Success Story: Meet Ireland’s Latest Literary Prodigy

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author and editor SALLY ROONEY about success, SECOND BOOKS and SOCIAL INSECURITY

At the risk of making her blush, Sally Rooney is something of a literary prodigy, judging by the scale of her achievements in little over a year. From the moment the Mayo native first unveiled her debut Conversations with Friends in 2017, practically every reputable newspaper and magazine has wanted a piece of her. Among her many accolades are Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, as well as the Sunday Times, Observer and Telegraph Book of the Year, and she has been showered with plaudits.

In December 2017 Sally was appointed editor of The Stinging Fly, quite possibly the most prestigious literary journal in Ireland. At the time of our interview, her new novel Normal People has just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, even though it has not yet been formally published.

Born in 1991, her youth has not gone unnoticed. The last thing I want to do is patronise her – success is success, regardless of age. Goodness knows, she’s earned it. Rooney is living the dream, simply by making a living from a job that she loves, right from the beginning. Rooney is nothing if not modest and measured; “Thank you for this extremely flattering summary of my career thus far,” she replies. “It makes me feel as if I should retire. I don’t suffer from impostor syndrome. I think my success has been extremely arbitrary and based almost entirely on chance, but I also think that about success in general. Of course I don’t think I ‘deserve’ success, but who does? I can only write to please myself – if it pleases other people I’m very glad, but I also have to be open to the idea that it might not. I do agree I’m living the dream, in that I have an income I can live on and a job that I find meaningful. For that I honestly do feel lucky every day.

I’m looking forward to sharing Normal People with people, definitely. I’m also a little apprehensive about the whole cycle beginning again so quickly. I love writing but I do find publication quite stressful. And as for prizes, it is always nice to be nominated, but I find it’s best not to think about them too much.”

I admit I feel guilty for briefly disturbing Sally’s calm before the storm: she answers my questions from her holiday in France explaining; “I’ve spent most of the summer here. We used to come on holidays here when I was growing up, because we have French-Irish cousins. It’s nice to be around family and learn a little about the history of the area, but I don’t have any special connection with France otherwise – I don’t even speak French. I like Marcel Proust but I don’t think that counts. I went to see his childhood home on the Boulevard Malesherbes when I was in Paris. I have been doing a little writing while I’ve been here, but nothing readable yet.”

After all the build-up surrounding Normal People, which hits bookshelves this week, I can safely say that it’s worth all the fuss. As with Conversations with Friends, the new work examines the complexities of relationships, this time with two intertwined central characters – Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan. The pair are symbiotic and at times co-dependent as they navigate school in the west of Ireland before moving on to Trinity College Dublin. The text often conveys the sense of feeling separate in a society where everyone else seems to have it all figured out. Normal People is fundamentally about how humans hold the power to alter each other’s lives, even in subtle ways. Rooney started writing this book in 2015, before Conversations with Friends was accepted by Faber & Faber, so apprehension regarding the second novel curse wasn’t really on the cards, while pessimistic pondering comes with the territory.

“In that sense I was spared some of the worry,” she says. “As to how I shook off negative thoughts, I did not. I don’t think it would be possible for me to do so. Hard to imagine what my life would be like without negative thoughts, or how I would ever write any books at all.”

Rooney’s free-flowing yet precise form has given her an unmistakable identity; in many ways it is her own stamp on modern Irish literature. As with her debut, in Normal People there is beauty in the banal and elegance in life’s intricate details, whether it is the placing of a cup or a flick of a glance, adding weight to the phrase, “Actions speak louder than words.” Nothing is wasted; every moment makes an essential contribution towards illustrating a greater scene.

Familiar themes such as love, blood ties, friendship and social awkwardness run throughout the book, along with darker issues. Part of Normal People’s backdrop is a vivid depiction of a particular moneyed Dublin set in Trinity’s student body; terrain on which Sally has trodden before. “I’m very interested in questions of class, and observing how those large abstract considerations play out in the small everyday activities of our lives,” she explains. “Maybe that’s partly why I’m interested in writing about a class of people – I suppose you could call it the ruling class, and their children – to which I don’t belong. But mostly I just fumble my way through the writing process without any idea what I’m doing, and only afterwards come up with rationalisations.”

The class of which Rooney speaks is one that Marianne technically holds a key to, where Connell does not. What binds them is their shared outlook and their detachment. “I think it’s true that both Connell and Marianne feel detached from the rules that seem to govern ordinary social life. Sometimes rules like that – not only around gender and sexuality, but around personality and status – seem quite harmless and even imperceptible, but when the relationship between the two characters begins to transgress those rules, even in a small and fairly innocent way, it calls a system of social life into question for them.”

Rooney has gone to a more tenebrous place with Marianne’s turbulent upbringing. Domestic and familial abuse are topics which continually need airing, but it turns out there is no underlying message behind Marianne’s troubled roots. “Of course I agree with what you say about domestic abuse – that we need to develop better ways of understanding and speaking about it, and to recognise it as a public and political problem as well as a personal issue. It’s something I think about often. But I can’t say I wrote the book in an attempt to make that point – I was just trying to depict the interior lives of these characters. I don’t think the book is ‘saying’ anything about familial abuse as a general phenomenon, or making any statements about victims or abusers. It’s just a portrait of two people, and I hope a convincing portrait.”

Finally, what does Sally hope readers will ultimately gain from Normal People? Her response is, as ever, grounded. “I really just wrote it for myself. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone other than me even reading it, never mind gaining anything from it. I just hope I have done justice to the story I wanted to tell.”

Normal People (€14.99) by Faber & Faber is available nationwide now.

@SophieGrenham

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