March 26, 2019

A Normal Person Conversation with Sally Rooney

by The Cut on Tuesdays

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We talked with Sally Rooney, author of Conversations With Friends and Normal People, about why she writes, how she’s smuggled socialism into page turners, the best way to keep her readers hooked, and much more. 

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From The Cut and Gimlet Media, this is the Cut on Tuesdays. I’m your host, Molly Fischer.



The first thing I can remember finding out about the writer Sally Rooney was that I might hate her. Or, at least, I might feel incapacitatingly jealous.

I’d heard about her from my friend Meaghan O’Connell. Meaghan had gotten an advance copy of Sally’s first book in the mail, and she remembers tearing it open and seeing a letter from the publisher. It described how the manuscript had inspired a “heated, multi-house auction” and was about to be published in 11 countries. The author was already a “well-established figure on the Irish literary scene”!  And then Meaghan saw the author bio on the jacket flap… 

MO: You see her bio and it’s like Sally Rooney was born in the west of Ireland in 1991 and it’s like an affront! Like, when did people start being born in the 90s? I remember taking a photo of that bio and being like a kind of bitter, jokey, who is this bitch? 

The overall vibe was very much: Check out this freakishly young writer who everyone already thinks is brilliant and hasn’t even released her first book yet!

Meaghan’s a writer too, and a bunch of her writer friends were already groaning over Sally Rooney. One of them had seen a BILLBOARD for the book in London. Another one had sent Meaghan an email that said, in all caps, “DO NOT READ THAT 24-YEAR-OLD’S BOOK!”

To be fair: Sally was actually 25 when she wrote that first book, Conversations With Friends. Still, Meaghan was extremely prepared to feel jealous of this new literary wonder girl. She was in her 30s, and where was the fawning praise for her unpublished book?

But here’s the thing: Meaghan LOVED Sally’s writing. 

MO: Her books are so engaging and I feel like I’m dropped back into whatever time of life she’s writing about and all those feelings. 

Yes, it had been written by a very smart, very young person… but it perfectly captured so much of what Meaghan remembered about being a woman in her twenties. It even captured the anxiety that she felt, now, when she read about Sally Rooney! How could she resent a writer who seemed to exactly understand her own brain?

MO: It gave me so much compassion for my young self, i wasn’t just an overconfident but completely insecure idiot, i mean i was, but you know like I also had no money and no power and no one was really helping me, you know, like, I was lost 

Meaghan wrote about this all in an essay called “Girl Wonder,” which I highly recommend. And I think because Meaghan’s experience was my introduction to the book, by the time I picked it up myself, I felt like I’d already been vaccinated against any jealousy. 

 <<MUX IN>>

Sally’s book Conversations with Friends is about two young women whose lives get entangled with those of an older couple. Frances and Bobbi and Melissa and Nick variously watch each other, talk with each other, lust after each other, and sleep with each other--first in Dublin and later in France. They do all this while also killing time online, making jokes about Marxism, and trying to make art. 

None of this, I realize, necessarily sounds earth-shattering--in some ways, it’s a pretty classic coming-of-age story. But the way Sally Rooney observes psychology and relationships is so precise, you feel like she’s mapping out emotions you didn’t know you’d felt. Conversations With Friends was praised everywhere from the London Review of Books to Sarah Jessica Parker’s Instagram. The LRB called it “a triumph.” SJP said: “I read it in one day. I hear I'm not alone.”

Indeed, Sally now has many fans, who have been eagerly anticipating her next book. It’s called Normal People, and it’s going to be published in the US in April. But, it’s already been out for months in much of the English-speaking world, and some American readers have been sneaking around -- ordering copies from British Amazon. One person actually told me she’d seen foreign copies, presumably black market, at her neighborhood bookstore in Brooklyn. Anyway, the point is, the people are growing impatient. The people demand Sally Rooney. 

Well, guess what we’ve got for you today: Sally Rooney.

MOLLY: I'm delighted to have you here. And I am a huge fan. So thank you for doing it. 

SALLY: Oh thank you so much. Thank you. That's really really kind. Now I'm really pleased that we're that we have a chance to talk. 

I wanted to hear how Sally thinks about the work she does… why she writes, and what it’s been like to find so much recognition so quickly. How has she managed to tell stories about navel-gazing post-adolescents in love that somehow don’t feel boring and cliche?

So I called her up. Sally’s 28 now. She grew up in the west of Ireland--her mom was a teacher, and her dad worked for the state telecom company. She went to an all-girls school, but she wasn’t much of a student, she says. 

SALLY: I was very lazy in school and I took that laziness as a as a part of my personality. I translated as the kind of rebelliousness and a refusal to do what other people told me.

MOLLY: You cultivated your laziness.

SALLY: Exactly when you begin to narrate your laziness is like a brave intellectual stance, like a refusal to do what you're told. Then it becomes something that you actually cherish and nurture rather than sort of challenging yourself. 

Take that with a grain of salt, I guess, but she does go out of her way to describe herself as a non-prodigy.

SALLY: when I read about other writers so often they're like incredibly precocious from a really young age and they're like inhaling Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf when they’re like 12. And that was not my experience at all. I had no real idea about literary history and I was also extremely intellectually lazy so I didn't really care to find anything out. 


SALLY: So it was just kind of a process of like picking stuff randomly from my parents shelves. My parents were and still are really broad readers and would have had loads of classics in the house and would have had a lot of like Irish literature which I just totally ignored. 

MOLLY: What would attract you?  

SALLY: Well what attracted me was whatever I thought was cool when I was a teenager. I thought J.D. Salinger was very cool--

MOLLY: Sure.

SALLY:  In fairness, I still I do love J.D. Salinger. Raymond Carver I thought was cool….

MOLLY: Quite cool. 

SALLY: I mean, 20th century American writers were cool to me. Anything British, I was not interested in. I didn't read anything from the 19th century and certainly nothing before then. it was kind of like, oh, that's just uncool; that reminds me of sort of BBC period dramas and I'm just not interested. And it was a shock to me when I got into my early 20s and started reading--particularly Austen was a kind of gateway into 19th century literature. And I found it funny-- like, I was actively laughing as I turned the pages I couldn't I couldn't believe that I had denied myself that for so long. All the things that my mother told me I  was going to love, I did--but it just took me longer. And I really wonder why!

Sally went to college at Trinity, in Dublin. And it was in college that Sally finally started paying attention to the things she’d grown up with, the things she’d always assumed were boring. 


SALLY: My parents are socialists and I was brought up in a like left wing household with strong socialist principles. I mean my mother raised us with the maxim of, like, from each according to their ability to each according to their need. And I thought that that was like a religious phrase... I didn't even know you I didn't even know that I was Marx. Until I think it was like a couple of years ago I was like, wait a second

MOLLY: Like something you embroider on a pillow maybe as opposed to Marx…

SALLY: But in fairness it sounds like something Jesus would have said like 

MOLLY: yeah!

SALLY: it had the ring of a moral principle and it was applied that way in our house so like when we complained about things being unfair or like someone got more of this than I got or I wasn't allowed to watch TV yesterday or whatever. 

MOLLY: yeah

SALLY: You know mundane household complaints, they would be adjudicated on the basis of this principle. So that was just something that I accepted as being the correct way to adjudicate moral disputes and then later realized that was Karl Marx so definitely there was an undercurrent of Marxist ethics in our upbringing. 

But I never actually read Marx until I got to college. It was something akin to I guess religious faith like you were raised in a particular faith and you sort of believe that it's true maybe in some cases without having really examined the intellectual history or whatever and that was certainly the case for me in Marxism. 

MOLLY: So you're sort of a born again socialist. You've had a conversion experience.

SALLY: Yeah yeah yeah exactly. Well it's like in much the same way that I now appreciate my parents approach to literature. So it was stuff like reading the texts that had actually informed my thinking without me really realizing that they had informed my thinking, a lot of the intellectual world opened up for me at that point.

College was where everything kicked into gear for her. She was reading the classics and the theory that she’d ignored before. And she also joined the college debate society. Debate, she found, came easily to her.

In Sally’s new book, one character who’s just starting at Trinity is described feeling like her brain is a powerful machine that can do anything she wants it to. You get the sense Sally’s probably acquainted with that feeling. The question was what she wanted the machine to do.

 <<MUX IN>>

Sally went on to become the number-one ranked college debater in Europe--a minor celebrity, within the tiny world of competitive debate. And then she quit. It was after a tournament where she was assigned an argument about Bosnian politics, during a championship match held in Belgrade. She knew that debating was just a game, but as she was bullshitting her way through Bosnian history, in front of a Bosnian audience, something felt different. Sally’s said that after that match, playing the game--making arguments as if they were detached from human experience--had come to seem “depressing and vaguely immoral.”

Not long after she quit, she wrote an essay about college debate for the Dublin Review. It was that essay that first caught the attention of an agent. She asked whether Sally had written any fiction she could send over. And Sally had: She’d actually been writing stories all along, ever since she was a self-described “lazy” teenager. At first, she was mostly just copying the things she thought, at the time, were cool.

SALLY: When I read Franny and Zooey  I just wanted to be J.D. Salinger and to write the kind of stuff that he was writing and I had no interest in transplanting it to my own cultural circumstances so it would be set like in Manhattan or it would be like it would be set in the 1950s because that was the only way that I could imagine reproducing an aesthetic that I found appealing. literally transplanting it into the exact social and cultural framework in which I first encountered it. So it took me a really long time to be able to write about my own social world like I didn't write anything set in Ireland for like a really really long time probably until I was in my 20s and I'm like I was writing through my whole teenage years so that was yes it was a long time of setting stuff in America

What she really liked about Salinger was the way he described interpersonal connections: He had all these neurotic, intellectual, unhappy people, talking endlessly and writing to each other about their feelings. But none of that’s specific to Manhattan, or the 1950s. There are neurotic people with feelings everywhere.

SALLY: Like the country that I actually live in for example being a big one

MOLLY: Yeah.

SALLY: but also the world being populated by the kind of people who I actually know. Again not that I'm drawing on real individuals from my work but the kind of social world that I have actually inhabited and being able to do that was it was a big step for me as a writer I think. 


In Conversations With Friends and in her second book, Normal People, Sally describes the feelings of unhappy intellectuals who inhabit the world she actually knows. Normal People follows an on-again, off-again relationship between two students as they go from a provincial high school off to college in Dublin. As Sally writes near the end of the book, they’re “two people who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone.” And like I said before, there’s nothing obviously exciting about that. But the pleasure of the book is the way Sally conveys the emotional logic. You can see why these two people couldn’t leave each other alone. You can feel it.

For Sally, that’s where stories begin--in the space between two people.

SALLY: My ideas always thus far have arrived in the form of a dynamic between two or more characters so if I come up with a very compelling single character that's not an idea that's just like a passing thought. But if I come up with two characters and they have some kind of little frisson between them whether it's like romantic or it's a friendship or it's conflict or whatever it is it could be a family dynamic. That's when I want to actually start writing because there's something narrative about a dynamic between two or three or four people 


SALLY: there is the sense that it can change and develop in a way that I want to follow and track the sort of balancing and rebalancing of. Whereas one single person is kind of to me as an idea just feels like well that's complete in itself. And I don't know why I feel that way it's not as if I've never read a novel with a single protagonist that worked as a novel. Plenty have.

But for me it needs to be like a balancing act and usually with some kind of power disparity involved between two or more characters and then once I get that then I can just sit down and write it because I know what I'm following. I'm following that disequilibrium trying to right itself between two or you know a whole group of characters and that's what really interests me.

MOLLY: If it's always founded in a relationship between two people and power is always part of that, it sort of means that you're inevitably going to be exploring something about I don't know the ethics of how human beings deal with one another... 

SALLY: Yeah that's definitely true. And actually when I started writing Conversations With Friends I found myself thinking philosophically and ethically in a different way because of the problems that I invented for myself to encounter in the process of writing the book. And I found that I turned a lot to reading about feminist ethics and sort of care ethics and the idea of placing interpersonal relationships at the center of philosophy rather than placing the individual decision maker, the individual agent at the center of ethics. And I found that so persuasive and interesting and it really has motivated me. 

When Sally was a champion debater, right and wrong was a matter of impersonal logic. But the idea of “care ethics” means thinking about “right” and “wrong” in a way that takes into account the different ways different people are vulnerable. It means thinking about how people depend on each other, and coming up with an idea of morality that’s based on those relationships.

SALLY: It's not like it's an answer to the questions that I encounter but it's a way of approaching those questions in a way of framing them that says well maybe the basic unit of how we think ethically shouldn't be the person, it should be the relationship between people whether it's parent child relationships or sibling relationships or romantic relationships that those are actually the ethical units that structure moral frameworks. And I guess one of the reasons I find it so interesting is because I still don't fully understand what it's so different from the kind of ethical assumptions that I've always just thought were true - like law, like the criminal justice system are all structured around the individual decision maker who could do the right or wrong thing and then get punished or praised accordingly. And then to think about it in a different way is like Wow OK well now we need to start from the very beginning. All the assumptions that I make about ethics were maybe wrong and I need to start from scratch and think again about everything. 

Yes so that's such a huge philosophical project to engage in that I definitely feel like it could last the rest of my life and I still would not have actually figured it out completely. 

No one’s turning the pages of a book like Conversations With Friends thinking, ah yes, an examination of care ethics. Those are the questions that interest Sally as a writer--but for the reader, it comes through as something simpler:

SALLY: I think if there's a if there's a well enough rendered sense of sexual tension, the reader will read almost anything. 

That’s after the break.


Welcome back to the Cut on Tuesdays. Today on the show we’ve got the writer Sally Rooney. Her new book, Normal People, is out next month, and it’s one of the most anticipated books of the year. Her fans are a pretty rabid bunch.

And when I talked to Sally, she described how the things that keep her interested when she’s writing are the same things that keep readers reading.

SALLY: The reason that romantic and sexual relationships have predominated particularly I think is probably due to first of all my own whims because I find them interesting. I mean I just like I find them sort of there's a little bit of energy or a frisson in them that makes them that gives the novels their sense of or hopefully gives the novels their sense of forward momentum. 

MOLLY: Yeah.

SALLY: So like the page turning aspect of the books is driven by a kind of sexual tension to find out what the resolution will be. And so I find that like a helpful narrative principle to sort of hang a lot of what I do on like I think if there's a if there's a well enough rendered sense of sexual tension, the reader will read almost anything to find out what the resolution will be so that for me is like a helpful narrative principle but then also I'm just I guess part of it is also because I'm very interested in gender and I'm interested in sexuality and from a from a feminist perspective trying to tease those the contradictions in relationships between men and women the situations in which I find the complexities reveal themselves most can often be within the context of sexual relationships, so when I'm trying to write about the very fine detail fine grained intimacies shared between men and women 

MOLLY: mhm 

SALLY:  one way that it's easy for me are not easy but one way that it's satisfying for me to dramatize those intimacies is through sexual exchanges and sexual relationships or romantic relationships or in many cases friendships that have a little bit of sexual tension in the background. 

MOLLY: The most fun kind. yeah

SALLY: Exactly. I do find - I'm trying to think about like how little could I do. Like how little sexual tension could I introduce to give it that push like and I don't know because so far I've done like quite heavy on the sexual tension. So that like there's there's been a real forward momentum that has been propelled by sexual desire. And I wonder could I scaled back but still keep it at the level where there would be enough momentum to drive the rest of the narrative forward? I don't know. 

MOLLY: Forty years from now you can reach your late period and everything can just be like a few very loaded glances with a lot of sexual tension but not a lot of action 

SALLY: Totally, 

MOLLY: everything can be entirely subterranean.

SALLY: I'm longing for that. And like Austen is a master of that as well. Like all the sexual energy of the novel is put into somebody moving a chair across the room a certain way. And it's amazing. Like that's enough momentum for the whole book is that like you know when Knightley kisses Emma's hand or whatever that's like oh my god that's so intensely sexual as a moment just because that sexual energy has to be released somehow because it’s so ingrained in everything that the novel is doing. So yeah I would love to be able to do that. But so far there are there are explicit sex scenes both of the books so maybe in future...

MOLLY: There's actual sex 

SALLY: Yeah, there's actual sex that happens quite a lot although I've wondered about going the other way and doing them even more explicit because in a sense the way that I've written about sex so far has been relatively coy. As in it's stated that the characters are having sex but there's not a lot of explicit description of their sex scenes. You know how they take place on a sort of mechanistic level. So I wonder about also doing not like doing it even more so because I think sometimes I the reason I don't do that is a sort of protective instinct like I don't want to I don't want to do it because it's embarrassing or I don't want to do it because to see it criticized on the Internet would be too painful for me. And then maybe those aren’t very good instincts as a writer, like i shouldn’t be trying to protect myself from like what people might say on twitter, i should be doing whatever’s true to my artistic integrity at some higher level than that.

 <<MUX IN>>

Usually when people describe a young author in terms of their youth, it seems like a way of saying that they’re trendy, or that they happen to be writing about something flashy and new in the zeitgeist. Or else it’s a reason to fear them--because holy shit, how has someone so young accomplished so much, and what does that say about what you’re doing with your life?

When you think about youth that way, it seems like a frivolous thing to be talking about. It sounds superficial or dismissive. When you read Sally Rooney’s books, though, I don’t think her youth is beside the point.

She’s writing about what it feels like to still be wide open when it comes to the things like sex, art, political idealism, or your own intellectual abilities… things it might feel naive to take seriously when you’re older and supposed to be more jaded. Sally is good at capturing young-person things like online flirtation, but she’s also good at capturing the eternal experience of being young: of feeling like your life is pure potential, and you’re out in the world for the first time, waiting to see what the world says. Speaking as a slightly older person: It’s intoxicating to read. And for Sally, it can be intoxicating to write. 

SALLY: if I get an idea for something and I'm super jazzed about it I all I want to do is sit down and write all the time.  So all of my other commitments fall completely by the wayside like I'm late to meet people. I don't do the washing up. I just like forget to eat lunch in the middle of the day I'm just working all the time and I'm very happy. And then I'm very frustrated and then I'm very demoralized and then I'm happy again. But it's all focused around the work which has become the focal point of my life. And then in periods when I'm not writing you know I don't I'm not one of these people who says to myself that I have to write every day or I have to do a certain amount. I mean I can go weeks or even months without really writing anything at all.  And so and during that sort of time again I go through much the same cycle of feeling demoralized and frustrated. And then sometimes feeling happy and sort of content and just living my life normally and like seeing people, like cooking meals and all that kind of thing and reading a lot and I never have any intuition of when it's going to begin again. So like it could be that tomorrow I wake up and think OK this is it I'm back. I have to do I have to write thousands of words I have to like bang my head against the scene until I make it work or it could be you know in three weeks time or maybe it could you know and this is obviously the  predominates over my professional life. Maybe it could never happen again. I will never wake up wanting to write another novel. And that's an anxiety that I kind of have to just deal with because it's it's always going to be there that whenever I'm not writing I'm always afraid that I'm never going to write again. 

MOLLY: You've written your last word at that point perhaps. 

SALLY: Yeah yeah yeah. Or I have had my last good idea.

Probably all writers have felt some version of that anxiety. When Sally sits down to write, though, she’s not just reckoning with the blank page in front of her. She’s also reckoning with the pages she’s already filled--the ones that made her Sally Rooney, literary wonder girl. 

SALLY:  you know sitting down at my laptop and thinking I'm Sally Rooney now sitting down at my laptop and I'm going to write one of those Sally Rooney books the last two and it's just such an absolutely bizarre feeling because obviously in the process of writing those books I had no identity as a writer. I was just a random person and writing each sentence as I went along with no sort of structuring identity behind the construction of those stories or those sentences. And I don't know if I will ever be able to get that feeling back now.

MOLLY: Have you found it affecting the way you write it all?

SALLY: Well I guess what I'm now wondering is whether to just write about it. You're left with the choice of either ignoring it and trying to stay true to the sets of concerns that you had before it happened. But in my case that would mean staying true to someone who is like 24, 25 years old. And you know I you know I feel like that person needs to grow like there's not there's not enough life in that person yet to keep on reaching back to for more and more material.

Sally’s gotten famous writing about being young. But that’s because all she’s had time to do so far…. is be young. And because she’s really good at writing about it. But I think she’ll probably be pretty good at writing about being not-so-young, too.

That’s it for this week’s show. We’ll see you next Tuesday.


The Cut on Tuesdays is produced by Sarah McVeigh and Olivia Natt.

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