Louise O'Neill: 'Readers tell me my book showed them that being raped wasn't their fault'

The author of Asking for It explains how she drew on many people’s experience of sexual violence for her novel, including her own

Writing Asking for It was a fraught process. The day before I sat down at my desk to begin working on it, I decided that I had to tell my parents and my sister about my own experience of sexual assault – because I knew the subject was likely to come up in interviews once the book was published. My mother was sobbing; my sister remained silent, her face a mask of horror; my father hugged me and told me that he loved me. I went to bed that night and had nightmares about being raped by a faceless man, my mouth sewn shut so I couldn’t scream for help. I woke at 4am, gasping, my face damp with tears.

That was only the beginning.

I was determined to make Asking for It as authentic as possible. I visited the Sexual Violence Centre in Cork, I spoke to survivors of sexual violence, to friends who had shared their stories of being raped with me, to barristers, to lawyers, to schoolteachers. I read memoirs and first-person essays. I became so fully immersed in my character Emma’s world and her story, that I felt as if she inhabited me, or I inhabited her. Sometimes it became almost unbearable. I know I was difficult to live with for those intensive six months in which I wrote the first draft, so much so that my mother sat me down and told me I was being a nightmare and that “you’ll have to make the third book a romantic comedy or you’re going to die alone”.

The first draft, a sticky mess of anger and pain, needed a lot of rewriting. I’m lucky enough to have an incredible editor, Niamh Mulvey, and the book is immeasurably better as a result of her painstaking work. When we decided it was ready – when I gave up because I couldn’t stand to read it one more time – the nerves kicked in. What if I had made a stupid mistake about the judicial system? What if I had failed to accurately capture the PTSD that Emma suffers? If so, it felt like I wouldn’t just be failing myself, I would be failing all the women that had so bravely shared their experiences with me.

When the proofs began to circulate, the reaction in-house at Quercus was more than I could have dreamed of. Everyone from the sales team to the publicity team were determined that this book was one that should be read by everyone, regardless of age or gender.

Still, I was nervous. I would send emails to Niamh, and my wonderful, long-suffering agent, Rachel Conway, and tell them: “I’m not sure about this book. I’m just not sure.” They assured me that it was going to be a success. But I don’t think any of us could have predicted exactly how strong the reaction would be.

It’s been nine months since Asking for It was released. It is still in the top five in the Irish book charts. It has been nominated for awards and Bandit Television has bought the TV rights. But while all of that is lovely, it’s nothing compared to the emails that I have received every single day since publication from women – and a few men – who want to share their stories with me. In 10 years’ time, I know that I probably won’t remember winning a particular award, but I will remember the letter from a woman who told me that she had been raped five years ago, and despite intensive counselling, the first time she had ever considered that it might not have been her fault was after she read my book.

It can feel overwhelming. I’m not a therapist, I’m definitely not a saint. I’m a writer. I make up stories for a living. I’m not saving lives here.

And yet, this book has taught me so much. For years I was apathetic about many issues, shrugging them off with the thought: “Well, what can I do? I’m only one person.” That has changed now. I’m not special, I’m no more talented than most people out there, and I wrote this book in my spare bedroom wearing my pyjamas and my dad’s worn-out fleece. It’s a miracle that anyone has even read it. So when I get emails from people telling me that my words made them think differently, that Asking for It made them see the world in a different way , it forces me to consider the impact each of us can have on one another. Everything we put out into the world has a ripple effect, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. It’s up to us to decide what we want to do with that power.

Extract

‘Emmie. Emmie!’

I don’t want to get up for school, Mam. I don’t feel well. I try to get up, but tiredness is holding my head underwater. Desperate for air. I am . . .

Air.

‘Denis, help me. Will you help me, for God’s sake. We need to get her inside.’

A pinch under my arm, squeezing tight. Too tight.

You’re hurting me.

‘Emma, you’re making a holy show of yourself. Get up. Get up, I said.’

Her voice is too loud.

She touches my face, whispering angrily, wake up, Emma, wake up wake up wake up. I try and open my eyelids, but I can’t, the skin scraping as it folds against itself.

‘She’s burning up. Look at those blisters.’ My mother’s voice is panicked. ‘Feel her forehead, Denis. Denis, I said, feel her forehead. Her skin will be ruined.’

Daddy? Daddy, help me, I want to say, but my tongue has been cut out of my mouth with the pain.

He is silent. I hear the front door open, squeaking on its frame, and she tells him to run and get the thermometer. There are hands around my waist, dragging me off the ground, the material of my dress chafing the raw skin, and I almost scream. I see the open door, the hallway, then the roof of the porch before it dissolves into red flesh again, and the earth moves, it moves, and I move with it, falling to my hands and knees, feeling the concrete tear at me. I stretch my hands out before me, watching as the white scuffed skin fills with stripes of blood, carving lines into my palms, dripping on to the concrete below me.

‘Denis. Would you stop just standing there like an eejit and help me.’

Dad reappears, and he has a strange look on his face.

Words gargle at the back of my throat, coming out in a clotted mess. He takes a step away from me.

‘Denis, pick her up. For God’s sake, will you move?’

He scoops me up in his arms, carrying me over the threshold; Mam telling him to mind the rug. Once inside the hall, I lie down on the wooden floor, tasting vomit in my breath.

More about the book

Asking for It is one of the most shocking yet completely believable books I’ve probably ever read. I didn’t enjoy it: it’s not the kind of the book you enjoy, it is a book you endure. Not due to the writing – it’s beautifully written – but due to the plot and circumstances. It’s horrific, but so incredibly important to read … I read this book in one sitting, staying up until the early hours of the morning. – MuchBooks, one of the Guardian’s teen reviewers

Read the full review.

Buy the book

Asking for It by Louise O’Neill is published in paperback by Quercus for £7.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £6.79.

Louise O'Neill

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