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How Sally Rooney became millennial fiction's most important voice

At just 27, the Irish author of 'Conversations with Friends' and 'Normal People' is being touted as the voice of a generation. She talks to Ellen Barry about the repeal of Ireland's abortion ban, the politics of intimacy, and her wariness of success

Ellen Barry
Friday 07 September 2018 14:52 BST
'Jane Austen of the precariat': Rooney's characters communicate through emails and instant messaging, and are highly sceptical of modern capitalism
'Jane Austen of the precariat': Rooney's characters communicate through emails and instant messaging, and are highly sceptical of modern capitalism (TT News Agency/PA)

On the morning of Ireland’s abortion referendum this May, novelist Sally Rooney was sitting on an plane, scrolling through her Twitter feed and crying. They were tears of anxiety. It was the most important day in her life, politically speaking, a vote she had wanted to cast since she was 15, and as far as she knew the country was split right down the middle. Too much hung in the balance.

When she landed in Dublin, Rooney saw women handing out leaflets arguing for a repeal of the abortion ban and blurted out her thanks, “feeling very grateful to them, and feeling like they were my friends – but also realising they were complete strangers, and that there was nothing really behind my immense emotional attachment to them in that moment.”

Rooney had plenty of experience as an outsider, at least in her ideas. Raised in conservative northwest Ireland, she identified as a Marxist by her teens, and in college specialised in opinions so fringe-left that they could alienate leftists: that men belong to a privileged class and it is reasonable for feminists to hate them; that prisons should be abolished, as should borders and privately held capital. On the day of the abortion referendum, she expected another reminder that she did not belong.

As we now know, the result was a landslide vote to repeal the ban on most abortions, propelled by support among voters younger than 25. It meant that in Ireland, the past was past; new people were emerging. Rooney felt something unusual, that she was part of a coherent group of people who shared a set of ideas.

“I felt incredibly happy to feel normal,” she recalled. “It was like, ‘Oh, this is amazing. I feel so at home, walking down the street, seeing people who probably agree with my opinion.’”

Rooney, 27, has had that kind of year. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends, published last spring, received rapturous reviews. Her second, Normal People, just published, is on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Both are being adapted for film.

Most notable, though, is her word-of-mouth success. Her voice has been greeted as something identifiably new: the arrival of millennial fiction. She has been called “the Jane Austen of the precariat”, and compared to hipster luminaries like Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham.

And it is true, her characters are people we haven’t encountered much in print. They communicate through emails and instant messaging, but do not regard these as degraded forms: They do not just speak, but compose their remarks, like characters in an Oscar Wilde play. They are sceptical of the ability of markets to provide people with a decent life. They view human relationships – especially sex – as deeply political, worthy of unsparing and precise analysis, but do not seem to read the newspaper. Standing at the threshold of adult life, they halt, failing to see any reason to proceed.

Repeal the 8th: Rooney ‘felt at home’ after Ireland’s decision to withdraw the abortion ban (Reuters)

Rooney, who wrote Conversations With Friends while studying for a master’s degree in American literature, expected to reach readers like herself, “people who share my ideology or have a similarly jaundiced view of social systems.” Her mass-market success is clearly still a little disorienting. “Light and sparkling is the phrase that has been used,” she said. “I can’t complain if people think it’s sparkling, but then there’s a sense that wasn’t what I set out to do.”

As a student in a Catholic high school a decade ago, Rooney was required to attend lectures by Pure in Heart, an organisation that discouraged premarital sex. The presenters, having gathered a roomful of teenage girls, would ask for a volunteer to extend her arm and would display a length of clear adhesive tape, telling them that the tape signified them as virgins.

“This is you when you decide to sleep with your boyfriend,” they would say, attaching the tape to the girl’s arm and peeling it off, now cloudy with skin cells. Then they would do the same thing multiple times, to signify multiple partners, so that the tape was clogged with dirty particles, and hold it up before the class, asking, “Would you want to marry this?”

Rooney and her classmates sat there, smirking. “No piece of Sellotape strikes me as an adequate marital partner,” she said. “We perceived them as bizarre.” The abortion ban, she said, was more offensive: “It felt like a vestige of a culture that was not in tune with how people were living their lives.”

Rooney’s fictional 20-somethings furnish a kind of response. In the Dublin circles she describes, the Catholic Church barely figures. Relationships are everything. Sex is described with great care and detail. (“I could hear myself making a lot of noise, but only syllables, no real words. I closed my eyes. The inside of my body was hot like oil,” says Frances, the narrator of Conversations With Friends.) She writes attentively of pain, offering eye-watering descriptions of menstrual cramps caused by endometriosis.

Rooney arrived at Trinity College, Ireland’s most elite university, from Castlebar in County Mayo, where her father worked as a technician for the state-owned telecom company. Her parents were socialists; they so often repeated Marx’s slogan “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, that as a child she took it to be “a religious quote, or maybe a parenting guideline” .

She found her tribe as a competitive debater – at 22, she was the top debater in Europe – and settled into what she would later describe as “an analytic way of living”. She and her friend Aoife daydreamed about being “a brain in a jar,” liberated from the encumbrance of a body.

Her characters long for the analytic way, too, but are jolted out of it, again and again, often by sex. “I don’t really believe in the idea of the individual,” Rooney said. “I find myself consistently drawn to writing about intimacy, and the way we construct one another”.

They are battered, as well, by economic conditions. The 2008 financial crash, and its catastrophic effect on Ireland’s young people, hangs like an invisible backdrop to all of Rooney’s fiction. Her own friends, after receiving prestigious degrees, took retail jobs, or went on welfare, scrambling to pay exorbitant Dublin rents.

Rooney settled into ‘an analytical way of living’ at the prestigious Trinity College Dublin (Rex)

“In my parents’ generation, or even before that, people who are in their 30s or 40s, you’d go to college and it was easier to get a job in one of the big law firms, and you’ll be set up – you’ll be able to get a mortgage,” said Rooney’s partner, John Prasifka, 25, a high school math teacher. “Our generation is seeing that’s not worked out for us.”

Earlier generations may have naturally shed their leftist beliefs as they lofted into the middle class, he added. But with their cohort, he said, it is difficult to see that happening.

“I got all my Marxism from Sally,” he said cheerfully.

Last week, to avoid reading the wave of publicity that would accompany the release of Normal People, Rooney deactivated her Twitter account.

This was no small thing. For 10 years, Rooney has delighted in Twitter, trafficking in cerebral self-mockery (“♫ getting into lengthy Facebook wars about Greek debt / using words like “creditors” and “Eurogroup” in my actual free time / why ♫”); earnest declarations (“the Irish state has always been organised on the unpaid labour of women”); and too-cool-for-school banter (“this New Statesman piece from last year is so bad I laughed until I literally wept.”) Rooney even gave her character Frances, in Conversation With Friends, a “Twitter voice,” which she described as “a tone of casual self-revelation that deprives others of the ability to criticise”.

But now a lot of what she reads on Twitter is about her, and she hates that. The attention is hard for her to bear. During an interview in Dublin, she worried aloud that novelists are over-glamorised, and said newspapers should write more profiles of nurses or bus drivers.

“I can’t help feeling that I am not a very important person, and being treated like one gives me strange feelings,” she explained in an email. She lingered over the question of whether, in a world facing climate change and white nationalism, novels about intimate relationships – “small lives” – serve a political purpose. At some point, I realised I was no longer central to the conversation; she seemed to be interrogating herself.

“You cannot write about what people are really like without making a political adjudication,” she said. “All our ideas of what human nature consists of, or how people really feel and experience life are at their base political ideas.” Then she paused, and gave a different answer. “I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, and sometimes I feel, if I really believe this is the state the planet is in, why should I write novels? I must enjoy it.”

© New York Times

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