I’m so excited to share my interview with Liz Nugent, author of the psychological thriller, UNRAVELING OLIVER. The story delves into the life of a man, Oliver Ryan, whose blows one day send his wife into a coma. As the story unravels, we learn more about Oliver, and what could have turned a charming, seemingly ordinary man into a sociopath.
Vilma: UNRAVELING OLIVER has been a #1 bestseller in Ireland and now it’s hitting shelves here in the U.S., which we’re all very excited about. Could you tell us what inspired the novel?
Liz: The story was inspired by two books I read around the same time: ‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville and ‘Engleby’ by Sebastian Faulks. Both books were written from the point of view of a male sociopath and I was really drawn in and fascinated by these characters. I decided that if I ever wrote a book, it would be about a deeply flawed man. Eventually, that’s exactly what I did.
Vilma: Did you set out to explore the nature of evil? Tell us about Oliver, and perhaps a little more about the story for those who’ve not yet had a chance to read it.
Liz: UNRAVELLING OLIVER tells the story of a man who beats his wife into a coma in the first chapter. He has never struck her before and the incident is a shock, even to him. Then I go back in time to detail the events that led up to this brutal act, through the eyes of Oliver and the friends and neighbors who think they know him. I prefer not to think that people are born evil so I gave Oliver a back story that might explain, but not condone, his behavior.
Vilma: The novel is written from multiple perspectives. Is there a particular character you enjoyed writing the most?
Liz: I loved writing Barney. We all know a Barney. Someone who is inherently good but just never gets the girl in the end because he puts her interests first. He has less education and therefore less confidence than all of the other characters but he is the most emotionally intelligent. I tried to give him a happy ending of sorts.
Vilma: What are you hoping readers will take away from the reading experience?
Liz: I guess it’s the idea that we can never really know another person no matter how long we have lived with them, or grown up with them. Your own mother has secrets that you will never know, though hopefully not deadly ones.
Also, I examine the nature vs nurture argument but I want to leave it up to the reader to make the decision as to whether Oliver’s final act was well-motivated or not.
Vilma: UNRAVELING OLIVER is your debut novel… what was the writing process like? Were there parts of the process that were particularly difficult as you laid out the narrative?
Liz: It was a very stop-start process. I wrote the first chapter as a short story which got shortlisted for a competition. Then the characters I mentioned in that short story wouldn’t leave me alone and demanded to be heard, so I wrote another two chapters. Life got in the way with work and some new writing commissions and it was two years before I got back to the manuscript but in the intervening time I had some great experiences (staying in a chateau in the south of France) which I was able to use effectively in telling the story. I wasn’t thinking in terms of genre or readers, just mapping out the story that twisted and changed as I was writing. I am hopeless at structure so I learnt a lot about that from my editor.
Vilma: What can you share about your next novel?
Liz: I am currently working on my third novel! My second, LYING IN WAIT, will be published in the U.S. in May 2018. I can tell you that it is a dark and sinister story of murder, a mother’s manipulation, and the consequences for the family of the victim and perpetrator.
Vilma: Thanks so much!
Liz: Thank you for such insightful questions! I really hope you enjoy reading me.
Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent
(Fiction, Gallery/Scout Press)
Oliver Ryan is handsome and charismatic, with a devoted wife, Alice, with whom he writes and illustrates children’s books. One night after dinner, he beats her into a coma. In the aftermath of the violence, as Alice hovers between life and death, their neighbors, friends and acquaintances struggle to understand what happened — and why.
The unfathomable motive behind a seemingly unprovoked attack by children’s book author Oliver Ryan on his wife, Alice, drives Irish author Nugent’s outstanding first novel. To most people, the handsome, charismatic Oliver and the plain, shy Alice appeared to have had a decent marriage for more than 20 years. The relationship was enhanced by Alice being the illustrator for Oliver’s world-renowned kids novels. Despite Oliver’s frequent affairs, he was discreet and the couple enjoyed a comfortable life in Dublin. The narrative alternates between those who knew Oliver and Alice at different times. Family members, friends, and acquaintances seek some clue to what caused Oliver’s brutality as Alice languishes in a coma. Even Oliver seems amazed at his actions because he was “fond of her, in my way,” and appreciative that Alice made no demands on him. The tension subtly rises as Oliver’s past unravels, revealing a loveless childhood rooted in religious hypocrisy. Nugent presents a fresh look at a man hiding his violent personality in this intense character study, which won the Irish Book Award’s Crime Novel of the Year.
6. Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent
I thought Joe Goldberg from Caroline Kepnes’s You was my favorite literary sociopath, and then I met Oliver Ryan. Unraveling Oliver opens with him beating his wife into a coma, his dispassion evident from the book’s first sentence: “I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.” The reader immediately knows that Oliver, while charming, is something of a monster, and it’s thrilling to read chapters told by Oliver’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances as they recount his past and slowly come to that realization themselves.
If you loved Gone Girl, check out Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent
In this “compelling, clever, and dark” (Heat magazine) thriller, a man’s shocking act of savagery stuns a local community — and the revelations that follow will keep you gripped until the very last page. This work of psychological suspense, a #1 bestseller in Ireland, is perfect for fans of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Ware.
“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”
So begins Liz Nugent’s astonishing debut novel — a chilling, elegantly crafted, and psychologically astute exploration of the nature of evil.
Oliver Ryan, handsome, charismatic, and successful, has long been married to his devoted wife, Alice. Together they write and illustrate award-winning children’s books; their life together one of enviable privilege and ease — until, one evening after a delightful dinner, Oliver delivers a blow to Alice that renders her unconscious, and subsequently beats her into a coma.
In the aftermath of such an unthinkable event, as Alice hovers between life and death, the couple’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances try to understand what could have driven Oliver to commit such a horrific act. As his story unfolds, layers are peeled away to reveal a life of shame, envy, deception, and masterful manipulation.
With its alternating points of view and deft prose, Unraveling Oliver is “a page-turning, one-sitting read from a brand new master of psychological suspense” (Sunday Independent) that details how an ordinary man can transform into a sociopath.
I admit it: I’m skeptical of buzzy books. But I still dutifully went along to the panel at BookExpo where editors talked about the upcoming books they were excited about for the fall. This one sounded darker than my usual fare: we open with a man hitting his wife, and we don’t know why. Over the course of the book, we unravel his past through the points of view of various people in his life. It is dark, and very sad, but if you end up liking The Party, you’ll most likely enjoy this one too. Just maybe read a palate-cleanser in between.