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‘I had never really failed quite so badly at something before’: Irish writer Nicole Flattery on her New York life

The Westmeath author channelled a crushing Devil Wears Prada-like experience into literary gold

When the award-winning Westmeath writer Nicole Flattery was 25, she landed her dream job working for a famous literary agent in New York. Although the reality turned out to be more of a nightmare, her Manhattan experience proved pivotal, teaching her a valuable lesson about failure and fundamentally changing her beliefs about work.

Her New York adventure came after completing a master’s in creative writing in Trinity College Dublin. “I had a friend over there [in New York]. I was like, why not?” she says. “There was a lot of unemployment here and there didn’t seem to be many opportunities.”

She was hired as the assistant to a demanding, high-powered literary agent. It was the first job she had ever really wanted and she felt as if she had been “gifted it”, which made it all the more devastating when she was fired.

“You get to New York and you get to work with this woman and she’s very powerful, and then the ... day-to-day reality is so different and so lonely and I think that’s the work culture there. You’re responding to the whims of a few people, you know, and if you don’t respond to their ideas and demands, things can just sort of fall apart.”

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“I felt like it was my first real encounter with failure in some ways. I had gone to college, graduated college and things like that and I had never really failed quite so badly at something before,” she says. “I’m really interested in failure and what it teaches you.”

“I think at that point in my life I really believed ... in work. I really believed in your job being your life. And after that year, I don’t believe that any more. I don’t believe in that as a good thing anyway.”

Crushing though the experience was at the time, Flattery turned it into literary gold with her riveting essay, which was published in a 2015 issue of the Stinging Fly. “Writing that essay was extremely cathartic to me,” she says. “Someone said to me at a party, ‘That’s the best thing you’ll ever write.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe.’ Because I think it came really from a place of total misery and disappointment.”

The theme of work also features in her acclaimed short stories, and is an important throughline in her debut novel, Nothing Special, which features a teenage typist Mae working at Andy Warhol’s studio The Factory in 1960s New York. Mae is based on one of several young women who transcribed the material for Warhol’s book a: A Novel, but didn’t get any credit.

“It’s funny how these things [such as work] can consume you and you’re trying to make yourself into this idealised version for a job that isn’t real or isn’t going to give you what you think it’s going to give you,” she says.

She felt extremely cautious setting a novel in New York as she didn’t grow up there. “So at least I had that year there.” The other challenge she faced when writing Nothing Special was getting the feel of 1960s New York right, without making the time period too obvious.

“I was trying to capture how it would feel for somebody who’s lived there for many, many years, or how I walk round my hometown or walk around Dublin. I walk around without really thinking, or I’m thinking about getting to a place where I’m going, but I know it all so instinctively that nothing registers any more,” she says.

Although New York provided the setting for her novel, Flattery didn’t think it would be possible to stay in the city and write the books she wanted to, “simply because it’s quite expensive and you would have to get a lot more work to stay”.

She now lives in Stoneybatter in Dublin, but her work as a writer affords her plenty of opportunities for travel. She was back in New York twice in 2023 for literary events, and a few years ago she enjoyed a writing residency in the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, and stayed on in the city for two months after the residency ended.

I feel like there’s this idea that writing is just sitting at your desk and getting your 1,000 words done a day, and it’s just not the case

Last year she was fortunate enough to spend a month at the Finestres Literary Residence in Sania, a beautiful house on the cliffs of the Costa Brava in Spain. The residency, which is run in connection with the Librería Finestres Bookshop in Barcelona, welcomes writers from around the world so they can focus on their art while being immersed in the natural beauty of the Mediterranean coastline. “Oh my gosh, it’s heaven,” says Flattery.

Sania’s claim to fame is that Truman Capote isolated himself from the world there to write In Cold Blood. Flattery read Capote’s true crime book for the first time while staying there, and found it “incredible”. Did she feel pressure to produce great work, knowing that Capote had written a masterpiece in that very house?

“I didn’t feel any pressure at all, to be totally honest,” she says. She did feel pressure on a previous writing residency in Italy as she was very close to finishing Nothing Special. “The pressure was from myself: I have to get this done.”

But she was in a completely different frame of mind in Sania, as she was just starting to work on new projects. “This time I was very much like, ‘No, I’m reading, or I’m walking around, I’m thinking, or I’m exploring certain ideas. I don’t feel any stress there. I don’t think it’s possible.”

Flattery made the most of the beautiful walks around Sania, as she finds that “the actual physical act of walking” makes thinking easier, and helps her to tease out writing ideas. “I used to live in Galway, and when I was kind of stuck, I would walk out to Salthill and go for a swim, walk back and think about things. I feel like there’s this idea that writing is just sitting at your desk and getting your 1,000 words done a day, and it’s just not the case,” she says.

“You have to do all the thinking behind the book before you can write the book, so yeah, I did a lot of walks in Sania.”

When she wasn’t walking, sea swimming or writing, she enjoyed lovely meals with the other writers on the residency, where they would discuss their different projects, as well as film, art and literature. “So it was very stimulating in that way.”

In the lead-up to the residency, she had had a busy time with a lot of travelling, so she found it beneficial to be able to stay in one place for a month and “think about the next book and get some work done in a new environment and a peaceful environment”.

“Sania was really, really great for that, for that time,” she says. “I think this is the appeal of residencies. In your normal life you have so many obligations, and of course these are nice obligations ... like go for a coffee or go for a drink or whatever, but it’s really nice to be free of them sometimes.”

“I think these opportunities to travel with writing are incredible,” she adds. “I take them when I can. I don’t have a huge amount of responsibilities right now. I’m sure that will change.”

Nothing Special is published by Bloomsbury

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