As the end of the year approaches – and with it the tendency to scan the past 12 months, noting our failures, regrets, zeniths and victories – the Irish novelist Sally Rooney can take a moment to feel good about things.
When we meet, at a central London café on a December afternoon, she is town because she has just won a major literary prize: the prestigious 2017 Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award in association with the University of Warwick.
“It's so nice this [prize] coming right at the end of the year,” she says smiling. “It feels like such a nice way of ending the year my debut book came out.”
Rooney, who is still only 26 and as fresh-faced and enthusiastic as most 26-year-olds are, saw her debut novel, Conversations With Friends, published to critical acclaim last summer. The New Yorker called it a “consistently wonderful novel” – and this month it features in many of the most respected best-of-2017 round-ups.
The year has been so triumphant that the ferociously intelligent, brilliantly articulate Rooney sweetly resorts to cliché when reflecting on it. “It's been such a dream,” she grins. “I feel like I've just been so blessed.”
While I was editing it, I was re-reading Emma and I was like, "Oh my God, so many of these themes are identical"
Conversations With Friends is perhaps an unusual book to come out of Ireland – a novel of manners set among a well-to-do crowd of artists and actors and writers, it features Frances, our Trinity College student narrator, and her best friend (and ex-girlfriend), Bobbi. Neither is particularly concerned with the romantic notion of an Emerald Isle and they aren’t too bothered by the Catholic Church. Presumably, if you asked them, they would have an opinion – they are as smart as their author and Rooney has them earnestly discussing (often in instant messages and emails) subjects such as the ethics of monogamy and emotional labour. But these are young women who have come of age in a post-recession Ireland where the Church’s grasp on power has loosened. Their outlook is different to Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls, although Frances does find herself drawn to an older married man, just like O’Brien’s Kate.
Discussing the novel’s influences, Rooney says it is “in conversation” with Jane Austen’s Emma. “While I was editing it, I was re-reading Emma and it was so strange. I was like, ‘Oh my God, so many of these themes are identical,’” she admits. “There's the sort of intense almost romantic friendship with another woman, there's the love interest who is much older and very wealthy, and the sort of ailing father in the background. All of the relationship dynamics in many ways were being echoed in Conversations With Friends, totally unconsciously, because I had not got Emma on my mind while I was writing it.”
She was always keen for her debut to avoid becoming an “issues” novel and she didn’t want to present a narrative of female victimhood. “I feel like a lot of our culture at the moment is saturated with stories about women as victims, particularly as victims of violence and sexual violence,” she says. “Obviously, it's really important that we're having those conversations, but sometimes it can become kind of overwhelming [seeing] yourself as a vulnerable entity in a world that’s conspiring against you and wants to do harm to you. Part of me wanted to write a book where young women have agency and they're just excited to go and live their lives and not feel that sense of constant victimisation.”
That said, writing about women in Ireland inevitably means confronting a legacy of misogyny. “It's really hard to write a story about young women in their twenties who are sexually active without encountering the fact that there is an abortion ban,” Rooney concedes. “It's just really difficult to actually get all the way through a novel without bumping into that at some point on some way. So, in that sense, you can't ever erase the consciousness of the specificity of Irish womanhood.”
Menstrual pain is addressed, too, when Frances finds herself dealing with endometriosis, but that is a separate type of female victimhood, Rooney says: “It's different from narratives of being victimised under social structures because it's just a disease – it sucks, but it's not a creation of patriarchy, unfortunately.” The response of doctors and the failure to effectively and efficiently diagnose and treat such an illness is of interest to feminists, however. “I guess part of the reason I was interested in writing about [endometriosis] is because it's that intersection of the physical vulnerabilities of your body as a human being with the way that gender is conceptualised in society.”
One broadcaster went so far as to straight-out ask Rooney, live on air: "Did you have an affair with a married man?"
Personally, I found the scenes in which Frances struggles with intense period pain strangely moving – here was an experience I had been through many, many times before, but never read about in fiction. ”It’s not something that we frequently talk about and it's not something that's often portrayed,” agrees Rooney. “I do sometimes think about how, if an alien race were to review the history of English literature, they would not know that women menstruate even though we do it quite a lot. But you never encounter it – it's not, like, ever mentioned in a Victorian novel.”
She laughs. “I'm not even complaining about that. I understand that it's not a dramatically interesting event, but I just felt like there's a sense in which, as a writer, you find yourself pushing yourself to be more and more honest, not about your own experience necessarily, but about your experience of the world, and to try and represent it in a way that feels more and more honest.”
Many reviews and features have attempted to interrogate whether there is an autobiographical element to Conversations With Friends, with one Irish broadcaster going so far as to straight-out ask Rooney, live on air: “Did you have an affair with a married man?”
Today, she is good-natured about that experience, but says, “If I were a bit more serious-looking, or if I looked more like a professor or something, maybe male interviewers would feel like, ‘Oh, I'm not going to ask her that.’ But I look young and sort of earnest or naive or something and they feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, just go and ask – why not?’ It's the femininity that makes people think it's about you and then the youth – they feel they can ask.” Frances and Rooney do share some autobiographical details: like Frances, Rooney is from Mayo, and like Frances, she is a writer, living in Dublin’s Liberties, who studied at Trinity College.
Born in Castlebar, Rooney is a middle child with an older brother and younger sister, neither of whom are writers. Her father worked for the Irish telecommunications company Eircom and her mother ran an arts centre until she retired this year. Rooney wasn’t “well-connected in any publishing way”, “but it was a bookish family and my parents were really encouraging and supportive of my obsessive love of books”. A brilliant student and champion debater, she briefly considered a career in journalism, but ultimately the “way the internet has become a quickly moving mill of takes about things” meant that it wasn’t for her. She is impressed by the investigative journalism that sparked the #MeToo movement: “A huge amount of investigative journalism went on behind the scenes that then allowed us to have this conversation, which has been a hashtag, which has been opinion pieces, which has been real-life conversations between friends, which has had this snowballing cultural effect and has had a very huge real-life impact. But it began with well-funded, rigorous, robust investigative journalism.” She seems less interested in comment pieces, particularly her own, admitting, “As I get older, I have less brash confidence in my own opinions.”
She was headed towards academia when literary agent Tracy Bohan stepped in. Bohan, who represents writers like Will Self and Ali Smith, read an essay Rooney had written in The Dublin Review and asked her if she was working on a novel. She had an early, “really rough” draft of Conversations With Friends. “I went back and sort of edited and worked on it and tried to polish it into something readable.” Shortly afterwards, Bohan sold it to Faber.
Now, Rooney has taken on the editor job at The Stinging Fly, an Irish literary journal that published a poem of hers when she was 17. “I'm just really enthusiastic about where Irish writing is at the moment,” she says. “The Stinging Fly does publish international writing, but obviously its main focus is nurturing new Irish writers and that's something I'm just really excited to try and do. I'm just really jazzed about it. I'm starting to read submissions now and it's so exciting.”
It’s good timing, too, as she has recently submitted her second novel – which also explores the lives of Dublin students – to her publisher. “I'm really excited about it, but I'm also really, really nervous,” she admits. “I've been so lucky and it's like you can't ask for that twice. So I just really hope that some people read the next book and connect to it. That's all that I can really ask for.”
When is it published, I wonder. “I don't think there's a firm release date yet, but maybe next year, maybe the year after, so we'll see.” We will see, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Rooney’s 2018 and 2019 were as successful as her 2017.