“I was conscious that if I had a mission with this, it was to work to create real rounded characters who might suggest the complexity of people we readily dismiss or demonise” Megan Nolan tells us of her latest novel Ordinary Human Failings, out in the UK today,13 July. Following the international success of her debut novel Acts of Desperation, Nolan offers her readers something completely different whilst maintaining her characteristically thoughtful crafting of her characters and irreverent honesty.
The primary timeline of Ordinary Human Failings follows the death of a child and the involvement of a working-class family from Waterford, Ireland. Tender and visceral, observant and intentional, Nolan’s novel offers a compelling study of characters who are all just trying to do their best, as well as an insightful interrogation into what it means to be a quote unquote good person. Already receiving rave reviews, Ordinary Human Failings is bound to be one of this summer’s biggest reads.
Could you please start by introducing yourself to our readers?
I’m a novelist and journalist from Ireland, currently mostly based in London but bouncing around quite a lot. I’m 33 and published my first novel in 2021 after a few years of essays and opinion writing. I live with my friend Stan and my cat Miso.
Your new novel Ordinary Human Failings releases 13 July! How long have you been working on it and how has the creative process of writing it compared to that of your international bestselling debut novel Acts of Desperation?
I completed a first draft in about 10 months and then spent the next six or so months editing and revising it with the help of my editors. It was a much more concentrated timeline than with my first one because that wasn’t contracted, so I just wrote it in my quote unquote spare time as and when I could, over about three years. With Ordinary Human Failings I had the luxury of writing it more or less full time, so I felt a lot more involved day to day, it was less of a struggle to get back in the mindset each time I went to work as it was my life for that time. I really appreciated that intensity.
Following on from the phenomenal success of Acts of Desperation, did you feel any kind of pressure or restriction when approaching your second novel?
I felt the general pressure of hoping not to let down my publisher and my readers but in terms of doubting what I had the freedom to do I did not feel any restrictions. My publishers were very open to whatever I fancied trying and didn’t make me outline it in huge detail before I began, which was a blessing as so much of it was worked out as I wrote rather than in advance. It was a scary few days between sending it off and hearing a response as I hadn’t shown it to anyone as I worked, but that aside I’ve felt very supported and grateful to be trusted with my instincts.
The main events of the novel are set in the year 1990, the year you were born, and takes place between the settings of Waterford, Ireland, where you were born, and London, England, where you currently live. How much of your own experience and affiliations to this time and to these places, do you think, is reflected within the novel?
Quite a lot. I felt passionate about trying to capture some of my hometown which I love so much and where many of my loved ones still live. Maybe one day I will write a book set in places I have never lived, but for the moment this habit seems to serve me well, giving me a base level of authority and confidence to begin from when I’m not sure of much else
The title of the novel, these ordinary human failings, are referred to throughout the novel. They are explored as these private instances of personal suffering that we all experience, such as grief and heartbreak. I thought that failings was quite an interesting choice of word to describe these experiences. Could you talk a little bit about why this choice was made?
The phrase ordinary human failings was used in an email from a seminar leader in university to a class which included a friend of mine, Fiona. We both found the phrasing funny and striking and it stuck with me over the years. It came to mind as I began to write this book, when I realised I was trying to slowly unveil the fairly routine disappointments which most lives accrue, but which can sometimes combine through time and circumstance to become something altogether darker and more explosive.
One aspect that particularly stood out to me reading the novel was the intricacy of the characters; they could not be reduced to the simple characterisations of good nor bad as most real people cannot be. The characters, particularly Richie, seem to experience the authentic responses of difficulty and fear when confronted by this realisation. Why do you think that the complexity of human nature and morality is such a challenging one for people to understand of themselves and of others?
I think it’s a part of the general difficulty we all have in conceptualising other people as completely real. The minds of others are so opaque and unknowable most of the time that when we witness an action which seems inexplicable or mad or evil, we naturally need to project difference into the other in order to tolerate the idea that humans can behave this way. We do it to protect ourselves from the suspicion that we too may be capable of monstrous behaviour.
Ordinary Human Failings also provides an interesting exploration of truth, demonstrating the ways in which it is left open to interpretation, or, more commonly, misinterpretation. Do you think truth can even exist in an objective form?
I don’t know! I think I’m interested in how material reality and language intersect – the fallibility of language but also its power to shift reality in a meaningful sense. There are facts, of course, but I agree that truth is a more nebulous concept which can be moulded by its viewer and those given the power to describe it.
The novel also opens a conversation about the ways in which the British media manipulates the truth, again, often reducing complex people into heroes or villains of the story in order to suit the narratives it is attempting to construct. Could you talk a bit about the damaging culture encouraged within the British media that is portrayed within the story, and how it has evolved over the last 30 years?
It’s something I’ve found horribly compelling for quite a long time, the total ruthlessness which characterises much of British tabloid media. It’s not completely different from the tabloids of other countries but it does feel particularly, gleefully brutal at times, serving the exhausting and demoralising classism and racism in this society. Things are perhaps not as extreme as they once were, but you can still see the underlying vitriol toward immigrants and poor people. It’s fascinating to me because many tabloids purport to be there to serve the working class, quote unquote ordinary people but in fact work hard to do the opposite. The individuals who do this compel me, which is why I wrote the character of Tom, the hungry hack[er] following the story, but who I hope we can still see as a human being in his own right.
Is there anything you can identify that you have learned about yourself through the process of crafting this novel and its complicated subject matter?
I certainly didn’t set out to write an quote unquote issues novel but I did vaguely have in my head that through this story I would be able to communicate deeply felt concerns of mine about how the media treats its victims and also about how we as a society regard children who do terrible things. I was conscious that if I had a mission with this, it was to work to create real rounded characters who might suggest the complexity of people we readily dismiss or demonise. I felt a sort of peace and satisfaction when I felt I had achieved this. I think I have learnt that it is possible to communicate convictions about the world around us without (I hope) being preachy or patronising. And, more personally, I learnt I can write a more traditional sort of novel in the third person which has little to do with my own life, which was a welcome relief.
As I have mentioned, the characters of the novel are incredibly nuanced and deeply developed. How do you feel towards the characters you have crafted? Or, perhaps, do you feel that it’s not your place to feel anything about them, rather, the reader?
I feel a lot for them, enduringly. I started to cry the other day while reading a section about Richie aloud at an event. During each of their sections I felt so much protective energy toward them, taking them to their lowest places but also counterintuitively wanting to help them. They’re still very alive to me now, I think of them.
Coming up, I’ve seen you’ve announced several dates for the UK tour for Ordinary Human Failings. What are you looking forward to most with regards to the tour?
That there is one! I released Acts of Desperation during a lockdown so there were no in person events, and I love meeting and talking to readers and other writers so I am really excited to see some parts of the U.K. I am not familiar with and to speak with people about their impressions of the book.
Finally, what else have you got coming up this year?
I have a few events in New York and am then lucky enough to do some international festivals which is a first for me. I feel very humbled to be able to see the world through my work, and I find that each new place I visit becomes useful to me, suggesting a new place I might be able to set something in future.