Ahead of the publication of her debut novel, Acts of Desperation, Megan Nolan dedicated her regular New Statesman column to her anxieties about its release. ‘Why I’m no longer worried about my family reading the sex scenes in my novel’ went on to explain that Nolan was less concerned about “scornful strangers” than “subjecting my parents, in particular, and beyond them the wider family… to a somewhat relentless text.”
Acts of Desperation is relentless – and brilliantly so. A taught slip of a novel, it details the torturous falling out of a misguided relationship between a young office worker (our unnamed narrator) and the beautiful but emotionally bankrupt art student Ciaran. In an attempt to maintain their toxic union, the narrator drinks her way to excess. Claustrophobic and visceral, to read Acts of Desperation is to feel so close to this romantic car crash that you can smell the rubber steaming on the asphalt. Nolan’s book has been a critical triumph, a bestseller, the zeitgeist book of 2021 – even Sarah Jessica Parker stuck it on her Instagram grid.
And, it transpires, a hit with Nolan’s dad, Jim, a playwright himself. Nolan, who is 31, and I are sat in Ruskin Park, near her home in Camberwell, South London. She’s telling me about how being the daughter of a writer was galvanizing, to say the least. “I highly doubt I would have bothered to try otherwise,” she says. Jim encouraged her to apply for grants and bursaries; he read her work; “he irrationally thought that if I just tried I would succeed.” Her father was realistic, though. “He was always like, ‘Don’t expect your whole life to change if you do get this book deal thing,’” she says. And then, cackling: “But he was wrong!”
We’re talking about the books that have shaped her life so far. A biography of John Cheever was among the hefty tomes that she turned to as a teenager. She also read biographies of Sylvia Plath (The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm) and A Fortunate Man by John Berger.
They gave Nolan a kind of understanding of what it was to be a writer she even knew she could be one. “What I found interesting about them was this idea that was repellent and sort of sexy and cool to me,” she says. “That if you made really great books, that could save you from all your shitty behaviour. I don't think that like feels the same anymore, and I think that's probably a good thing. But there was a real sense that if I write a good book, then that's all I need to worry about in my life, which I found quite alluring.”
Before she was a writer (her early twenties, in Dublin, where much of what she wrote was with the intention of being read aloud at spoken word events), Nolan was a reader. When Nolan was small, in the bookshop in Waterford, the Irish city where she grew up, she would attempt to finish an entire book before her father had finished chatting so that he could buy her another one to take home. Hers was a Nineties childhood fuelled by Jacqueline Wilson’s stories and, less likely, Charles Dickens. “I was a big Dickens fan; I remember reading Great Expectations when I was relatively small, and weirdly Barnaby Rudge,” she says. “I just enjoyed the process of getting through them. I don't think there's any way that when I was 10 I understood Charles Dickens properly, but it was obviously still useful in some way."
When she moved to London in her mid-twenties, Nolan carried all of her books with her from Ireland. “Which was really stupid, but I’m glad I did it now.” She now has two cases: one for fiction, one for non-fiction. Both are shelved by “stuff I’m going to read and want to read next; stuff I should read but ‘meh’; and then what I’ve already read.”
Acts of Desperation was four years in the making, during which time Nolan moved around a lot. She worked on the book while living in Athens, where she was dependent on what she could find in “one English-language bookshop” – a reading period she describes as “quite lovely – I always find that with everything in life, if you reduce my choice drastically, I enjoy things a lot more”.
Those titles Nolan did take with her held their own impact. Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, which reflected Nolan’s own state of intransience, and surrealist Georges Bataille’s collection Visions of Excess. “It was stimulating and weird,” she says. “He’s got so many amazing images that I would often open a random page and take from one of those and just write from it. It was something I would do to try and get me going again when I was stuck with parts of [Acts of Desperation].”
Once she returned to the UK, she read a lot of Elizabeth Strout – author of beloved, intimate family novels such as Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton. Nolan’s found they’ve left an imprint on her second novel, which she’s writing now. “That kind of community and family-interwoven drama is probably my favourite kind of novel to read,” she says. “It's just so far away from what I ended up writing myself that I'm trying to like, involve a little bit of that in the next one if I can and see how that works.”
But it was Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author behind My Struggle, six famously lengthy, minutely detailed memoirs, who held a lasting impression. She encountered him in 2015, in The Observer’s book pages – she’s been a regular reader since her teens – and finished the sixth in the series last summer. “What I admire about him most is that he’s managed to do this insanely ambitious project without him descending into being either a monster or the good guy,” Nolan explains. “I find the way he writes about vulnerability and shame is honest and brutal but also elegant. I find that a pretty hard balance to do.”
It is Knausgaard’s words that sit on the cover of Acts of Desperation – the Norwegian author described Nolan as “a huge literary talent”. I ask what that meant, how it felt when that blurb came in. “I came back around to this stage of not knowing if the book was any good, you know?” she says. “So this was possibly the one thing – that if he said that, at least I can be proud of that. It’s probably the highlight of the entire book experience for me.”
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Image: Stuart Simpson / Penguin