Early in Megan Nolan's ambitious new novel Ordinary Human Failings, a ruthless young reporter arrives at his paper’s office one morning to find a memo from the tabloid’s feared editor.
“A REMINDER! Reasonable excuses for lateness/missing meetings/not doing something I told you to do etc, include: Bereavement (parent only). Serious illness (life-threatening, your own). Reasonable excuses do NOT INCLUDE ordinary human failings such as hangovers, broken hearts, etc etc etc.”
Though a seemingly minor detail in a novel glittering with a constellation of characters and conflicts, the note functions as a warning to the journalist as much as to us readers: the story implicates us, too. Ordinary Human Failings follows the Green family, a multigenerational clan of Irish immigrants swept 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's really obsessed with the poor,” Nolan tells NYLON. “It’s a really vicious world.”
Tabloids predate, and in many ways, echo our daily social media diet of flesh, blood and scandal. An unsettling mob mentality seems to fuel our appetite for mayhem. Admittedly, while reading Ordinary Human Failings, I found myself sometimes rooting for the sleazy reporter to uncover the Green family’s secrets — like him, I also wanted to know the “truth” about the family.
Nolan chips away at the family’s tough, working class shell, exposing their delicacy and tenderness, making Ordinary Human Failings feel sweeping and cinematic, cutting between countries, decades, and characters.
Speaking from her South London flat, Nolan puffs on cigarettes while hopscotching between literary and romantic intrigue, Irish history, and the bewitching mania of New York City. She’s a raconteur, warm and glamorous. It’s tempting to map authors onto their characters, and part of me wants to write about how there’s echoes of Nolan’s charisma and charm in the novel’s darkly beautiful teen mom Carmel. But if anything, Ordinary Human Failings suggests that everyone — our parents, our children, and even ourselves — is far more enigmatic and unknowable than we realize.
Ordinary Human Failings follows the Greens, a family of Irish immigrants in London who get swept into a tabloid witch hunt. How did you come up with this story?
I used to work on the entertainment desk at a daily free sheet called Metro and they made us do this training with tabloids like the Daily Mail and The Sun. I got talking to this really sweet boy who was maybe 19 or 20 and was about to start at the Daily Mail. I kept on thinking about him afterwards and whether he would go on to write evil things in the Daily Mail. I started thinking about a young newspaper journalist and how they might get to a point where they're willing to do horrendous, cruel things to other people. It's interesting to see the different ways that the press can be reductive.
There's a real vividness throughout the novel about bodies. The writing is unsentimental in its representation 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 that everyone feels alienated from at times. It’s something we all have in common. When I started writing the book, a bunch of my friends were getting pregnant and it was disconcerting to have a whole swathe of your friend group be suddenly cordoned off. I remember feeling distanced from when they were in the stages of pregnancy that I never have been and probably never will be because I don't want to have children. I started trying to talk to them about their bodies and there was something about how weird pregnancy is, perverse and also magical. Your body's making your nails really strong and your hair really glossy. But then so much is scary and completely gross about pregnancy. Learning about all those things made me feel close to them again. I was thinking about that when I was writing Carmel's pregnancy and abortion.
Much of the novel takes place in late ‘70s 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 were unusual people. My mom and dad split up when I was quite small. My dad is a playwright and ran a theater company. It was a very stimulating childhood because I could go to the theater with him and watch him do rehearsals and hang out backstage.
What drew me to write about Waterford in the book was like any small town, it's small enough that you know the same people as everyone else, but it’s big enough that you have this universe of characters and scenes. Everything's a bit public and everything's fodder. I thought I would like to write about a family from Waterford because of the locational specificity of it. These are real streets and real houses and real pubs that I grew up around. It felt like a fun way to create characters was to put them through this filter of a place that I know very well.
Family is such a potent theme in the book. The family loves each other, but also tears each other apart. What are you trying to say about the nature of families?
Being from Ireland, my whole takeaway from the notion of family is about silence and secrecy. There's such shame in Ireland. That has a lot to do with the church and being downtrodden as a people for so long. Family is almost synonymous with hiding things from one another within the family and hiding the family from outside view. That’s something I find upsetting and interesting. I have this horror of letting things go unsaid. When I was a kid, my worst nightmare was that my dad would die and I wouldn't have recently told him that I love him. I have a compulsive need to say things. When I was inventing the family in the book, the main feeling I wanted to conjure between them all was this lack of speech. As a writer it's interesting to me who gets to speak and who can speak well.
It's sort of the other way around. All of my friends in New York, up till about six months ago, were guys I'd met dating. And then we became really close friends. I'm friends with all of my boyfriends from my entire life and a lot of people I slept with. It makes me feel happier about the fact that sometimes I'm inclined to sleep with a lot of people or date around and it makes me feel like it's not time squandered if I'm able to continue some relationships afterwards.
There’s a real libido in your writing. What for you is the relationship between sex and intimacy and the creative impulse to write?
In the most basic way, sex and crushes are really generative. I think about this impulse I have to fall for somebody really hard who I can't be with. You have this frustration that's really strong. I always end up drawing pictures of them, and I can't draw at all, but I have this urge to express it in some way. Sex is completely inspiring, not just to write about it, but because it makes your whole being feel different. You feel connected to a new person, or to yourself, in a new way. Being monogamous, I now need to find other ways to be generative.
Sex is inspiring and there's raw material to work from. It's like another expression of the thing that makes me want to write, which is I feel so disconnected from people at times and the idea of connecting with another person is the only thing I care about. You can do that with sex and you can also do it by writing something that makes another person's body feel something. You can make a person laugh or feel turned on or cry by writing and it's very cool and sexy to have power over somebody in that way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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