Author Spotlight: Megan Nolan, ‘Ordinary Human Failings’

    If you read Megan Nolan’s debut novel, Acts of Desperation, you’d know how immediately gripping her writing is. That book, with its immediate razor-sharp examination of an unnamed narrator’s sexual experiences with a toxic and irresistible partner, is a stylistic turnaround from Ordinary Human Failings, Nolan’s second novel. 

    Just as engrossing as her first, Ordinary Human Failings introduces the reader to the Greens, an Irish family living in England who are suddenly entrenched in a mystery: a young girl is found murdered near a park, and the youngest Green, Lucy, seems to be the main culprit. Reeling from the loss of her supportive mother, Carmel is oddly disaffected by her daughter’s sudden suspect status, and her brother Richie is an alcoholic who is just seemingly starting to get his life back together. Hellbent on finding a juicy story, a tabloid journalist Tom exploits the family and supplies them with unlimited alcohol in order for them to reveal the truth — or at least, an engaging version of it.

    Our Culture sat down with Megan Nolan to talk about the differences in her writing style, the dynamic of the family novel, and how each distinct character came to be.

    Congrats on another fantastic novel! How does it feel to be out in the world?

    Very moving. I didn’t really have very cynical expectations about how it’d be received, but I’ve been kind of moved by how open people are with what I was trying to do, the care I felt for the characters. I’ve been very touched by it.

    I was surprised by the difference between Acts of Desperation, your debut, and Ordinary Human Failings, in their separate styles, forms, and content. Was it difficult to switch your writing format between the two?

    I think it was intimidating because this new novel is more of a style that I myself like to read. It’s a kind of book that, before I’d written any fiction, if I was describing the book I’d maybe want to write, it’d be more like this than Acts of Desperation. Because I had absolutely no experience writing fiction, I didn’t feel like I had the authority to write in this more traditional, novelistic style when I was first starting out. Because Acts is tonally similar to some of my journalism, it was an easier place to start from. Having had that experience of Acts coming out and going well, it let me feel confident enough to try this new style, this style of what I originally wanted to do.

    In terms of when I was actually writing it, was it difficult? Yeah, obviously it’s hard to write a book anyway, but no, I don’t think I struggled with the form. I think I was actually relieved. Part of why I wrote Acts was almost like an exorcism of this style, I wanted to stop writing in that style and I was going to do the most heightened version of it, to expel all that inclination. So I think I was very ready to try something else.

    That’s so interesting: so any future fiction will follow a similar style to Ordinary Human Failings?

    I dunno, I like the idea of doing a new thing every time. The thing I’m thinking about writing next will be mostly first person, with some third. Not that I’ll be doing a totally wildly different genre every time, but I like the idea of not having to figure out one style. 

    At its heart, the book is a family novel, where each member of the Green family is given a proper backstory. When did these people start to emerge in your mind, and did anything in particular inspire this story?

    I’m trying to think of the sequence of events. The very starting point of the book was this anecdote I read in a nonfiction book called Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, a Gordon Burn book. It’s really good — very harrowing, about this British serial killer Peter Sutcliffe and it’s brilliant. It’s ostensibly true crime, but it’s genius. [Burn] went to live in this village where Sutcliffe had lived, and really embedded himself in this community. But anyway, there’s this anecdote in it which says that a tabloid journalist in the UK approached members of Sutcliffe’s family, and basically offered them — as happened in my book — a hotel or safe house and says, you can have all the alcohol you want. They’re working-class alcoholics, basically. I obviously was struck by how monstrous that was, but also by this pressure-cooker situation, with this family being forced to look at one another. I had that as a starting point, that a family would be in a hotel like that.

    And then… I think they just were Irish, because again, a little bit relates to how I didn’t feel the authority to do a particular style that I didn’t feel like I had the personal experience with. So far, I struggle to have characters that don’t have any relationship to my background. Obviously, these are not people I actually know or that I am, but they’re the sorts of people I grew up around. In terms of how they emerged, Carmel was the first. It’s all a bit convoluted in a way, but I’d been reading about children like Lucy who either kill or commit serious violence, and one of the major commonalities between children who do that is either severe neglect or a more benign, general alienation from their parents. I was thinking, ‘Okay, what’s a reason this kid is so profoundly disengaged from her mother?’ Then I started thinking about the mother character, and why that might’ve been. Richie — there’s a particular person in my family who died of alcohol-related illnesses not that long ago, during the time I was writing the book, so the Richie character was a little bit of a tribute to that person.

    You explore English and Irish tensions with a very personal touch, with part of the novel even taking place where you were born. Tom, the tabloid journalist, sees a way to pin the disappearance of Mia on the Green family simply because they’re foreign. Even though this is fiction, was it ever slightly difficult to write about differences that were based in reality?

    Yeah, by the time I moved to England, certainly you’d never claim you were suffering any sincere prejudice, in a way that actually affects your life, but even then, I did notice some. My friend Doireann put it very well. She moved here from Ireland at a much earlier time than I did, and she said, ‘You know, your English friends would make these jokes about you being stupid because you’re Irish, and you’re laughing along, and at a certain point, you’re like, Do you actually think that?’ You’re trying to gauge the sincerity with which that is being proposed. I think that’s a real thing. There’s definitely an element of that, but it’s not something that materially affects my life. But my dad would have lived in England at a time when the IRA bombings were ongoing, and obviously during that time period, it was an act of concern, and you were openly despised by the community sometimes. I wasn’t really trying to get it out there from a personal point of view, but I am aware that it was a real thing.

    I’m obsessed with the fact that while her daughter, Lucy, was playing with Mia on the night that she was last seen, she was thinking about sex. This becomes consistent through the book with Carmel as a mother; she hates being called ‘Mummy’, and, after having Lucy at a young age, she becomes a bit disaffected and almost aloof with her kid ending up being the primary suspect for the crime. We talked a little about this earlier, but where did her personality come from?

    I was thinking about this feeling that, coming from Waterford as she does, it’s a small town. This yearning to be distinct and special and more than your town — to go beyond the place you’ve grown up in. I was trying to remember that feeling was so strong in Waterford for me. You know, reading music magazines and feeling like the world is out there and you have to really overcome something to be part of the world. That impulse was thwarted for me, for a really long time. I didn’t do well in my life for a good ten years after I left school. Or more, even. But about ten years not feeling like I had acquitted these impulses of mine to become special. And things did turn around for me when I published Acts. I never became ‘bitter,’ I would say, when I didn’t gain success, but I definitely got demoralized and I felt like I was a different person than I had once thought. Part of Carmel’s character is trying to imagine that sort of ambition, that sort of yearning to be a part of the world, completely thwarted. And in her case, being thwarted at a very young age, and being replaced with something so the opposite, which is parenting, and parenting a kid you didn’t want. I was trying to think about how her personality might’ve changed over the years between this really shrewd and lively and alert girl she had been, and this person who is still very intelligent, but her shrewdness works against her in a way, because she’s aware of how badly she’s failed. I wanted to convey how badly someone could be alienated from their child, which is quite an unspeakable, horrible dynamic that ends up harming Lucy enormously.

    Tom is also an interesting character because he wants to find success by any means necessary, even if it means shelling out a family who might be totally innocent for a first-page story. Do you think he’s aware of this moral failure, and do you think he’d go to even greater lengths?

    Yeah, I’m really curious about this, because I’ve really tried to understand the level to which these kinds of journalists are aware, and whether they are sorry, and what exactly their take on it is. But even having done quite a lot of research, I’m still sort of struggling to completely know what they think about it themselves. I read these memoirs — terrible, crappy, self-published memoirs, by tabloid journalists a long time ago. 

    There’s this thing called the Leveson Inquiry — ten or fifteen years ago, several different tabloids were found to be hacking phones, oftentimes celebrities. But also sometimes really dark stuff — they hacked the phone of this murdered child and listened to her voicemails, really crazy stuff. There was this huge national inquiry into the state of British media, where lots of new regulations were passed and advice was given. This was sort of a change in the culture and it meant that the tabloid industry is somewhat less viscous than it once was.

    But these memoirs I was reading were all published before that happened. So they’re all completely shameless, talking about these really grotesque things, almost laughing about it. For instance, one of these memoirs is talking about a colleague of his who went to the doorstep of this grieving mother whose kid had been killed and had sex with her, even though she was demented with grief. All of these really shocking stories. I knew it was bad, and that’s why I wanted to write about it, but it went so far beyond what my perception of it was. And all the police complicity was surprising as well. But all of which to say, I think there’s this culture, and I don’t understand it or empathize with it, but it’s almost like a moral good to them to get the story, and that’s their own moral sense that you and I can’t really enter. They just don’t seem to have anywhere they won’t go to get the story.

    That’s crazy. So in a perverse way, was Tom an entertaining character to write, because you could play with manipulation and see how bad someone could be?

    Yeah, definitely. It was quite fun to write, and it was also an attempt to try to solve the thing I just referred to — not understanding what their moral sense is. I guess writing Tom was some attempt to explain it to myself, because the things these people do sometimes are so evil that it’s so easy and natural to see them as evil people, but obviously those journalists didn’t get into it saying, ‘Can’t wait to do a load of evil stuff.’ So I wanted to think about that a little bit, how he entered into that dynamic.

    The character that stuck with me the most is probably Richie, who suffers from alcoholism but gets better enough to start a new job at an Italian restaurant, where he makes friends and does good work. This all comes crashing town, though, as one night at a party, he’s so desperate to keep a camaraderie going that at 4 AM, he breaks into the restaurant to steal wine and make a mess, and infuriates the entire staff. His loneliness and need for everything to remain perfect and happy and good, to the point where he loses his career, was so intense. What was it like to write this character that’s so flawed, but ultimately, people have sympathy for?

    I find it really moving and upsetting to write him, because it’s this funny dynamic. Obviously I’m the one bringing him to his lowest point, but I’m the one going, ‘Don’t do that!’ I want to take care of him but I’m not doing that, because I’m leading him to this dark place, so I found it distressing to write that bit. There’s two things about alcoholism and its depictions — one thing is that you’re kind of not allowed to talk about it in our culture unless you’ve become sober. People don’t really want to hear, it’s too troubling and gross for them to hear about it if you haven’t already come clean. And I understand why that is, it is so uncomfortable, but I think that’s a failing of our society on addiction, that we don’t allow it any air until someone gives you the relief of going, ‘Oh, I’m sober, we can talk about it now.’ But then also, you don’t wake up going, ‘I want to be drinking a bottle of vodka in bed at noon.’ Alcoholism probably starts, with Richie, a good spirit and camaraderie, as you say, and this feeling of connection with other people that he’s struggled to feel otherwise. And it’s fun! It’s weird to say that because it’s so dark afterwards, but obviously drinking is fun and that’s why people become dependent on it. That’s why I wanted to have that scene in the apartment — where he has this bond reviving with the men he went to school with. I wanted to elaborate on why someone could be so self-destructive and show some kind of reasoning behind it, which is that it’s an actual source of joy and communion for him as well.

    John’s story about his first wife, Louise, was so interesting and unexpected. He was a timid man, unfazed by his wife’s cheating, when suddenly he started to get phone calls. The first simply says, “Everybody fucks your wife,” hangs up, and the rest follow the same line of information. But when John confronts Louise about it, she denies it until she leaves him for England. How do you think this shapes him, and why did you want to put this character in this situation?

    I’m interested in general about people who are sort of shamelessly, this is a gross word, but incontinent about their sexuality, and totally abandoned with it. And how completely insane and alien that would have appeared to a man in the 90s. There was something about that sort of shameless and profligate sexuality that would have been incomprehensible to somebody of John’s status in Ireland, and the humiliation of it. Because it’s so incomprehensible, it seems like there’s some misfortunes you can suffer that are considered sympathetic by society at large, even if they’re sad, they’re not necessarily socially isolating. Whereas what John experiences cements him into this really angry, alone person because he can’t commiserate with other people because it’s so weird and shameful.

    The ending is really powerful. In the future, Lucy starts to have dreams about her past trauma, and Carmel sees Derek, Lucy’s father, but chooses not to dwell on the past. She even shows pictures of Rose to Lucy, and reflects that they actually were a pretty happy family. Do you think that the two of them can recover from what they went to, and that the ending suggests a trajectory towards freedom and happiness for the two?

    Yeah, I don’t think I have a strong sense whether they succeed but I think the fact of their trying is as much redemption as you can give them at that point. You don’t want to be, ‘And then they were fine and they were best friends and they talked every day’ or whatever. But I feel like the attempt is the moving part for me, and I find it very moving whenever anyone tries to break out of long-solidified habits or boundaries with other people that appear to be unbreakable. Because it is obviously so difficult in a family dynamic. Even people who are totally fine and have these close, happy families, you have these roles that have calcified over the years and are really hard to reimagine. I find the ending moving because of the attempt, not because it will work. I didn’t leave with a sense of it working, but I do think the happy ending, such as it is, is about the attempt.

    Finally, what’s next? Are you working on another novel or any other writing projects?

    I’ve got an idea of a third novel that I’m playing around with a bit at the moment, but I’m also thinking about a nonfiction book. I’m trying to figure out over the next few months which to prioritize and what order they might come in. But by the end of this year I will have gotten stuck into one or the other or possibly both of those.

    Ordinary Human Failings is available now in the UK and in February 2024 in the US.

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