When I saw my book with a French title, I burst into tears!".
Interview by Jean O'Sullivan
pour The Irish Eyes magazine en Novembre 2002
© PHOTO :Jacques Leenhardt remerciements aux Editions Sabine Wespieser
"When I saw my book with a French title, I burst into tears!".
Interview Nuala O'Faolain
You have to be careful when interviewing writer Nuala O'Faolain, or before you know it she will end up interviewing you. Hot on the heels of Le Figaro and Le Monde, I had caught up with her in her Montparnasse hotel, only to meet a bombardment of friendly questions about my work, my family and how I came to be in Paris. We were soon chatting away like old friends about relationships, child-rearing and life in the U.S.A., where she lives part of the time. I practically had to drag the conversation back to her phenomenally successful memoir, Are You Somebody ?, just published in France as On s'est déja vu quelque part?
The Irish Eyes : We're supposed to be talking about you, not me! I suppose this is a case of 'once a journalist, always a journalist'?
Nuala O'Faolain : I certainly still regard myself as a journalist, and not as a writer at all. I'm still amazed to be considered as one.
T.E : Are You Somebody? is such a lucid account of yourself that it reminds me of Socrates' claim that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Nuala O'Faolain : I'd certainly love to live an unexamined life! It would save me a lot of trouble. It's like a raised consciousness, it can make life very uncomfortable.
T.E : Your memoir topped the Irish bestseller lists for six months before going international. How many language versions are there now?
Nuala O'Faolain : It's been translated into Swedish, Finnish, Dutch, Japanese, Italian, German and now, French.
T.E. : How do you feel about being published in France?
Nuala O'Faolain : Wonderful. I didn't realise how much it meant to me until I saw the book with its French title. I burst into tears! I love French literature, especially Proust, who can actually be very funny. And to give the nuns who taught me their due, they always regarded France as an ideal place, next to Heaven in fact.
T.E. : You ended Are You Somebody? with the admission that you faced spending your first Christmas alone. The public response to that was legendary, wasn't it?
Nuala O'Faolain : Altogether I got something like 5000 letters. I got dozens and dozens of Christmas invitations and offers of accommodation from complete strangers.
T.E. :Your story is unique to you, your Irish upbringing, your family, your jobs in academia or the media, the people and places and authors you have loved. It is completely personal. So how do you explain its universal success?
Nuala O'Faolain : I think there's something in the rhythm of the story that has a deep truth. People recognise that. It's a voice saying "This is me!" Basically, people desire to be listened to. They sent me their own little recipes for getting through life. What they were saying is: 'this is my story, do you care to listen to it?' There are many lessons in this which are not just about me. The book was read by ordinary people, outside the literary establishment; it had more to do with social history and women's history than literature. No woman in Ireland had written about herself before. Their lives aren't valued. Also, there are not many reports from middle age. It was a little advance in frankness.
T.E.: You broke a lot of taboos by discussing relationships with your family.
Nuala O'Faolain : The Irish family is a political organism of the greatest complexity! To this day my sister still hasn't mentioned the book! The weapon of silence is very strong.
T.E. : After a hugely successful memoir and a well-received first novel (My Dream of You), what will the next adventure be?
Nuala O'Faolain : Are You Somebody? was meant to be a goodbye to my life's chances. There I was, in my mid-50s with no partner, no children, no money, so it was a kind of signing off. I had absolutely nothing to lose. But, paradoxically, the very act of signing off started a whole second life. I've now written a sequel called Almost There, which is coming out in February. It's about the amazing changes in my life in the six years since the first book came out. At the age of 62, I'm living the turbulent life of an adolescent. More than ever these days I'm stunned by life, how unexpected it all is.
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