‘Science fiction can evoke the anxiety of being a young person alive today’

Catherine Prasifka – who just happens to be Sally Rooney’s sister in law – has published her debut novel, about living in a time of uncertainty

Let’s get this bit out of the way.

Debut novelist Catherine Prasifka is Sally Rooney’s sister in law. And yes, she also went to Trinity College, and yes, she was also on the debating team.

She is clearly bemused at being questioned about this over and over – but comparisons to Rooney are inevitable for young Irish women writing about life as a twenty something, and Prasifka has an added proximity.

Prasifka’s novel, None of This is Serious, is narrated by Sophie, a recent graduate who struggles with relationships, doomscrolls endlessly, and worries that she might never get a foothold in the world. Then one day, a mysterious crack forms in the sky seeping a violet glow. Everyone attempts to normalise it, despite the terrible uncertainty it represents.

In conversation, Prasifka is chatty and pleasant, even after a long day of interviews. With a protagonist who is “chronically online”, she seems very conscious of the perils of “the discourse”, how one quote can be plucked out to make you the internet’s main character. “But then you get the backlash and then people are buying your books so they can burn them, but they’re still buying them,” she says wryly.

Prasifka was always a writer. After trying her hand at bad vampire novels as a teenager, she went on to study English in college, but she always preferred Game of Thrones to War and Peace. After completing her dissertation on Terry Pratchett, she did a masters in fantasy literature in Glasgow.

“My mom was like, go into the civil service, that’d be great. And I was like, no, I’m going to learn about witches.”

She lights up when she talks about fantasy literature.

“There’s this incredible power in science fiction and fantasy to evoke feelings that are difficult to evoke in realism. Sometimes if you’re writing realism, you’re writing books based on previous books that you’ve read, not reality as it is.” Her novel’s mysterious crack in the sky was “this way to use science fiction to evoke the anxiety of being a young person alive today”.

It is apt that Prasifka’s novel is about living with uncertainty, written as it was in the tumult of 2020. “I refer to it as my weird little book because I wrote it during the pandemic like a gremlin in my little cave.”

She had been working as a creative writing teacher in her old school, St Conleth’s in Ballsbridge, but then went on the pandemic unemployment payment. “I was like, have your anxiety spiral, then look at this as an opportunity. Never again will I be paid to stay home and to do nothing.” By December 2020 she had signed with an agent.

In None of This, Prasifka sets out to explore the consequences of her generation’s extensive use of social media. “That is a sphere where life happens now. Some chapters are just Sophie in her bedroom on Twitter. It’s the same as walking into a party.”

It's not on me to write a really nuanced working class narrative. I think I'd probably get it wrong. And there are so many better writers to tell that story than me

Her novel’s ideas were also driven by the effects of climate change on her generation. “I’ve had conversations with my parents where I’ve tried to explain what climate anxiety feels like. A lot of my choices day to day will be about climate change. One of my friends just posted that they’re never gonna fly again. My mom was like, ‘why? You can’t possibly feel that anxious about everything all the time’. I was like, it’s a real existential concern for a lot of people.”

She explains that her friends are vegetarians now for climate reasons alone. “I can’t justify using this amount of water and soil for my meals. That is something new that people older than us can’t really appreciate.”

Then there are the other “general anxieties” about housing and job stability. “There’s a degree to which the rate of change and uncertainty has accelerated. We’re all constantly plugged in and getting information but then also talking about it and making ourselves more anxious on social media.”

Prasifka is pragmatic about assumptions people tend to make about a novel’s narrator representing the author’s own voice. “How much can you write a book that’s not about you, the artist has to put themselves into their art. I just hope people spend about five minutes talking to me and they’re like, this is a different person. For one thing, I never shut up.”

Interestingly, Sophie does not speak in the novel – we get the swirl of her inner monologue, and her social media posts – but never her spoken words on the page. It has the curious affect of making her seem like a bystander in her own life, adding to the sense of powerlessness in the novel.

For people in their twenties, “it feels like there’s no real way to acquire assets or money or political power or stability”, she says. “A lot of my friends have good degrees, have done everything right, and they’re working in a job that’s not in their field, doesn’t pay them enough, and they’re in their late twenties.

“I felt very strongly at the last election, which political party is angling for the young person’s vote, right? Almost none that you really want to vote for.”

Nevertheless, the characters in Prasifka’s novel could be considered privileged. While they discuss Marxism and the difficulties of late stage capitalism, there’s little pressure to get a job. They go to nice parties, spend weekends in country houses.

For Prasifka, it’s about “what kind of stories do I feel qualified to tell. It’s not on me to write a really nuanced working class narrative. I think I’d probably get it wrong. And there are so many better writers to tell that story than me, and people should be listening to them instead of another Trinity woman, being honest”.

“Obviously, there’s some amount of privilege that doesn’t necessarily translate into assets or a place in society, and just because it’s not as bad as it could be for all of them, that doesn’t mean it’s good, necessarily.”

It is also about the contrast between how her character’s talk and how they live. “I know so many fake woke people from college,” she says. These characters are “not giving nuanced perspectives. It’s how I used to talk when I was 22. I try not to take any firm political stances on anything because I have two English degrees and now I’m 26. I don’t know anything. I’m very young and still learning, and they’re even younger”.

On a wine night with my friends, you talk about all these experiences that people have, and you're shocked at how common they are

The book, she says, is really about those things that are normal that shouldn’t be – like disordered eating, “softer misogyny”, and the concerning trends around the use of violence in sex.

“It is something that I think is now being talked about, but for a long time wasn’t. It’s just something that women put up with, and don’t have to actively consent to, and I think that is bad. On a wine night with my friends, you talk about all these experiences that people have, and you’re shocked at how common they are.”

I ask Prasifka about being presented to the world as Sally Rooney’s sister in law. “She is obviously an inspiration,” she says, but she didn’t let Rooney read the book until she had a book deal. “She was dying to read it. I’d signed with my agent in December and we’re having dinner and she goes, ‘I didn’t know you’d written a book’.

“I just knew I was gonna be asked these questions, and I know that I wanted to do it myself.”

And while it’s great to have someone in the family who is in the know, “it’s a double-edged sword. I’m obviously benefiting from people who will read the book, and for search engine optimisation to have my name next to Sally’s,” she laughs.

However, “I think when it’s ‘the new Sally Rooney’, there’s expectations when people read it. It almost feels like people feel like, oh Naoise [Dolan], and Louise [Nealon] and Catherine are all writing the sequels to Normal People. That’s not how these books should be viewed”.

“Ultimately, these books don’t really have a lot to do with each other, apart from being about Irish women. There are probably multiple stories to be told about Irish women, other than the one that Sally Rooney has written.”

I tell her a friend of mine called it TrinLit.

“I think there were always people who experienced similar things, creating art about similar things. Apart from the marketability of this genre, it is also inspirational. People look and say, she did it. I probably could too. And that is a positive because the biggest obstacle to getting a book published is writing a book and finishing it.”

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