Louise O’Neill interview: YA sci-fi, Only Ever Yours

If you’ve ever suspected that celebrity fashion magazines should come with cigarette packet-style health warnings (Self-objectification is highly addictive: don’t start / Can cause a slow and painful erosion of self-esteem / Protect children: don’t make them breathe your unending consumer-driven quest for physical improvement) then Only Ever Yours’ brutal skewering of the beauty myth will likely speak to you.

Louise O’Neill’s debut YA novel didn’t so much speak to me as run at me screaming. Consumed in a single sitting, I found its storytelling as magnetic as it was troubling. Most disarming though, was its ability to mind-read. It amplified inner voices that I’d tamped down to dormancy over years of reprogramming, replaying them with alarming clarity.

It’s an alarming novel, not least because its dystopian backdrop is incidental to its feminist warning. It takes place post-environmental disaster, in a world where women, via a vaguely described process in which sex selection became enshrined in biological law (“the body learned. It learned that a female body was an invader”), are no longer born but manufactured. The girls, known as eves, are kept cloistered in Schools until the age of seventeen when they can finally “be of use”.

The eves’ education eschews the three Rs in favour of teaching them that prettiness and thinness mean everything. You could say they’re taught the three Cs: Conformity, Control and Competition. They’re weighed daily; areas for physical improvement are publicly and humiliatingly assessed both in class and on social media; and each is ranked in an ongoing attractiveness poll (even more of an absurdity as, genetically designed according to modern beauty standards, they’re supermodels to a one).

Our first-person narrator is freida (the lack of capital letter a deliberate contrivance to reflect the eves’ lack of status), best friend to number-one ranking isabel. “freida was based on Freida Pinto and Isabel on Isabel Lucas,” O’Neill explained in our interview earlier this year. “I liked the idea that the girls would have all been designed to look like great beauties from modelling and acting in our day, but that the men (Socrates, Darwin…) would have been named after philosophers, politicians, and great leaders.”

The novel spans the girls’ final year in the School as they prepare to take on stratified roles outside society. Well, for a pre-determined time at least. Let’s just say that women over forty are roughly as welcome as those with cellulite in this brave new world where fat girls must be made obsolete and wrinkles are anathema.

Only Ever Yours was published in the UK last summer and comes out in the US this week. Between those two dates, the novel has been roundly praised, nominated for and won awards, and built up a loyal following of all ages.

In the face of all that success though, its author can’t seem to stop apologising. O’Neill says sorry several times during our talk. She says sorry that I found the novel so disturbing to read. She says sorry for the ending. She says sorry to have recreated the mind-set of an eating disorder sufferer with such painful accuracy, and that her picture of sexual abuse victimhood rings so brutally true. “It’s appalling. I feel really bad!” she laughs. “My next novel is about rape culture. So it’s really cheerful again, as you can imagine!”

The only thing O’Neill should feel sorry about are the reasons she had to write the book to begin with, and she can hardly shoulder any blame for those. Only Ever Yours is a compendium of modern-day body, gender and sexism issues. It may be set in a sci-fi future but some aspects feel only slightly notched up from the worst aspects of our own beauty culture.

“I wanted the story to be quite shocking and I wanted people to really think ‘My God, if we continue the way we’re going, could this be the way that the world ends up?’” says O’Neill.  “Obviously, no-one reading it will actually think that…”

Science aside, I’m less certain. Her novel offers a powerful warning, not least because so much of it rings true to life. “Every single thing that I wrote about in that book was inspired by a real-life event” she says. “Because I’m so active on Twitter—I live on the internet—I’m seeing all of these stories constantly.”

Stories about body image, eating disorders, predatory grooming, the sexualisation of children, cyber-bulling, celebrity adulation, rape, domestic violence apologism…  the list of modern problems skewered by Only Ever Yours feels unending.

It almost didn’t end, in fact. O’Neill’s original draft was 50,000 words longer. “I think I could have used so many more examples,” she says.” I didn’t want it to just be like an issues novel. Every day when I was writing it, I thought ‘I really want to use that but is it going to be too much? Is it going to feel overwhelming?”

Only Ever Yours does feel overwhelming, but not in the way O’Neill feared. It’s overwhelming to read such a gimlet-eyed takedown of ambient sexism. For me at least, it was overwhelming to have the mantras of my own adolescent dissatisfaction (“I wish I looked like you,” thinks freida in chapter one, “everything would be easier if I looked like you”) reproduced on the page with such precision.

As a crossover YA novel with fans on all rungs of the generational ladder, if I found it that upsetting to read, how does O’Neill’s young adult readership cope?

“The eleven year olds don’t pick up on the… it’s adults who’ve been more disturbed by certain elements,” says O’Neill.  “It’s interesting what different ages take from it. A fifteen or sixteen year old will really identify with it. Late-twenties, thirties are really horrified by it, because I think maybe they had the distance in order to see that’s what happened to us. The eleven year olds all talk to me about Darwin. They love Darwin! I’m like, really? To me, the love story is the least interesting thing in the book. It’s not even a love story.”

The perspective of distance was key in Only Ever Yours’ creation. After graduating from an English degree at Trinity College, Dublin, O’Neill took up an internship at Elle Magazine in New York City. It was there, surrounded by models, celebrities and the ultra-competitive world of fashion, that she conceived the idea for the novel.

It almost stayed just an idea. Put off by the proliferation of dystopia in YA fiction in which every other lead appears to be a Katniss or a Tris battling an oppressive regime, O’Neill worried that her story would be lost among the crowd. “I thought, by the time I write it and get it to an agent, this is going to be at least two years down the line and the market’s going to be so saturated with dystopian fiction, there’s just no point.”

The idea, thankfully, proved a stubborn one. “When I came home to Ireland, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I really couldn’t. I was dreaming about it. And I realised that no, my book is more about feminism. The dystopian setting is more the backdrop.”

The return to Ireland coincided with a change in lifestyle for O’Neill. “Because I’d been working in fashion, I made a really conscious decision when I came home that I wasn’t going to read magazines, I wasn’t going to watch TV, I wasn’t going to wear make-up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but for me, I felt the need to distance myself from it. There was something about taking that space that I actually started to go ‘This is bullshit. This is complete bullshit’. Because when you’re in it, it’s a lot harder to distance yourself. You’re just completely immersed in it, it’s very entrenched. It’s still entrenched now, but once I started to take a step back from it, I’d think – okay, it’s interesting that when I read a magazine I start feeling like I need to spend money, lose weight…”

The fashion world can’t have been a healthy environment for someone like O’Neill, with a history of anorexia and bulimia? “I hate saying that about fashion, because I think that great photographers and great designers are artists and I worked with some incredibly talented, gifted people, but for me, there are so many issues with fashion. Not only how they fetishize extreme thinness and not only this obsession with youth and newness and the Lolita baby girl trope, but also race. The fact that Vogue didn’t have a black model on its cover for twelve years – how is that acceptable in 2015? That homogenisation of beauty was something I looked at in the book.”

Race is one of many themes touched upon in Only Ever Yours, chiefly its blurring as Westernised features and colouring are selected for eves across its post-apocalyptic world’s geographical zones. The novel’s antagonist of sorts (though as the perfect product of the eve system, she’s as much its victim as anyone else), megan, sees her pale complexion as intrinsically more valuable than freida’s dark or liu’s Asian skin tone. Of course she does, it’s a message enforced from the day the eves enter the School as little more than toddlers, wearing crop tops, hot-pants and lipstick.

Scenes like the above explain O’Neill’s wariness when it comes to accepting film adaptation offers for Only Ever Yours. She’s had an offer from an indie studio she would trust to do it right, but the novel’s dollhouse aspect, she feels, lays it open to exploitation from Hollywood. “They might make aspects of it sexy that aren’t supposed to be. They might exploit the fact that the girls are all very attractive, then it would become something that it’s actually supposed to skewer.”

In addition to a movie version, a sequel might also not be out of the question. “If I was going to write a sequel, I think I might write a prequel from one of the boys’ perspectives. That would be an interesting way to not only look at how gender stereotypes weigh heavily on men as well, but also the world outside the School.”

“I wanted to point out that gender stereotypes impinge on men as well. The patriarchy really has negative connotations for both genders, it just means that we can’t be ourselves, we just have to conform to this idea of what masculinity means and what femininity means. Getting ‘too emotional’ is a really big part of that. Men can’t cry. ‘Cool girls’ can’t cry. I feel like no-one’s allowed to cry at this stage, unless you’re a baby!”

Though the novel might not be a rich source of it, does O’Neill see hope for pseudo-eves living in the real world? People alienated from their bodies, taught to hate them and compete for unattainable perfection?

“I do think that. I think that for all the negative aspects that can be associated with things like social media, even just the internet, it does offer a wider dissemination of feminist ideas and ideologies that definitely wasn’t there when I was a teenager.”

“When I was fifteen in 2000, I had a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale and Hole’s Live Through This and they were kind of like my two touchstones of what it meant to be a feminist. Whereas now I feel there’s so much information, between Rookie and xoJane and Jezebel and The Vagenda and the Everyday Sexism Project. I think that, as you said, there’s hope in that sense of community for feminists now.”