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  • Sally Rooney on Sex, Millennials and on Being Called the Voice of Her Generation
This blog was featured on 04/22/2019
Sally Rooney on Sex, Millennials and on Being Called the Voice of Her Generation
Written by
She Writes
April 2019
Written by
She Writes
April 2019

Sally Rooney, is the young, Irish literary sensation who wrote Conversations With Friends for which she was named the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and shortlisted for the 2019 International Dublin Literary Award. The book swept through the literary nation, and was embraced by fellow writers like Zadie Smith, who praised it as one of those “debuts where you just can’t believe that it was a debut.” Sarah Jessica Parker wrote on Instagram: “This book. This book. I read it in one day. I hear I’m not alone.” 

She now has a second novel, Normal People, that will be released to the US this month. Similar to Conversations with Friends, her second novel tracks a love affair – this time following main characters Marianne and Connell across the span four years. The two young adults are from different class backgrounds, and go through high school and then college, coming of age together as they navigate relationships, sex, family and mental health.  

As the New Yorker put it, “Rooney has been received as a voice more of her time than of her place;” the Times called her “the first great millennial author.” 

On Writing about Sex

“So much of our sexual culture and vocabulary has the potential to be degrading,” says Rooney. “There’s an archaic language which is guaranteed to sound false or the language of pornography which is not actually true. I was trying to be true. What I’m interested in to a large extent is intimacy, the discomfort, the loss of self – of being penetrated literally and also psychologically.”

Both novels are, to some extent, accounts of sexual obsessions.

“Some people feel the sex isn’t very sexy but I’m not writing them for that,” she says. “Perhaps I’m trying to learn something about the characters through it, so it would be coy to have the scenes all off page.”

Yet when her editor suggested that the sex in Normal People was a little too coy, Rooney resisted, arguing that, in the early stages of their relationship at least, Connell and Marianne didn’t have a sexual vocabulary. She debated:

“So to over-literalize would be to put ways of thinking into their heads that they wouldn’t have been able to articulate for themselves. On the other hand,” she says, “I was probably trying to avoid writing it. That’s the gift of being able to come up with a plausible argument.”

The excerpts above were originally published in The Guardian. Read the full interview here.

On Being Called a Cultural Authority

As one reviewer wrote in Elle, Rooney has a skill many established writers still don’t, which is the ability to seamlessly weave in our phones, our social media use, our connectivity – and an accompanying awareness of their effects on image and identity and relationships and our brains – into her plots and conversations without making it feel forced or gimmicky. It may be a millennial awareness, but she conveys it with nineteenth-century literary muscle, which makes sense, considering she read loads of Jane Austen and George Eliot while writing both novels.

As such, she has been labeled as a ‘spokesperson for millennials’ and called the ‘voice of a generation,” titles that have not been well received.

“That’s very hard to take,” she says. “I don’t really want people to read my book that way, because I never intended it. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because they’re saying nice things, but I’m not trying to be a voice for even a small fraction of a generation – not even young women of my generation, or Irish women of my generation. Really, it’s just me.

This excerpt was originally published on Esquire UK. Read the full interview here.

In an interview with The Irish Times, she commented:

“I certainly never intended to speak for anyone other than myself. Even myself I find it difficult to speak for. My books may well fail as artistic endeavors but I don’t want them to fail for failing to speak for a generation for which I never intended to speak in the first place.”

On Writing about Millennials

Unlike many recent novels that ignore the internet, Rooney tackles it head-on in her book, artfully weaving in social media, modern communication and technology as it occurs in everyday life. In doing so, she found a way to cleverly shape one of the main characters.

“You’ve got to be sensitive that the internet allows you to do things and if you don’t give your characters that ability, the plot makes no sense,” she says. “You can’t just have them drop their phone or whatever. But then what’s interesting is the textuality of email. Connell is on a journey to becoming a writer – for better or worse – and he explores that when he’s writing emails to Marianne, who’s been away. That's when he develops his style. He gets invested in writing these really, really long emails.”

The ideal writing experience, she says, is trusting your ideal reader, as if you’re writing for them.

“I think the role of the textuality of internet is so important in our lives. The way we use text on the internet – like tweets and stuff – definitely informs the way I write.”

This excerpt was originally published on Esquire UK. Read the full interview here.

On Finding Time to Write

When she’s in the middle of a new idea, she can write any time, anywhere, she says.

“As long as I have my laptop I could do it anywhere. Even if I only have 20 minutes before my next interview, I still get some done. If I’m not in the middle of something, months and months will go by and I won’t write a word,” she told Esquire.

On Advice for Writers

“My friend Tom [Morris, the author] has this thing about short stories,” she says. “Often, what I and a lot of people struggle with when it comes to short stories is the beginnings and endings. He introduced me to this idea that, if the story was an anecdote that you were telling to your friends, where would you stop telling the anecdote? It’s not like your short story should naturally terminate there, but you have to question why: why am I doing more in a story than I would if I was telling my friend? That, for me, always brings up interesting stuff.”

Photo Credit: Jonny L Davies

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