New York's Alex Morris reflects on the life of her friend, acclaimed Irish author and journalist Nuala O'Faolain, who died of lung cancer last Friday night at age 68.
A well-known opinion writer for the Irish Times, Nuala became an international celebrity in 1996 after the publication of her memoir Are You Somebody? — a trenchant depiction of Irish misogyny and her bleak, impoverished childhood as the child of an alcoholic mother and distant father — became a rallying call for second-wave feminists and social reform. It was followed by a novel, My Dream of You, a historical biography, and a follow-up memoir, Almost There, which she was working on when I met her six years ago in the lobby of Penguin, her American publisher. She was a busty, middle-aged woman with a brogue, waiting in sensible shoes. I was an editorial assistant, just out of college, fresh from a thesis on Irish literature, and naturally smitten — one of the legion of fans who responded to her uncompromising prose. One of my tasks was to forward fan mail to the authors we worked with. No one got more mail than Nuala.
Though Nuala’s own insecurity is a recurring character in her books, in person she was a woman who elbowed convention, and even sometimes nicety, aside in order to clear space for her formidable spirit. She could be needy, once calling from a writers’ retreat in New England to bemoan the cold and the dark. She could be difficult, eschew editorial suggestions, plead writer’s block. She was the only author I worked with who refused to have an agent, preferring to go it alone. But the brutal honesty her readers confronted and celebrated in her works was apparent in her daily interactions and underscored the frequency of her warmth and generosity. Strapped by the penury of an editorial assistant’s salary, I lived for a year in an apartment she owned in the West Village — a lovely, lofty place, all hardwood floors and diffuse sunlight — for which she charged me a mere pittance of the rent she could have gotten from anyone else. (Nuala had in recent years adopted New York as her home but spent most of her time at her boyfriend's house in Brooklyn.) She invited me to her private writing retreat, a cottage in County Clare. On my last day at Penguin, she fluttered into the office with breathy words of encouragement and a bottle of good Champagne.
Her health declined rapidly. She was diagnosed with cancer in late winter of this year. By this month, she could no longer concentrate enough to read a novel. She left New York and returned to Ireland, her approach to death as unsentimental as her approach to life, and with her characteristic grace. “My life burned inside me,” she wrote in the introduction to Are You Somebody? “Even such as it was, it was the only record of me, and it was my only creation, and something in me would not accept that it was insignificant.” —Alex Morris