Sally Rooney: ‘I’m really paranoid about my personal life. I feel self-conscious’

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Sally Rooney photograph by Ellius Grace/New York Times

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Sally Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, has echoes of the Normal People author’s own rise to literary superstardom

Just over four years ago I picked up a book from a pile of proofs on my sitting-room floor. The book was an early copy of a debut novel by a young Irish woman. Her name was Sally Rooney. I read the book, Conversations with Friends, in a few hours, transfixed by the freshness of the prose, the emotional power of the novel and the insights and intelligence on every page. When I’d finished the book I had a strong urge to meet this Sally Rooney person, shake her hand and say well done.

That’s why, some weeks later, I found myself sitting on a high stool upstairs at the Duke pub in Dublin, alone, nursing a pint of Guinness, watching a then 26-year-old Mayo woman I’d never met celebrate the launch of her first novel with family and friends. She was charming and friendly when I eventually approached to shake her hand. I was awkward and anxious, like a character in a Sally Rooney novel, but with a lower IQ.

Since May, when early copies were sent to a chosen few, a frenzy of anticipation has surrounded Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Proof copies are reportedly being advertised online for hundreds of euro

I’m thinking of that slightly stalkerish moment at the Duke as I sit at my laptop waiting to speak to Rooney about the past four remarkable years of her life. As most people are now aware, Conversations with Friends, that widely beloved, brainy novel about love and friendship and late capitalism, became a word-of-mouth literary sensation. It broke into the mainstream and saw the millennial appointed and burdened as the voice of her generation.

Her second novel, Normal People, has since sold more than three million copies and was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Last year the TV adaptation of that book, starring Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as on-again, off-again student lovers Connell and Marianne, provided the ultimate lockdown distraction. Liveline listeners got hot under the collar over the tender, if explicit, sex scenes, and Normal People went on to become the BBC’s most streamed programme of 2020.

Normal People: Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in the TV adaptation. Photograph: Enda Bowe/Element/BBC
Normal People: Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in the TV adaptation. Photograph: Enda Bowe/Element/BBC

Since May, when early copies were sent to a chosen few, a frenzy of anticipation has surrounded Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, which is published on Tuesday. Proof copies of the book are reportedly being advertised online with asking prices of hundreds of euro.

SALLY ROONEY, WHERE ARE YOU? Here she is, on a Zoom call from her home in Co Mayo. As Zoom backgrounds go, Rooney’s is even sparser than her famously economical prose. The writer, wearing a taupe-coloured jumper, is sitting in her study in front of a pale wall. There is nothing else, not a book or a pot plant, to be seen. At a time when many of us have become accustomed to carefully curating the backgrounds of our online encounters, projecting visual representations of our best selves, it is telling. You can have my words but no more, the blank spaces around her seem to shrug.

A strict 45 minutes has been allocated by her publicist for the interview. We exchange hellos and I ask Rooney, who turned 30 at the beginning of this year, where she spent lockdown. She tells me she was in New York when the pandemic hit. “We decided when the travel ban came in that we just had to get home. We were worried about being separated from our families … We have been in Mayo ever since. Well, other than the occasional trip to Dublin when it was legal.”

Rooney is now that rare thing a literary superstar. Barack Obama took one of her books on holiday, and she is interviewed in the current edition of Vogue

The “we” she refers to is herself and her husband, John Prasifka. The couple met at Trinity College Dublin, where Rooney studied English, followed by a master’s in American literature. They’ve been together for 10 years. When I ask about her pandemic wedding she politely rebuffs the question. “I don’t really want to talk about it, because I’m really kind of paranoid about my personal life, you know. I feel kind of self-conscious about saying anything about that type of thing. But, yes, we did get married during the pandemic, and accordingly it was a very, very small ceremony.”

Rooney is now that rare thing a literary superstar. Her phenomenal success has given the author more freedom and she turns down most invitations to speak. She is only doing one public event around her new novel in a conversation with Irish-Nigerian author Emma Dabiri later this month in London. This interview with The Irish Times is the only one she is doing for an Irish publication.

Sally Rooney photographed in Dublin by Ellius Grace/New York Times
Sally Rooney photographed in Dublin by Ellius Grace/New York Times

I’m keen to talk to Rooney about another literary superstar, Alice Kelleher, a character in the new book that will be much discussed when Beautiful World, Where Are You is finally out in the world.

Alice, a Trinity College graduate, is a young Irish millennial author of books about love and friendship who, on the publication of her first two novels, has become a global literary sensation. Alice, who has mental-health issues, frets about fame, disparages publicity-hungry fellow authors and deletes her social-media accounts.

Alice’s world mirrors Rooney’s to the extent that some readers might assume the character’s every thought or feeling is shared by the author. They’d be wrong, according to Rooney. “It certainly wasn’t that I was trying to smuggle in essays about my life through the book. I mean, if I wanted to write essays about my life I probably could do that … I’ve never really wanted to.”

Alice and her best friend, Eileen, who works at a literary magazine, send long, eloquent emails to each other, discussing their despair about the climate crisis, consumerism, family issues, religion, romantic relationships, socialist ideals, the ugliness of the modern world and a fascinating, salutary period of history called the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Rooney says that although the geography of her characters’ settings and lives are drawn from her own – “I set my books in worlds that I know” – her imagination fuels their interior lives.

The material reality of the characters has to be grounded in stuff that I actually know. It’s the same reason that all my characters are Irish. I’m Irish. I live in Ireland. Most of my friends are Irish. I feel more grounded in that reality

“I think what my imagination is good at, if it’s good at anything, is coming up with psychological realities,” says Rooney, who is a former editor and now director of the literary magazine the Stinging Fly. “But what I’m not good at coming up with from scratch is an actual world, like jobs, houses, class, social circles … The material reality of the characters has to be grounded in stuff that I actually know. It’s the same reason that all my characters are Irish. I’m Irish. I live in Ireland. Most of my friends are Irish. I feel more grounded in that reality … I am not attempting to disguise it. I absolutely talk about a lot of the stuff that comes directly from my own life,” but, she adds, “that doesn’t mean the way the characters feel about those things is the same.”

At one point Alice complains about her newfound literary fame to Eileen: “Every day I wonder why my life has turned out this way … having articles written about me and seeing my photograph on the Internet”. And she asks: “What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway...? What do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms in all their demoralising specificity? Nothing. So why, why, is it done this way?”

I’m curious about how much of Rooney is in Alice Kelleher. “It’s funny,” she says. “When I wrote those emails I really felt like I was getting into character to write them … I felt angry for Alice, and I did feel the emotional truth of what she was saying really rang true for me.”

She points out that Eileen offers a robust counter to her more successful friend’s self-pity. “Eileen is saying yeah to an extent, sure, but also cop on a bit … let’s keep some perspective. So when I was writing the Alice sections I felt, yeah, I really identify with this, but when I was writing the Eileen sections I was, like, no, this is the sensible person.”

Sally Rooney at the Hay Festival in 2017. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty
Sally Rooney at the Hay Festival in 2017. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty

What interested Rooney, she says, was the “back-and-forth flow” between friends. The “deep understanding and empathy” and also the resistance between them: “Everything is so hard for you, but what about me?”

“I do think they both agree that some aspects of what has happened to Alice’s life have been a bit mad and difficult,” Rooney continues. “I do feel sorry for Alice, but I think her experience has been very different from mine … I’m married, and I have had a very settled life in comparison, I think, to the character of Alice … I certainly didn’t go writing about my own life. No.”

Alice is preoccupied by the corrosive nature of modern celebrity. I ask Rooney about fame, and she says she has been thinking about the subject in relation to people she describes as “really famous, not like me, not like Alice”, people like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles.

Often very young people are thrust into public life with very little say over how they ended up there; they just happen to be very gifted, whether it be tennis or acting or some other skill or gift they want to share with the world

“And I’ve been watching the coverage of Britney Spears and the legal process in the States. That’s a level of celebrity that’s really heightened and constant and very intrusive … Often very young people are thrust into public life with very little say over how they ended up there; they just happen to be very gifted, whether it be tennis or acting or some other skill or gift they want to share with the world. And they suddenly end up in the position where their every move is watched and scrutinised and people are having debates about them on social media … I think it’s quite a disturbing phenomenon. And I don’t think we have quite enough of a cultural discourse or a mature enough public conversation about why this keeps happening.”

Rooney, who has spoken in the past about her Marxist view of the world, points out that although very famous people “are enormously privileged in the sense they’re usually very wealthy, because they get paid very well”, there is a sinister aspect to extreme scrutiny. “And I think we are now seeing more people speaking out about how negative that experience can be, as well as it being a privilege.”

Rooney is keen to emphasise that this has not been her experience. People do approach her to say they love her books, but she is not being harassed or chased down the street by paparazzi. “It’s different from what I’ve been through. But I do think even what I’ve been through, on that relatively minor level, is a challenging experience at times … There are moments”.

Sally Rooney photographed in Dublin by Ellius Grace/New York Times
Sally Rooney photographed in Dublin by Ellius Grace/New York Times

At one point in Beautiful World, Where Are You Alice vents to Eileen: “Whatever I can do, whatever insignificant talent I might have, people just expect me to sell it – I mean literally, sell it – for money, until I have a lot of money and no talent left. And that’s it, I’m finished and the next flashy twenty-five-year-old with an impending psychological collapse comes along.”

Rooney says she is not writing about her own life, but there are many paragraphs in the book that will make readers wonder.

A POTTED HISTORY of Sally Rooney: She grew up in Castlebar, Co Mayo, not far from where she lives now, with a younger sister and an older brother in a house full of books and dinner-table chats about socialism, feminism and politics. Both parents were great readers. Her mother ran the Linenhall Arts Centre; her father worked for Telecom Éireann. She attended a creative-writing group as a teenager. She wrote a novel at the age of 15 that we’ll probably never see. She excelled at Trinity College, where she was elected a scholar – a hotly contested academic distinction – and became, at one stage, the top university debater in Europe.

It was an essay on her debating experiences, Even If You Beat Me, that drew Rooney to the attention of the literary agent Tracy Bohan. Eventually, Rooney gave Bohan the manuscript of Conversations with Friends. There was a seven-way bidding war between publishers. The rest is herstory.

At heart, as with all her work, Rooney’s new novel is a story about the life-enhancing, life-changing power of romantic and Platonic love. While the two women characters endeavour to find beauty in a disappointing world, they share details of their love lives. Alice, postbreakdown, is living a sort of hermit life in a west of Ireland seaside town and dating a local man, Felix, who works in a warehouse. They are two characters who would not normally find each other were it not for a dating app. Meanwhile, Eileen has resumed flirting with her childhood friend Simon, an exceptionally good-looking, Mass-going strategist for a small left-wing political party.

The sex scenes in Beautiful World, Where Are You are some of the best I’ve read, erotic and authentic. The novel features phone sex and hotel sex and sex while watching current-affairs shows. Claire Byrne has a cameo in one memorable scene

I particularly enjoyed the male characters, I tell her. Rooney says, “At the end of the day, the most gratifying thing to hear is still when people say, ‘Oh, I just fell in love with this character…’ For me, those have been the most important reading experiences … They changed my life as a reader.”

The sex scenes in Beautiful World, Where Are You are some of the best I’ve read, erotic and authentic. The novel features phone sex and hotel sex and sex while watching news and current-affairs shows. (The RTÉ broadcaster Claire Byrne has a cameo in one memorable scene.) Did she have to tell her parents not to read those bits? Rooney smiles. “My mum is a real 1970s feminist, like totally enlightened. That would not bother her at all, and does not bother her at all. And so, no, I would not worry … My parents are supercool.”

She says she’s working on a new book and looking forward to seeing Conversations with Friends the TV series, which is being made by Element Pictures, which also adapted Normal People.

Conversations with Friends stars Joe Alwyn, the long-term partner of Taylor Swift, who also happens to be a Rooney fan. Is Rooney in contact with Swift? “We haven’t been in touch,” Rooney says, smiling. And she laughs when I show her a copy of Paul Howard’s new Ross O’Carroll-Kelly book, Normal Sheeple. I tell her part of the plot is Ross meeting a teacher called Marianne at Irish college, and it features pages of stilted Marianne-and-Connell-inspired dialogue.

Sally Rooney photographed in Dublin by Ellius Grace/New York Times
Sally Rooney photographed in Dublin by Ellius Grace/New York Times

How does she feel about publishers clamouring to find “the next Sally Rooney” and the suggestion, sometimes put forward, that other young women writers might be copying her style?

“To be honest, I think a lot of the people who’ve been described that way probably never even read my books and had no notion of wanting to copy my style or anything like that. But it’s usually their publishers marketing their books in that particular way. So I don’t think writers are falling over themselves trying to write one of my books.” Except for Paul Howard, I say. “Well, except people writing parodies, yes,” she says, smiling again.

“Hopefully, if it’s had any positive effect, there is a sense that young women are now more prominent in the publishing industry than they were when I was first published. And that’s not all due to me, obviously. Not at all. But maybe that has helped to create a bit more space for the voices of young women … It would be nice to let each writer stand on their own work and not be ceaselessly comparing them … I can only imagine it must get kind of annoying … I don’t think anybody is crying out to be compared to me.”

I do worry about preserving the boundary between my public and private lives, in a media environment that is not always respectful of that boundary. That has been difficult at times

Our time is nearly up. I ask Rooney if she’s happy. “With my life?” she asks. “Yeah. I mean, I do find publishing a book very stressful, to be honest. And so, knowing that my book is about to come out, I’m a bit on edge all the time. But other than that I have a lovely life. I mean, I’m so, so grateful that I get to do what I do for a living, to write for a living, and I’m so grateful for …”

I don’t get to hear the rest of what Sally Rooney is grateful for, because the meeting comes to an abrupt end. The 45 minutes is over. We’re disconnected.

Sally Rooney, where are you?

I STILL HAVE a few questions. That afternoon I email her publicist to ask if he’ll send them on to her. I like the idea of sending an email to Rooney, who features that mode of communication so prominently in her books, along with bus, map, taxi and messaging apps that add texture to her character’s worlds. A few days later Rooney responds. These are my questions and her replies.

I turned up like a saddo, alone, to your book launch in 2017. How has your life changed and how has it stayed the same since that night? And how do you stay grounded?

“Haha! I was very glad you came along that night – it was lovely to meet you. To answer the question, my life has changed dramatically in some ways, but on a day-to-day level it’s largely the same – I have all the same friends and family, obviously, and I still spend most of my time writing and reading. I don’t really worry about staying “grounded” as such, because I have always been pretty introverted and I don’t really enjoy being the centre of attention (!). But I do worry about preserving the boundary between my public and private lives, in a media environment that is not always respectful of that boundary. So that has been difficult at times.”

Can you tell me more about your upbringing from a feminist and socialist perspective?

“My parents have definitely influenced my values and political outlook. They are both feminists and socialists, and both raised me to believe very passionately in the equality of all human beings. But they were also normal parents, working full-time, trying to raise three small children. They weren’t sitting us down in the evenings and making us recite passages of The Communist Manifesto or anything like that. I learned from them mostly by example – they live by their principles and I hope that I try to live by mine.”

Has material success changed or challenged your socialist outlook?

“Haha – no! My views have not changed in that sense. In our current labour market, certain workers are rewarded far more than what their real contributions seem to merit, while most others are rewarded far less. I am now in the first category, for sure, but that doesn’t change my overall view of the system. And in fact, I might even suggest that it makes sense for the system to single out and personally enrich particular individual artists and critics. Theoretically, those individuals might then be less likely to use their position to criticise the system that has enriched them. And if they did go on criticising the system despite their new personal wealth, it might be easier to dismiss those criticisms as the complaints of the privileged. So all I can say is that this seems to make sense to me as a feature of our present cultural marketplace, and it hasn’t changed my outlook at all.”

Given the title of your new book, where do you find beauty and joy in the world?

“Well – reading novels, of course! I also love music, and I play a little bit myself, though not very well. And I enjoy the intellectual elegance of chess (for which I have no talent at all). The outside world is always a great source of beauty – flowers and trees, and houses with people in them. But nothing brings me as much joy and meaning as long meandering conversations with the people I love.”

SALLY ROONEY, WHERE ARE YOU? There she is, in the captivating, addictive, illuminating Conversations with Friends, Normal People and now Beautiful World, Where Are You. She’s there, in all those thoughts on love and friendship and sexuality and religion and art and humanity, laid out on the page in moving, provocative, truthful, elegant sentences.

Rooney’s books are not for everyone. No books ever are. And few successful people, especially women, escape a mauling. “You have some big fans on the Internet,” one character in the book tells Alice, who replies, “Yes I believe so. Also a lot of people who hate me and wish me ill.”

One Irish online publication put up a poll that asked its readers, “Are you a fan of Sally Rooney’s books?”, a question sure to invite criticism and old-fashioned begrudgery in the comments section. Recently a widely shared critique in an Australian newspaper attacked Rooney’s books for elitism, lack of diversity and “excessive tea drinking” – an amusing accusation to level at an Irish novelist writing about Irish people. I’m inclined to agree with another Irish author, Eimear McBride, who said recently, while discussing Rooney and misogyny in publishing, “This wildly successful woman, who is probably one of the most powerful people in the literary world, can do whatever the hell she wants. I think you can see a lot of rage towards her.”

“My sturdy peasant ancestors did little to prepare me for a career as a widely despised celebrity novelist” is one of many lines that jumps out from the new novel. 

SALLY ROONEY, WHERE ARE YOU? Beautiful World, Where Are You opens with a quote from the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg that reads, in part: “But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn’t matter much to me.”

The quote resonates deeply with Rooney, and what she says about it when I bring it up tells us more about her than any lukewarm online critique or detail from her pandemic wedding. “I remember reading that quote for the first time, and I had the pen out, underlining it 100 times,” she says. “I feel so strongly connected to that, because it’s, first of all, it’s kind of grounding when there’s so much happening, when there’s so much noise and hype around the book,” she says. “You remember, like, I’m just a small writer, you know, and also it’s still a worthwhile life to live. Even if you’re only writing the same books about friendship and love, that’s still a life worth living.”

Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney, is published by Faber & Faber on Tuesday, September 7th. Sally Rooney and Emma Dabiri will talk about the novel at the Southbank Centre in London at 7.30pm that evening. The event will be livestreamed and available on demand until Tuesday, September 14th; tickets cost £7.50