Among the advice traditionally handed out to newbie writers are two classic injunctions: write what you know, and go out into the world to find out more. Sally Rooney, by her own admission, has observed the former to the exclusion of the latter. "I've never attempted to write from the perspective of someone older than me so my novels are all about my cohort," she says. "That's not about making a statement, but it's what I can do."
Given that she had written two novels by her mid-20s, her cohort was inevitably limited. The main characters of both are Dublin university students – as Rooney herself was when she began to write them. Frances and Bobbi, from her debut
, are ex-lovers with a burgeoning performance poetry partnership, while Marianne and Connell, in its follow-up
, are “culchie” schoolfriends who, like their creator, move to the big city from small-town Ireland.
The history of fiction is littered with callow university novels, so what happened next was extraordinary: almost as soon as Conversations with Friends appeared in the spring of 2017, Rooney was being hailed as the voice of the millennials, a Snapchat Salinger. It was an intensity of acclaim that happens once or twice in a generation, placing her alongside Donna Tartt or Zadie Smith as a writer who appeared to emerge fully formed, not only in her craft but as a literary celebrity and a mouthpiece for something in the culture that needed to be articulated.
Unlike Tartt or Smith, she already had a second novel ready to roll: in a rare state of excitability, the literary world held its breath for the arrival of Normal People, and before it had even been published it was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Though it didn't make the Booker shortlist, it has just been announced as Waterstones book of the year and won Rooney the award for international author of 2018 at the Specsavers national book awards. She recently took the award for novel of the year at the An Post Irish Book Awards for Normal People. It is also shortlisted for the Costa book awards.
The woman who arrives to meet me at a stylish new coffee and yoga joint around the corner from the flat she shares with her maths-teacher partner, is now all of 27 years old. Neatly and unobtrusively dressed, she talks rapidly in a manner that is simultaneously confident and self-deprecating.
How does it feel to be on such a rollercoaster? “There’s a frisson of weirdness of seeing your name mentioned and someone you don’t know talking about you. I have to discipline myself not to look at it, but obviously it’s on a very, very small scale – it’s not like you’re a Premier League football player,” she says, briskly. Yet the reception of her novels has taken seasoned commentators beyond the usual literary compliments.
wrote that it “adds, fearlessly, to an unsettling discussion about submission – I felt I understood something, at the end of it, that I had previously pushed away”. Ali Smith, who picked her out for a panel of debut writers, regards her writing as “a cocktail of high intelligence, truth and humaneness, and all three of these things are so properly contemporary and attuned, not just to now but to now plus the history of thought and politics, that it becomes apparent as you read her that she’s understood something happening in both language and society with a breadth that works like [an] undercurrent in the blood of a reader.”
Her characters drift in and out of relationships and talk earnestly of politics and literary theory; they holiday in France or Italy but sometimes don’t have enough money to eat. But Rooney is quick to brush away any suggestion that she is a cultural pundit, saying: “I certainly never intended to speak for anyone other than myself. Even myself I find it difficult to speak for. My books may well fail as artistic endeavours but I don’t want them to fail for failing to speak for a generation for which I never intended to speak in the first place.”
I never intended to speak for anyone except myself. Even that I find it difficult. I don't want my books to fail for failing to speak for a generation for which I never intended to speak
So what was the journey that brought her to this destination? “I can’t look back and say I was clearly on a trajectory. For ages it just seemed I was going round and round in circles, getting nowhere,” she says. Her biography, for someone who only broke the surface less than two years ago, is well rehearsed. In her own construction: “I was born in the same year a Virgin megastore was raided for selling condoms without a pharmacist present. Two years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Four years before the legalisation of divorce.”
In a more prosaic version, she was the middle of three children born in Castlebar, in Co Mayo, to a father who worked for Telecom Éireann and a mother who ran the local arts centre. There were always books around the house and they encouraged her to read but, though she joined a creative writing group at the age of 15, she didn’t take to school. “I think a large part of it was that it was being a teenager, which I didn’t enjoy,” she says. “But I don’t respond to authority very well. I fundamentally don’t agree with accepting authority that you haven’t agreed to in some way. As a funnel – as a way of making children into adults – I don’t think it’s good practice.”
She did not see herself as a high achiever. “I was not a precocious child. Before I went to do my degree I told my mother I was never going to read anything written before 1920. School was all about learning by rote and I can do that to a very passable degree, but I’d never do homework or assignments. I wasn’t failing, but I didn’t have any opportunity to pursue what interested me.”
She nevertheless won a place at Trinity College Dublin, which – numbering Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, not to mention Enright, among its alumni – must surely have seemed pretty prestigious. Ah, she parries, but she didn’t get on to her first choice of course, being consigned to English literature when she had elected to study English and sociology. “I guess, in a way, maybe I was lucky. It was a completely new way of thinking about books and literature and it felt intellectually challenging. I was grappling with the modernists and 19th-century novels and even now I’m still developing the ability to read intelligently, which I hope will continue for the rest of my life.”
I don't respond to authority very well. I fundamentally don't agree with accepting authority that you haven't agreed to in some way
In her second year she took up debating, which took her on a team outing to Manchester, where she won the 2013 European University Debating Championships. But, once again, she is keen to play it down. “It was definitely interesting, though my experience with the competitive side of things is that it’s actually like a game. I was going to say like football but I think it’s less intellectually involved than football. Really it’s more like Scrabble.”
Her writing life also began to take shape in her second year, after – like the two central characters in Normal People – she was awarded a scholarship that would pay her food, rent and tuition and enable her to stay on for a master's degree. In the novel this experience is bisected along class lines, with well-to-do Marianne accepting it as a personal validation, while for Connell – whose single mother cleans for Marianne's family – it is an intellectual lifeline. Which was it for Rooney herself? "It meant a huge amount to me," she says. "My parents had been supporting me and I don't think it would have been realistic for them to go on doing so for a master's degree. It gave me a sense of security, and permission just to keep my place there for a longer period of time."
She enrolled for a master's in politics but dropped it after a few weeks in favour of American studies, completing a draft of Conversations with Friends in three months. "But it was a very drafty draft," she says, so she put it away and wrote the first of two Connell and Marianne stories, in which they were in their mid-20s but clearly had a backstory dating to their school days. That first story went nowhere but the second, At the Clinic, was published in a literary magazine.
After she went back to Conversations with Friends and knocked it into shape, things began to move quickly: it was snapped up by Faber in a seven-way auction, and a month after delivering her master's thesis she began work on Normal People. "I thought of Conversations as my trial novel," she says drily, "so it gave me a huge amount of permission to write the same thing over again."
Student milieu aside, Normal People is not in fact the same novel over again. If Jane Austen could construct worlds on "two inches of ivory" Rooney has built them on a wafer of silicon: her characters are inhabitants of the networked society: they communicate by instant messaging, texts and email, but what it means to them is singular. For Frances, the scratchy first-person narrator of Conversations with Friends, it's a way of keeping control when both her emotions and her body are in constant danger of letting her down, while Normal People's Connell perceives it as a loss of autonomy. "He and Marianne can only talk over email, using the same communication technologies they now know are under surveillance, and it feels at times like their relationship has been captured in a complex network of state power, that the network is a form of intelligence in itself, containing them both, and containing their feelings for each other."
So much of our sexual culture and vocabulary has the potential to be degrading. There's an archaic language which is guaranteed to sound false
The one area of personal relationships that cannot be electronically controlled is sex, which links lovers to friends in shifting and unpredictable combinations. The style in which Rooney writes about it is disarmingly plain. "In bed he asked me what felt good a lot," says Frances, when she first sleeps with the married actor Nick, in Conversations with Friends. "I said everything felt good, I felt very flushed and I could hear myself making a lot of noise but only syllables, no real words. I closed my eyes. The inside of my body was hot like oil, I was possessed by an overwhelming and intense energy which seemed to threaten me. Please, I was saying. Please, please … But I surrendered without a struggle."
“So much of our sexual culture and vocabulary has the potential to be degrading,” says Rooney, “There’s an archaic language which is guaranteed to sound false or the language of pornography which is not actually true. I was trying to be true. What I’m interested in, to a large extent, is intimacy: the discomfort, the loss of self, of being penetrated literally and also psychologically.”
Both novels are, to some extent, accounts of sexual obsessions. "Some people feel the sex isn't very sexy but I'm not writing them for that," she says. "Perhaps I'm trying to learn something about the characters through it, so it would be coy to have the scenes all off page." Yet when her editor suggested that the sex in Normal People was a little too coy, Rooney resisted, arguing that, in the early stages of their relationship at least, Connell and Marianne didn't have a sexual vocabulary "so to over-literalise would be to put ways of thinking into their heads that they wouldn't have been able to articulate for themselves. On the other hand," she says, "I was probably trying to avoid writing it. That's the gift of being able to come up with a plausible argument."
There's so much fiction and cultural discourse around #MeToo, but I don't find it interesting to explore. I'm not interested in the psychology of cruel, abusive, exploitative people
The politics of surrender is a recurrent theme, though the symmetries in which her characters find themselves are far from templates of #MeToo injustice. Nick might be older and married but he is in some ways weaker, less fully formed, than Frances; Connell might betray Marianne early on, but he is also her saviour. The monsters – a fascist boyfriend, an abusive brother – are pushed firmly to the margins. “There’s so much fiction and general cultural discourse around #MeToo, but it’s something I just don’t find very interesting to explore. I’m not interested in the psychology of cruel, abusive, exploitative people.”
But there’s something else going on too, which is central to how she identifies her cohort: “Men,” she says, “are not so dissimilar really. It didn’t feel that writing about them was a leap because the thing about gender is that I don’t really believe in it. It’s a series of cultural practices, whereas being in your 40s and with children, for instance, is something I can’t imagine myself to be.”
Both novels have a moment in which a character thinks they, or their lover, might be pregnant – and it's here that they are in some ways at their most culturally particular. When she wrote the books, abortion was illegal in Ireland. This spring, a referendum changed the law so, for all the apparent currency of their fears, her characters already occupy a space that is sealed in the past.
The long-running debate over abortion gave Rooney her political voice as a teenager outraged by activists who rolled up at her school to show pro-life propaganda videos. In a powerful essay for the London Review of Books earlier this year she deployed the full might of her debating skills in articulating her rage, concluding a thorough demolition of the case against abortion with the conclusion that "in the relationship between foetus and woman, the woman is granted fewer rights than a corpse".
On the eve of the referendum she tweeted: “Two weeks ago I wrote that we would not see a Yes vote over 67% – God please let me eat a gigantic portion of this unbelievably delicious humble pie.” In her heart of hearts, she says now, she believed that the change would get through and felt validated when it did. It reassured her that, for all that she now found herself part of a metropolitan commentariat, she was still in touch with the Irish heartlands from which she came.
'Capitalism is to Rooney's young women what Catholicism was to Joyce's young men, a rotten national faith to contend with,' wrote one reviewer. Rooney is happy with that
Shortly after the referendum she announced her decision to stop tweeting, saying “novelists are given too much political prominence”. Several times in our conversation she invokes footballers as an elite that puts writers in their place. When I point this out, she explains that it is because “through no fault of their own they have a sublime gift and there’s nothing in their personality that would necessarily mean they enjoy fame. They don’t choose to be celebrities in the way that actors do. They just have it heaped on them.” For all her demurrals, it’s an analysis that clearly speaks for her own anxieties.
In Normal People, Connell is scathing about literary celebrity. At a lecture by a writer of "uneven, but sensitive-in-places, perceptive" short stories, he finds himself surrounded "only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended [literary events]". It's not a coincidence that, as the editor of the literary journal Stinging Fly, Rooney spends much of her time in just such literary circles, and several writers of sensitive, perceptive stories are among the dedicatees of her novels. "I've been blessed by feeling I'm with a group who read each other's work."
How does she account for the way that Ireland’s literary culture has not only survived the economic crash but flourished in it? “I’m assuming that there are weirdos everywhere who like writing prose and poetry but not everywhere has the literary heritage and the support for little magazines that enables them to be published,” she says. “Then there’s the particular nature of the crash, which came out of our first ever period of prosperity and revealed it to be a mirage.”
“Capitalism is to Rooney’s young women what Catholicism was to Joyce’s young men, a rotten national faith to contend with,” wrote one reviewer. Rooney is happy with that. For all her fascination with the human condition, with the pain and pleasures of the romantic merry-go-round, one thing’s for sure: “As a writer in Dublin it’s hard not to think about property.” – Guardian
Conversations with Friends and Normal People are published by Faber & Faber