Sally Rooney is capturing what it feels like to be alive right now
Sally Rooney is talking about Twitter. How she loves scrolling through the app for its stupid jokes. How she happily absorbs its many hot takes, as well as the “cycles of people disagreeing with the previous hot take.” How she can’t seem to quit it. “I read my timeline obsessively,” she admits. “I’m always looking at tweets and liking tweets.” Speaking on a crisp mid-March evening from a writing retreat in the hills of Tuscany, Italy, Rooney comes across as chipper, energized, and revealing, just as you’d expect of a clever 28-year-old discussing social media. But she turns suddenly cerebral as she continues: “I used to tweet all the time without thinking about it, but now I’m much more cautious. That’s partly from just getting older, and partly from becoming a very, very minor public figure.”
“Very, very minor”? If she says so. Already a literary celebrity in the U.K., the Irish-born Rooney is preparing to make a major splash Stateside with the publication of her second book, Normal People (April 16). Released in Europe last fall, the novel won multiple major prizes and emerged as a mainstay on national best-seller lists; The Guardian dubbed it “the literary phenomenon of the decade.” And from a creative standpoint, Normal People confirms what Rooney’s 2017 cult-hit debut, Conversations With Friends — a bougie, sharply realistic comedy of adultery and friendship — promised: Among the vast cohort of new millennial novelists, none are connecting with readers as intimately, or generating as much excitement, as Sally Rooney.
In part because of her age, the author has been met with grandiose praise — a “Snapchat Salinger” moniker here, a “Voice of a Generation” declaration there. (“It’s difficult for me because I have never belonged to another generation,” she says with a slightly embarrassed laugh.) Her novels locate tension primarily in dialogue, propelled by the nuances and revelations of everyday interaction. (On this subject, she’s much more enthusiastic: “I could talk about this forever — I love conversation so much!”) A champion debater in college, Rooney herself is a master of conversation, on matters both timeless and prescient: She’s as comfortable ruminating on the dialogues of Socrates as she is unpacking a recent BuzzFeed essay about “millennial burnout.” In her work, she draws from the best of 19th-century literature — its wit, its readability, its placement of complex characters against subversive political backdrops — to tell stories utterly, bracingly of the present. “The kind of novels that I’m interested in writing are observations about what it feels like to be alive right now,” she says.
Normal People achieves this with uncanny emotional precision: In their final year of high school, a boy named Connell meets a girl named Marianne. He’s working-class, she’s beyond rich; he’s popular, she’s an outcast. Rooney traces how they grow and change over four years, from their small West Ireland hometown of Carricklea to their life at Trinity College in bustling Dublin, where Rooney currently lives. The aftermath of an economic downturn looms quietly but persistently. Social media is not overwhelmingly present in the book (set from 2011 to 2015), yet this only enhances Normal People’s verisimilitude. Rooney has the confidence to choose email over Facebook for her twentysomething heroes’ mode of communication. “They don’t have Instagram accounts or Snapchat or whatever,” Rooney explains. “But there’s a background noise of social media discourse that has informed the way they look at the world, and the way they talk to one another.”
The intensity, vulnerability, and power of Connell and Marianne’s courtship is acutely realized — unforgettable, even, as only young love can be. The couple eventually break up. Then they try being friends. They get back together. They break up again. Life goes on, but with her masterly sense of pace and character, Rooney deepens their dynamic with each chapter. Every sex scene is distinctive, no small feat in the age of Bad Sex in Fiction awards. Every eloquent email they send to each other is more charged — intellectually, spiritually, sexually — than the last.
When Rooney speaks about her work, she speaks about her world. She radiates curiosity about politics, people, behavior — about life. She writes with spare, unfussy clarity, developing vivid images and feelings out of a few words. “What I love most about Sally’s writing is how closely she is attuned to the subtleties of human relationships,” says her editor Alexis Washam, a 15-year veteran of publishing. “Her characters and their situations are specific, but their psychological and emotional experiences are universal.” Rooney adds that she has drawn from the “texture” of her everyday life in her books: drifting friendships and heated romances, vibrant chatter around art and politics, pushing up against the pressures of aimless young adulthood. But she wrote Normal People in total anonymity, too, before Conversations was published. “It is difficult to imagine myself not drawing on any of the experiences that I’ve had since I became a published writer,” she says now.
So here we are again — Rooney, self-described “very, very minor” public figure, considering how her life has changed. Celebrities rave about her books: Sarah Jessica Parker gushed about Rooney to her 5 million-plus Instagram followers (“This book. This book,” she wrote of Conversations. “I read it in a day. I hear I’m not alone”), while Lena Dunham did the same on Twitter. She’s still getting nominated for awards. “And [Normal People] hasn’t even come out in the United States yet!” Rooney exclaims. “[It’s] reached a level of attention that I was not prepared for. It’s been very intense.”
While she recovers from the frenzy, one big project awaits Rooney at home: a series adaptation of Normal People for the BBC that she’s co-writing, and that Oscar nominee Lenny Abrahamson (Room) is helming. (Production begins later this year.) “I had decided after Room and The Little Stranger that it was time to step away from literary adaptations,” Abrahamson says. “But when this came along, I just loved it so much I couldn’t say no. I really couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s hard to say how she achieves this sense of depth and insight that she does.” Another fan, in other words. And Rooney is excited about the challenge of writing within a new form. Also, “I’m still fond of these characters, and that’s a good thing, because I’m having to spend a lot of time with them again!”
But anyway — back to Twitter. Reflecting in the quiet of Tuscany, writing in seclusion for hours on end, Rooney has a week left at the retreat. Then it’s back to real life. She’s never done this before — model the reclusive-novelist cliché — because she’s never really had the chance. Briefly, she wonders if it’s a way forward for her, far from the distractions of Twitter’s 24-hour news and commentary reel: “Quite possibly the answer is, I should be a lot less tapped in…and allow myself to get some mental space.” Then Rooney corrects herself. “All of this constantly unfolding cultural conversation is part of my sense of inhabiting the world now,” she says. “To cut myself off completely wouldn’t be right for me. It’s part of living in the world. And the world is what I write about.”