Sally Rooney released her first novel this year and is one of a group of new authors reshaping Irish writing. We asked her about her book and her contemporaries.
Can you tell us a little about your novel? What’s the story, and how did you get the idea?
Conversations with Friends is about two college students in Dublin who become involved in the lives of a married couple. My work almost always starts from an idea about a particular relationship, and this time I was interested in what kind of dynamics could emerge between all four of the central characters.
The narrator, Frances, is an introspective, observant kind of person, while her ex-girlfriend Bobbi is a more forthright, confrontational figure in the book. I wanted to know what would happen to their friendship once they met this married couple, Melissa and Nick, and what other relationships could develop from there. I ended up getting very immersed in the lives of these characters and writing the book quite quickly as a result. They still feel very much like 'real people' to me, though I’m never sure exactly what I mean by that.
Does Irish writing have a distinct reputation for covering certain themes? Why do you think that is?
Of course, certain themes predominate in the history of Irish writing, just as certain themes predominate in Irish history itself. British imperialism and its aftermath, religious institutional power, economic deprivation, forced emigration, and so on. That’s not to reduce the distinctive history of Irish literature to a list of particular hardships, but certainly the effects and after-effects of colonialism have shaped Irish culture in very profound ways, and our literature has necessarily reflected that.
Perhaps because of the dominance of male rather than female voices in the Irish literary canon, and of middle-class rather than working-class writers, certain other aspects of Irish society have been less widely and thoroughly covered – for example, the systemic abuse of women and children in state institutions. I think the gaps in our literary history probably correspond pretty closely to the gaps in the official history of our state.
Did you consciously want to do something different with your writing, or are you part of that tradition?
I don’t know if anyone sits down to write a novel as a conscious effort to engage with literary tradition. I definitely didn’t sit down at my laptop and think: here I am, upholding the brave legacy of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. I just wanted to write about these four particular characters, in whatever style came naturally to me. Like most people my age, I grew up watching American television, listening to British pop music, reading international literature. As a writer, you draw on all the cultural products you’re exposed to, not just those in your own national tradition. And of course, along with the process of globalisation over the last twenty or thirty years, individual national cultures everywhere have become less distinct.
At the same time, I am in every sense an Irish writer. Sometimes, I hear from readers who are disappointed that my book didn’t feel 'Irish enough' – and I think that has to do more with their perception of Irishness than it has to do with my work.
How is Irish writing changing?
I think and hope that it’s growing more diverse. Without a doubt, there are more prominent women writers now than in previous generations, which I think is more than a superficial change. Women’s writing is helping to shift the basic concerns of Irish literature in an interesting way, to give literary value to subjects that might traditionally have been considered 'un-literary' or insignificant: the domestic world, motherhood, sexuality, marriage. That isn’t to say, of course, that women only ever write domestic fiction, or that men never do. But I do think certain literary concerns are associated with femininity, and have historically been underappreciated for that reason. I hope that’s beginning to change now.
Similarly I think Irish literary history has been largely dominated by an elite social class, meaning that the cultural story of our nation has mostly been told by writers in no way representative of the majority of the population – writers whose interests are often at some level antagonistic to the interests of the majority. That’s something I think is beginning to change now too, or I hope so.
Who are the new Irish writers that we should be looking out for?
If you’re interested in new Irish writing and you haven’t yet read Lisa McInerney, start with The Glorious Heresies – published in 2015 and winner of the Baileys Prize – and then move directly onto her new novel The Blood Miracles. For the best of the contemporary Irish short story, try Colin Barrett’s unsettling and wrenchingly funny collection Young Skins. And if you’re looking for non-fiction, I enthusiastically recommend Mark O’Connell’s recent book To Be a Machine, a searching and intelligent exploration of the technology and humanity.
Do you have any advice for young writers or people who want to write?
To be a good writer, I think it is helpful to read a lot of what you like, and listen closely when people are speaking to you. Writing has a lot more to do with listening than it does with speaking, in my admittedly limited experience.
Read more interviews with writers in our Literature on lockdown blog.
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