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Sally Rooney Did Not Mean To Represent A Whole Generation

Books
Photo by Jonny L. Davies

Talking with the author about her new novel, 'Normal People'

I was browsing in a bookstore just after the start of the new year when I heard one woman hiss at another: "Where did you get that?" The "that" in question was a copy of Sally Rooney's still-forthcoming second novel, Normal People, and the woman in whose hands it was clutched triumphantly said, "I got it off that table—but it was the last one."

It was a puzzling exchange on a couple of levels: First, Normal People was not yet for sale in the U.S., so how was it able to be purchased at an independent bookseller in New York City? Second, how was it even possible that the sale of a mere novel would cause this much angst and excitement?

The answer to the first question was discovered quickly enough: There had been such a demand for Normal People, which had already been released in the U.K., that this bookstore had ordered copies from overseas and sold them in the U.S. (As the person checking me out told me: "Customers were ordering them off Amazon anyway, so this way we make some money.")

As for the second, question, I already knew the answer: Sally Rooney, whose debut novel Conversations with Friends has become a touchstone for every woman I know who's read it; Rooney's uncanny facility with capturing the ways in which we talk and think and talk about thinking and think about talking made for an addictive, satisfying read. Conversations with Friends was the kind of book you'd press into the hands of everyone you knew, and make them promise they'd let you know exactly what they thought the second they were done with it. The critical response was just as adoring, and Rooney was hailed as a brilliant new millennial voice—the brilliant new millennial voice—one of the few writers who could ably convey the way "we" speak today.

That kind of literary coronation can be oppressive, and it's certainly comprehensive—the lead-up to the release of Normal People has seen a flurry of interviews with Rooney and essays about the book. Most of these make liberal use of the word "millennial," which is understandable—if, you know, kind of missing the point. Because, as with Conversations with Friends, while Rooney's new novel does center around people who were born between the years 1981 and 1995, the concerns aren't limited to that generation, and are only lightly framed by it. Instead, Rooney offers an incisive look at the complications inherent to clashes between different classes and genders, she allows readers to be lost in page after page of characters who are deep in thought, mirroring the ways we all examine our lives for every minute detail, never sure if what we perceive is real, or if it's all real because it's part of our perception.

Normal People is the story, I wrote earlier this year, of the intertwining lives of Marianne and Connell, two Irish teenagers who grow up in the same provincial town, but come from totally different worlds: She is a brilliant social outcast, who hails from a wealthy family that treats her horribly; he is also brilliant, but athletic and popular, the only child of a single mother, who cleans houses for a living—including that of Marianne's family. Marianne and Connell's foundational relationship is complicated and messy and gloriously real—Rooney perfectly captures the hunger and shame and desire that go along with feeling really seen by someone when you aren't even sure yet what you look like to yourself. The narrative follows Marianne and Connell through to university in Dublin and travels around the world with them as their social circles widen and their lives expand, the thread tying them to one another seems to stretch endlessly, sometimes pulling them back together, sometimes on the verge of breaking. It is never sentimental, always open, slightly unhinged in a way that reminds us that love never has an ending, just a beginning and an everything after. It is, in short, totally a book worth obtaining in any way possible.

Below, I talk with Rooney about the perils of being observed, the complicated behavior that surrounds our performances of class and gender, and how she knows when she writes something good.

There are many people who, whether they're writing about you or interviewing you, sort of marvel over the way you write about a specific kind of communication—texting and tweeting and IM'ing and all of that stuff. But that seems beside the point of what you capture about the perils of communication, which is the way we're all so hyperaware of how much our words are going to be scrutinized, and so we put up these masks, hiding what's really going on in our heads. It's a really fascinating, if age-old duality, this break between what we think and what we say, and how people are always watching us, and we're watching them.
Some people say that the book can be read as being about surveillance, which when I first read that, I didn't get that interpretation at all. But actually looking at what was on my mind when I wrote it, I was thinking a lot about social surveillance. So, especially when the characters are still in school, certainly Connell is deeply invested in how he's perceived by others, and that manifests itself to a consciousness of the gaze of other people. He's constantly aware that he's being watched and spoken about and analyzed in a way that he can't control. And then in college, that same social gaze is produced in a different way. And the characters are always really conscious of themselves as being perceived and analyzed by other people. And then equally, in turn, they are perceiving and analyzing each other and themselves. That's definitely something I had not conceived of theoretically or conceptually when I was writing the book, but now, looking back on what I was interested in when I was writing it, it was definitely the feeling of being watched and assessed by a certain community of people that was definitely very much on my mind. Which I think is probably why [it's like that].

And this book, much more than the last book, focuses on the setting of college in a way that the previous book didn't. So I think I was really interested in capturing the characters as they perceive themselves to be seen by other people, and the difference between their inner lives and the lives they're interested in projecting to the outside world.

As you said, the discussion of the book can often sort of vocalize around technology and social media and stuff, but the characters don't really spend a lot of time using those technologies and interacting with that sort of media, so it wasn't a meditation on that at all. But maybe on some of the related conceptual issues, like the idea of being watched, being surveilled, that kind of thing.

Speaking of the duality of how you behave when you're being observed, or at least what you're projecting, versus what you're feeling on the inside, two areas where that behavior manifests so interestingly are sex and money. And you capture so well the performance of it all, like how, especially when you're young, you're trying to have sex in a certain way that you think is the right way, even if it doesn't always correspond with what you're feeling and what you want; and then also financially, young adults start performing their wealth, imitating those around them, in an effort to fit in. What you do so well is capture the intimacies of this posturing, but also the larger societal effects. What draws you to these topics?
Yeah, so definitely you identified two of the main themes that motivate me in my work. So you could identify them as sex and money, or you could identify them as gender and class, because obviously, the two are very fundamentally related, but obviously, they're not the same thing. So, often I think, when I'm writing about sex, what I'm exploring is, first of all, gendered power, like the power differential between men and women, and then also sexuality and the attendant anxieties, which I can't extricate completely from gender, but which aren't entirely reducible to gender either. So I guess the thing about writing about gender is I'm always interested in tracking power as it works through sexuality. I don't find myself drawn to writing about relationships where the two parties are completely on the same page, and there is no power disparity, and I can't really get a plot out of that. I'm more interested in exploring more power disparities in action, and sort of tracking sexual relationships through those power disparities and see how they correct themselves and get back to some sort of equilibrium. And that's what sort of fascinates me when I'm writing about the very minutiae of people's sexual relationships: seeing how broad social concepts of power like gender operate on a really tiny intimate moment-to-moment type of level.

And, I think very similarly, my interest in money and class shares a lot of those features. I'm really interested in class as a very broad power system, and, of course, coming from a very Marxist theoretical background as a way of understanding class as a means of production, but then on a very small scale, understanding how economic anxiety feels and how people understand class as an identity; that maybe it's more complex and not reducible to a number or a position in a given social system; that class can have features that are external to those things and not reducible to those things.

So, again, obviously, I tried to do that by working with power disparities, observing the disparity between Marianne and Connell in terms of class and seeing how that impacts on their most intimate exchanges. And how it feels psychologically for these characters—on both sides of the divide, in terms of gender and class—how it feels to be in a position of power and how it feels to be on the side of victimhood or marginalization.

And, again, when it comes to what I'm trying to convey, I'm not trying to make any point as such. I'm not trying to make a case for feminist or Marxist philosophy. I'm just trying to observe, with those conceptual frameworks in mind, how these things feel to an individual person or individual people at a given moment in their lives.

In terms of how things affect people at specific moments in their lives, both your novels have been set in the lives of university students. Most of Normal People is set at university, and it's a time of life that's so fetishized, and I wanted to ask you about the appeal of that setting and about writing about this age group.
I wish I had a more creative or intellectual answer to give. But, to be honest, I think I started writing it just after I had finished my Master's degree and at that point, I had left home in 2009, moved to Dublin for a year, moved to New York City. I had been at Trinity almost every year. So I just didn't have any other available social settings to place the characters into because I didn't feel I had a good granular, textual understanding of what other social settings worked like.

In both the books, the campus setting predominates—to some extent more so in Normal People. I think it's probably the limitation of my own imaginary world, it's that I couldn't reach that much farther than the world that I knew... I also think there's an extent to which the term "millennial" gets conflated with people who have been to college—certainly people who have been to university to get liberal arts degrees. And, you know, I am one of those people and those are the kind of people that I write about, but I don't think those are the only people in our generational cohort. I think there are people with such a wide variety of experiences of life. Not everybody went to school until 18 and then went to college until 22.

I'm very conscious that I'm not representing a universal experience of young adulthood now—like not at all, a very small section of that. And so sometimes the response to my books—which is like, "Oh, this represents a whole generation"—freaks me out because I'm like, "No, I didn't mean to do that." And I didn't seek out to achieve that, and I know I didn't achieve that, so that can be a bit weird for me because I know what I'm writing about is a very small slice of life, a very small section of Irish society. And it certainly doesn't represent everyone's experiences.

A lot of the time, the most specific stories are what wind up getting universalized. But the whole "mouthpiece of a generation" thing is quite a label. It is weird. It feels, also, limiting. And your work, while intimate, feels really open and expansive. One way both of your novels have done that is with their endings, which leave things kind of unhinged and free. At what point do you know how you're going to end your novels?
The endings in both books were among the last sections of the book that I wrote. I would have to do a bit of filler writing later on, like to bring scenes together or fill in gaps or whatever, but the last substantial parts of the books that I wrote were the endings. And both of them I struggled with for a very long time. So, for Conversations with Friends, I had like 18 drafts pending, each of which is a completely different ending. And I just couldn't get my head around how to bring the book to a close. I think maybe because I had never written a novel before, I just didn't really understand the mechanics of finishing a novel. I kind of felt like I had to tie up every single plot strand I had introduced. It was when I wrote the closing scene of the first book that I realized I can just end the book here. I don't have to go back and tie up everything and make sure that every thing's neat and that it all gets some sense of a sort of conclusion. But at the same time, I didn't feel I was leaving things hanging in an unsatisfying or unfulfilling way. I found a way to do it where the book ends definitively, and it feels as if it's finished without imposing an artificial maintenance on the narrative. And I learned a lot from doing that.

I think I took a lot of what I learned into Normal People, but, to be honest, I thought Normal People was going to have a conventionally happier ending. I was grappling with this ending for a long time, and I had written lots and lots and lots of drafts, 12 to 13 different drafts, and I just couldn't nail the ending. I just didn't know at which point the story reached a conclusion. So while I was banging my head against that, I read the novel Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, which is where the epigraph [for Normal People] is taken from. And that unlocked so much for me because it felt like there were all these echoes of what I was trying to do in what George Eliot had done so brilliantly in that novel. Like, there is a huge gap between what happened in that book and what happens in my book; in some ways, they're not really similar, but they do both follow two different protagonists—one man and one woman—and kind of flip those perspectives in unexpected ways. And in the conclusion of that book, Daniel leaves, and Gwendolyn stays. And then I started churning that idea over in my mind and asking why did that feel like the right ending for that book. And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if there was an echo of that ending that would work in the book that I was trying to write, even though the relationship is so completely different in every other respect.

And I found that when I did it, it worked better than the more conventional ending I had imagined at first, because I don't think it forecloses on the idea that there's something waiting for them. They're not, like, out of each other's lives permanently, and I think it's pretty clear they'll be in each other's lives in one way or another. But also leaving in the freedom—because they're only 21 or 22—leaving the freedom to just go and live all their lives and still have one another in some way. But that's a more open, liberating ending for them and in a way a happier ending for them, even though it had pain in it as well, I think.

How do you know you've written something that's good? What does it feel like for you to be happy with something you've done?
I've been thinking about that lately because I haven't written anything—I haven't written any new fiction in quite a long time. Like I've started things that have just petered out into other work, and I've worked on short stories, but I haven't completed something that I'm happy with in what feels like a while.

And then I've been asking myself, What is that feeling? How do I know, when I read something, that it's right? And there are stages to it. Like I can write something that I'm like, Oh, this is so good, I'm enjoying it so much, it's so satisfying, these sentences are just gelling together! It's those times when, in the process of writing it, it's just clicking, and it feels really good. And then I save it, and I go to bed and I feel happy, and in the morning I'm still happy, everything's great, and then I open the file again, and I'm like, Oh, this is actually not very good.

So that's stage one, where I'm happy with it as it goes along. Then I come back to it, and it's not as good as I remembered it, and then I change things around and write it differently. Then put it away again, come back to it again, and it's looking a little bit better, but I still have things I wanna move around. So I think what I'm essentially doing is getting an average of my own taste over time so that at any one point my taste is always gonna be knocked a little bit askew by something, like I'm having a bad day or I haven't had coffee or something. And that's always going to make my perception of my own work just slightly off. But if I can keep coming back to it every time, then by the end of that process, I can be like, Okay, this is gonna be as good as it's going to get.

So for me, it's really important to keep coming back to it. First of all, to give myself time away. So if I've written something really long—like, longer than an article, like a short story-length or, especially, something as long as a book—to put it away for a month or more to get completely away from it, and then come back to it with totally fresh eyes, and look at it again and see all of those mistakes and bad things in it, and then do it again and then do it again and again and again, until I know the entire document by heart and there's just no point fiddling with it anymore, and that's just how it is.

And so I think that's basically how the process works, but the one moment where it's all golden is when I'm writing it. Later on, there's never a golden moment, like, Oh, it's ready to hit the printing press! Always in the end, it's a compromise of all the different visions I had for the work at different points. But while I'm writing it, that's the best point.

Normal People is available for purchase, here.

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