DBF Interviews: Nicole Flattery

Writer Nicole Flattery. Photographed by Conor Horgan in Paris, December 2017. Single use no fee.

Nicole Flattery’s stories have been published in The Irish TimesThe Dublin ReviewThe White ReviewWinter PapersThe Letters Page and The Stinging Fly. She is a recipient of a Next Generation Artists’ Award from the Arts Council and The White Review Short Story Prize. Originally from Mullingar, Nicole now lives in Galway. Show Them A Good Time, her first collection of stories, was published by The Stinging Fly Press (Ireland) and Bloomsbury (UK) earlier this year.








*Mild spoilers for Hustlers

EMILY: When I read Show Them a Good Time, the first story is about working a minimum-wage job in a garage – but the way you wrote it made me misinterpret it as a kind of dystopian, apocalyptic environment – which is ironic, as it turned out your last story was about the end of the world. But I suppose working in a garage, or retail, is some peoples’ idea of a dystopia. I know it’s mine.

NICOLE: Oh, where did you work?

E: In this small knick-knack shop, it was a hellhole. I always tell people not to work there.

N: I used to work in a card shop that had lots of small things, sometimes it’s hard to explain to people that it’s quite difficult.

E: Yeah! Because you’re like, you don’t need any of these things. But you’re gonna buy them, and I just have to let you.

N: And you have to arrange them, just so.

E: Yeah. I left that job – because it was terrible – and I read that that story actually was based on your time in JobsBridge, was it?

N: No, I wasn’t on JobsBridge, but… I’ve had a lot of crap jobs. And then, when I was in New York, I was reading about JobsBridge back at home and I was like, how far can they possibly take this? They had jobs advertised in SuperMacs and stuff, and I remember they had a shelf-stacking one in Tesco. I was like, that is miserable, the furthest you can take it.

E: Yeah, and it’s just so wrong, it’s like this is not the way it’s supposed to be.

N: It really was quite wrong. It was a bleak time, you know, because I was just out of college and I was really worried about going home because work gives you such a sense of purpose.

E: A routine and like…

N: Yeah. All those things that you crave as a human being, and I was just trying to mimic that – because the idea of work is changing so much, especially over the last decade.

E: And I think that I read that you said before that you used being on the dole to be able to write?

N: Yeah, I’ve really talked a lot about the dole. [Laughing] I’m the dole’s number one advocate. Yeah I did, yeah. I was in Galway and I’d had stuff published, and I knew I was working towards a book with Declan and the Stinging Fly. It was tough, and it’s certainly not easy. Particularly with people in creative professions.

E: Exactly. I read a piece recently by Kevin Barry that creative people are being priced out of the city, and it’s like… I know personally that the person whose room I’m in now is a poet and got priced out of the city. I’m a huge advocate as well of going on the dole just so you can make your art. I think it’s really great.

N: It is. We’re lucky on one hand in Ireland, because we have the arts council and grants. I remember I got two grants – I was immensely lucky to get them, I really needed them. I remember both times I was praying I would get them, so I do feel like we’re lucky in one sense. But then in another way, I feel like the idea of living in Dublin now is just, beyond. There are so many people who can’t do it. I guess my options were to go to Dublin – I think I did a couple of job interviews… I did one job interview in this private members club or something.

E: What does that even entail?

N: I don’t know.

E: [Laughing]

N: And then I was like, I could just go to Galway and write full-time, and I was lucky because I wasn’t defeated, you know? I had a sense of hope, which would kind of sustain you and I think that’s a very important thing, speaking with other writers. Even the few words of encouragement I got from published writers when I was around 26 or 27 mattered so much to me.

E: Absolutely. Actually, when I realized that you were based in Galway, I thought that was great because I moved away last year, and after I came back it seemed that there wasn’t much of a literary scene – but I love it so much. So it’s good to know that a few people actually do stay here.

N: There’s a lot more writers in Galway now, you know Claire Louise Bennett’s here?

E: I didn’t know that! That’s amazing, because I loved Pond. It was one of my favourite books that I read last year.

N: I think a lot more people are here, like Elaine Feeney, Lisa McInerney…

E: And they’re doing the Stinging Fly 2020 issue!

N: Yeah. So all these people are here who are working away.

E: Absolutely. It’s never been on my radar to even try move to Dublin, because I’m just thinking, I don’t know how you guys are doing this, how you can work just to survive constantly… but I guess I’ll move on to a question about the book. [Laughing]

N: Ah, the book.

E: The first question I have about it is that a lot of the characters in the stories go through states of dissociation, separation of physical self with emotional and mental self, and I’m wondering – was there a particular reason why you chose to use that? For example, in the first story, the character puts on her uniform and then grows a body – or they are described as ghosts, or one of the characters forgets their own face at one point.

N: The answer is kind of two fold, you know – we live in a state in the present time where we’re constantly monitoring ourselves, separate from ourselves, watching ourselves… like, I was 18 when I first starting using social media. And then in other way, a woman is always watching herself. We’re encouraged constantly to be watching ourselves, watching yourself do things. I’m trying to remember that John Berger quote…

E: Oh yeah, and there’s that quote as well by Margaret Atwood that says you’re always looking through the keyhole. Constant self-moderation.

N: Yeah – something like a woman doesn’t enter a room, she watches herself enter a room. That was one of the reasons, and I was conscious of doing it – and then I wasn’t, because I wrote these stories over a period of time. So I wasn’t really thinking about what it would all amount to, or what kind of depressive feeling it would all add up to, and then people are kind of surprised when they meet me. Someone said it to me recently, and I was like, “I’m not really like that.”

E: Yeah you’re like, “Hey, what’s the craic?”

N: [Laughing] “How’s it goin’?” I feel that if you’re feeling detached it comes while you’re unhappy, with a sense of dissatisfaction. These characters are unhappy in their lives, with where they live, their romantic relationships. I’ve certainly been in… I hesitate to say relationships, but situations where, like in the story Track, where I’ve been simply playing a part – and from outside you feel like you’re doing a really good job. So it didn’t feel odd for me to write that. I think it also comes with, like in Track particularly, the scene where she’s at a dinner table and she’s like, “None of these people know me, but I’m performing so well.”

E: And they’re talking about her while she’s at the table. She’s present but also not present.

N: Yeah. And that has to do with that state of aspiration. You know, wanting something and finally getting it, then realizing it’s not what you wanted; it’s disingenuous to a degree. I’ve been thinking about that, because a lot of these things that I do, like these panels, you just have to get up and present like, one fiftieth of yourself. I think it’s really exacerbated – like the girlfriend in Track, she’s perceived to be in an enviable position and she’s hanging out with all these rich and famous people but there’s a part of her, or all of her, isn’t enjoying it. It’s hard to communicate that to people.

E: It seems so great.

N: Desirable, you know? And so much of that is a performative desirability, like the way it is online. And normally the way things are is the complete opposite.

E: I was even reading that article by Tavi Gevinson recently, the one where she talks about how she started out on the internet when she was around 13 and now she finds it very hard to differentiate between her actual feelings versus the feelings that she’s projected on as a person that’s constantly under surveillance.

N: I actually found that [article] really interesting and well-written. I guess she was so young when it came about, but then also you start getting rewarded for it – and she was getting rewarded for it.

E: Yeah, in terms of validation, but also promotions, money, opportunities.

N: And suddenly you can’t stop.

E: It’s terrifying. [Laughing]

N: Have you read Jia Tolentino’s book, Trick Mirror?

E: I just finished it! I loved it.

N: She’s very good at describing the difference between your actual self vs your internet self. You’re encouraged to sell yourself.

E: Again, it’s terrifying. Your personhood is your brand now.

N: I was going to tweet something the other day and I thought to myself, “That’s not something I would usually tweet.” And then I was like… why not? [Laughing] This idea of yourself is suddenly fixed, but then in some parts you go from that to trying to go back and write something new, or create something new, like I’m trying to do at the moment. You switch modes completely. I definitely overthink it.

E: Oh no, I’m exactly the same. After I read that particular chapter [of Trick Mirror], as someone who’s very active on Twitter, it was just like, “What am I doing?” Am I just constantly thinking in terms of, “Oh, I should write that down and put it on the internet”?

N: I do wonder if we’re going to see the end of this in ten years’ time. Is it going to be like smoking? Is social media going to be that thing you give up?

E: Yeah, exactly! As for the next question – I feel like some of the main characters in your stories – they’re all women, but they always seem to be in on a joke that everyone around them doesn’t get. The main characters are the ones who have the right frame of mind, even if they seem cold or unstable, it always seems like they’re the ones who have the power just because they know what’s going on.

N: That’s a good reading of it. I felt that what could be perceived as powerlessness – like, in Track again, she’s young, she’s in New York, she’s not really working, she has no money, she has nothing that we consider as power. But there’s some agency there. There are some kinds of personalities that I would consider [powerful], even if it’s just a tenacity, just a survival instinct. One or two reviews have said that it’s quite depressing and I’m not the best judge of that, you know – I think the world is quite depressing, especially now. But I don’t think [the stories] are, because no matter how dark things seem, there’s still some humour.

E: [Laughing] Yeah, like [the characters] have a sense of self, a weird set of rules that they abide by and that’s why they’re going to be fine.

N: I think one character says something like, “I have a rich interior life.” I’m like, that’s really good! It’s good to have a rich interior life.

E: That’s the thing – do you like your characters? Or do you have a favourite one?

N: I do have a favourite, it’s Lucy from Abortion, a Love Story. She was my favourite to write, because she went on holidays and I really wanted to go on holidays at the time. I was really broke, and I was like “I can’t go on holidays, I’ll write a holiday!” [Laughing]

E: She can go on it for me!

N: It’s just like being there. So yeah, certainly when I got to that point of writing her which was the last story in the book, I felt like I could do things I couldn’t do before, and that’s quite a nice feeling… to get to that level in your writing like, “I couldn’t do that two years ago, and now I can.”

E: And I know that it’s working and that it’s good, yeah. Even while I was reading that I was thinking “where is this going to go with Lucy?” because you know, obviously the main character meets Lucy and it’s kind of a competitive thing, but then they become best friends – and I thought, “This is brilliant. I’m having such a good time”, because it’s them against the world, against these scholars, they’re going to make this play. So that’s really fun.

Okay, I have one more question. It’s kind of similar to the last one in that I felt that not only do the characters in your books play by their own rules, have their own interior life as you said – but in comparison to a lot of books and films, when a woman wants a man’s attention or romantic love, it often consumes them. Whereas in your book, in your stories, it seemed like that was just a sidenote. Women have their own priorities that they focus on, like writing the play and I liked that – I really enjoyed that the men were to the side, secondary. They don’t lose themselves – even if might seem like they do, again they have their own set of rules. So I wanted to know, did you set out to write women who put men and romantic attention on the sidelines, or did it just come about like that? 

N: That’s a great question. That’s something I’ve been thinking about in relation to men. I was reading Ben Lerner’s new book, The Topeka School, and reading about masculinity – and I wonder if I’ll look back in a couple of years and think about that… Certainly Track is the one story that I think I’m too harsh about the comedian character where I shouldn’t have been. When I wrote that I thought, “I’m being too hard on him.” And now I’m like, I did not go in hard enough.

E: [Laughing] Like, it’s mild.

N: Yeah. I guess a large part of being a young woman is understanding your own powerlessness. I think the interesting dynamic in Track in certain places is that she can sense her own power and strength… it’s all so tied up with how she looks and what she can do to attract men, that push and pull.

E: That instinct most women would have just by nature – again, like the keyhole. You are always thinking about how you look to men, or how men are perceiving you. 

N: And what you can get, the superficial advantages you get. And then it’s not always superficial.

E: Yeah, sometimes it’s material and real.

N: So I think that you’re learning that and it’s interesting. If you think about it a lot you’re against this duality, because you’re trying to justify the thought of getting something that isn’t necessarily earned. So I don’t think the frustration in Track is totally with him. It’s also her frustration with herself and this idea of, something I was thinking about a lot, that you only get to see one side of a person. So when she’s out with her boyfriend, this generous, very funny character, and then with her he’s like a different human being. I remember being out on occasions like that when I was in my twenties – going out for dinner with someone and you not recognizing them. I didn’t set out to be like, oh I want to write something that isn’t necessarily romantic, because I like those stories.

E: Oh, I’m the same. It’s just that there’s so many as well that it was refreshing.

N: But I do think that there’s probably not enough stuff about women just making things. I kind of thought that that would be a good twist, as much as I write twists.

E: [Laughing]

N: The characters kind of team up to not be against, but certainly disregard it. You kind of feel that he’s set up to be this, I don’t want to play on this lecherous professor type. I just thought this will be funny, just to disregard him. I didn’t set out to do it, but I’m not ashamed of having done it. I guess the other thing is that it’s equally as hard, if not more difficult, to write a relationship where things go naturally wrong, a more mature type of relationship.

E: Oh absolutely, it’s brilliant. Even with the professor, again they’re in on a joke or something. Like he is technically in the position of power in that he is a professor and he holds the key to her education.

N: That exchange is so interesting because I went to see Hustlers recently, did you see it?

E: Yeah, I went to see Hustlers with my friends a few days ago. It was great. The striptease to Fiona Apple, we loved that.

N: I’m telling everyone to go see it, I enjoyed it on so many levels because we see so often that kind of, Wolf of Wallstreet, those kinds of stories – and suddenly these guys are the marks, the whole time the girls are viewing them as the marks.

E: Even the romantic subplot was very small. He was there, and then he was gone.

N: I thought it was really refreshing. You could see that women can be duplicitous and driven in that kind of way. I really was glad that they didn’t introduce some kind of safe, domestic thing. I was thinking that women are capable of…

E: Capable of horrific things.

N: Yeah, but also playing things to get what they want.

E: [J Lo] is so manipulative and she can just do it. My friends were making fun of me for crying when she still has the picture of her friend that betrayed her, but the two women still care for each other. It just was not what I expected at all, I really thought they would have done that thing where they’re never going to be friends again.

N: It didn’t have any judgement in its tone. And you got to see all of what they did the decade afterwards, and them enjoying themselves. Men always get to be these fun criminal types and we never get to see women do that… But yeah, I’m glad that the men in the film feel sidelined.

E: [Laughing] Me too. So yeah, thank you so much!

N: No problem. Please don’t make it sound like I want to rob a load of men.