Sally Rooney is a phenomenon. She’s very young (26) but we can’t hold that against her. She has talent, energy, a strong sense of the world her generation inhabit and a direct way of talking (and writing) that is instantly appealing. She has a sharp mind and seems reluctant to engage in bullshit of any kind. She speaks very quickly, in a hurry to frame and express all she wants to say in response to a question and move on.
Unlike Elizabeth Strout (see previous entry), Rooney’s path to publication has been short. A 2015 essay in the Dublin Review (“Even if you beat me”) caught the eye of an agent who contacted her to ask if anyone represented her, because if not … Two years later her first novel Conversations With Friends – which was the subject of a seven-way bidding war – has arrived on our shelves courtesy of Faber. Her second novel is already underway.
When she’s asked about all of this, Rooney is devastatingly direct about what it means to her. She has made a straightforward economic bargain that allows her to write full-time. ‘Money legitimises what you’re doing,’ she says. But she’s keenly aware of the silences this situation masks, the exclusions that happen for would-be writers less fortunate than herself. It’s an issue we should all think about. ‘How do we make it possible for people to write full time? If we want to live in a society that values books and reading, we need to address this … (badly paid) internships etc mean that only people who can afford to live on no or very little money work in the arts world. That means we have creative individuals who only reflect that (economic position). What do we want our literary culture to look like?’ It’s a topic she returns to often, as when she points out that although there is an ongoing, healthy conversation about gender and exclusion in literature, that conversation has barely begun when it comes to class and ethnicity.
Her influences are broad; they include film, TV, music. When Rick O’Shea asked about her interest in jazz, Rooney said, disarmingly, ‘I’m not a jazz intellectual. I like songs with lyrics: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Julie London … otherwise it’s too cerebral.’ She admitted to loving Miles Davis but ‘he’s too smart for me’. No-one in the room believed this, not even for a nanosecond.
JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey made a big impression on her in her late teens and is still a favourite book. (The protagonist of Conversations With Friends is called Frances.) She reckons the influence of Salinger is probably evident in her novel. Another element of her novel, she says, is joy. Writing it was a happy time for her.
Rick O’Shea asked if her experience with debating (the subject of that Dublin Review essay) has fed into her ease with events like this one. She said, ‘it helps with an ability to speak in front of crowds but not with … I was going to say ‘fluency’ but it took so long to find the word, it would have been ironic.’ You have to admire this young woman. She’s quick, smart, honest and absolutely of her generation. She spoke about her frustration with novels, TV and films that labour plot points that could be settled instantly by a (mobile) phone call or google. They laughed about the number of times characters find themselves ‘out of coverage’ at vital moments. We need to find new ways to write technology into our stories, they agreed – and to recognise that evolving forms of communication are changing the nature of human relationships.
We were in a room in Belvedere House (in Joyce’s Alma Mater) that enshrines the past, with its perfect Georgian proportions and delicate plasterwork by stuccodore Michael Stapleton. Listening to this animated conversation between two people who are acutely tuned in to contemporary culture, I had a sense of the future quietly entering the room and taking its place among us.