Sally Rooney, a 26-year-old writer from County Mayo, Ireland, just published her first novel, Conversations with Friends. It’s a remarkable debut that will have you drawing comparisons to Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Rachel Cusk’s Transit, and J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Rooney’s heroine is an undergraduate named Frances, who is living in Dublin and beginning to find success as a poet. She and her best friend, Bobbi, become entangled in the lives of a slightly older married couple, and complications ensue.
What makes this book such a pleasure to read is Rooney’s sure hand with dialogue, some of it in email and text messages, and the unsettling juxtaposition of her characters’ intellectual sophistication and their less straightforward behavior. If you are young, or ever have been, Conversations with Friends may remind you of your own youthful predicaments. It’s been getting great reviews in the UK, and this week was published in the United States by Hogarth.
Sally Rooney spoke to the Amazon Book Review by phone from Dublin.
Amazon Book Review: Could you tell me a little bit about getting this novel published? It’s your first book.
Sally Rooney: I started writing Conversations with Friends when I was 23, and I was doing a master’s degree in American History at Trinity College in Dublin. I was writing the book while doing my master’s and eventually doing my master’s thesis, and then also I was working two part-time jobs—so it was definitely a labor of love at that point. I had no agent, and I had no prospects of ever having it published. I wasn’t writing with publication in mind and it was more a distant fantasy, not a material reality. Then around that time, while I was doing the master’s, I had some nonfiction published, and an agent in London contacted me and asked me if I happened to be writing a novel. I told her I was, but it wasn’t anywhere near ready for anyone to read. So then there was a long period where I was just editing this and was very uncertain about whether it would ever get to a point where it would be fit to be read by other human beings. Then eventually, after about a year and a half after I had started this, it was.
Are you like your protagonist Frances in that you began as a poet?
Actually, yes, I did. I was first published as a poet when I was I think 17, still living at home in the west of Ireland, and I was published in the Stinging Fly magazine here in Dublin. So I had been publishing poetry for quite a long time before I started writing fiction or certainly having fiction published.
What’s it like to be a writer in Ireland? Do you feel like you have to somehow fit in with the literary tradition of writers like Yeats and Joyce?
Yes, [that’s] the funny thing about nationality. I think at the moment there’s a really interesting contemporary writing scene in Dublin, which is not only artistically stimulating but is also a kind of community of people who are all very supportive of one another’s work. So in that sense, it’s great, because it feels like a fairly small, very accessible community where people are kind of looking out for each other. And in the other sense, of the sort of weight of tradition, it’s kind of overwhelming and it feels like a strange burden. I don’t think that it’s felt in the same way by U.S. writers, that they have to conform to a particular generic tradition which is national in nature. If I’m participating in any generic traditions, I think they’re probably not rooted in Irish literature. I think probably I’m more influenced by American literature, which was my primary area of study when I was at university. But then obviously being an Irish writer you have to in one way or another participate in the tradition of Irish literature, so it’s a bit of a vexed question for me.
Sally Rooney (photo by Jonny L. Davies)
You did a graduate degree in American literature. Which American writers interested you?
I was really interested in the mid-20th-century prose stylists like J. D. Salinger. His book Fanny and Zooey I often talk about as being a particular influence. I think that’s probably visible to some extent in Conversations with Friends. [Franny and Zooey is] a sort of very dialogue-heavy novel that’s about bookish, neurotic people, which my work is as well. I think influences like that are visible. Other contemporary American writers [who influenced me are] Juno Diaz, Ben Lerner, and people who are writing about the intersection between abstract political realities and minute interpersonal relationships. A lot of that work seems to be coming out of America now.
One of the things that’s so sympathetic about Frances as a protagonist is that you sense in her a tension between her desires and her ideals. They’re to a certain extent political tensions.
Well, I think part of what Frances is trying to navigate, on the interpersonal level, is a political conflict which stems from, maybe, the tradition of feminism which is sort of [at a place where] we’ve managed to answer some questions about the oppressive nature of our personal relationships. We have the vocabulary to talk about outright sexism and even about micro aggression within relationships, but that doesn’t necessarily solve all of the very complex questions of how we relate to one another ethically. So I think Frances feels like “Oh, I’ve answered all these questions, I understand gender relations; like, I get it,” and yet when she’s thrust into a situation that she has no vocabulary for and no rule book to deal with, she does find herself quite confused, and I think that’s understandable. I think human relationships are, as the history of the novel will attest, inestimably complicated and always in new and various ways. So I think it’s understandable for Frances that she does find [after] having believed that her political convictions would sort of confidently steer her through every situation, she suddenly finds that it’s very difficult to apply abstract principles and socialist feminism to every dilemma that occurs in her life. Which isn’t to say that I dismiss either the politics or the dilemma, but that I’m trying to observe as honestly as I can the gap that might occur in someone’s personal life between those two things.
Have you gotten any pushback in public from readers or from politically motivated people who notice the content of your book?
You mean like homophobic stuff or things like that?
No. I guess because it’s literary fiction, I don’t think that many people actually read it.
That’s a sad comment!
Everyone who reads it has kind of already made up their mind. They’re happy to read about young gay people or bisexual people or communist people working at their own personal problems. If you decided in advance that something interests you, you’re probably not going to take exception to it. If I were to read the comments under interviews that I had given, I’m sure I would find horrible stuff. But no, I haven’t actually experienced any of this head-on or anything like that. Not yet anyway.
What about the use of dialogue in your book? You say that maybe there’s an influence of Salinger there. It’s interesting to me that you don’t use quotations marks to bracket off conversation. Is that an intentional stylistic device? What are you conveying with that?
It was certainly intentional. I initially stopped using quotation marks and I started using the dash, which I know is something that Joyce also uses, and then I actually just dropped the dash as well. I didn’t feel any need to remove the dialogue from the flow of the text by sort of bracketing it off, which I think gives it a different sort of linguistic style in the flow of the text. It’s like you’re handling the dialogue with rubber gloves on. You’re like “Oh, this is special language, and now we go back to the ordinary language of the book.” Because the book is so much about dialogue and how we talk, it didn’t feel right to me that the dialogue should be segregated from the rest of the text.
You write some hilarious moments in the back-and-forth between people. For example, when the character Melissa sends Frances a long, irate email about something quite serious, Frances, having read this long thing, which is almost unpunctuated and certainly is not divided into paragraphs, responds with two sentences, saying, “Lots to think about. Dinner sounds good.” It’s so funny and so symptomatic of Frances’ complete lockdown when it comes to communication.
But it’s such a power move on Frances’ part that she’s completely refusing to meet Melissa on a kind of emotional plane. She just totally dismisses Melissa’s emotional outburst. It is kind of cruel in Frances in that moment but I guess it is difficult to know how you would respond to that email. I don’t know how I would respond to it.
Conversations with Friends can be read as a bildungsroman—Frances is undergoing some kind of education, through life, that helps her become a novelist. Am I foolishly optimistic in thinking that she’s also learning to communicate with people more directly, or do you feel like that’s too much of a hopeful reading?
I think you’re right, and that’s my interpretation (which I don’t pretend is the only interpretation) of the final scene, where she is talking to Nick on the phone. It’s that obviously she does value having in her life someone whom she can speak to as an equal and not fear their judgment and be able to disclose her own personal feelings to them. That is a role that Nick played for her, and that’s something that by the end of the book she had learned to place a lot of value on. To me, that’s a development in her character. I think it’s good that she learned that she actually needs to be honest and open with people, but I know that other people feel that the return of Nick is… horrible.
People really can’t resist the urge to judge characters, can they?
No, no. No one can. I do it too when I read novels, but it’s just being aware that we’re doing it and why and what way we’re doing it I think is what makes reading novels so interesting.
Are you working on anything else at the moment? Have you had time to start something new?
Yeah, I am. At the point when I sold Conversations with Friends, I was already working on a second novel. The second book is set over four years, which is a much longer span of time than Conversations with Friends, and it follows two different characters, one a young man and one a young woman. It’s nice to have a whole four years to play with; it feels like a very capacious sort of space of time and I get to follow them for ages. I’m really enjoying working on it, but time is definitely an issue now because Conversations with Friends has just come out in the UK and Ireland about three weeks ago, and it’s about to come out in the US. It’s been quite a hectic, busy period, so I haven’t been doing as much writing or as much reading as I’d like to be.
That’s the price you pay for success. Thank you so much for talking to me about your book, Sally. I hope it finds many readers here in the States.