A conversation with Sally Rooney, author of Conversations With Friends

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Interview by Lucy Unwin

We caught up with Sally at the Hay Festival 2017 where she told us:

The foursome at the centre of the novel: Frances and Bobbi, the college students, and Melissa and Nick, the married couple — they arrived to me fully formed and I just pursued them, thinking it was going to be a short story and then it just kept coming and grew and became hugely unwieldy. It was just this idea of a dynamic that I wanted to play with.

Lucy: It feels like a coming of age book, but instead of teenage protagonists, the characters are in their twenties. Do you think that’s a reflection of our current society?

SalIy: I know there’s a common cultural perception now that we’ve pushed adulthood further, that people are only really beginning to come of age at twenty-six, twenty-seven. I don’t think that’s really the case. Actually, something that I read just after I had finished writing the book was Emma. Obviously, I can’t compare myself to Jane Austen [laughs], but, for me there were odd echoes there. Emma is twenty-one like Frances is twenty-one, they both have an extreme attachment to an older man, they both have an ailing father in the background, they both have a very intense friendship with a younger woman. So, these social structures, I don’t think are necessarily completely unique to the generation I am part of, and part of observing.

But, obviously, society is rapidly, rapidly changing and political and cultural norms are rapidly changing, and so part of trying to come to terms with that as an artist is developing forms that speak to that new reality. So in some ways an extremely millennial book, and people have noticed that about it. I definitely wasn’t trying to write something timeless, I think it’s very of its time and that was just my attempt to be honest about the world I was observing around me.

L: The way Frances sees herself — she has a very comparative way of looking at herself, certainly in relation to Bobbi — that almost feels like a symptom of a social media age, where everyone is always looking at everyone else’s lives and seeing how they measure up.

S: Yeah, that’s interesting. Obviously because I belong to this social media age, I can only partly observe it, because the other part of me is just participating in it, and is influenced by it, in ways that I can’t neutrally observe. And that’s an interesting thing about Frances as well. Part of my process of writing her was trying to observe her neutrally, but part of the process was also trying to identify with her, and to understand her motivations, and to sympathise with what she was going through. So, I could never be entirely removed from the decisions she was making in the way that the reader can. And many readers are and don’t necessarily sympathise with her at all.

It is strange to have to confront things that you weren’t aware of — that you maybe couldn’t be aware of while writing the book, cause you wouldn’t have been able to write that book if you had been — so readers have a very different experience of the book than the writer does, and that’s been interesting for me to come to terms with now.

L: Does it make you self-conscious now — looking at how other people perceive things that had seemed very natural to you?

S: Yes, I think that’s a very natural part of having a job that puts you in touch with a wider public. Which most jobs don’t: I mean, before, I was working in a restaurant and you get to keep your personal identity pretty much intact from your job, you don’t really have to project very much of yourself into that role. [laughs] Whereas, now, the line between my job and my personal self is increasingly ambiguous, and I’m finding that very difficult to navigate. I’m thinking about it a lot, philosophically, like: who is this person [in the interview] and who is the real me?

There are certain things that are obviously part of your personal life that don’t become part of a pubic exchange with readers, however well intentioned your readers are. There are some things — simply by virtue of being an individual human being — that you hold back from them. So, I suppose this whole thing [the interview] is a negotiation of: where does the line lie? And why does it lie wherever it is? It’s tough, and something that I never thought of while writing the book. [laughs] Did not cross my mind!

L: Looking at gender relationships in the book, I found it depressingly surprising to see such intellectually ferocious female characters. Which really shouldn’t be true. Do you feel there is a gap in literature where these women should be?

S: Absolutely. I think we still lack cultural archetypes of the female intellectual and we don’t know what to do with her when we have her. And that’s not to say Frances and Bobbi are intellectuals because they’re undergraduates — I mean, maybe later on in their lives… — but they’re still forming inchoate ideas about the world around them, and trying, I think quite sincerely, to engage with the politics and culture of the society they live in. And people don’t necessarily know how to deal with that, I think some people think that I was satirising them, like I was making fun of them, and I wasn’t, at all. I’m not saying that I actually think they’re totally brilliant and everything they say is true, but I was trying to depict them sincerely as people who are genuinely curious and genuinely engaged with the world around them.

I think maybe part of the reason people don’t know how to read that, tonally, is because we’re not really used to seeing women portrayed as straightforwardly, and genuinely sincerely, having political convictions that aren’t related to their relationships with men. People struggle to understand how to read that. I think maybe it opens you up to being accused of being pretentious, and partly maybe thats a totally fair enough criticism, and partly maybe it’s influenced by us not really knowing how to read female characters who are brazenly intellectual, or brazenly interested in intellectual topics.

L: In the book, all the relationships have their good and bad sides; whether they’re the kind generally promoted in society or not, and the character Bobbi has a monologue about the history and value of monogamy. Did you set out to gradually break away from the ideas of who it’s OK to love, and how?

S: Insofar as anything I did while writing the book was intentional, because I wrote it so quickly and in a flurry of not really knowing where I was, I think I certainly did want to challenge the ideas of traditional relationships. I think a lot of feminist thinkers probably feel that our traditional relationship forms are very deeply politicised, and gender power is entrenched in how we relate to other people on a very intimate level. So, once you accept that, then you feel like: well, I have to do something about it, I have to try and form some kind of new relationship ideal, that isn’t based on repression. And I think the characters are fumbling towards doing that; and obviously making a lot of mistakes as they attempt to, and hurting each other. In a sense, maybe that’s the price they pay for trying to liberate themselves from something they see as quite oppressive.

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Lucy Unwin blogs about books at Those Precious Stolen Moments where this interview also appears. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin

Lucy reviews Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney in our Fiction section – read it here.

Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends (Faber & Faber, 2017). 978-0571333127, 336pp., hardback.

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