Last Sunday, Liz Nugent called her mother, told her to put on a coat and to stand at her front door. There she was met by Nugent who, while observing a safe social distance, passed her gifts of chocolates, wine, ready meals and “enough books to keep her going”. They chatted for a while, Nugent at the bottom of the steps at the Georgian-style terrace, and her mother at the top.
It’s a scene that will be familiar to many families remembering Mother’s Day, 2020. When I speak to Nugent the following day (by phone, instead of our original face-to-face arrangement), she says that social distancing has been especially difficult when it comes to seeing her parents.
“My Dad is in a very bad way in a nursing home,” she says, “and we can’t see him at all.” Every couple of days, Nugent sends a card to the home, thanking the nurses and care assistants for looking after her father, and asking them to read the card aloud to him – usually with a funny line or two to keep his spirits up. “I’m worried that I’ll never see him again” she says, “and that’s heartbreaking”.
Last week, during a tumultuous time for artists, writers and the publishing industry at large, Nugent released her fourth novel, Our Little Cruelties. There may not have ever been (in living memory at least) a more difficult time to release a book; publishing houses, bookshops and authors are all taking a financial hit due to the Covid-19 crisis, and Nugent is no exception.
“I think that sales numbers will be way down compared to what they would have been, but it’s nobody’s fault. It is what it is. Everyone will take a hit – including me – but I’m prepared for it. My publishers are doing the absolute best they can.”
Thankfully, the call for books during times of social distancing and isolation has been boundless, with people still choosing to support their local bookshops, and turning to reading to quell the difficulties of social isolation.
Writers will be affected by the Covid-19 crisis far beyond this initial phase, and the fallout is not just financial. The summer is usually a busy time for the book world, with literary festivals, launches and events.
Nugent now looks toward this summer with uncertainty. “[The Irish writing community] is such a collegiate bunch. There’s always – though not now – somebody’s book launch, or something to celebrate with other writers. All summer long, there’s festivals where we get out and meet each other, so this year is going to be very peculiar because I reckon an awful lot of the summer festivals are going to end up being cancelled.”
Away from promotion, festivals and readings, writing is mostly a solitary pursuit for Nugent – and she likes it that way. “I had many years working in theatre, and I loved it, but now I quite like working alone.” Having said that, she wouldn’t rule out working collaboratively (on a script adaptation for one of her novels, for instance), as often novel writing can get lonely. “With novels, it’s you and the laptop. Then when you get to the second draft, it’s you and the editor’s notes, and the laptop. That’s it.”
From her best-selling debut Unravelling Oliver, to her globally successful follow-ups Lying In Wait and Skin Deep, her mastery of nailing the allusive opening line is renowned. “I kind of got a reputation for first lines after the first two books,” she laughs, “so I’m setting myself a higher bar all the time.”
Her latest novel opens with the following, which is quite the opener indeed: “All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.”
What follows is a masterful weaving of three distinct perspectives – brothers William, Luke and Brian. With the passing of each narrative section, the relationships within are unravelled, with every event taking on new significance depending on whose perspective we’re given.
I’m surprised to learn that the story as it is told – William’s perspective first, then Luke and finally, Brian – is what Nugent set down on the page during the initial draft writing stages. “I actually wrote it exactly as presented. The lifespan [of the brothers] – 40 or 50 years or so – is the same as my own, so I chose to focus on some of the biggest events that happened in my lifetime.”
Two that stand out in the novel are the Papal visit of John Paul II to Ireland in 1979, and the last ever Sunday concert performance by Bob Dylan in Slane in 1984. The latter was attended by Nugent, though funnily enough, misremembered to the point of error in the Irish and British editions of the novel.
“I got the running order wrong!” she laughs, “I had UB40 on the stage before Bob Dylan, when it was actually Santana. My American copy-editor picked up on it, so I’ve had to change the running order for the American version [which will be called Little Cruelties], but it’s wrong in the Irish copy. So apologies to all the Irish readers!”
The family contained within Our Little Cruelties is, like most families in Nugent’s books, deeply troubled, and plagued by secrets, resentment and betrayal. Nugent’s writing is often a masterful interrogation of a family’s undoing, the vital unit torn asunder, and a ruthless examination of the pieces that are left behind.
Nugent herself comes from a large family (she is one of eight siblings), so stories of familial units have always appealed to her. “I love Marian Keyes,” she says, “and she tends to write about very close-knit families. But there isn’t a happy family in any of my books.”
In fact, Nugent’s fictional families tend to be made up of outsiders. Our Little Cruelties follows William – a misogynistic film producer obsessed with chasing the spoils of success; Luke – a psychologically vulnerable, drug-dependent pop star, who has battled periods of psychosis since childhood; and Brian – haunted by his brother’s successes, managing their money, and coveting everything from their wealth, to their success and even their partners.
As life passes by, the brother’s relationship to money, class and social movement changes, at the epicentre of which stands Melissa, mother to the three Drumm boys.