Sally Rooney: ‘A large part of my style has definitely developed through writing emails’
In-depth interview: ‘I come on to talk about my book and I’m getting asked by Ryan Tubridy about my sex life’
Sally Rooney: “We got rid of the Catholic Church and replaced it with predatory capitalism. In some ways that was a good trade off, and in other ways, really bad.” Photographs: Nick Bradshaw
I first got to know Sally Rooney back in 2015 when our mutual friend, Tom Morris, introduced us via email. We read each other’s work, gave feedback, and after a few months of keeping up this correspondence, we finally met for the first time in person in Simon’s Place, a cafe in George’s Street Arcade, Dublin. It’s fitting, then, that this interview took place in that same venue, on the bottom floor at a table facing the stairs. It was a balmy Wednesday afternoon in August, and we were both a bit flustered by the heat.
Three months before, Sally published her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, with Faber & Faber. Following Frances and Bobbi, Trinity students who befriend a married couple, Nick and Melissa, Conversations is about four people who centre their complex relationships around discussions of sex, art, politics and gender. I was conscious of the sheer amount of readings, appearances, literary events and interviews Sally had done, and how this must’ve been beginning to tire her. My worry swiftly dissipated; she was receptive, enthusiastic and articulate in her responses, so much so that there were instances during the conversation in which I forgot that I was interviewing Sally at all.
How did you come to embracing your kind of lucid, concise style? Did it come naturally to you? Was it something you came to over time? Or is it informed by the things you’ve read?
It’s so difficult to be conscious of a development of a style. You find yourself writing in a certain style and the analysis of how you came to it can only ever be applied retroactively. You’re never conscious of why you’re producing it. It probably did come from the kind of books I was attracted to reading. It’s funny though. On the one hand it’s that kind of spare prose that you could say is Hemingway-onward. The pared-back sentences. And I do like that mid-century American prose style. But then the other element of style is that hyper-aware, culturally switched on thing. I guess that comes from contemporary writers like Ben Lerner. And again, you’re not consciously trying to draw from a book you’ve read like a week ago. The style isn’t just about paring back sentences. It’s also about what level of awareness you’re trying to incorporate into the narrator’s vocabulary. Like that auto-fiction stuff, where it’s impossible to distinguish between the narrator and the actual author behind it. Obviously, that isn’t the case with Conversations, because I’ve given Frances a different name and she does different things that I’ve never done, but there is an extent to which she is not a conventional protagonist that’s completely separate from the consciousness of the author, where it’s very clear what the author’s attitude towards her is.
Does this hyper-awareness, or hyper-intimacy, have something to do with Conversations being in the first person? Is there a correlation between the writing style and how it is written in the first person?
Often when people think of first-person writing they think of stream of consciousness, which this obviously is not. It’s very controlled, usually quite short sentences, and it’s not particularly lyrical. How much does that have to do with Frances as a psychological presence in the book? Obviously, the style of the book is her style. She is the narrator, and I think it speaks to the particular cultural position she’s in, as an arts student, and the textual influences she has. She reads cultural theory and that informs how she looks at the world as much as literary prose.
Which is interesting, because it’s an incredibly readable book. People seem to be blasting through it, yet the book is very much about theory, and politics.
Yeah, that is interesting, isn’t it? To me, anyway. Sometimes I think that it’s maybe reaching an audience that aren’t necessarily familiar with the texts that influence the style. So sometimes I’m hearing back influences and I’m like, really? That person? But maybe in a way that’s because it sits in that awkward position between being quite an accessible read, and also having a heritage of influence that’s not necessarily so accessible.
One of the hazards of novels written in the first person is that people are quick to suggest that the book is biographical. Is this something you’ve encountered with Conversations with Friends?
Oh my God, loads. Like loads. And people are so unabashed about it. When I was doing that Ryan Tubridy interview, it was breakfast radio, like 9am on RTÉ, and he’s like, “Have you ever had an affair with a married man?” I come on to talk about my book and I’m getting asked about my sex life. It’s so, so strange. So definitely on that level. But I made the mistake, in my opinion, of responding by saying “No”, when what I should’ve said was “It’s actually none of your business”.
Aye, it’s certainly not.
I feel like I cast a certain light on the book by relating it to the events of my life, even if that relationship is a negative one by saying, “Oh this stuff didn’t happen to me”, when what I should be saying is, “It’s irrelevant whether or not it happened to me”. But I mean, it’s out there now: I didn’t have an affair with a married man. The whole thing is completely fictional. Well, nothing’s completely fictional. Frances moves in all the same social circles I moved in. She does the same degree I did in Trinity, so she has some of the same cultural position that I had, and it would be very dishonest of me to pretend it didn’t inform the way I went about writing the book. But who could read a book that is plotted like Conversations with Friends and think, “Oh this plot happened in real life?” It’s like, do you really think everything happened in the exact shape of a classic adultery plot? I mean, it’s very clearly a novel, and novels fundamentally resemble other novels. They don’t resemble life, as such. There are a lot of experimental novels that test the boundaries of what the novel is, and Conversations is not one of those. It’s conventional in its structure, even though its prose style and the themes it explores and the politics that underpin it, maybe, are on the experimental side. Its basic structure is pretty conventional. So, for that reason, I find it funny that people think it came from real life.
I wonder why people are quick to assume certain books are biographical? Is it some sort of fascination with wanting to know the author beyond the text?
I think this particular form of response to a book is somewhat more common with women writers than men. We had the whole frenzy over who is the real Elena Ferrante, like we have to find out who she is; her real identity is for some reason incredibly significant in reading her work. Then it becomes this discussion when her real identity is found out about how none of this stuff has really even happened to her, which is a way of suggesting that women writers are not active creative agents. They are objects around whom things happen, and they passively observe the happening of these things, and then write them down. But they’re not actually making it up, which is essentially the job of the fiction writer: to make things up. So I feel that it strips me of the achievement of having written a novel to suggest that all this stuff happened in real life. Like, I had to come up with all that, so it’s annoying for a reader to suggest that I didn’t. On the other hand, I would feel that way even if every single thing in the book had happened to me, because I still had to form it into a narrative. I have written stuff that’s drawn from real life – obviously some of the stuff in the book is – but I feel as much creative agency with parts that are as parts that aren’t. It shouldn’t be relevant. It’s not whether I choose to affirm or deny that it’s based on my life, it’s that even asking that question constructs this idea that life pours into art with no mediating influence, whereas the mediating influence is the whole thing. That’s the entire work. Everyone has a life. I haven’t had a particularly interesting one. Some people have had fascinating ones, but do you turn that into a narrative or not? That’s the actual question of where the art comes in. The life stuff doesn’t interest me.
It’s a book about talking. The characters talk to one another over email and messenger as much as they do in person, and it feels completely natural that they should do so. Do you think the novel is moving in the direction of incorporating these forms of technology into the narrative more?
For me, I spend so much of my time, as you know, writing emails to my friends. And the voice that I have when I’m writing emails feels like my voice. That’s me writing, trying to communicate something to someone, who I trust, as I would like to trust a reader. I mean, that is my voice, isn’t it? I can tamper with it and I can change it, but the idea of switching register into some lyrical form of prose writing that bears no resemblance to how I communicate on a day-to-day basis, for me, didn’t work. For years and years I’ve been communicating using this voice, so why can’t I continue just doing that? And obviously Frances isn’t me, but the voice that she uses in the book isn’t dissimilar to the voice she uses in instant messenger and email. And we know that she’s a writer in the book, and she gets a story published, but the only writings we ever read of hers are her emails and messages. They are texts that she produces in her voice, and they are part of her writing life, even if they’re not “creative writing”. So I think that a large part of my style has definitely developed through writing emails and, as you and I know, those late-night deep meaningful emails in which you’re communicating quite a lot. And there are emails like that in the book. The book itself is almost like one of those emails. Like a controlled outpouring.
There is a difference between emails and instant messenger, though, isn’t there? With emails there’s a sense of them being made, or constructed in some way, whereas with instant messenger there’s an instantaneousness. The messages are short, like thoughts that occur as they’re being written, which allows the characters to be somewhat more open in the things they want to say, which can be hazardous at times, can’t it?
Absolutely. Messenger is definitely closer to speech than to email because it’s spontaneous, and you can’t revise and work on and shape each message without breaking the flow of the conversation. You just type what you have to say and hit return, then type another one and hit return again, and whatever editing you do is with an asterisk. What separates it from dialogue in the book is that there’s no physicality. Frances in the dialogue sections is often aware of whether she’s blushing or whether someone has moved away from her, whereas on instant messenger it’s purely textual. Everything has to be expressed within the space of the message, and I think that leaves room for miscommunication. Like when Nick goes to Edinburgh early on and they’re messaging each other, and they’re misreading each other’s tone, and Frances gets really pissed off, and Nick doesn’t seem to pick up that she is. He thinks she’s joking, so these exchanges become so fraught so quickly, and it seems like neither of them quite understands how they’ve become so hostile to one another. So yeah, instant messaging does sit on that interesting border between text and conversation.
It does, and one of the things I was really interested in was how Frances goes back and rereads her past instant messenger conversations with Bobbi, and the archival quality of these stored conversations. It made me think of a kind of diary.
Yes. Definitely. And it’s interesting because we think of a diary as being such an individual pursuit, whereas these are dialogues shared between two people, and both people feel they have equal ownership over the text. If Bobbi were to read the same exchange she would feel as much a creator of this as Frances does, and quite rightly. That probably touches on something that is true of the entire book, which is that it isn’t so much about individual people as it is about relationships, and the interplay of Frances’s dynamics with each of the other three people in the foursome, rather than Frances as a psychological entity. What might disappoint readers about the book is that they might want a conventional hero’s journey where Frances undergoes certain experiences, learns something, then comes out a different person. That’s not really what the book is trying to do, I don’t think. It’s more about developing meaningful inter-relationships within a group, or within a community, or a family, or a friendship. I think it’s very true that if Frances were to have a diary, it would be a diary in the form of exchanges with other people, rather than her relating her own experiences.
Do you keep a diary, or a journal? Or have you in the past?
No. I used to keep one on my MacBook, and I had it in sections. Every day I’d write down what I was reading, or what I was writing, or if I had any thoughts about stuff that was going on in the broader world. I had a family and friends section, which was like, if I went for coffee with someone that day and had any interesting thoughts about it, that would go in. It helped me to organise my mind a bit more. I didn’t want to have a diary where it was like, “I woke up at this time, and then I did this and I that”. I can’t remember why I stopped. I also don’t have any interest in reading over my diaries, which tells me that they’re pretty worthless.
Do people read over their diaries though? I kept a diary for a few years when I was about 18 or 19, but I’ve never gone back to look at them.
You didn’t go back? And you wouldn’t even if you were drawing from that time in your life?
I suppose I would if I was writing about it.
The book I’m working on now begins in the final year of secondary school, Leaving Cert year, and if I had a diary from that time I would go back and see what sort of intellectual stage I was at. I’m wary of making my characters talk like they are 26-year-olds when they’re actually supposed to be 18. I kind of have to… not dumb down, that’s such an insulting phrase, but kind of make it appropriate to the developmental period they’re at.
Frances is around 21, isn’t she? And the difference even between 21 and 18 in that respect is huge.
It is huge. When I started writing Conversations, I was 23 so the gap between Frances and I was small. Whereas, 26 and 18 is like… If I met an 18- year-old now, I wouldn’t even know what to talk to them about. So it’s a much bigger jump backward in time.
I’d like to talk about how Frances suppresses things with her father. She goes to his house and it’s in a tragic state, smelling with flies and overflowing bins. Then she gets the phone calls from him when he’s drunk and alluding to suicide. Yet you don’t see Frances reflecting on these things to the same extent she would reflect on her relationship with Nick, or Bobbi even. I’m wondering then if this is a reluctance on Frances’ part, or is it that Frances can’t digest these things enough to think about them?
I think it’s probably both. There’s an extent to which Frances doesn’t know how much emotional energy to invest in someone who has not been a particularly great dad. He doesn’t seem to have been there for her in any meaningful way, and in fact, he’s caused problems for her. She describes her relationship in her teens with him as walking on eggshells, constantly afraid that she’ll say the wrong thing and upset him. To an extent, she wants to be independent from him, and to be emotionally independent from him, and not to feel like every single day is going to be yet another crisis – he’s drinking again, or he’s gone missing. But then, simply deciding that you don’t want to be emotionally invested in something isn’t the same as not being. Frances does care, so the phone call with her dad, the horrible phone call when he sounds suicidal, the next morning she doesn’t mention or seem to be thinking about the phone call at all, but she has this horrible breakup with Nick, which she initiates for no real reason, and we don’t really understand why she’s doing it, and then she self-harms. In her mind, she is upset because she’s broken up with Nick, and of course she is, but the underlying upset may also have something to do with this thing she hasn’t mentioned and doesn’t seem to be processing or dealing with, yet she’s acting out in this unpredictable way. If you follow the thread, a lot of the times when she gets upset with Nick or Bobbi, or feels angry or does something stupid, follow directly on from her dad upsetting her, but she’s not always able to process the relationship between those things.
That’s very true. And in a lot of these instances, Frances can get quite aggressive, can’t she?
Yes. I think that comes from being a child and having this self-defensive attitude against a parent who was at times kind of scary. Then she carries that self-defensive attitude into her adulthood, and when her father triggers that response in her, she projects it onto Bobbi, or Nick, and becomes almost hostile toward them in an effort to protect herself. I think some readers find her difficult to warm to, because she is quite cold, but in a way I think that comes from having a pretty difficult childhood. I mean everyone has a difficult life, one way or another. But I guess I feel sorry for her, because I think that her aggression, which I admit does come up in the book, comes from a place of wanting to protect herself.
It’s interesting that when Frances’s illness is at its worst and she’s in serious amounts of pain, she turns to the Gospels, and at one point later in the book, finds solace in a church. And she contemplates religion, but never speaks about it with the people around her. Is it because of how they would likely respond? That religion is somewhat less relevant to them?
I guess Frances’s default position is to not talk about stuff with other people, even though she spends the entire book talking, which is a contradiction in terms, but she likes to talk to other people about themselves. She talks to Nick a lot about his childhood and what he feels for other people, his relationship with Melissa. She’s fascinated by all that, but she doesn’t really like opening up to other people, or talking about herself. And I think she probably views the whole Christianity thing as a bit uncool, or too sincere. People might make fun of her.
And I suppose, how do you talk to anyone about experiencing significant philosophical and revelatory moments?
Exactly. There’s one part when Frances reads one of the Gospels and Jesus is speaking against divorce, and how nobody should come between a man and his wife, and Frances is like “Oh, depressing” (laughs). So she’s coming to this document for guidance when she’s in the middle of an adulterous affair, and she can’t really say to her married boyfriend, “Oh, I don’t think Jesus really approves of this whole arrangement”. It’s such a strange thing to even be contemplating when you’re in the middle of something like that; she can’t necessarily bring that to the people who are deeply enmeshed in that situation.
She does turn to religion when she’s in pain though, or suffering. There is a correlation, isn’t there?
Yeah, definitely. The interesting thing about the Gospels is that you can open any of them at a random page and you’re likely to find Jesus healing a sick person. He spends like 70 per cent of the bible just going around healing sick people. So there’s probably a sense in which religion, which is now almost entirely absent from young people’s lives, or certainly the kind of young people Frances would meet in Trinity, or in her social circle. And what religion represents in terms of its ethical outlook is something that I think is probably missing. I don’t mean in a supernatural way, but in a philosophical way. Like, how do people console themselves through periods of immense suffering? Capitalism doesn’t really have an answer. The free market isn’t going to help you, so what’s the substitute for what religion once was? It makes sense to me that Frances would turn back to the original source, which would be religion, for ethical guidance.
She has communism, which I am obviously a big fan of (laughs). But it’s not consoling. If you’re feeling existentially sad towards your suffering, or you want some kind of moral guidance, it doesn’t always help to read Karl Marx. So maybe there’s something there. There’s some sort of void between political theory and personal life. And I’m not a supernatural person. I don’t believe in supernatural things, but I think there’s something in Christianity and its philosophy of radical self-sacrifice and radical love for others that is missing somewhere in Frances’s life. It almost fills in some part of her Marxist vision of the world, and I think that when she has that experience in the church, she is actually thinking about the workers who made the church, so it’s almost a Marxist epiphany that is inflected with this idea of Christian community. So yeah, I don’t know. I like Christianity. I’m a fan of Jesus and his whole philosophy, but not the social teaching aspects of it, of course.
Alexandra Schwartz, in her review of Conversations for The New Yorker, highlights the parallels between the Catholic Church and capitalism in Ireland. She says, “Capitalism is to Rooney’s young women what Catholicism was to Joyce’s young men, a rotten national faith to contend with, though how exactly to resist capitalism, when it has sunk its teeth so deep into the human condition, remains an open question.”
Yes. I thought that was really interesting. It seems to me that in many ways the deterioration of the power of the Catholic Church was replaced pretty much wholesale with the power of the free market, and free-market ideology has replaced Catholic ideology. We see that as liberating because we have things like the contraceptive pill now, which is good, but what has replaced the values we had on community, family and things like that? The free market has nothing to say about, no concern for, and in fact has even open hostility towards these things. To me, it doesn’t seem like straightforward progress. We got rid of the Catholic Church and replaced it with predatory capitalism. In some ways that was a good trade off, and in other ways, really bad. I think that was definitely a very insightful line in the New Yorker.
Bobbi comes from a privileged background, and Frances describes her as having a way of belonging everywhere, whereas Frances frequently feels out of place. Whether it’s in the company of people who are wealthy, or people from her own background, she’s self-conscious about how separate she is from both groups of people. She’s essentially stuck between them, isn’t she? Is that down to her feeling of precariousness, or is it to do with class?
It’s like that interim class position, which means that she is actually more socially mobile than other people of her parents’ class/ background, but it also means she lacks a sense of belonging. She can no longer comfortably relate to people from her parents’ background, or even in certain cases, her own parents. She no longer really knows how to relate to them, what accent she should talk to them in. There’s something that prevents her from relating particularly to her dad. She almost feels like she doesn’t understand his existence anymore. She’s left him behind in a very class-based way, and left behind this whole possibility of existence, to the point that she can no longer comfortably relate to this person anymore. And Frances says at one point that she never quite knows how to talk to taxi drivers because she doesn’t want them to think she’s super rich, but she’s not super rich. So there’s that, then there’s the thing that predominates the book: she doesn’t really feel comfortable around rich people either. They would talk about a topic like where to stay in Rome and Frances would just be sitting there twiddling her thumbs thinking, “I’ve never been. Wouldn’t know.” So she can never really relax around people who are of this privileged background that she’s not from, but there’s also an extent to which she can’t even relax around people who are from her own background, because she feels that maybe she has notions of something. She aspires to be a member of a different class, and therefore no longer feels at one with the background that she’s from. So she’s in that strange interim class position, and it is a precarious position.
When we talk about class it’s interesting, because class in Marxist theory, we would say that class is the relationship to the means of production, and Frances doesn’t own any property. She doesn’t even have a properly waged job. At the end of the book, she gets a minimum waged job, and living in Dublin the minimum wage is shit. So she is actually, in strict class terms, a member of the proletariat. She doesn’t own anything. She has no capital or property, not even the house she lives in. But in cultural terms, she has adapted some of the hallmarks of a more bourgeois class identity. She’s on her way to getting a college degree, and she might go on to get even more academic qualifications, but she also might end up unemployed. She could be an unemployed person with a Master’s, or a PhD, which seems to separate her in terms of class signifiers from a working-class identity, but in actual fact she is still, basically, poor.
In that sense, she’s living precariously, isn’t she? And that becomes apparent when Frances’s father stops paying her monthly allowance. Until that point, she is living relatively securely. Money isn’t an issue. But as soon as that happens, Frances’s circumstances become quite desperate.
It’s difficult to understand without knowing the specific cultural context that she’s in. I think that when Americans are reading the book they think Frances is incredibly privileged. Her parents are paying her college fees, which to them is like a quarter of a million dollars. Frances also receives a grant to help cover her college fees, so that’s not an expense, and her parents are paying her what we can assume is a fairly small monthly allowance, and as you say, when that’s gone, it’s gone. And looking for jobs as a student with a particular class timetable during the day can be difficult. An employer wants someone who is free to work when they should be working, rather than someone who’s got a full timetable. So Frances is in a difficult position with regards to money, and it’s weird then to have people responding to the book like it’s all about these incredibly privileged people who don’t understand the real world. I mean, she’s hungry at one point. She doesn’t have enough money to feed herself. I find it really strange to situate that in a discourse that thinks she’s a member of Dublin’s elite, or something. Yes, she’s read Foucault, but if she can’t afford a ham sandwich, how privileged is she? I think it comes down to a clash of identity versions of class, and material versions. On purely identity lines, you could say Frances is incredibly privileged, because she can mix more or less problem free with very privileged people, and pass herself off as a member of that class. She dresses stylishly and she has a wide vocabulary, so she has these identity markers of belonging to an upper class. When it comes to material reality, she is not especially privileged. To go back to the Ryan Tubridy interview, he was like, “These are very privileged people.” Now we know because it’s a matter of public record that he makes almost half a million euros a year.
But was he talking about Frances, or Nick and Melissa?
Well, there’s no one in the book who makes as much money as he does. I mean, absolutely not. But I think, what he feels is that these people are, in terms of their class identity, people who have these long dinners and debate about ethics and art, that they are somehow participating in a form of class identity that is associated with artists and intellectuals – an upper tier of class identity. I would think that a couple like Nick and Melissa, knowing as we do that both of them have fairly uneven sources of income, quite possibly they had one or two good years which allowed them to make a down payment on a house. They have a house, which is great.
It’s a nice house, though, isn’t it?
It is a nice house, and it’s in a nice area. But if you’re in films, you do make a lot of money in a short space of time. And then they might not have a huge amount of income coming in, but it doesn’t really matter because they’ve a nice house, and as long as they can afford the upkeep and stuff, they’re fine.
But Nick comes from quite a rich family, doesn’t he?
Yes, he does. And we know that Bobbi’s dad is a civil servant, so I think she is from a pretty comfortable background. But again, it’s not in material terms that they’re super privileged. Melissa and Nick are homeowners, but a lot of people are homeowners. And they have a nice house, and particularly given that they don’t have kids, it’s a big house for two people to live in. But they’re not landlords, or factory owners. They’re not what we’d traditionally understand as capitalists. They’re just doing well out of the creative arts, which as we both know, can be a very up and down sort of thing. You can do really well for a couple of years, and then suddenly you have literally no money. So it seems more that people are responding to the way they live their lives. I think you could write a book about people who have much more money than these characters, but if they didn’t behave in such a way, people wouldn’t identify that as being particularly privileged. But obviously, Nick and Bobbi do come from pretty privileged backgrounds. I’d say Nick is a private school boy, and he is somewhat aware of that and makes self-deprecating references to it.
I feel like each of the characters in the novel are in some way self-aware of their privilege, though, especially Nick, who frequently questions his privilege, and speaks about it in terms of how to navigate being privileged.
Nick more so than Bobbi even, which is funny, because Bobbi is the one who is really like “Burn the landlords” and “Kill the rich”, but she doesn’t notice that her flatmate (Frances) has no money to feed herself. How aware can you be of your own privilege if you don’t pick up on something like that? Whereas Nick quickly realises that Frances doesn’t have money, and as soon as she says it, he gives her money. It doesn’t matter to him, because he’s in a privileged position and it’s unacceptable to him that she wouldn’t have enough money to feed herself. So he seems to be a bit more materially aware of how other people are getting on, whereas Bobbi seems to be like, “Well as long as I say I hate the capitalists, I don’t actually have to do anything”, and I kind of get that. She’s 21 and she’s not actually making the money herself. It’s her parent’s money, so she doesn’t necessarily feel a great amount of responsibility for it. She’ll probably grow up at some point…
You do forget that Frances and Bobbi are 21, and young.
They are young. And what you really forget is, Nick is young.
Nick’s only like 30, isn’t he? People assume he’s an old man.
I had someone the other day wonder how this older man is supposed to navigate the world of email. I mean, he’s 32. He’s young.
The reason I mentioned privilege is that you did an interview for Vogue in which you said, “The characters read a lot and are very culturally literate, but they are not really privileged people. Nick and Melissa have a nice house, but they are not predatory capitalists or anything…” Do you think there are distinctions to be made between these different forms of privilege then?
The thing about the Vogue interview, I definitely felt like that came across wrong. I was trying to contextualise it in the broader sense of people’s responses to the book being so privilege-oriented. But what I don’t want to do is deny that the book definitely does depict a section of society that many people do not have access to, and not only in material reality, because how many people can just afford to take a month off and go to France, even if the house belongs to a friend? You can’t just take a month off work. Most people can’t do that. But even in terms of the cultural stuff, most people feel very shut out of Trinity students discussing Derrida. Not that people from different class backgrounds are any less intellectually capable of engaging in these discussions, which Frances proves, because she is not from a particularly well-off background. But not everyone has access to the institutions that allow you to enter that world. In that sense, the book obviously depicts a world of privilege. But I do think that the levels of material privilege have been exaggerated somewhat in the responses to the book […]And there is an awareness among the characters.
Nick and Melissa are pretty decent people. First of all, they are not multi-millionaires, and also, they recognise that they are in a position of relative wealth, and they don’t want to live lives that make it more difficult for other people to live. They don’t want to become landlords, even if they could do that. I think a lot of the criticism of the characters’ levels of privilege comes from the fact that they are Marxists. You know Paul Murphy, the TD here who was involved in the Jobstown thing? Every time he’s mentioned in the news it’s “privately educated TD Paul Murphy”, whereas most members of right-wing parties are privately educated and it never gets discussed.
I think you could write a novel where the characters are actively landlords, and in the middle of the novel you could have a scene where they evict a poor family from their home, but as long as they don’t discuss politics, no one would say anything about it depicting “the lives of the privileged and rich”. I think it is a little bit of, these people own a house, how dare they be Marxists? But they own a house they live in. That’s not the greatest sin in history. At the same time, I obviously want to acknowledge that they do live relatively privileged lives, and most artists and writers could only dream of having the level of financial security that they have. That’s part of what makes them so glamorous to Frances.
Have you seen the video on YouTube of Simon Sinek talking about millennials in the workplace and everything that’s wrong with them?
No, I haven’t seen it. I avoid that kind of thing like the plague, but I’m interested.
Yeah, it cropped up on my Newsfeed a few weeks ago, this video that went viral. He describes millennials as being difficult to manage, entitled, narcissistic, unfocused, lazy…
This sounds like every mean review of my book.
One of the things that struck me is that he claims that all millennials want a sense of purpose, as if this is something that should be ridiculed, or laughed at.
Isn’t it interesting that this is the generation that came of age just as the financial crisis hit? Employment prospects have never recovered. It’s a generation of people who have not been able to own homes at a rate anything like previous generations. Many of us will never own our own home. Not that I’m particularly attached to owning property, but what that means is that you’re pissing away more than half of your pay check, in some cases, on rent. When I was writing Conversations, at one point I was making 800 quid a month and I was spending 500 a month on rent. That’s a lot. That’s severely rent-burdened. So to face into a lifetime of doing that, that’s the economic definition of what millennials are. They are the people who came of age in that economic bracket. And then, it’s curious to me that they’ve become the most despised. People hate millennials, and there are so many think pieces about how millennials won’t do this and won’t do that, and they have all these characteristics and psychological ticks.
But it seems to me that the essential definitional fact about millennials is that they are in an economically precarious position that older generations have forcibly placed them into. That’s what interests me. I don’t really give a shit about whether people take selfies or not. That’s a non-essential characteristic. Some people do it and some people don’t, whereas the essential characteristic is the economic one. All this debate about how millennials have these supposedly unemployable characteristics is the older generation’s way of explaining why we’re in this economic mess rather than accepting that we were in fact placed there. And it’s not like we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, you know?
As you said, they are living precariously, and I keep going back to that phrase, but how can there be any feeling of stability when the majority of this generation of people are working jobs in which there is no work-based identity? There’s no feeling of being part of a solidaristic labour community, no incentive for promotion…
No, and I think that’s part of the reason why people don’t feel that their sense of purpose is coming from work anymore. You have a job in which you are completely expendable, you’re on a zero-hours contract, you can be fired basically anytime the boss feels like it, and there is no guarantee that you will ever move forward from this position to a better position, with no regard to how well you perform. I just don’t see how anyone is expected to feel that work can give them meaning.
Exactly. And how can you expect to stay in these jobs when the jobs themselves essentially become expendable? You go from one to another.
And you have to. And often you have to do more than one job at one time, so how are you supposed to tie your personal identity to something that’s so precarious and can be snatched away from you at any minute? Even housing in that sense is precarious. Your landlord can say that he’s decided to sell the place and you’ve two days to get out. Your sense of being part of a local community is so disrupted because you can never belong anywhere. You’ve been shunted from house to house, from damp apartment to damp apartment, by people who have all the power while you have none. I feel that so much of that discussion of millennials being narcissistic and pretentious and stuff is a way of disguising what is the basic economic truth about the way millennials have been forced to live. Realistically, Nick and Melissa are probably still millennials, but they bought property at the time when it was really cheap, just after the crash. They managed to escape the fate of younger millennials like Frances and Bobbi, and part of what Frances fetishises so much in their existence is that they’re not condemned to the life that has been handed down to her. They can live the way previous generations might’ve been able to – actually own a house after they got married, which used to be normal, by the way (laughs). They have a house. That used to be completely normal. You get married and you get a house. Now it’s like, I don’t know.
How do you feel about Dublin now? Do you like it?
That’s actually something I was going to say when we were talking about Frances in that interim position. I don’t feel like a Dubliner. I’m not from Dublin, and I’ve lived the majority of my life somewhere else, but I’ve lived in Dublin for eight years now, and I’m only 26, so I’ve spent my whole adult life in Dublin. When I go back to Castlebar, I don’t feel like it’s really my home, but I also don’t feel like I am a Dubliner. So I’m in that position of feeling like I don’t belong in either place. In many ways, I love Dublin, but the housing market is so insane that I can only imagine that we’ll look back on this period and be like, “What happened?” Rent increasing by 30, 40, 100 per cent. I saw the other day on Daft [property website], a prefab in a car park in Drimnagh. One bedroom, €1,300 a month.
It was a prefab in a car park.
€1,300 a month, for a prefab.
And that’s pretty far out.
I know. It’s not like St Stephen’s Green car park or whatever. It’s miles away.
Do you think you’ll hang around Dublin? Could you see yourself living elsewhere?
Well, my partner, who’s now training to be a teacher, he’s a Dubliner, and is very attached to Dublin, and he’s teaching in schools in the inner city, and he loves teaching there. We live within that community, so I would love to stay there, but if rent prices keep going the way they’re going, realistically, I don’t know if I can stay.
You could move north…
(Laughs) I mean, you never know. There are existential questions about what kind of city Dublin wants to be, and a Government that is not willing to answer them. If we keep seeing rents going the way they are… and I’m not saying I’m the primary victim by any means, and it’s not like “Oh no, Dublin is losing its artists” – okay, that might be kind of sad, but it’s much, much worse for families where both parents are working and can’t afford to live in the city they’re from and have lived their whole lives. That actually makes me feel ill when I think about it. You’ve got people who grew up in Dublin and have had their children here, and they’re basically being told that they physically can’t live in this city anymore. I can’t get my head around it. That to me is the utter destruction of communities that have been around for decades, if not hundreds of years, and they’re being completely torn apart now by predatory landlords. That is an existential question for the city, and obviously it has peripheral effects on communities of artists and students and other people who enrich the city’s cultural life, but most of all it’s the working-class communities who are the heart of the city’s cultural life, and young families, which are being destroyed. I mean, what’s the point of a city if you can’t live in it? Unless you’re a banker or whatever, whatever they do all day.
And there is such a steep rise in homelessness in Dublin as well, isn’t there?
I know. And it’s not coincidentally related to the rise in evictions. People are literally being tossed out of their houses because their landlords think they can rent the property for more money to someone else. It just seems that we are not living as a city or as a country to actually answer those questions about what kind of place do we want this to be. Instead we’re just allowing the market to dictate, and we’re not going to like what the answer is. I already don’t. So, I don’t know. I’d like to be able to stay here, but I don’t know how feasible that is.
It annoys me that you have these semi-governmental bodies like Culture Ireland and stuff who want to basically use writers and artists as advertisements for how great Ireland is, while meanwhile putting the boot down on our faces. And again, not to say that I’m the one suffering, but to make it impossible, even for me, and for people who have not been as privileged and as lucky as I have been, to make it impossible to actually have a life in Dublin… And I mean, you could move to rural Ireland…
Yeah, well. It definitely seems like Belfast is doing things right in a way that Dublin isn’t. But I mean, that could change, we don’t know…
It certainly could change.
It could change when people start realising it’s actually not that far away from Dublin. It all depends on Brexit and stuff like that, which I guess is completely outside the remit of this interview.
Aye, we could be here for a long time getting into that.
Michael Nolan is fiction editor of The Tangerine, a Belfast-based magazine of new writing, where this interview first appeared. The Tangerine covers culture and politics, and is published three times a year.
The Tangerine: a cultural magazine for a Belfast that’s turning the page
Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends is November’s Irish Times Book Club selection. During the month, we shall explore the work through a series of features. Sally Rooney will be in conversation with Laura Slattery of The Irish Times on Thursday, November 16th, at 7.30pm in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1. Admission is free. The podcast of the interview will be available on November 30th.