A Waterstones Exclusive Q & A with Dawn O'Porter

Posted on 5th April 2017 by Martha Greengrass
Dawn O’Porter cut her teeth writing bestselling YA fiction but her first novel for adults, The Cows, is a very different animal - a fearless, frank and searingly honest portrayal of women’s lives, friendships, judgements and betrayals. In an exclusive interview for Waterstones, she discusses feminist fiction, the cutthroat world of social media and not being afraid to make her readers uncomfortable.
Photo: Dawn O'Porter

Your previous novels have been for a YA audience, what prompted the decision to write a novel for an adult readership? Do you think you could have written a book like The Cows for a YA market?

One of the main themes in the book is motherhood, so on that level no, that isn’t a YA topic. But fundamentally it’s just females working themselves out, and that works for any age. If I am honest about what prompted me at this stage in my career to write for adults, it’s that Harper Collins swooped in and offered me the chance. Otherwise it may have taken a longer to build the confidence. I’m so happy they did, as it turns out I felt totally ready for the shift into adult fiction. 

The Cows centres on three very different women’s lives, what were the challenges of interweaving three such closely related narratives whilst maintaining each character’s distinct and different personalities?

For me it was about making sure each woman’s voice was distinctly different. They had to want different things, live different lives, have different reactions to stuff. That way no matter how twisty the interweaving gets, they stand out as individuals, and that is what The Cows is about, being yourself and not bothering about blending in. We all share this world and have to accept each other’s differences. With the Internet it is easier than ever to find ways to connect characters, they no longer have to be in the same room at the same time, so it was fun playing with that. 

From the opening lines it’s clear that this is a novel that sees the world from a woman’s perspective. Why did you decide that this should be a novel not only about women, but very much seeing the world through their eyes?

I guess primarily because I am a woman and that is how I see the world. I am a feminist and care about the way that women feel they can behave, and I am passionate about changing some of the stereotypes that women are branded with. I don’t know if it’s so much a decision to write about it, as it is an instinct and something that I just can’t avoid. 

There’s a refreshing honesty to the way you write these women’s voices, as a reader being in their heads is not always an easy, or comfortable ride. Were you clear from the outset that you wanted these women’s voices to be entirely unexpurgated? 

Yes. Sorry to say this but I have no care for making my readers feel comfortable, I just want them to think and feel real feelings. The thoughts in our own heads are so often uncomfortable, so softening them in fiction doesn’t create the kind of character that I am interested in. That isn’t honest. When I write I put myself in the character’s shoes, and I close my eyes and I imagine how deep my thoughts would go about myself if I were them, and when I get right to the bottom of those thoughts, that is what I write down. Not the fluffy, heady version of female emotion that makes people smile, but the truth. Women are complex beasts, I like to put that on display. 

This novel explores all kinds of friendships between women. You don’t shy away from the ways in which women can undermine and belittle each other but this is balanced with a strong sense of the ways in which women can be mutually supportive. How much of this novel is an attempt to address and challenge the stereotypes that exist, particularly in the media, about women’s relationships with each other?

Loads. The judgement we put on each other is a strain on all of our lives. We all feel it, so why do we all do it? I am no angel, I have opinions and judgements about people all the time but I remind myself that just because someone isn’t like me, that doesn’t make it wrong. We all need to accept difference a little more. As a society we have been told what is normal, but not that many people aren’t actually normal. The world will be a better place when we stop acting surprised by people who take alternative routes to things like motherhood and love, and I wanted to write characters who do things their way, but in a very empathetic way. 

The internet and social media in particular loom large in this novel and particularly the way in which the characters’ existence is fractured between their online and real lives. Do you think the internet makes us all performers of our own lives to some extent? What challenges did it represent to you as a novelist to reflect these different personas on the page?

I guess the question is, are we really ourselves online? For many people that’s not the case. Stella doesn’t dare write a Facebook post because it would be so depressing. She is hammered with posts by other people about their happiness, but who knows if that happiness is real or not. Most people put the best of their lives online as that is what they want the world to see, but it doesn’t mean they’re that happy. Also, if someone says something mean, it doesn’t mean they are 100% evil. We put out these snippets and people judge us for them, make assumptions about who we are. We can be whoever we want to be, really. Tara’s story of having a tiny moment of her life filmed and turned into a viral hit was a great example of how we do this. She acted bizarrely for one small moment, and people presumed that was who she was all the time. I wanted to show how totally unfair that is. It wasn’t that challenging, because I am so addicted to social media but know that even though I seem quite open on it, I’m only giving away tiny elements of who I am. 

Much of the plot in this novel plays out in the tension between how much of our lives we present to the world and what we choose to keep secret. Do you think the modern world allows for anything akin to real secrecy?

Truth is, we are all in a position to be filmed, recorded or overheard, and for someone to talk about us or post a picture of us online. It’s terrifying, and eventually will make us all way too self-aware to be ourselves. Haha, that’s such a morbid thought, but not unlikely at all. 

Characters in the book find themselves forced to face up to previous decisions, often reaping the very public consequences of their own mistakes? To what extent do you think the internet makes us all judge and jury of our peers, putting people, perhaps particularly women, on trial? 

Your past can be thrust into your present in a matter of minutes. Forcing you to apologise for something you have dealt with already. That is a hideous concept. That your past is used against you in that way. I think society still can’t cope with women being overtly sexual, so if they are exposed or ‘caught out’ then people just love to question their sanity. It’s never just a sexual urge that needed satisfying with a woman, people always want the ‘why’ and ‘what made you behave that way’ element too. 

The Cows is a book that considers many of the most pressing and thorny issues of being a woman and you don’t hold back, do you consider it to be a feminist novel?

It’s about women standing up for themselves and making choices that are right for them, not because of what society expects of them. So it is undeniably a feminist novel.

There’s a refreshing candour to the way you write about women’s sexuality. To what extent do you think that there’s a still a reluctance to portray a diverse spectrum of female desire in contemporary fiction?

I don’t know and I find it really odd. We have huge cultural influences like Sex and the City and Girls, yet for some reason so much fiction skims over the realities of sex. I have no problem with female characters seeking love, because that is real life. We all seek love. But I don’t know why it is so often done in a way that doesn’t include the minor details of sexual activity, which so much of finding love is about. I get so frustrated with books that build up to a sex scene but chicken out of the details. I want to feel that part of the character’s experience as much as the emotion, because it isn’t honest to write like it doesn’t matter. I think authors can be too scared of offending people, but that doesn’t bother me at all. If someone is disgusted by something I have written, great. That’s a strong emotion and exactly what I hope for as a writer. 


Join us at our Glasgow Sauchiehall Street shop on Tuesday 11th April as we host Glamour Book Club in conversation with Dawn O'Porter.


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