From the Booking Desk:
Today, I am happy to welcome Liz Nugent to BOLO Books. Liz is the author of Unravelling Oliver. If you missed the review of Unravelling Oliver, check it out before continuing on to this wonderful interview with Liz Nugent. I suspect you will be ordering the book shortly after that. Enjoy!
BOLO Books: Where did the idea for Unravelling Oliver originate?
Liz Nugent: I must pay homage to John Banville’s The Book of Evidence for the inspiration. In 2002, I was the Stage Manager on a theatrical adaptation of that book so we examined the deeply flawed character of Freddie Montgomery very closely. I wanted to write about somebody like him, though Oliver is far less emotional and I think, more callous. It was years before I wrote anything down but when I found my first line ‘I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her’, I knew I had a character and a tone.
BOLO Books: The working title of the novel was I Try To Be Good, correct? At what stage was the title changed and are you happy with that decision?
Liz Nugent: That was actually the third rejected title. Originally, it was Redemption, but it was arguable at the end of the book whether Oliver was redeemable or not. Then I changed the title to Father, to catch the double meaning of a parent and a priest, but that was rejected because it wouldn’t necessarily appeal to female readers. I Try To Be Good is the last line of the book but was thought too simplistic for a title. I then sent a list of about 30 suggested titles, none of which were approved. In the end, my husband very casually suggested Unravelling Oliver one night and Penguin jumped on it with relief!
BOLO Books: Without spoilers, tell us a bit about Oliver Ryan, the man.
Liz Nugent: Hard to say much without spoilers (!), but Oliver is emotionally scarred by not having a mother, or any knowledge of her until very late in the novel. He has no familial relationships to draw upon until the chapters set in France, but his overwhelming desire to be part of a family, and the lengths he goes to to achieve that, result in a tragedy and a personal trauma he can never overcome. From then on, he is incapable of love, a loss he is unable to feel. I hope I never meet anyone like Oliver.
BOLO Books: Oliver’s wife Alice is very important to the novel and yet she is never given a voice in the story. Why did you make this decision and how did you go about making her important to the reader while she remains largely off the page.
Liz Nugent: In an earlier draft, we did hear from Alice in the shape of a letter to Barney, written the night before the calamitous incident in the first chapter, but the story is Oliver’s and there was nothing in Alice’s letter that we didn’t already know. I can tell you that she told Barney that she had picked the wrong man, but we know that from the first line!
BOLO Books: Unravelling Oliver is a structurally complex novel, with the reader getting little bits of the story that they must put together to complete the picture. How did you go about writing it? In other words, did you write each character’s sections together or did you bounce back and forth similar to how the finished product is presented?
Liz Nugent: In my first draft, each character except Oliver had one long chapter each; Oliver had two. It was my editor’s (Patricia Deevy) suggestion to chop them up into short snappy chapters. Creating the segue from one to the other was a challenge but I think her suggestion was a very good one and made the book more compelling than it would originally have been.
BOLO Books: The book is a fairly short and quick read (although, I would argue that it requires more work on the reader’s part than most books). Since you have previously written short stories, I wonder if you intend to write a shorter novel when you started or is that just how it turned out?
Liz Nugent: Because of a childhood brain injury, I can only type with one hand so it probably takes me twice as long and twice as much effort as the average typist. I didn’t have a set number of words in mind – just enough to tell the story. I try not to waste words. I doubt that I’ll ever write a tome! I have a theory that shorter novels might be the way forward as readers’ attention spans shrink due to the immediacy of social media. I must admit that the size of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch daunted me but I made a serious commitment to the book and read it in eight days. I don’t think I’d do that for an unknown writer. You have to earn your readers.
BOLO Books: I do agree that it is easier to sample new authors when the works are shorter. Like you, I will give a pass to an author I already know I love, regardless of length.
Unravelling Oliver is made up of a collection of first-person accounts that together help to create a picture of this one man. Which people in your life would you hope to have recount your life story?
Liz Nugent: The ones who like me! My lovely husband Richard McCullough and my four brothers and four sisters and particularly my niece and godchild Sophie Nugent, who, at the age of 11, was already a published poet. She is 13 now and I suspect she’ll be the family writer of the next generation.
BOLO Books: Irish crime fiction is currently experiencing a surge in popularity – a bit of a golden age. What do you think make these Irish novels unique in the canon of crime fiction?
For those that may be new to Irish crime fiction, what other authors do you suggest they might try?
Liz Nugent: I’m answering both questions here.
I’m not sure I know how to answer that. I didn’t know I was writing a crime novel when I started out and I’m not very familiar with the work of other Irish crime writers apart from Declan Burke who writes brilliantly gritty stories. I got an advance reading copy of the soon-to-be-published Can Anybody Help Me by Sinead Crowley which I really loved because it deals with internet friendships and features a great pregnant detective character. It captures the zeitgeist of modern impersonal relationships very well. I have also heard great things about The Stranger on the Train by Abbie Taylor and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it.
BOLO Books: Oh, excellent. I have an ARC of The Stranger on the Train waiting for me on my Kindle. Now, I am even more anxious to get to it. I’ll keep you posted!
If forced to choose only one format for all your future reading, which would you choose: Hardback, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, or e-book? And why?
Liz Nugent: Mass market paperback because it’s the easiest to read in bed (I do all my reading in bed). Hardbacks annoy me sometimes, because the fly-leaf flaps around and is easily torn. And moving house with hardbacks is a lot harder! Even though I’ve just been published as a trade paperback, I don’t really get why they’re bigger? Is it to grab attention in a bookshop? I must ask Penguin.
I don’t own an e-reader because I’m terrified that their proliferation will cause the extinction of bookshops. Imagine! Plus – if you buy my book and happen to meet me, I’m not going to be able to sign your screen…
BOLO Books: Actually, there are some new apps that allow for the signing of digital books, however, for me it’s just not the same as a signed hardback book. For that reason, I hope I don’t have to move again anytime soon. 😉
I enjoyed the interview, and found the author’s mention of Sophie Nugent, published poet at 11, quite touching. Hearing that sort of encouraging voice in one’s head as a young writer is so important–and not just for development of the writer, but development of the person. There is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Leston Havens, who wrote this in an essay in the book Letters For Our Children: “I have never seen a significant accomplishment that does not have behind it the encouragement or commitment of others. Over and over again I have found that those who claimed to make it alone had behind them parents or friends whose adoring voices were firmly planted in their heads.” So I automatically like you, Liz Nugent. Nice interview Kris, I already like you.