Two Irish Writers Walk Into a Pub
Nicole Flattery, author of “Show Them A Good Time,” on abortions, beautiful people, and the Sally Rooney effect
Humans are biologically trusting creatures. Sensing deception isn’t an ability we’ve refined with evolution because civil society can’t function on a foundation of suspicion. By design, we are convinced by our perceptions. The things we glean about people from the expression they hold, the posture they assume, we’re always shocked to learn our understanding is wrong. We wonder why people don’t appreciate the universe of complexity behind our calm veneer, yet we overlook what Saul Bellow called “the terra incognita of every gaze.”
Nicole Flattery’s fiction deals in perception, or rather, misperception. Her debut collection is titled Show Them A Good Time, a throwaway phrase that’s a duplicitous instruction: contrive joy for a guest; be the image of happiness for the onlooker. “Let’s turn up the music and pretend we’re all having a good time in here,” thinks Natasha, a character who might be the Jekyll to her Hydian co-protagonist, Lucy, in the story “Abortion: A Love Story.” Natasha is frustrated that everyone with their “solitary pains” refuses to look anybody in the eye and ask what they are. The two young women have been involved with the same man, a professor at their university. The discovery of the love triangle is the beginning of their friendship, and the professor is left “subsuming this rejection into his grand personal narrative.” In another story, “Track,” a young woman enters a relationship with a famous comedian. When they meet, she tells him, “I nurse quiet neurotic suspicions that even the people who know me don’t want to know me.” A week later, she moves into his apartment. The track which the title references is a cassette of laughter which the comedian plays to himself in private. As his TV show becomes a hit, she anonymously posts brutal criticisms of his work in online forums. During this time, he unknowingly says to her, “You’re an odd little ghost of a person.”
These days, the curated identity is more powerful than ever, but image has always weighed upon women with exceptional heaviness. Bellow’s aphoristic nugget isn’t referencing The Gaze of feminist theory, but applying that definition offers an unsettling twist: under the glances of passersby, how many identities have been imposed on us that we’ll never know about, that we have no way of contending? The eight stories in Show Them A Good Time are, in a way, a defense against those assumptions. They are all narrated by women, and they are all assertions of personhood.
Nicole Flattery and I met at the best pub in Galway to talk about the hilarious and frustrating fictions of beauty, love, and womanhood.
Lucie Shelly: A lot of the female protagonists in these stories present as vacant characters to the world and people within their story. When the reader gets to know them, they’re much more complex and weird. Can you talk a little about constructing a character? How did you convey multiple levels of misperception?
Nicole Flattery: I was interested in exploring that, the way you perceive someone. You see a person and you think they must be a certain way. I suppose a lot of my characters do appear vacant, and I did notice reading back that there’s a lot about people perceiving they’re a certain way, versus their dark, cryptic inner life.
LS: In “Show Them A Good Time” (the title story), “Track,” and “Abortion: A Love Story,” a variation of this moment appears: the protagonist is asked to give an opinion about just anything. It got me thinking about how creating an identity is a kind of fiction. Do you think that’s something that can be rendered in a short story?
NF: I was thinking about self-presentation, I guess. The character in “Track,” the unnamed girlfriend of the comedian, she’s quite beautiful, or she has the characteristics of someone who would have an easy sort of life. But people react to her, sitting there, almost like she’s furniture or an object. No one can even communicate with her. And in that respect she has difficulty communicating back with people. You see it all the time, you go into department stores like Brown Thomas and you see these women that look totally ordinary, but underneath the surface is complete chaos. I’m interested in getting closer to that. A book that I love is The Portable Virgin by Anne Enright. I think [Enright] does that brilliantly. I remember reading the collection when I was 23 or 24. I think that collection is one of the best Irish short story collections ever. I wrote this book in my 20s, so I was interested in all kinds of things that I shouldn’t have been, like glamour and clothes. But, yes, absolutely, self-presentation.
LS: The significance of beauty comes up in your stories quite often. I thought the title story handled it exceptionally well. You gave us a main character who is a beautiful woman in a job seeker’s scheme wherein she must play a role—she’s given a job at a gas station that’s been specially constructed to help people practice having jobs. Her previous job was as a porn actress, so she’s been the fantasy of so many men, and now when men come into the gas station and say things like, “Oh, I saw you in whatever,” it’s as if she can’t get away from her fantasy self. The premise is a funny way of commenting on how we treat beautiful people.
NF: I think beauty as a concept is a very interesting idea, and that we’re at an interesting time to discuss it, at this confused moment with feminism. Like, we’re told Kim Kardashian is a feminist icon. When my characters are thinking, “I can do this,” or “I can’t do this,” there’s a conflict within them that’s representative of the conflict I feel within myself all the time. We’re all fascinated by beauty and faces, I’m really interested in faces too, generally. So I was thinking about how it seems possible to glide through life, but it’s not.
LS: Is beauty a specifically female burden to bear? Or a difficulty for feminism?
NF: Interesting. Yeah, I’m interested in beauty as an idea, but I’m not sure I think about it too much in my day-to-day life. I’ve certainly read a lot of writing by women on beauty, on their own struggles with it, but I have not necessarily been interested—I’m not someone that dreads turning 50. More beautiful people, do they have it easier? I certainly don’t think so. I certainly don’t think that that’s the truth. But I’m interested in how society thinks they have it easier, you know? But I’m also interested in how we all follow in line and suddenly respond to whatever the current projection of beauty is. Like if you go on Instagram now and—Jia Tolentino wrote a great piece on this—like, it’s just this universal face, this one face. And we all have to look like that now. It’s kind of chilling. You’re wondering, where exactly is this going?
LS: There’s this Nina Bowden book, Circles of Deceit, and it’s about a painter. He talks about fashionable faces and how they’ve changed throughout the history of painting. You look at old paintings and it’s true, you’re thinking, “Nobody looks like that now.”
NF: We’re all dictated by beauty trends. I was reading a piece last night by Elizabeth Wurtzel about getting older as a woman. My most feminist self is like, “It doesn’t matter, I don’t care.” The piece was about turning 45, and I ended up feeling really, like, “Oh god,” you know? I didn’t expect that. I think it’s a terrifying thing to be confronted by your own vanity. The character in “Track,” the comedian’s girlfriend, she’s interesting because there’s the push and pull, a lot of self-loathing. She hates being in this position, she hates being there with his friends, they’re all talking about her and she knows she’s basically his object. But another part of her is leaning into it, she knows that’s her perceived value, and that’s her highest value, and she can’t get away from that.
LS: I also saw that in the woman in “Parrot,” which I thought was a really subtle story, really beautiful. The woman in that story, she grapples with an imposed female value, too. She’s the second wife, and in that role, she’s forced into being a mother. All of your narrators are women; were you consciously exploring the different values that women are assigned?
NF: Yeah, they’re all women. That was unintentional. But I was actually conscious of that with “Parrot”—it’s one of the stories that I wrote knowing it would be in the collection. It was towards the end, it was the second to last story I wrote. I was living in Paris for a few months and, this sounds really bad, but I wasn’t doing any writing, really. I was taking notes, a lot of notes. I went to an exhibition of a female artist and the work was this parrot and parrot cage. I thought I’d like to write something about it. When I was writing the character, she felt kind of familiar to me. I don’t feel judgement of any of my characters, any one of their situations, even the two girls in “Abortion: A Love Story.” With “Parrot,” I wanted to put a character in the position that looked totally unfamiliar to them, and give someone who has never had responsibility this burden of huge responsibility, and see how they would react. And I think that’s an interesting thing about these characters—they’re seen as slight or vacant or whatever, but when they’re presented with something that’s tough, challenging, they can do it.
LS: There are a lot of sisters in your stories. “You’re Going to Forget Me Before I Forget You” is about two very close sisters, one of whom gets pregnant and that changes the closeness. There are several friendships that are very sororal, in “Abortion,” for instance. Can you talk a little about sisterhood in your writing?
NF: I have a sister, and she’s five years older than me, and she does have a son. I went in knowing I wanted to write about that because I wanted to tease out sisterhood in my own head. I set up to do that in “Abortion: A Love Story” where the two girls meet. I wanted the reader to think, “this is going to be competition over a guy,” and then it’s the opposite. I think I’m very lucky to have a number of female friends who I’ve been friends with since I was fifteen, and a lot of my favorite books are about female friendship. It’s kind of a hard thing to communicate, but something very worth exploring. Have you ever read Veronica by Mary Gaitskill?
LS: Yeah, Mad Gaitskillz, I love her.
NF: That’s one of my favorite books ever, I think that’s the top depiction of this bizarre kind of friendship that arises out of almost nothing but is incredibly knotted and difficult. Here’s the beautiful thing: they can both see each other, they’re so different but they can both see each other completely clearly. It’s another good book about beauty. I’ve grown weary of books about beautiful damage. It might be truthful or whatever, but it’s not a good thing to keep pushing. I feel a beautiful person can be damaged, but can also be extremely funny or extremely odd, or in the case of Natasha or Lucy in “Abortion,” still driven, still determined.
LS: In “Abortion: A Love Story” there’s so much involution, and the abortions themselves are not the point, in a way. You’re not really sure who’s telling the story. There’s a line that jumped out, that Lucy’s boyfriend—a ventriloquist!—says to her. “I wanted to tell your story because I love you.” Can you talk about the process of writing this story, and what it says about who gets to tell a story?
NF: Well, the process of writing this story was one of total misery, it took me so long to write this—you know when people are on Twitter and they’re like “Oh, I did x amount of drafts, this is it,” I wanted to break that story out and be like “Hahaha! That’s nothing.” It took me a long time to get this right. A lot of these stories were written within genre. “Show Them A Good Time” is the workplace. I was thinking about film and “Track” was my romantic comedy. “Abortion” I wanted to write a campus story. [Leans in, whispering] It’s Trinity.
I studied theater and I like stories and novels about theater and acting. I really wanted to write a story of two women making something. When I was growing up reading things, I rarely saw that. Watching Little Women, at that moment where she [Jo] starts writing the book, you’re like “Oh she’s doing something.” That’s exciting. I still find that so exciting, I love all those montages. That’s what I want writing a novel to be like—which I am doing. But like, sitting there. I did drama and theater way past the age of it being acceptable, but I had one friend and we always did these little plays and stuff together. I remember the period of creative freedom and the fun before you’re like, “I’m a grown-up now,” and, “I have to go out and meet boys and stuff.” That kind of innocence and excitement that I just wanted to, not recreate but, yeah, in a way. I loved having Natasha and Lucy do that.
And then yes, I am interested in the idea of who gets to tell stories. Lucy is sitting in the theater and she sees the story that she’s privately conveyed to her boyfriend on stage, and I was just interested in that experience. I’m still really interested in that experience. The more privacy you give up and even the more you’re willing to put into your writing, are we losing something by doing that?
LS: The play in the story and the story itself have the same name. Did you write the play before or as you went along?
NF: I love anything meta. I’m one of those really annoying people. You know the things that people hate, like when the end of the book turns out to have been the start of the book, I’m like “Ah that’s brilliant!” Any of those films where they play with that. It’s strange, the reaction to the story has been so polarized. Writing it, I felt, “I’m gonna take this big risk!” Then six minutes later, I’m thinking, “Ugh I wish I hadn’t taken that big risk.”
The biggest change I made in rewrites was adding the play. I wanted to do little things that you would only really appreciate on the third read or something, like the way they kind of marry each other. I had to keep going back because I wanted Natasha and Lucy to always be in each other’s sight. Everything had been an in-joke previously, so that was loads of re-writing, in a fun way, but definitely just for myself.
LS: What is your writing process usually like?
NF: I found the last year harder in some respects than writing the book, presenting myself and talking about myself which is not something I’m used to doing. I went to some festival and the guy who was interviewing me said, “I read somewhere that you don’t like to talk about yourself, what’re we gonna talk about?” and I said, “I don’t know, the book? Maybe?”
But you’re suddenly kind of aware how you can promote yourself or how you can present yourself. Once again, it’s all about shaping an identity and putting something across. I’m not fully comfortable doing that, so I spent a lot of the year thinking what I should have been writing. But when I’m in, I’m pretty good up to the point of being obsessive. It takes me quite a while to get into a story, but when I’m into it, I’m extremely into it, which I feel reflects my life. I’m not a workaholic or anything to that degree, but I get to a point where I’m only interested in that, which is good—sometimes. I try to write a few hours every day and that’s pretty much it. I have this app on my phone that I love called Forest. You can’t go on the internet when you’re on it because you’re growing a tree. I’m always talking about this app, and my sister got it too and we’re always asking, “Ah, how many trees have you grown?”
LS: And as a young female Irish writer do you have any qualms—or do you totally disregard—what you might call the “Sally Rooney Effect”? Do you have any thoughts on that as an experience?
NF: I think it’s only been good, Sally deserves all of it. She’s brilliant, she deserves all of the success. Yes, people are now saying “This is the next Sally Rooney!” I do worry that people perceive really brilliant, perceptive female writing like Sally’s as a trend—because it’s not a trend, you know?