At first Megan Nolan's ambitious new novel Ordinary human failuresA ruthless young journalist arrives at his newspaper office one morning to find a note from the tabloid's feared editor-in-chief.
“A REMINDER! Reasonable excuses for being late, missing meetings, not doing something I told you to do, etc. include: Bereavement (parent only). Serious illness (life-threatening, yours).Reasonable excuses do NOT include ordinary human failures such as hangovers, broken hearts, etc., etc.
Although a seemingly minor detail in a novel glittering with a constellation of characters and conflicts, the note functions as a warning as much to the journalist as to us readers: the story involves us too. Ordinary human failures follows the Green family, a multi-generational clan of Irish immigrants drawn into a tabloid witch hunt after their elementary-aged granddaughter is accused of murder. This sensational crime sets the stage for Nolan to dance through the minefields of mass media, sexuality, and the gifts and burdens of family.
“I was interested in this strand of British tabloid journalism that is really obsessed with the poor,” Nolan told NYLON. “It’s a truly vicious world.”
The tabloids predate and, in many ways, echo our daily diet of flesh, blood and social media scandals. A worrying mob mentality seems to fuel our appetite for chaos. Certainly, reading Ordinary human failuresI sometimes found myself encouraging the sleazy reporter to uncover the Green family secrets – like him, I also wanted to know the “truth” about the family.
Nolan destroys the hard, working-class shell of the family, exposing their delicacy and tenderness, making Ordinary human failures feeling radical and cinematic, cutting between countries, decades and characters.
Speaking from his south London apartment, Nolan puffs cigarettes while moving between literary and romantic intrigue, Irish history and the haunting madness of New York. She is a storyteller, warm and glamorous. It's tempting to map authors onto their characters, and part of me wants to write about how there are echoes of Nolan's charisma and charm in the novel's dark, beautiful teenage mom, Carmel. But if anything, Ordinary human failures suggests that everyone – our parents, our children and even ourselves – is far more enigmatic and unknowable than we think.
Ordinary human failures follows the Greens, a family of Irish immigrants in London who become embroiled in a tabloid witch hunt. How did this story come to you?
I used to work at the entertainment office on a free daily sheet called Metro and they made us do this training with tabloids like Daily Mail And THE Sun. I talked to this really sweet guy who was maybe 19 or 20 and about to start college. Daily Mail. Afterwards, I kept thinking about him and whether he would continue to write bad things in the Daily Mail. I started thinking about a young journalist and how he might get to the point where he would be willing to do horrible and cruel things to others. It’s interesting to see the different ways in which the press can be reductive.
There is a real liveliness throughout the novel about bodies. The writing is unsentimental in its depiction of sex, pregnancy and abortion. Why is it important for you to show the body in all its brutality and beauty?
The body is something everyone feels alienated from sometimes. It's something we all have in common. When I started writing the book, a group of my friends were getting pregnant and it was disconcerting to see a whole section of your friend group suddenly shut down. I remember feeling distant when they were in the pregnancy stage, which I never was and probably never will be because I don't want to have kids. I started trying to talk to them about their bodies and there was something about pregnancy being weird and perverse and also magical. Your body makes your nails very strong and your hair very shiny. But there are so many scary and downright disgusting things about pregnancy. Learning all these things made me feel close to them again. I was thinking about this when I was writing about Carmel's pregnancy and abortion.
Much of the novel takes place in the late 1970s in Waterford, Ireland, which happens to be your hometown. What was your own family and youth like growing up there?
I'm obsessed with Waterford. My family was made up of unusual people. My mother and father separated when I was very young. My father is a playwright and ran a theater company. It was a very stimulating childhood because I could go to the theater with him, watch him rehearse and spend time backstage.
What inspired me to write about Waterford in the book is like any small town, it's small enough that you know the same people as everyone else, but it's big enough to have this universe of characters and scenes. It's all a bit public and it's all fodder. I thought I would like to write about a Waterford family because of its geographical uniqueness. These are real streets, real houses and real pubs that I grew up in. I found that a fun way to create characters was to put them through this filter of a place that I know very well.
Family is a very powerful theme in the book. The family loves each other, but is also torn apart. What are you trying to say about the nature of families?
Being from Ireland, what I remember about the concept of family is about silence and secrecy. There is such shame in Ireland. This has a lot to do with the Church and being oppressed as a people for so long. Family is almost synonymous with hiding things from each other within the family and hiding the family from outside eyes. This is something that I find upsetting and interesting. I have this horror of letting things go unmentioned. When I was a child, my worst nightmare was that my father died and I didn't tell him recently that I loved him. I have a compulsive need to say things. When I invented the family in the book, the main feeling I wanted to evoke between them all was this lack of speech. As a writer, I'm interested in who speaks and who can speak well.
It's a bit the opposite. All my friends in New York, up until about six months ago, were guys I'd hooked up with. And then we became very close friends. I've been friends with all my boyfriends forever and a lot of people I've slept with. It makes me happier because sometimes I tend to sleep with or date a lot of people and it makes me feel like it's not a waste of time if I'm able to pursue certain relationships through following.
There is a real libido in your writing. What is the relationship for you between sex and intimacy and the creative impulse to write?
In the most basic way, sex and crushes are truly generative. I think about this desire to fall in love with someone really hard who I can't be with. You have this frustration which is really strong. I always end up drawing them, and I don't know how to draw at all, but I have this need to express it in some way. Sex is completely inspiring, not just to write about it, but because it makes your entire being feel different. You feel connected to a new person or to yourself in a new way. Being monogamous, I now have to find other ways to be generative.
The sex is inspiring and there is raw material to work from. It's like another expression of what makes me want to write, which is that I sometimes feel so disconnected from people and the idea of connecting with another person is the only thing I care about. You can do this with sex and you can also do it by writing something that makes another person's body feel something. You can make someone laugh, excited or cry by writing and it's very cool and sexy to have power over someone that way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.