Nuala O'Faolain reflects on fleeting fame, aging and Irish history — and writing about it all
When Nuala O'Faolain's memoir Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman was published 25 years ago, it was an enormous success both in Ireland and the United States. The book was a coming-of-age story, set in Dublin, about a woman who had enjoyed success as a journalist and television producer, but who, in her early 50s, found herself full of self-doubt, empty and lonely. The naked honesty of the writing touched readers deeply and contributed to significant word-of-mouth buzz.
In this conversation from 2003, Eleanor Wachtel speaks with O'Faolain on stage at the Literary Arts Festival in Victoria. Wachtel remembers the crowd response to the live interview as being the biggest she'd ever seen, with the overflow audience giving O'Faolain a standing ovation when she entered, before she said a word.
O'Faolain died in 2008, at the age of 68.
Are you somebody?
"I briefly presented a books program on Irish television that nobody ever watched because it was on terribly late at night. They watched steadily until the books program, and then my impression was that the entire nation jumped for their remote control to turn the books program off.
"They glimpsed me, but they didn't know who I was. I had a kind of twilight celebrity for a couple of years. Say I was in a pub at night and there were a few women having a few drinks. After a while they'd nudge one of them and send her over, and she'd wobble over to me and she'd say to me 'C'mere, you — are you somebody?'
I had a kind of twilight celebrity for a couple of years.
"So that's how the book got its title."
On being 'a nobody from a line of nobodys'
"I don't know who anybody further back than my grandparents. It does haunt me that the history of Ireland comes up against a blank wall at the famine. Before the famine, who knows what we were? The country was Irish-speaking before the famine, on the whole.
"It was a different world. We weren't the kind of Catholics we became in fear after the famine. I don't know where my people came in out of, to become labourers on these estates.
I don't know who anybody further back than my grandparents. It does haunt me that the history of Ireland comes up against a blank wall at the famine.
"As well, many middle-aged women feel that they're nobodies. They know they're not nobodies, but the world insists that they are. You don't find publishers going around shopping malls, tapping on the shoulders of women of 55 and saying, 'Excuse me, would you like to favour the world with your memoirs?'
"I was in exactly that position. The one thing that was different for me was that I had a job as an opinion columnist with the Irish Times newspaper. And that's a man's job — you become an honorary man because you're writing about politics and economics. Nobody was the least bit interested in me as a human being or what I thought or why I thought I had ever existed or what I was like.
"Nobody was. But they were interested in the columns, in a way."
How she learned to write about herself
"I found it actually impossible to write the truth in the first-person singular. I had this theory that if I was American I'd be able to write about myself in the first person, because I'd think I was somebody! But you don't crawl to the edge of 55 in Ireland by thinking you're somebody. You get there sideways. I joined a writing course, to try and get started. But I still couldn't get started.
"The teacher used to give us homework — which I never did — and about the fourth week she had identified that no matter what homework she gave, all the men in the group always wrote about sex. If it was about a storm at sea, by the second paragraph somebody's blouse was being opened.
But you don't crawl to the edge of 55 in Ireland by thinking you're somebody. You get there sideways.
"About the fourth or fifth week she gave us the assignment that we were to write 2,000 words on something that happened in a bathroom. She wagged her finger at the fellows and she said, 'Not sex.'
"I was going home and I was laughing my leg off thinking, 'What are they going to do?' Because there's so little you can describe that happens in the bathroom. I went home laughing, and that's the point — the laughing broke down the fear that I didn't even know I had. That was it, then I could write anything."
Nuala O'Faolain's comments have been edited and condensed.