In the book, Billy says it’s awful rude to ask how many cows you’re milking, it’s like asking someone’s bank details. So I still haven’t thrown my dad under the bus and said how many cows we’re milking, and I won’t,” Louise Nealon laughs in light-hearted reproach.
She certainly isn’t giving away much when it comes to her father’s cow numbers, influence of the farm on her debut novel Snowflake or not!
Growing up on the family dairy farm in Kildare, Louise was happy to help out, but not overly interested in the technicalities of it. That said, her upbringing clearly shaped her immensely as the world of the farm is front and centre in her first book.
“Both my parents come from dairy farms and it’s a very specific way to grow up. It definitely influences your relationship to the world,” Louise says. “I was very much a stand in the gap kind of child. I still don’t know much about farming, to be honest.
“But it was great for my dad reading the book, because he was surprised at how much of the farm was in the book. It was nice for him that I connected with the farm on some level, if not practically at least imaginatively.”
Snowflake challenges the popular moniker given to millennials. The plot bridges two worlds which appear to be exponentially different, a dairy farm and Trinity College Dublin (TCD). It’s no surprise really, as Louise herself has inhabited both of these places.
On how much of herself is in the book, Louise is pragmatic. Her life experiences definitely inform her writing, but she takes them and reconfigures them.
“If I say there’s loads of me in the book then people are like, ‘Oh Jesus, your mam’s a bit mad and does your dad really live in a caravan?’ I’m like, ‘Oh no, no, and I don’t have an uncle in a caravan either.’
“Everything that’s in the book I rob it from real life and put it into a fictional world. Then your characters’ lives run parallel to your own. I’ve a very boring life, but I can take all of the stuff from my life, all of the raw materials and give it to someone more interesting.”
The past 12 months have been a whirlwind for Louise. Snowflake, upon its release, was received rapturously and is now up for Newcomer of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards. The winners will be announced in the coming weeks.
Having written Snowflake while living at home on the farm, Louise has now moved to Belfast where she’s writing her second novel that’s set there. Being able to write full time is something she doesn’t take for granted.
“It’s great getting to do it full time. I just feel really, really lucky and still pinch myself, to be honest.”
Louise’s road to this point of literary success wasn’t completely smooth, as the best of them aren’t.
After school she went to study English and philosophy in TCD. She disliked the philosophy side of the course and ended up dropping out, going back to study just English.
She then went on to complete a master’s in creative writing in Queen’s University Belfast.
In TCD Louise found it hard to socialise, as does Debbie in Snowflake.
“I was very much a fish out of water,” Louise explains. “Most people were absolutely lovely. The thing about TCD is, there’s the perception and then there’s the reality of it. I think I was more focused on the perception of it. Say there was one girl in the class who talked about going skiing on midterm break, that just fed into my myth of TCD being for posh people.
“It alienated me a bit from the social scene. I didn’t even try to make friends to be honest. All my friends went to Maynooth. So I used Maynooth as my social college. I just went to TCD to go to the library really and study. After my degree I met people who were in TCD at the same time I was and we’re great friends now.”
The thing about TCD is, there’s the perception and then there’s the reality of it. I think I was more focused on the perception of it
Louise feels there’s pressure in college to have the “time of your life experience”, which isn’t the case for some people. Louise was depressed while in TCD and also socially anxious, which she says influenced her cynicism towards the college.
Now Louise is doing well. She’s going to therapy and is on medication, but says it’s important not to oversimplify mental health.
“I like to be quite open about my mental health. There’s sometimes a quite straightforward narrative of recovery, that I was going through this terrible time and I’m grand now. It’s very much not like that, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
“I don’t see myself as a depressed person. I go through bouts. I don’t like to label myself as that. I don’t think it’s helpful for society to label people, but it is useful to some extent. It does create an us and them dynamic.”
All these life experiences inform Louise’s writing, which thus far has stuck a chord with many people and there’s sure to be plenty more of it around in time to come.