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Rachel Connolly: ‘I presumed everybody secretly wanted to be a writer and no one got to do it’

Debut novelist started her adult life working in insurance and took a long time to realise that being a writer was a possible way to earn a living

For a long time, Rachel Connolly thought everyone wanted to be a writer. She didn’t come from a bookish family and wasn’t particularly precocious – “I’ve definitely not been someone who wrote a novel when I was eight or anything,” she says – but at school, when the teacher assigned writing exercises, she would produce pages and pages. When her mother brought her to the library, she would pick up four or five books and stay up late finishing them.

Growing up in Belfast in the 1990s and 2000s, family life was sometimes turbulent. Writing and reading provided an escape.

“Because of some stuff that was going on in my family at that time, having a place you could go off and dream in was actually a nice thing. I’ve always had stories in my head.”

But when it came to the life of a writer, Connolly (30) had no blueprint.


“I’m not doing privilege discourse, but nobody in my family was a writer. It wasn’t something I had loads of context for. […] I presumed that everybody wanted secretly to be a writer, and no one got to do it.”

Instead, she decided to pursue something sensible. She studied maths and physics at the University of Manchester, then got a job in insurance.

“I kind of always [thought], I’ll get a proper, stable job, and [writing] will be something I do in the mornings and so on. But honestly, I was quite depressed. I don’t think I realised [until I was] looking back.”

She managed to get two, short, unpaid newspaper internships, which she took annual leave to pursue.

“It was actually very stressful, but I got a couple of bylines.”

Later, the programming skills she learned at university helped her land a job in RTÉ's investigations department. A three-day-a-week gig, it allowed her freelance on the side.

“I used the earlier pieces I had done, and the bylines I had got, for my first ever pitches. And then Covid happened and the RTÉ thing kind of phased out. But the freelance writing picked up.”

These days, you might find Connolly opining about “the tyranny of ‘the Best’” in the New York Times, profiling Michael Cera in GQ, dissecting her experience of psychoanalysis in the Financial Times, or chronicling her childhood under Northern Ireland’s abortion ban in New York Magazine.

Her writing often goes viral – her cogent, cleverly framed arguments providing unique and often unexpected insights. She also publishes a regular Substack where she’ll shoot the breeze, in a loose style, about whatever’s on her mind. (In one, she describes how a manager at the aforementioned insurance company printed out an Excel sheet and made her count thousands of rows by hand – little wonder the job left her feeling depressed.)

Last September, Connolly tweeted a link to a rights announcement in The Bookseller, with the caption “I wrote a novel!!!!” as if it were news to her. In reality, Connolly had been getting up in the mornings before starting other work, and experimenting with character, voice and dialogue.

“I really wanted to get the present tense and people’s dialect and the way that thoughts and speech [occur] down. I was doing a lot of experiments to try and get stuff right.”

You have to do the work that you think is good, and leave it alone after that

—  Rachel Connolly

The finished product, Lazy City, is a skilful, expressive and subtly subversive debut novel. It follows Erin, a student-turned-nanny, who has recently lost a dear friend, and returned from England to her home town of Belfast. There, she rekindles old friendships and romantic relationships, meets a mysterious American man, and tries to navigate a volatile relationship with her mother. As a coping mechanism for her grief, she finds herself visiting churches, confiding in Jesus.

Religion, Connolly says, is something Irish people (North and South) grow up with unique reference points for. “You go [to the church] at a really young age, and it’s really dramatic, and it’s a place with heavy smells, and it’s really sensory. I think that is something that’s going to be part of your imagination forever.”

The city in Lazy City is like a living organism. It hums beneath the narrative, with its particular mores, fraught history, gentrifying pockets, relentless weather. It’s “a place which shows all its history, all its personality, all the time.” Its landscape “won’t let you forget that there was a time when all the earth would do was pull itself apart and smash itself back together”.

To the American, who longs to understand the place, it’s impenetrable. And to Erin and her contemporaries, who know Belfast in their bones, it can be just as opaque, since the shadow of the Troubles looms, but never touched their lives.

Was the idea of an evolving Belfast on Connolly’s mind as she wrote?

“I hear something said sometimes about Belfast that I have a little bit of a question mark over, which is […] oh, it’s not changed at all since the Troubles. I don’t think that’s true […] My mum grew up in the Bogside in Derry. The level of access I have to things versus the level of access [she had] is not comparable.”

People, to my mind, don’t change very much

—  Rachel Connolly

The novel opens with an atmospheric “pink and hazy purple” sky. References to the drama of the sky recur throughout, calling to mind the iconic sky in Anna Burns’ Milkman.

“[Burns] is such a giant in terms of what she managed to do with that book, and on a style level she’s hugely inspirational,” says Connolly. “There’s a trend at the moment for books that are very bland on a sentence level […] Anna Burns just blows that out of the park.

“With the sky thing, [Belfast] is a really atmospherically crazy place. In terms of just the natural environment it’s really stunning. Everywhere you go, there’s these blue mountains against red brick. […] I think it’s very brutal and inspirational. That’s probably why I would set a book there. Because, to me, it’s the most inspirational place I’ve ever lived.”

Connolly left Belfast when she was 18, and now lives in London.

“I like London in terms of, it’s good for work, and social life, and so on. But I don’t walk around the streets and feel amazed. Whereas I kind of do in Belfast.”

Lazy City often flips traditional narrative forms. Trauma, for example, doesn’t function as a turning point from which people evolve.

“People, to my mind, don’t change very much,” Connolly says. “I really wanted that in the book.”

Even though we’re often told character arcs depend upon change?

“I think that, in some ways, the character arc is Erin making peace with [the lack of change]. I’m sure that for some people, that’s going to be boring […] But it’s something about people I wanted to get across. I wanted the book to feel real.”

The ways in which men and women interact is also at odds with the kinds of male/female dynamic we’re used to.

“A narrative I’ve seen a lot is these men who sort of coldly use women,” says Connolly. “They’re calculating and shrewd, and then they’re on to the next person and you were a fool to ever fall for it. And that’s just not what I think people are like. […] I was interested in people trying to get something out of each other that the other person couldn’t necessarily give.”

I went on Goodreads the other day. They f**king hate the book on Goodreads. I will never check Goodreads ever again. You just can’t work like that

—  Rachel Connolly

At the same time, Connolly says publishing a book has brought into focus the misogyny that still exists. The idea that publishing is “all books about young women”, for example, doesn’t sit right with her.

“It’s really books about a specific way of being a young woman. And there’s still a lot of misogyny, and not taking your work very seriously, or thinking that your book is a fun project.”

In a recent essay for The Guardian, Connolly describes releasing a debut in the same year as fellow Belfast author Michael Magee.

“Mick’s book [Close to Home] is great. […] And [misogyny] is something that Mick does in his book well, I think. Misogyny is such a big part of the macho environment in Belfast […] But a lot of English men have been like: oh, that’s a book about real Belfast.”

One man suggested, condescendingly, that she might, if she’s lucky, get to interview Magee.

“I was like: what? [But] you have to be so careful in how you manage those interactions. Because they want nothing more than for you to become shrill and hysterical.”

Lazy City is, besides, one of the most anticipated debuts of the year. It comes endorsed by the likes of Mark O’Connell, Colin Barrett, Nicole Flattery and many more. It will surely garner brilliant reviews. Which unfortunately doesn’t shield it from the vagaries of internet comments sections.

“I went on Goodreads the other day. They f**king hate the book on Goodreads,” she laughs. “I will never check Goodreads ever again. You just can’t work like that. You have to do the work that you think is good, and leave it alone after that.”

Lazy City is published by Canongate on August 24th