Sally Rooney is one of the most exciting voices to emerge in an already crackerjack new generation of Irish writers. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was written in three months – although she says the first draft was in “a terrible state” – and published in the spring of last year, to great acclaim. And here comes her second, Normal People, already being spoken of as even more accomplished.
The judges of this year’s Man Booker prize seem to think so; they have included the novel on their longlist (how does she feel about making the cut? “All the total cliches,” she says. “It’s amazing.”). Last year, she was named the PFD/Sunday Times young writer of the year, and she has been shortlisted for its EFG short story award as well. And she has just become the editor of the Irish literary magazine Stinging Fly, and published her first issue. She is 27.
We meet in a buzzy, coffee-in-a-specimen-jar type of cafe in Dublin’s Merchant’s Quay area, just south of the Liffey. Over the course of our conversation she is open without being expansive, relaxed yet precise in her responses. As we part, I check on a couple of basic facts – the name of her school, siblings, et cetera. She laughs at the lack of incident she has to relate and tells me: “Just say she was quite boring and normal!”
Spoiler: though I’d refer you to Rooney’s new novel to ponder the complicated concept of “normal”, she certainly isn’t boring.
What is it that Rooney does that has struck such a resonant chord? Why has she so swiftly been dubbed a “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”, a novelist of the Instagram age? According to her, “it’s just stories about fake people”. Additionally, they’re the kind of people you could easily find quite annoying: usually attractive, often quite wealthy, clever, urban and urbane, prone to self-reflection and keen on verbal sparring.
Conversations with Friends is the tale of young Dubliners Frances and Bobbi and their friendship (and more) with an older couple. In conversations with other readers, I have discovered the novel provokes a huge debate, much of it concerned with whether it has a happy or disastrous ending concerning Frances’s romantic life and her affair with the older married actor Nick. Rooney and I talk for some time about the attention that particular plot point has garnered, and I am delighted to report that she endorses my interpretation, also known as the fence-sitting position: “I don’t think I was strongly in either camp,” she says. Despite the bracing directness of her work, she seems drawn to equivocation, to teasing out the paradoxes that rigid views and actions can create.
That tightrope act has been picked up by critics. Reviewing the first novel in the New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz admitted to “the curious feeling that Rooney wasn’t always sure where she was going but that she trusted herself to find out”. And for Schwartz, it paid off: “She writes with a rare, thrilling confidence, in a lucid and exacting style uncluttered with the sort of steroidal imagery and strobe flashes of figurative language that so many dutifully literary novelists employ.”
In Normal People, we see Marianne and Connell from school in a small town in Sligo to Trinity College Dublin and through an on-off relationship, encountering them in a series of discrete scenes that take place between 2011 and 2015.
The narrative is shadowed by all manner of what Rooney calls “externalities” – the extreme dysfunction and violence in Marianne’s family, her wealth and Connell’s lack of it, and the wider backdrop of post-crash Ireland and the way its class structure impacts on the social and educational lives of the young – but she was clear that its major focus had to be the protagonists’ relationship. As with Conversations with Friends, the project started life as short stories, and with Rooney following her characters down the rabbit hole, dropping in at different moments in their lives, recording how each scene, “whether it be momentous or something small, has in some way altered the dynamic between these two people so that from this time forward it will be slightly – or a lot – different”.
I tell Rooney that I was struck by how great the gulf was between my experience of reading Normal People – its sheer immediacy and rawness gripped me, to the point that I read it in 24 hours, finishing at 3am – and my subsequent attempts to dissect how it worked, what level of artifice it employed and why (I add that this is intended as a compliment). What particularly compels are the baton switches of power, and the ways in which they often send the participants into bewildered disarray, as here:
She comes to sit down with him and he touches her cheek. He has a terrible sense all of a sudden that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him. The idea frightens him so badly that he pulls his chair back and stands up. His hands are shaking. He doesn’t know why he thought about it. Maybe he wants to do it. But it makes him feel sick. What’s wrong? she says.
But if Rooney’s talent is for interiority, for the precise, perceptive portrayal of mental and emotional landscapes, the power of her writing also relies on setting and social context, and on her presenting unglamorous, real-world problems – in Conversations with Friends, the central character had endometriosis – alongside less tangible challenges. Normal People is set during the years of austerity and, she says: “It would have been really difficult for me to write about young people leaving home in the west of Ireland, moving to college, and not confront the economic disparities that were emerging at that time, like the stripping back of protections for people from working-class backgrounds who were going to college. I don’t think I would have been able to really explore what was going on in those characters’ interior lives without being sensitive to the changes that were happening outside.”
Rooney was one of those mobile young people not so long ago. She was born and grew up in Castlebar, a town of around 10,000 inhabitants which is transfigured in Normal People as Carricklea, a place from which Marianne can’t wait to escape (“She’s never been inside the sports centre. She’s never gone drinking in the abandoned hat factory, though she has been driven past it in the car”). Although Rooney, too, yearned for “the biggest possible urban space” that Dublin offered, her upbringing appears to have been far more rewarding and generative than that of her creation. Her mother, for example, has only recently retired from running the local arts centre; both her parents are keen readers, although Rooney describes herself as reading in “a very flimsy way” in her adolescence, picking up anything that came to hand.
She joined a writing group when she was 15. “I would come in every week and get really excited about bringing in my little rubbish story!” she recalls. “It definitely wasn’t like I moved to Dublin and met other writers and then realised I wanted to be a writer; I was lucky that in Castlebar there’s a writing community, there were a lot of people around who were working seriously on really interesting stuff. So in that sense I was blessed, and I had people who were willing to encourage me when I was 15.” She has an older brother and younger sister, both of whom now live in Dublin.
The world she describes in Normal People is very much the rarefied realm of Trinity College, where she studied English literature as an undergraduate before completing a master’s in American literature. In her first week there, she met Thomas Morris, who became a close friend and published ahead of her, with his short story collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. “My only experience of Dublin at the time was Trinity,” Rooney says, “which is such a tiny section of Dublin society, and very insular. When I was in Trinity, at least for the first couple of years, I didn’t really interact with anyone who wasn’t in Trinity. A lot of the years I lived on campus. And these are very much the people I write about in the book, but that’s not me making a commentary on Dublin.”
Towards the end of Normal People, Connell goes to see a visiting writer read from his work, and finds it lacking: “It was culture as class performance, literature 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 liked to read about.”
Both Frances, from Conversations, and Connell have stories accepted by literary magazines during the course of the books, as did Rooney herself. But, like them, she didn’t embrace the prospect of the publishing world: “I wasn’t really interested in it. I wasn’t really interested in sending manuscripts out to agents. I just wanted to sit in my room and write.”
Rooney’s characters are politically literate and opinionated to different degrees, drawn to and sometimes upended by drink, drugs and sex. Frances and Bobbi wrangle endlessly about political and economic theory; Marianne hopes for a swift and brutal revolution. Like many young adults, the casts of both novels flirt with what they perceive as a “grown-up” world – in Normal People, there’s a dinner party in Italy, during which they squabble over the correct glasses for champagne, like middle-aged arrivistes – while also being semi-repulsed and frightened by it.
I ask Rooney about the large and loose group of writers with whom she’s now becoming associated, a group characterised by the range and innovation of their work, including Colin Barrett, Lisa McInerney and Eimear McBride. What does she think has caused such a flourishing of new talent? “I think first of all it definitely has to do with the financial crisis,” she replies. All the writers we’ve been talking about are post-crash, and “that’s when that stuff starts getting published. So there has to be something in the cultural conditions generated by the financial crisis that’s connected to the way people are writing now, or the way they’re thinking about fiction.”
She ponders whether the end of the Celtic Tiger years brought with it not only disillusion but “also a freedom to speak more critically about Irish society, in the way that maybe there was a bit too much cultural cheerleading going on during the Celtic Tiger years. Obviously the economy in particular, but also if you look at the social change that has emerged in those years since the crash in Ireland, I think it speaks to a deep cultural shift that has taken place in part maybe because of the recession.”
On this matter and others, Rooney is eager to qualify her arguments: she was, she points out, only a teenager during the years of boom and bust, and she is also wary of sounding as though “it was all worth it because we got some good books out of it”. But, she maintains: “I do think that it inaugurated a period of serious social critique, and from that we’ve seen a change – referendums and so on.”
The referendum that Rooney is talking about is the repeal of the Irish constitution’s eighth amendment at the end of May, in which the country voted overwhelmingly to allow women the right to terminate pregnancy. (We went on to talk about the other referendum, of which more in due course.) I knew that Rooney, along with many Irish writers, had been vocal in her support for the Yes campaign, and I ask her what the experience felt like.
“It’s hard to talk about it,” she says. “It’s something that I cared about a lot for a long time.” At school, she recalls anti-abortion groups visiting and showing the pupils videos of foetuses; beyond basic sex education, there was no counter-view outlining the argument that women should have control over their reproductive rights. She was, she says, “very oppositional” and “quite belligerent”; and this, she thought, was an issue worth feeling rage over, even though the prospect of repeal wasn’t even under discussion then. By the time the referendum came around, “it felt like I’d just been nursing that anger for a really long time”.
The day itself, she recalls, was a heady mixture of celebration, exhaustion, disbelief and relief, but it quickly yielded to a different perspective. “All that suffering was so pointless,” she says. “Why did we do that? Why did we do any of that? Thirty years. All this anger and sadness, and all the horrible things that have happened to people. People have actually suffered for this law, and people died … It was hard to sustain that feeling of jubilation because none of this should ever have happened.”
It’s striking that Rooney speaks in very calm and measured tones, frequently circling back to make sure she’s expressed herself clearly; but she also uses noticeably direct emotional language to describe aspects of her experience. It’s weird, she says, to let go of the “wound” that she felt over abortion law, pre repeal; and when we move on to talk about Brexit, she refers to the dismissive way that Irish concerns about the impact on the border and on the Good Friday agreement have been treated as “hurtful”.
Well in advance of the UK referendum, she argues, “everyone on this island was saying Northern Ireland is the big issue, and none of you are talking about it. It’s like the British media just didn’t care. All you kept talking about was whether Jeremy Corbyn’s a good Labour leader and if he cares about remain enough, and tariffs and rates. Is anyone in the UK listening?”
The stakes, as she points out, are high: “A civil conflict that claimed thousands of lives has recently finished due to an agreement that could have to be torn up. And it was maybe five minutes at the end of a half-hour Brexit chat.”
It feels more or less the same now, she says, “and meanwhile the DUP are basically in government”. I remark that, for a younger generation, whose lives and understanding of Irish history have been imbued with the conflict, and who believed that it had been resolved, the idea that anyone would allow peace to be threatened must seem like madness. “I think we’re in that position a lot!” she laughs.
Back to the writing. With two books out so quickly, is a third on the horizon? “I’m working on something,” she says, explaining that it only began life at the end of a recent summer holiday with her partner, a teacher. “And I honestly feel so much happier. When I’m writing something everything falls into place. When I’m not writing, stuff keeps happening to me and there’s nowhere to put it all.”
I wonder if she feels any kind of pressure to branch out, to write something set in a different milieu or time. She assures me that a thriller, or a work of historical fiction, will not be forthcoming (“The idea of having to …” she says, and trails off). But that’s not to say that there isn’t a certain degree of self-scrutiny. “A lot of the time I read something I’ve written and I think, well, that’s competent, it’s not exactly breaking any boundaries, it’s not exactly transgressive. It’s just a bunch of fake people in a room talking to each other. But maybe there’s a value to that … ” I point out that Jane Austen’s novels could be described as fake people talking in a room, and we briefly mention Henry James. The key, she thinks, might be “finding something you can do well, and accepting that, but not forcing yourself to take on other people’s ambitions for you”.
But it is clear that Rooney intends to keep on writing, however large or small her canvas becomes. And it’s also evident that the desire to write is its own reward. “There’s an open question, isn’t there? Why even read fiction now at this historical moment? And I can’t answer that.”
But it’s not your job to answer.
“No, it’s not. And I feel that I have to be very clear on that. I’m not writing to encourage people to read my book or even books in general. That’s not my job. My job is to write them. And if people want to read them, that’s great.
“I feel like it’s tough to toe that line. I’m not trying to denigrate my work. But at the same time, I’m not making any claims for it. It is what it is.”
• Sally Rooney’s Normal People is published by Faber. Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber, £14.99). To order a copy for £9.99, saving £5, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.