Sally Rooney publishes her debut novel this month. She discusses the privileges of private education and why she considers herself a socialist, Marxist and communist.
For the first few minutes after Sally Rooney arrived at Born Optimistic’s College Green recording studio, I found conversation was tough. Sally doesn’t do small talk. However, once the microphones were on and we started recording Sally let rip.
I realised at once that a revolutionary new literary voice had arrived. Enter Sally Rooney, self confessed naive optimist who’s humble nature conceals a true rebel with deeply held convictions. Sally may not do small talk but she can’t be accused of holding back on a range of the biggest issues facing most of us today.
Sally hails from Castlebar, the Mayo town which provided a political base for both Pee Flynn and Enda Kenny, two of Ireland’s least radical politicians ever. Despite, or perhaps because of, Mayo’s political conformity, Sally is quite possibly the most radical Irish writer to emerge since Francis Sheehy Skeffington.
On the surface, Sally’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, is a love quadrangle. The four corners of the quadrangle, Frances, Bobbi, Nick and Melissa are all based on aspects of Sally’s own personality as she explains. “You’re moving these people around, you’re manipulating them, you’re ventriloquising them, you give them all their dialogue so where is it coming from? It’s all coming from you. You have to give them the psychology that they have in the book and that can only ever be your interpretation of someone else’s psychology at the very most. The conversations are staged dialogues between one part of my psychology and another. That’s inevitable. That’s all that you can do.”
Seething beneath voyeuristic concerns about the sex lives of others is class warfare manifested as a struggle for identity, meaning and social justice. The action plays out with Dublin’s Trinity College looming. Sally went to Trinity and it feels like that’s where her political awakening began.
“It’s something that I wasn’t conscious of growing up in Castlebar”, Sally explains, “How dominant privately educated Dubliners are in Irish public life. 7% of the country are privately educated at secondary level and in Trinity over 30% of the students come from private schools. They are a rarefied class of people who enter an environment where they feel like their upbringing is the norm and I don’t think Trinity really challenges that. It has a coddling effect on people who come from that background. Coming from Castlebar, I encountered a class that I had not realised actually existed in Irish society. This upper crust, Ireland’s version of an aristocracy. I found it a little bit oppressive. It was very difficult to break in to that sort of social clique and in retrospective I’m not sure why I wanted to, but I felt really convinced that I had to make some impression.”
Sally Rooney is one of those people who proudly calls herself a revolutionary socialist. She does not bristle, wriggle or squirm in reaction to the moniker. She embraces it wholeheartedly.
“Definitely I’m Socialist, Marxist, I would say Communist, yeah”, Sally declares, “I think living in a world where we have enough wealth for all, yet people live in poverty for lack of material resources – I cannot stand by that. I just don’t believe in that system.”
This fine magazine you’re holding, or perhaps browsing online, comes out the week of the UK election. Sally believes that Corbyn’s Labour Party could win but she doesn’t see that as revolution, she sees that as a stepping stone. From Sally’s perspective, Labour’s proposed fabric of social protections would provide the populace with the bandwidth to build a better society, as she elaborates, “When you remove that pressure that prevents people from politically engaging, that constant sense of financial anxiety and scrambling to make ends meet, it would just allow people time to think about what kind of society they want to live in. It would give people a chance to engage with their communities and build grassroots political organisations, that right now people fundamentally can’t really do, because we’re living under austerity and even people who are relatively comfortable often feel like their situation is quite precarious.”
Sally is quite scathing about our ‘makey-uppy’ economy and how most of us spend our days. She doesn’t sneer or come across as judgemental. So much of what she says makes perfectly reasonable sense..
“It still remains an open question how much work actually needs to be done in Western countries”, Sally ponders, “The vast majority of people’s work is not socially necessary. If it really came down to having to organise a society, would most jobs be necessary for our civilisation to continue? How many of us are doing jobs that are required for the wheels to keep turning? We could eliminate all advertising immediately and there would be no real effect on our daily lives. It seems like we’ve got this almost moralistic vision of work, where the punishment for not working is really severe. If you don’t have a job you are lazy, you don’t deserve to have a good life. As a writer, I was considered unemployed until I got a book deal and then I was considered employed, but I was doing the same thing every day all day.”
The one thing that Sally always wanted to do was write. She knew that since before she could read, as she recounts, “I literally don’t know what I would do with my mental time walking down the street. I genuinely would feel completely bereft psychologically, I would have oceans of time and absolutely nothing to do. I never thought that I wouldn’t be writing, I always thought that no matter what I did I would always have writing. I couldn’t imagine sort of navigating the world without having recourse to writing stories about it. I would feel quite like lost without the ability to put words together on paper and try to, like, capture something”
The reason why we’re talking is of course Conversations With Friends, Sally’s excellent debut novel. It’s one of those books that will sit comfortably on many bookshelves. It’s comforting, yet alarming. It flows, by design, as if written between friends as a stream of messages. Like many great novels, the action takes place in a well defined world that feels similar yet odd. It’s a timeless book which couldn’t have come at a different time. It’s utter lack of pretension is completely refreshing. Sally’s not an author who performs lyrical cartwheels just to impress. Sally attributes this style to instant messaging. She wrote the book as she writes to friends.
For a book that flows as if all the action happens online there’s a distinct absence of any particular social network. I ask Sally why and she laughs.
“Part of the reason I did it is just like I don’t want to give free advertising to some corporation, they don’t need it and I think if I say ‘instant messaging’ everyone who is reading it will conjure up an image, it’s not going to confuse anyone. I also think it’s really difficult to make the use of social networks dramatically interesting because it’s quite a passive thing for most of us who use it. You sit on your couch and you’re scrolling and you could be seeing really interesting stuff, but it’s not dramatic. To get to the meat of the drama you really needed to have personal interchange like e-mails or instant messages.”
Sally’s great on Twitter and you can find her there funnily enough at @SallyRooney. She doesn’t consider Twitter part of her job though as she explains, “I’ve had that Twitter account for ages, since 2008 and I haven’t changed the way that I tweet since I got the book deal. If I had to start doing it in a work way I would rather close it down. I don’t want my work and my person to become one. It’s strange being a writer in that sense because it’s not like having an ordinary job, you know, I mean, if you work in a restaurant or you work in retail they don’t expect you to use your personal brand as a part of your work. Being a writer you feel like everything that you do is in some way feeding into your status as a writer which is weird. I’m just a completely ordinary person who has written a book. The whole idea that people even want to talk to me about my life and stuff I find puzzling. Not unpleasant, but just strange, because everyone has a life. I’m not specific in any way for having had a childhood!”
There’s no doubt Sally Rooney is here to stay. It’s thrilling to see such a visceral new mind take on Ireland’s moribund middle. Welcome Sally Rooney, you will be part of shifting our central axis.
Donal Scannell presents Born Optimistic weekly on RTE Radio One Extra. It is available as a podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. You can hear the full interview at bornoptimistic.com
Words: Donal Scannell
Image Credit: Jonny Davies