Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts of Desperation was published in March to critical acclaim. Waterford-born and living in London, Nolan already had an established reputation as a writer. Her essays, fiction and reviews have been published in The New York Times, The White Review, and The Guardian, and she writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman. Acts of Desperation, which depicts an intense and destructive relationship, has ensured her prominence as one of the most exciting new novelists of 2021.
Growing up with a playwright for a father, Nolan was immersed in a creative world from a young age. “He’s just a very creative person and loves writing and loves language and books,” she explains, “so in that way, they were always around our house and if I was bored I’d just pick up a book of his. I got started reading adult stuff fairly early which was probably quite useful.” Seeing how her dad worked also gave her a sense of the reality of being a writer. “I had that knowledge already, that it was never going to be easy, even when you did ‘make it’ and got yourself a publisher. It was good that I grew up in an environment where I knew that wasn’t going to be the end of your problems or how you make money.”
As a teenager, Nolan joined a creative writing group in Waterford where she focused mainly on poetry until the age of 18. “I was always sort of tinkering with it in my spare time,” Nolan explains. It wasn’t until after she dropped out of Trinity, however, that she began to write personal essays. Ronan Burtenshaw, editor of Trinity News at the time of Nolan’s departure from college, asked her to write an essay about her experience leaving university and being unemployed while her friends were still in university. The piece was published in tn2 Magazine. “That was probably the first personal essay I wrote that was like other essays I went on to write later on. I started taking it seriously around then and it wasn’t until a good few years later, when I was maybe around twenty-four, that I started to get anything published or any attention for anything I was doing.” Upon moving to London, she started to freelance and pitch to newspapers. “It wasn’t anything I planned out very much but I think moving to London was definitely one of the better things I did in terms of my career.”
“‘There’s a level of separation that lets you play with things in a more enjoyable way.’”
Nolan’s career began to gain traction when she started to publish essays and columns about culture and politics. Acts of Desperation is her first novel, but her background in writing personal essays helped lay a foundation for Nolan’s approach to writing fiction. “I thought to myself—just write in the same tone and register as you write your personal stuff and apply that to this fictional story—and that helped me get started. You don’t have to stick with that and things can change but I think it’s good to start off in your comfort zone and in a register that you’re familiar with, just to get you going and to get some confidence, and then you can experiment more and change it and change the perspective,” Nolan says. Although her initial approach was similar, fiction afforded the author a level of freedom she hadn’t previously experienced with personal writing. “There’s a level of separation that lets you play with things in a more enjoyable way. When I write a personal essay, it’s just hard going because you’re trying to represent the truth, and represent your emotions in a real way. With fiction, obviously you don’t have to do that and that makes it a lot more experimental so that was fun.”
“‘The problem with unhealthy dynamics in romantic relationships is that there’s always going to be these redeeming moments where it is nice and you are connected and all the bad stuff has receded for the evening or the day.’”
Nolan’s flair for the personal essay is evident in her debut novel. Acts of Desperation is rich with astute and often amusing observations about people and society, provides reflective self-interrogation, and interactions and events within the book are vividly brought to life. The structure of the novel, with brief chapters depicting a memory, moment, or idea, reflects the meandering thoughts of the protagonist: “I was trying to portray what her actual inner monologue would be, which is often in short little bursts of thinking of something and then you get distracted by another thought.” And while, as readers, we get to delve fully into the internal world of the narrator, we never learn her name. “It wasn’t as if I just forgot to name her,” Nolan laughs, “I’d written the first couple of chapters and I realised I hadn’t given her a name and I was thinking ‘oh what should I call her?’ and then reading back on it I quite enjoyed the way it read without her having a name. Then I thought it might be a good way to suggest the fact that she doesn’t have an identity outside of this relationship and that’s obviously the main point of the book, so I thought that might be a good way of subtly portraying that with that absence,” Nolan states. The result is very effective; an intimate portrait of a young woman who becomes lost in an intense and unhealthy relationship is revealed. Nolan depicts the complexity of the narrator’s emotions with immense skill and nuance, capturing the destructive nature of her relationship with Ciaran while also exploring the power of love to elevate the ordinary and to suffuse the mundane with wonder. Moments of tenderness and connection were important for Nolan to depict: “It’d be a much easier world if bad relationships were bad all of the time because then nobody would stay in them. I think the problem with unhealthy dynamics in romantic relationships is that there’s always going to be these redeeming moments where it is nice and you are connected and all the bad stuff has receded for the evening or the day.”
Although interspersed with future reflections from Athens and a few brief trips to Waterford, the majority of the novel takes place in Dublin. Moving away from the city gave Nolan the necessary distance to evoke it: “I would have been just over a year out of Dublin by the time I began it so it was still very close to me and very vivid to me because I had lived there for seven years,” the author admits. “I think there was a sense that I wouldn’t have been able to write that book if I lived in Dublin still because it’s hard to see the reality all around you if you’re living in it all the time. When I left and I did move to London, I was processing a lot of what went on for me in Dublin, especially in my late teenage years when I first arrived. I was still probably quite angry with Dublin at the time that I started writing it so I think some of it reads a bit snide towards Dublin even though it’s not a totally negative portrayal and, I think – I hope – you can see that she also loves it as a place.”
An ambivalent relationship towards Dublin is just one element of the novel that reflects Nolan’s own experience. Despite many authors insisting on their work as purely fiction or trying to seperate themselves from their characters, Nolan seems unperturbed by how people might perceive the autobiographical aspects of the novel. “I decided early on that I’m not going to sit down and outline what’s true and what’s not true, because that just seems so tedious for everyone and probably takes away a lot of what’s good. I don’t really care, people can think it’s me if they want. It’s not me, it’s based on certain experiences I’ve had that are exaggerated. I genuinely think that once it’s out in the world you can’t control what people are going to think about it,” the author explains. Nolan isn’t offended by any autobiographical assumptions people might have about the novel. In fact, attempting to differentiate reality from fiction is futile in Nolan’s perspective. “Even the parts that are true, and I say true in a very loose way, but the parts that are to do with real experiences I had, are still not documentary versions of what actually happened in reality. They’re heightened and exaggerated, and that’s even just the ones that are to do with reality, there’s plenty that are totally fabricated. You’re never going to have a totally clear idea of what is reality and what isn’t.”
“‘There’s not an age limit on when you publish and that includes everything from novels to articles, essays, and smaller form things. In every public facing artform there’s a real fixation about getting things done when you’re a certain age and I think getting rid of that is a really important step.’”
Looking back on the development of her own career as she offers advice to aspiring writers, Nolan emphasizes the unhealthy obsession in the industry with achieving success at a young age: “There’s not an age limit on when you publish and that includes everything from novels to articles, essays, and smaller form things. In every public facing artform there’s a real fixation about getting things done when you’re a certain age and I think getting rid of that is a really important step. There are plenty of twenty-three year olds that are publishing things but there are plenty of people that only start when they are in their forties and fifties who are doing really interesting things too.” She explains that there is no cut-and-dry equation for becoming a successful writer. “For me, that’s one lesson I wish I knew then; you don’t have to be publishing loads of stuff by the time you’re 18 or 19 to get a foot in the door. There’s a writer called Joanna Walsh who says quite a lot about this, where certain prizes and grants all have age limits. There’s no reason why, if you’re giving a grant to an up-and-coming writer, they have to be under 35 for instance, so I think it’s important to talk about that.”
Nolan is currently working on her second novel, which is a very different experience to that of writing Acts of Desperation. “I’ve got a two book deal so they gave me the advance for the second one. It means I can work on it pretty much full time whereas Acts of Desperation was written in my spare time, so that’s a big difference and it makes life a lot less stressful,” Nolan confesses. Although the details of the plot are still somewhat nebulous, the themes and perspective of this novel are also quite different from her first. “It’s set in London and it’s got a much wider cast of characters than Acts does. It’s told from multiple perspectives and it’s involving something of importance to a whole community rather than just one person as it is in Acts of Desperation.” With a highly praised debut and an ever-increasing reputation as an essayist and columnist, it will be exciting to see how Nolan’s distinct voice and style develops in her future fiction.