that all the sex the narrator has is really traumatic and unhappy, and I was totally caught off-guard. I thought, no it’s not. She does enjoy sex – it’s not only a negative thing in the book. I tried to make sure it was something you could see she valued in her own right.
I take inspiration from a huge array of sources
I am inspired by performance art that uses subjectivity and the first person to create something that is not purely factual. And then books such as Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. Things that are more esoteric and less straightforward.
I thought I couldn’t write a novel because I didn't have that specific skill set, but when you appreciate the variety of books that are out there, you begin to see you can write a novel, even if it’s not the classic Dickensian novel you may have grown up reading. Speedboat by Renata Adler, really opened up my mind to what’s possible with a book. In terms of essayists, I love Leslie Jamison, who wrote the The Empathy Exams and then a memoir of her alcoholism, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath.
I wish I'd known that
You’re never as hopelessly bad as you think you are when you’re writing. There is no limit to how bad I thought I was while writing Acts of Desperation. So the lesson I’ve learned is that you have to ignore that feeling and get over your pride about how bad you might think your writing is, as other people won’t share the experience.
This article was taken from a live membership workshop. You can access the hour-long recording, and much more, on demand when you sign up to become a member.
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Megan Nolan writes about the reality of women’s experience of love and desire with honesty and intensity.
By Emma-Louise Boynton