Sally Rooney: The Man Booker contender on dealing with the new normal
‘It’s surreal’: At 27 the Irish writer is longlisted for the world’s best-known literary prize
Sally Rooney: 'I’m only interested in writing about relationships.' Photograph: Cyril Byrne
When I meet the author Sally Rooney she is sitting outside a coffee shop on Liffey Street, the Ha’penny Bridge in view behind her and, to her right, the bronze Meeting Place statue of two women sitting down for a chat. It’s the sort of place Rooney might situate a character in one of her novels, which are so satisfyingly set amongst modern Dublin’s streets and landmarks.
Fresh from the international success of her debut novel Conversations with Friends in 2017, Mayo-born Rooney has now been longlisted for the Man Booker for her latest novel, Normal People.
All this at 27.
I congratulate her on her nomination.
“It is amazing, yeah. I’m full-on going to have breakfast in front of you, if that’s okay,” she says, as a scone and coffee are brought over to the table.
“It’s such an honour and it’s obviously quite surreal. I don’t really follow literary awards but it’s one of those awards that even I know what it is.”
This is the first indication that Rooney is not altogether convinced by the machine of the literary world, but here she is, a cog in it all the same.
Like her debut, Normal People is a novel of social observation drawing on a world familiar to Rooney. It is the story of two young people on the brink of adulthood, adjusting to new lives in Trinity College. Connell and Marianne are from the west of Ireland; Connell’s mother is Marianne’s family cleaner. We meet them when they are in Leaving Cert year. Marianne is a social outcast, Connell the popular boy. In Trinity, their social roles reverse. Nevertheless, the pair are never far from one another. The novel begins: “Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.” Marianne will always answer Connell’s call, and he hers.
“I’m only interested in writing about relationships,” Rooney says, “the dynamics between characters.” In writing from shifting perspectives, we learn about characters from the perspective of someone they love. “We’re not always the most insightful about ourselves.”
Rooney began writing Normal People before the publication of Conversations with Friends so she wasn’t too concerned about re-visiting the college setting of her first novel. “I hadn’t had all that much experience of adult life that wasn’t in Trinity, so it felt like that was the only thing that I knew how to write about.”
Normal People, however, brings a greater scrutiny to bear on the college’s elitism. “I was interested [in] coming from one social setting into a completely different one, and having to find your feet. It wasn’t that I was thinking, oh, now I’m going to write about how Trinity has an elitist private school culture. It was nothing on that level to consciously make a point.”
In a 2017 interview with Lit Hub, Rooney said that she found Trinity “glamourous” and “politically repulsive”. Coming from a comfortable but normal background in Castlebar, it was her first glimpse at how Ireland was run by “a community of the elite that I wanted to be part of but almost only so that I could then turn around and reject it”.
“You meet people and their fathers are actually government ministers or actually High Court judges, and you’re like, oh, okay, normal,” she says now. “You just don’t get that in Castlebar. In fairness, Enda Kenny is actually from Castlebar, but other than that!”
Rooney was surprised to find Ryan Tubridy questioning her about her sex life
Normal or not, she recalls how at 18 she had “a naive desire to be accepted, wanting to understand the social rules so I could follow them so that I could become one of these people. That sense of learning a social world is very important for what I do.”
Rooney’s work is “completely fictional”; however, the intimacy of her style often leads people to believe otherwise. In publicity for Conversations with Friends, Rooney was surprised to find Ryan Tubridy questioning her about her sex life. “He jokingly said, oh, and is it all based on your real life? I was like, ha ha, no. And he was like, so, have you had an affair with a married man? I mean, he was kidding. I wasn’t reduced to tears by it. I thought it was quite funny at the time.”
With Normal People again dealing with burgeoning sexuality, including aspects of sexual dominance and submission, I joke that Tubridy might have a field day with this one.
“Oh, I’m not going to go on that show,” she says, rather definitively.
In the novel, the character Marianne uses submission as an outlet for her pain. “She surrounds herself with friends who are cruel and disrespectful towards her. There’s something in Marianne that craves that level of casual cruelty. She has a very brittle self-image and she seems to imbibe bad treatment by others both in a sexual way and in her normal life.”
There are echoes here of the protagonist’s stoicism in Conversations with Friends. In both novels, young women suffer quietly in their relationships. I remind Rooney that she once said, “There’s something redemptive about deciding to be on the side of relationships rather than on the side of independence and autonomy and self-protection.”
“This whole thing of, you have to strive to be independent from others, I just find it to be a dead end philosophically,” she says now. “In my fiction, I pursue this idea of intimacy, but also philosophically, politically, I just feel like that’s the interesting question for me. How much can we share with other people? I’m not interested in human individuality; I don’t even know what that means.
“There are relationships for Marianne that she does have to walk away from. It’s not like the message of the book is ‘constantly subject yourself to horrible abuse and eventually it will get better’.
“I do feel like the ‘walking away’ narrative is not the narrative that interests me.”
Rooney is also clearly drawn to narratives of class and privilege.
“The class dynamic is really important: from the very beginning, he comes to her house to collect his mother because she works there.”
The characters have different cultural identities, different economic backgrounds. Marianne is a solicitor’s daughter, they have a holiday home in Italy. Connell is a star pupil but lack of money keeps his world smaller. It is only when he receives a scholarship that money comes his way and “makes the world real” through travel and the freedom to learn rather than work.
Some of the criticism which Rooney drew for Conversations with Friends was that it was populated with privileged people, a criticism which puzzled her.
“I was trying to observe how privilege works and the process of how class dynamics function. Class is something that I think seriously about and try to organise my politics around. I think there are lots of novels that don’t really engage with questions of class at all and they get less conversation about issues of social privilege than I do. But it’s better to try and talk about it and maybe fail.”
This reluctance to engage in a conversation about class is located not just in literature. “We obviously have a consensus at a political level not to deal with class issues at all. We don’t have a significant class-based political organisation in the country really, like a mass workers’ party organisation, which lots of other European countries do. We did have aristocracy and we got rid of it, which was great, and then we just never really developed a way of speaking about the class divides that remain.”
Coming of age
Rooney’s political consciousness was, she says, shaped by her coming of age just when the recession hit. “I started college in 2009 so it was literally just after the big event.”
She recalls realising that “fundamentally the economic landscape has changed. There was just a sense in which you couldn’t be complacent. It was so obvious that things won’t just be fine in the capitalist system.”
In Normal People, the characters have a clear disdain for the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil governments – “swapping one crowd of criminals for another”. Rooney herself is a “socialist, obviously” and “anti-capitalist”.
So, not a Leo fan then?
“No. That would be putting it mildly. I don’t believe in the free market.” Then she retreats from the conversation. “I’m interested in participating in that dialogue to whatever extent, but at the same time I’m not a political figure. Oh, I wrote a novel so therefore everyone has to listen to me talking about politics.”
When the conversation turns to the housing crisis, Rooney speaks carefully. “It’s important when you’re speaking as an artist to acknowledge that artists are affected obviously by rising rents and low income, but then you’re looking at all these other social groups, like cleaners, bin collectors, special needs assistants in schools, people who are extremely important to the functioning of society. It’s all of us. If there’s no novels published for a week, that’s a shame, but society doesn’t grind to a halt.” Artists are important to the life of the city, “but it’s part of a broader picture, it’s not just, oh some people who went to Trinity can’t afford rent.”
I ask Rooney about some cynical remarks made by Connell in her new novel about the “culture of class performance” surrounding literary events and readings, how literature might be “fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys so they might feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about”.
“I definitely share that sentiment,” Rooney says. “They have to sell books and the way that books are marketed is, basically, in order to belong to a particular educated middle class, we’ll guilt you into buying books.”
She acknowledges there are honest readers but feels books have become “a status symbol, a commodity. There’s a huge amount of snobbery about reading. My partner doesn’t really read that much. I don’t know why that would bother you if you’re a reasonable person. Surely it matters more if someone is kind, decent. There’s a kind of fetishisation of a very narrow form of intelligence defined by being very highly educated and having lots of books. I just find it all quite meaningless. It’s a way of putting other people down.”
She modifies her comments by adding that Connell, who voiced these opinions in the book, genuinely loves literature. “It’s just the position of books in culture feels like it’s become a way of advertising your intellect, and obviously that’s going to make him uncomfortable given the background that he’s from. It makes me uncomfortable as well, but he’s also extremely depressed in that scene.”
Rooney’s depiction of Connell’s depression is vivid and true. “Connell’s not capable of seeing the good in anything. Of course, I have felt that. I have felt that sense of everything is pointless, why are people still writing books, but I think on another day Connell would feel differently, and so would I.”
Normal People is written from both Marianne and Connell’s perspectives but Rooney is bemused that people think she is Marianne but never Connell, “like that is the unbridgeable gap; you could never put any of your own experiences into a male character.”
Ultimately, Connell is a generous portrait of masculinity. Rooney is “only interested in writing about characters who want to do right”. However, she was “not trying to make a statement about ‘young men today’ or anything like that, God forbid”.
I’m very sceptical of the position of novelists in the culture – like, why do we listen to novelists so much?
It was more about “understanding that masculinity is not something that men each spontaneously invent every day. It’s a series of cultural messages and narratives that they have to participate in to some extent. We all get the same messages about masculinity all the time, it’s just that women are not expected to perform them. Connell is expected to perform them. Sometimes he can’t.”
Concepts of gender
Rooney feels it’s difficult for young men and women in different ways to process concepts of gender, masculinity, femininity. “I’m not saying there’s no such thing as sexism and life is hard for all of us. Sexism is definitely the operating system that we all have to participate in, but I don’t think that it’s easy for men as well if it forces them to cancel out parts of themselves that are actually tender.”
Rooney describes herself as an introvert, slower to speak at as many readings or festivals as she might. “I find it very hard to constantly project outwards. It’s also that I’m very sceptical of the position of novelists in the culture – like, why do we listen to novelists so much?”
It is rare that an interviewee will try to convince you of the futility of the interview as it is actually happening.
Of her success at such an early age, she remains pragmatic. She sees the limits to her ability but “I am not racked by doubts”. She credits her parents with the support they gave her growing up. “They were never pressuring me in terms of career. My dad worked for Telecom Éireann and my mum ran the local arts centre. So in the way they lived their life, they were never massive career-type people.”
They do, however, read her novels. “I get asked questions about sexuality and I’m sure that’s weird for them. We all just pretend it’s not happening, in a good way.”
While delighted that her work has been so well-received, Rooney tries to remain detached, “because if I ever write a book again, which I hope I do, because I love writing books, people could hate it. And I can’t then say, since I took the success of so seriously, now I have to take the failure seriously.”