Meet The 26-Year-Old Debut Novelist Who Has Written The Book Of The Summer

She’s the 26 year-old debut novelist from the Liberties in Dublin whose first offering, Conversations With Friends, has been compared to some of the greats. From Sheila Heti and Edna O’Brien to even, yes, J. D. Salinger. But in person Sally Rooney has none of the bravado you might expect of someone of her prodigious talent. Chatty, open and with a razor-sharp wit particular to a generation that cut its teeth online, she spoke to us openly about some of the wider issues underscoring her book – including race, sex and gender – which in her careful treatment, emerge far more complex and often funnier, than we could have ever imagined.
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First of all I want to congratulate you on such an honest and observant debut novel. How are you finding the newfound attention?
Well thank you. That’s very kind. The attention, I have to say, has been quite surreal. From when it went to auction I knew that the book might attract quite a bit of attention, so I’d prepared for that, but not me. Nothing prepared me for being in the spotlight, as a person. And I feel so unprepared for that. I keep thinking, 'I’m not a famous person. I’m not a public figure!'
The level of personal scrutiny might also be caused by the fact that central character, Francis, seems to be semi-autobiographical. Is that the case?
No, not at all. But I wonder why that is? Is it because it’s in first person? Is it because some of the structural tropes are similar – Francis studies English at Trinity, I studied English at Trinity, for example. Her parents live in Mayo but she lives in Dublin. My parents live in Mayo and I live in Dublin. But besides that it is 100% fiction. None of the stuff in the book has happened to me. But I felt I had to set it quite close to the circumstances of my life because that’s the social milieu I’m familiar with. The book is so much about observing people’s manners and the way they behave, that it would be hard for me to execute if I had set it in a world I wasn’t familiar with.
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Do you see it as a feminist book?
Oh yes, very much so. And I think the kind of questions that it’s concerned with are feminist questions about how men and women relate to one another, and how women relate to one another, and how we can work our way out of these quite oppressive relationship norms that have dominated for such a long time. The sort of culturally normative forms of relationship are pretty oppressive, traditionally, and so I think the novel asks how we can escape that, and what terrible mistakes are we going to make along the way?
There’s a lesbian relationship that is taken entirely for granted and doesn’t form the central focus of the book. Do you think as a society we’re finally reaching a point in which heteronormativity is breaking down?
I think so, yes. So many people have written incredible fiction – are still writing so much incredible fiction – about the difficulties of coming out and about the homophobia that obviously so many people still suffer. And that’s still such an important narrative that needs to be told, because we still have so much to learn about how diverse and how different those experiences can be. But in a way, most of the time people just get on with their lives. Homophobia still exists. Sexism still exists. But we’re not conscious of it every waking minute of the day. And that’s what my book centres on. None of the characters in the book could be described as traditionally exploitative men who just want to take advantage.
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We’re moving the discussion on to look at some of the more nuanced and unexpected ways in which these things manifest…
Yes. It’s kind of like saying, 'Let’s say we all agree homophobia and sexism are bad, what do we do then?' The characters in the book would never think of themselves of being homophobic or sexist – the idea would seem absurd to them. But can they still be guilty of it? And the other point is that most of us don’t feel solely defined by sexism or homophobia. Most women in their daily life don’t feel as though they are solely and constantly defined by being the victims of sexism. You have so much other stuff going on. Often it takes place in ways we don’t notice, while thinking about our own lives.
Comparisons with Sheila Heti have been made before, and the honesty and fallibility of the central character really did remind me of the first person voice used in How Should a Person Be?
I thought that novel was incredible. I read it years before writing this but I feel as though it stayed with me. The immediacy of the voice – the very direct way of speaking, that’s so far from being high, literary prose – was really exciting to me.
Do you see yourself as an Irish writer and do you see the book as forming a part of Irish literary tradition?
That image of romantic Ireland that’s epitomised in Yeats and even to an extent Joyce, who I think is a really interesting writer but has been co-opted by that same image of romantic, literary Ireland, sends shivers down my spine. That fetishisation of Yeats and his mystic twilight or whatever, doesn’t speak to any of my experiences growing up in Ireland. But am I an Irish writer? Absolutely. Am I an Irish person? Completely. In my national affiliation I feel very Irish, no more so than when I am in Britain. And I feel a strong affinity with Irish writers who are working now. Writers like Lisa McInerney and Colin Barrett. There’s a really vibrant literary scene in Ireland now that’s dealing with the weird contradictions of Irish society in a very honest way.
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At the heart of the novel is a relationship between Francis and an older, married actor called Nick. How easy was it to write that relationship?
It came pretty easily. I understood these characters as people – as the author, you know them better than they know each other. In one sense it fits with that classic narrative of the young ingénue having an affair with an older married man, but I wanted to complicate the power dynamics that we attribute to that dynamic. And I think as the book goes on, you come to see Nick as a very different character. And as a writer I found that very interesting, because at the same time as I was trying to understand him as a character, I was also trying to conceal him from Francis, and she spends a lot of the book misunderstanding him. I had to hold both knowledges in my hands.
That’s a big ask of any writer, but particularly someone of your age. Were you always writing?
I always worry when talking about this, because I don’t want to be misunderstood. But I was always writing through my childhood and teenage years and my parents were always big readers and the house was full of books. My parents were always very tolerant of their bemusing daughter who was writing stories and I’m very appreciative of that. And County Mayo, where I grew up, has a lot of writers’ communities. I don’t think I was even conscious of it at the time, but I thought it was completely normal to be able to attend several writing groups a week. And they were very welcoming to me and didn’t mind that I was younger. So yes, writing always felt like a very normal thing to do.
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What advice do you have for other young women writers?
There is a huge disparity between the number of published men and women. And I don’t want this to sound victim-blaming – as though there aren’t several external factors causing it – but women sometimes lack the same confidence. I have male friends who will finish a first draft and just send it out straight away. I have to work on it and work on it. I have that cautiousness, like a lot of women, and I’ve been socialised to behave like that. So I guess my advice would be to trust yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable sending out what you have immediately, that’s ok. Work on stuff at your own pace. Also don’t read profiles of writers and think, 'Oh I’m not like that person, which means I can’t be a writer'. I even become worried that I could say something that another woman – like me, reading it – will be put off by. Writers are all very different. If you want to write something and you’re writing, then just trust in the fact that you’re already a writer.
Photo: Jonny Davies
You’ve said that you wrote the book quite intensively. Was it hard letting go of the characters once you had finished?
Yes, because I identify with all four of the central characters very strongly. I feel like that was really important for me in the writing process, to empathise with their decisions and to understand the sometimes crazy things that they were doing. So I had to be on their level. I felt that was necessary. But now the book is written it’s hard to hear criticism of them. And that might sound trivial or silly and obviously I’m open to people reading the book and hating all four of them – that’s totally fair enough – but I can’t help feeling like, 'Oh, but they’re like me. I made them. How dare you criticise them!'
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I think the result of that approach is a novel that feels completely real, like a very plausible window into a life…
Thanks. I worry that when people hear ‘feminist book’ they will think it’s going to be about men being horrible to women and women getting their own back. And I totally believe in that narrative: women should get their own back. But the reason it didn’t appeal to me as a writer is because I felt I had to sympathise with all of my characters. And there was no way I was going to be able to get inside the head of a traditionally predatory, exploitative man. I just wouldn’t have been able to inhabit his world. So it had to be more nuanced.
I think it’s important to come to terms with not just how we’re victims of certain oppressive structures, but also the oppressors. At one point they have a conversation about being white people and it raises an important question of, well, once you’ve recognised your privilege, what do you do next? White people, on balance, are bad. White supremacy is still prevalent and we are having white privilege and we use it in ways we’re probably not even aware of. And I think Nick probably feels the same way about his masculinity. He’s a pretty woke guy, he’s read Judith Butler, but what to do then? It’s very difficult to disclaim your identity.
Is there anything outside of your reading habits that put you onto these issues and made you want to address them in your work?
I spent my teenage years on the internet – on MSN Messenger. I had my own laptop as I was finishing secondary school, so I was all the time talking to people online – both friends from school and people from other countries who were my internet friends. So although I was obviously growing up in County Mayo, I was also immersed in the culture of the internet, which has been a way for lots of people to understand alternative viewpoints and perspectives. I also think it's important for those methods of communication to find their way into literature. If you look at the epistolary novels of the 18th and 19th century, they existed because people were getting to know each other via letters. And it’s the same now. It would be dishonest for the emerging ways we communicate online not to somehow find their way into literature.
Conversations With Friends is published 1st June by Faber.
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