“I have no idea if I’ll write another book,” says Sally Rooney, sitting in the bar of a Dublin hotel with a pot of tea and a bucketload of doubt. “Maybe I am one of those people who writes two novels in their twenties then never writes anything else again.” When, on publication of Rooney’s 2017 debut Conversations with Friends, her editor compared the young Irish novelist to JD Salinger, I’m not sure this is what she had in mind.
It was only after that book came out that Rooney first felt comfortable describing herself as a writer, though in truth she had been scribbling away on and off since, as a 15-year-old, she began attending a writing workshop every second Monday in the small market town of Castlebar, Co Mayo, where her mother ran the local arts centre and her father worked for Irish Telecom.
“I thought school was immensely boring and, as a teenager, I often found social life quite mystifying... I was not someone to whom it came easily to be charming,” says Rooney, the middle of three siblings. “But that writers’ group was the highlight of my fortnight. And for whatever reason I always had the confidence that I could write good prose.”
In 2015, shortly after embarking on a master’s in American literature at Trinity College Dublin, where she had read English as an undergraduate, Rooney, then 24 years old, sat down at her laptop and — in three breakneck months, writing for 10 hours a day until her eyesight went fuzzy and her head began to spin — completed “a really rough, unreadable first draft”, 100,000 words long, of what would eventually become Conversations with Friends, the story of Frances, a Trinity College student, her intense relationship with a former girlfriend and her affair with an older married man.
The whole thing is delivered in Frances’s droll, abrasive first-person voice: “We can sleep together if you want,” she warns the man who will become her lover, “but you should know I’m only doing it ironically.” As Rooney says: “Frances is not an object of easy sympathy. But for me that’s what made her interesting.”
In the months that followed, Rooney would occasionally return to the manuscript, but mostly it lay semi-abandoned, somewhere between her bottom drawer and the back of her mind. Towards the end of that year, just as she was completing her post-grad degree, the idea for another story took up residence in Rooney’s brain. It would be, as she puts it now, “about people of the same age, in the same city, in the same college, looking at the same issues at pretty much exactly the same moment in history” as Conversations with Friends and, like the earlier tale, would be a love story of sorts, an attempt to “deal with romantic intimacy on a granular, almost forensic level”.
At first she wrote it as a short story (later published in the October 2016 issue of The White Review as At the Clinic) but something about the broadly symbiotic, intermittently sexual relationship between its two main characters, Marianne and Connell, demanded a larger canvas. So Rooney decided that she was “just going to bin Conversations with Friends; at that point nobody else had read a word of it” and instead plunge headlong into a Marianne and Connell novel, one that would track its faltering young duo episodically, from the end of their schooldays in small-town west Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College, between 2011 and 2015, Ireland’s “austerity years”.
Once again writing at speed, she rattled off an unsentimental and frank depiction of first love, whose characters often fail to recognise it as such. (Soon after they start sleeping together, Connell catches himself telling Marianne that he loves her. “Was it true? He didn’t even know enough to know that,” writes Rooney. “Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so that he could copy from example.”)
Rooney attributes her bracingly dispassionate writing style to having spent “too much time” on the internet, steeped in the irony-laden “you-can’t-laugh-at-me-because-I’m-already-laughing” tone favoured by millennial tweeters and emailers everywhere. “Tweets are almost always funny,” she says. “Even when they are political they are also funny, often in a kind of scathing way. That just became my default perspective.”
Around this time, she was contacted by a literary agent, Tracy Bohan at the Wylie agency in London, who had been impressed by an acerbic essay Rooney had written for the Spring 2015 issue of The Dublin Review telling the true story of how, “motivated by a desperation to be liked”, she had joined Trinity College’s student debating society and gone on to become “the number one competitive debater on the continent of Europe”. (Rooney has subsequently drawn a veil across her whole debating period; in the new book, Gareth, Marianne’s privileged sometime boyfriend, is identified pointedly as a member of a debating society that invites a neo-Nazi to give a speech.)
Bohan wanted to know what else Rooney had written and, she says, “it felt nice to be able to say then, ‘Oh, yeah, I actually have a novel lying around.’ I didn’t have the second one finished at that point so that was a good prompt for me to go back to Conversations with Friends and do the polishing that I knew it needed.”
The following year, Conversations with Friends sold in a seven-way auction to Faber and Faber as part of a two-book deal lucrative enough to enable Rooney to write full-time. When the novel was published in May 2017, it was greeted with critical approval and commercial success; Rooney was hailed as the voice of her generation. When I ask her about sales figures, she winces: “I don’t know if I should say this, but I didn’t actually take any interest in how much the book sold.”
In July, it was announced that Rooney’s follow-up — the Marianne and Connell novel, now called Normal People — had been longlisted for the Man Booker before it had even been published, making its now 27-year-old author the joint youngest contender for this year’s prize. When we meet, in early August, the Booker endorsement has helped quell Rooney’s nerves about the reception of the new novel — “Now I can say it’s been received well, even if only by literally five people on the Booker panel!” — but it hasn’t dispelled them altogether. “I definitely worried, and to a certain extent still do, that people would be like, ‘Oh it’s just the same book that she wrote last time’,” she tells me. “But I haven’t had a very wide-ranging experience of life. Having lived in Dublin, having grown up in the west of Ireland, there was only so much that I felt I could draw on imaginatively.”
She needn’t have worried. In the weeks following our meeting, a succession of broadly ecstatic reviews appear — along with the news that a television adaptation for BBC Three, a collaboration between Rooney and the Oscar-nominated director of Room, Lenny Abrahamson, is in the pipeline.
Whatever their other similarities, Rooney’s novels are remarkable for their high-definition depiction of their characters’ psychology. But where the earlier book maps only six months in the lives of its young cast — towards the end of which our narrator, Frances, concludes “you live through certain things before you understand them” — the more capacious time frame of Normal People allows us to witness the evolution of its initially teenage twosome as they help (and hinder) one another in their struggle to locate themselves in the world.
“Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her,” Rooney tells us in the first chapter, “and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become a part of it.” A few pages later the author catches Connell seeking ways to avoid having to reconcile his private desires with his public persona and duck “the ultimate question of what to do with himself or what kind of person he is”.
Although Rooney is now firmly established on the literary map and living what she identifies as a satisfyingly “normal” domestic life in Dublin with her boyfriend, a maths teacher — he’s not really interested in books, and I think that is probably good for me” — she is not yet convinced that she has answered that “ultimate question” for herself. In large part, the problem is political. In Normal People, Connell attends a book reading and feels sickened by the way literature is “fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they like to read about”.
While she points out that “it’s important to bear in mind that he is suffering from very severe clinical depression at that point in the story”, Rooney, a socialist, sympathises with his viewpoint. “To feel that literature has any politically redemptive power at all just seems increasingly naive,” she says.
For her master’s, she initially had a stab at politics and public policy because, she says, “I felt that was a more worthwhile thing to do with my brain, to point it in a more useful direction.” But the course turned out to be off-puttingly “dry and technical — it was quite a lot of reading papers about the double-balloting system in France,” so she dropped out after two months and transferred to American literature.
It still seems to rankle as a rare defeat. “I feel like I could devote myself to far more important things than writing novels,” she says now. “And I have just failed to do that.”
Could she not take the view, I ask, that by writing books for the pleasure and enrichment of those who like to read, she is fulfilling an important role of a different kind?
“Is it though?” she says, sitting forward in her seat, the reserve with which she began the interview now burned off by the heat of her beliefs. “Because, the thing about books is that anyone can read them. There are a lot of people who probably enjoyed Conversations with Friends who are part of the system that is actively exploiting other people’s labour. I am sure there are landlords who read it and thought it was a great read. Am I happy that I have given those people 10 hours of distraction? Not really!”
Nevertheless, following what she calls a “really long period of not writing anything except criticism and starting to get quite demoralised” — a period in which it was announced that she had also taken on the editorship of The Stinging Fly, a well-respected journal of new Irish writing — it seems that Rooney has in fact returned to fiction. Or, as she puts it, smiling in spite of herself, “I am kind of working on something which may turn out to be nothing.” Despite her earlier threat of Salinger-like retreat, might it turn out to be her third novel in as many years? “It may turn out to be another book. But you don’t know what will happen this early on in something, when you are only a few hundred words, or a few thousand words in.”
The smile fades and her face crumples in doubt. “There is a part of me that will never be happy knowing that I am just writing entertainment, making decorative aesthetic objects at a time of historical crisis,” she says. “But I am not good at anything else. This is the one thing that I am good at.”
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018