Bringing the bust to book in Sally Rooney's debut novel

Sally Rooney reads at the River Lee Hotel in Cork tomorrow.

On the eve of her visit to Cork, Sally Rooney tells Colette Sheridan about the novel that’s become the must-read book of the summer

SALLY ROONEY, author of the much-lauded Conversations with Friends, will be among a group of some of Ireland’s finest writers taking part in Crosstown Drift as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.

Over two days, audiences will traverse the city, to attend readings in interesting locations. Rooney is well placed to join the likes of Sara Baume, Lisa McInerney and Kevin Barry on this literary trail given the critical acclaim that her debut novel has received.

It sold in a seven-way auction last year with Rooney receiving a two-book deal from Faber.

Rooney’s editor at Faber described her as “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.”

While 26-year-old Rooney says she’s flattered to be compared with one of her favourite authors, she points out that she has never used Snapchat and nor do the characters in her book. They favour email and don’t even take selfies. But apart from their technological conservatism, the characters are the voice of a forthright generation, intent on exploring their creativity and their sexuality.

While Rooney writes about her own milieu that takes in Trinity (from which she has a master’s degree in American literature), the west of Ireland (she is from Castlebar) and northern France (where she spends time) she says her novel is not autobiographical.

What is particularly noteworthy about it is its smart, witty and insightful dialogue as well as its grappling with ideas.

The main character is twenty-one year old Frances, a Trinity student from the west of Ireland, who is bisexual and a communist. Frances, who performs her spoken word poetry with her former female lover, Bobbi, has an intense affair with Nick, an older married man. Nick is married to photographic journalist, Melissa, who insinuates herself into the lives of Frances and Bobbi, photographing them for a profile and inviting them to stay in a villa in northern France.

Rooney has a fairly minimalist approach to prose. “I try to keep my sentences quite pared back,” she says. “What I really want to do is observe people’s relationships and interactions. I don’t want language to get in the way of that. It’s quite a difficult process to achieve that, for the language to feel clear. I’m kind of a perfectionist. I delayed for a long time when writing the novel because I didn’t think it was finished. Looking back, I was right. I did a first draft very quickly and then spent about a year editing, cutting, revising, changing the structure and changing the ending completely.”

Rooney explains that the book is about power and how “conceptual forms of power like gender, money and class play out within intimate relationships. “I’m interested in that. The question is, how do you exercise power in a way that’s not harmful or oppressive?”

While Rooney agrees that Frances is a difficult character, she finds it strange that people say she’s not likeable and suggests that such a charge is rarely made at male writers about their dark characters.

“I don’t even know what people mean when they say ‘likeable’. I don’t know what relationship it has to their experience of the text. Male writers who create characters who do truly atrocious things like murder and rape don’t necessarily get asked questions about whether their character is likeable or not.

“When I read interviews with people like Kevin Barry or Colin Barrett, who I hugely admire, they don’t really seem to come up against the question of likeability even though their characters in some instances are really horrible. I think my characters are all fairly fundamentally decent, even if they have negative characteristics.”

Asked why there is such a boom in Irish writing, Rooney says her generation was promised the world, only to find itself having to emigrate or exist on social welfare. She says the economic crisis and the subsequent recession created a climate scepticism which allowed people to express ideas that before had been repressed.

“It really felt like my generation was deprived of a future that we believed was ours. I don’t mean some hugely privileged future where we all have gigantic houses. I mean having a job.

“So now, maybe there’s a sense of wanting to speak back to the narrative we were sold. But I just want to observe and write honestly about what I see. I wasn’t trying to write a polemic.”

  • Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney is out now

Word up for Crosstown Drift 

Bringing the bust to book in Sally Rooney's debut novel

Tomorrow, meet at 12.45pm at Henchy’s Bar, St Luke’s, for a trail across the city on foot. Readings take place at Griffith College, St Angela’s, Nano Nagle Place and Elizabeth Fort from writers including Mary Morrissy, Billy O’Callaghan, Cónal Creedon and Rory Gleeson. (Free but ticketed.)

Tomorrow, from 7pm-9.30pm, the Farmgate at the English Market has an evening of music and merriment hosted by Sinéad Gleeson with readings from the likes of Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Eimear Ryan and Gerry Murphy. (The ticket price of €45 includes a prosecco cocktail, a main course and tea/ coffee.)

On Sunday, there’s a mystery bus tour starting at 12.30pm outside the Cork City Library, Grand Parade. A double decker bus will drift around the city with readings from writers including Kevin Barry, Lisa McInerney, Sally Rooney, Alan McMonagle and Sara Baume. Ticket: €20.

On Sunday from 5pm-7pm, explore the grounds of the newly re-opened Nano Nagle Place as Ó Bhéal presents poets including Cal Doyle, Mary O’Connell, Jennifer Matthews and Afric McGlinchey. There will also be storytelling featuring Pat Speight, Sharon O’Neill and Paddy O’ Brien. (Free but ticketed.)

On Sunday from 8.30pm, the venue is the River Lee Hotel where Crosstown Drift concludes with a multi-room extravaganza. There will be over two hours of events with readings from Kevin Barry, Sarah Griffin, Sinéad Gleeson, Sara Baume, Billy O’Callaghan, Rory Gleeson and Sally Rooney. Eoghan O’Sullivan, from the Irish Examiner, will host a Q&A session with literary magazine editors Eimear Ryan (Banshee), Marc O’Connell (Penny Dreadful) and Thomas Moore (Stinging Fly.) There will also be a showcase of new Cork writing feature Rachel Andrews, Danny Denton and Catherine Kirwan. DJ Stevie G will host Spitting Rhymes while Lisa McInerney will host Swearathon. Ticket: €15.


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