Heidi Julavits: So yeah, so I was originally gonna start off with a sex question, but I don’t know. Now I’m thinking like. I dunno, you have a choice: selfhood or sex? Or selfhood through sex. Is that even a different question?
Sally Rooney: Is it even a different question? I’m happy to start with sex and then we can move from there into selfhood if you want.
Heidi Julavits: Let’s start with sex then. I mean, it’s a pretty simple question. When I was just casually surveying people, friends and fans about your work, one of the first things that they mentioned are your excellent sex scenes. And I feel like, the, back in the fall when I was sort of prepping for this interview, it was right around the time that London Review of Books piece came out by Patricia Lockwood. I don’t know if you read it. Yes?
Sally Rooney: About John Updike?
Heidi Julavits: About John Updike. And she wrote, “Updike wrote like a malfunctioning sex robot attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter.”
And so I guess I was wondering, in terms of you and writing your sex scenes, whether you consciously or unconsciously saw yourself as rebuking or redefining the way that sex and carnality and women having sex and women being carnal has been portrayed in novels written by the malfunctioning sex robots that so many of us grew up reading.
Sally Rooney: That is a very nice and very kind question. So thank you for that. I don’t think that I ever set out to consciously respond to or rebuke the sort of male writers of the canon, partly because I don’t know that I really read these prominent American male writers in my teen years the way that I think a lot of other writers probably did. Like I don’t know that I was really all that exposed to writers like Updike, Norman Mailer, the other sort of mid-century American writers who get mentioned in that bracket. I don’t know that I was not familiar with their way of writing about sex and sexuality, so I don’t think that–I mean, maybe by the time I started writing the books I was–but I don’t think it was a formative part of my journey as a reader to the extent that I was formulating my identity as a writer in response to it.
I think probably I was just interested from the beginning in writing stories about romance and sort of sexual obsession and infatuation, and then to grapple with those topics in a way that felt like, that offered some kind of resolution or forward momentum. It felt like my characters inevitably were heading towards actually getting into bed together at some point. I couldn’t just keep suspending the release of that feeling for the entire novel. So then they’d get in there and then I would be like, “Oh, well now I guess I have to write about this.”
And of course I tried just doing the “afterwards they,” and I still have used that sometimes in both the novels I’ve published, but I did try at least a couple of times to like attack the scene straight on and to do something or to attempt to do something interesting with it. And they were tricky to write, but they felt important because that’s so much of the energy of the novels, I think, is like a kind of sexual energy. And so if you’re going to try and do that without letting your reader actually have any window into what these people’s sex lives are really like, it feels like a little bit dishonest or coy.
And in fact, my editor, Mitzi Angel, who I worked with on both those novels, did suggest that she thought at times I was a little bit too coy. And I tend to agree with her that sometimes I held back because I was like, “Oh, if I say that, it’ll be embarrassing.” And I try not to let those things interfere with what I’m doing too much. But I think once or twice I was like, “Oh, if I use that word, that’s going too far, so I’ll just step back from that ledge.”
Heidi Julavits: What’s that, what’s a word? Cause I was wondering if you had any words, like” I will not use the word ‘member.'”
Sally Rooney: Right, well, exactly. Like any sort of graphic terminology for body parts. It feels like once you choose one, then it’s, there’s bound to be some readers who hate that word and cannot read that word on a page, and then you’ve ruined the moment for that small cache of readers. You know? So it feels like making those choices is like walking a tightrope. And I felt very constrained in the use of language in the sex scenes that I did write. And I think maybe I managed to pull off those constraints to some extent. In what I’m writing now, I’m trying to like push myself and go beyond that and just use the words that some people hate and live with it and just see if it works.
Heidi Julavits: Like what’s a word that people hate, or that you’re worried that people hate?
Sally Rooney: Oh, like all the words for body parts and for the actual act of sex, like fucking, or any of those words. There are some people who find those words–I mean, I’ve actually had handwritten letters sent to me from people who hate the use of swear words in my work, which, I know that for some people it just destroys the experience of reading itself. And so, and of course, you can’t tailor-make your entire, you know, your entire novel can’t be tailor-made for somebody who sent you a handwritten letter saying, “please do not use the F word in your novel.” But nonetheless, I feel like, oh, but I don’t want to use language in a way that punctures the smoothness of the scene in a way. So it’s hard, it’s really hard, and I think with sex scenes particularly hard, though, I will say, I think this argument probably extends to scenes generally.
Heidi Julavits: Yeah, it probably does.
Sally Rooney: Yeah. Finding the right vocabulary that doesn’t puncture the moment is always hard.
Heidi Julavits: I think it’s especially hard with sex scenes though, or maybe it just really brings that difficulty, it really turns the volume up on that difficulty, and you’re really staring at how hard it is because you are trying to widely appeal to people’s sort of understanding of what is erotic.
Sally Rooney: Yeah. And it’s very difficult to do that. And then sometimes I sort of defend myself by saying, well, it’s not supposed to be sexy. It’s not supposed to be like arousing. It’s supposed to feel true to the inner lives of the characters and to be a demonstration of what they are feeling. I don’t think that’s dishonest, but I think it’s not 100% true, because I think if I’m trying to portray a moment in these characters lives, which for them is deeply sexually fulfilling, there is a sense in which I want to convey that in a truthful way, and to convey it means not making it really unerotic and unsexy on the page.
Does that make sense? It’s not like I’m trying to titillate the reader, obviously, but that I’m not trying to foreclose on that possibility for the reader either, that they’re reading it going, “Oh God, this is so awful and difficult to read, and awkward.” I mean, of course some of the sex scenes are like that and supposed to be like that. And sometimes, you know, human sexuality involves that range of experiences, but I also want to be open to the possibility of like interesting and fulfilling sexuality as well.
Heidi Julavits: Yeah, and I mean also then if you suddenly felt like, I think if you are not in some way–I don’t want to say sharing the erotic experience, but at least relating to it in some way, then suddenly you just become a voyeur, and it changes your relationship to the characters. Whereas prior to the sex scene, I wouldn’t feel like a, I never felt like a voyeur in your novels, right, so it also becomes a, yeah. It just becomes an uncomfortable place to be as a reader.
Sally Rooney: Right. That’s so interesting. I’d never thought about that, but that if you start breaking down the sort of unconscious and thoughtless, but meaning thoughtless in a good way, identification between reader and character–if you sort of snip that and say, well, you’re not supposed to identify with them in this moment, this is not your erotic experience it’s just somebody else’s, it actually introduces this weird sense of voyeurism or like separateness from the character that was never there before.
I think that’s so true–that actually what you’re trying to do is draw the reader through this experience in a way that leaves room for it to be like sexy or erotic, if that’s what it is, or not, if that’s what it’s not, but to leave room for that identification to be kept intact. And it’s hard to do that if you start reaching for this vocabulary that’s going to like ruin it for, not everyone, but for a lot of people. So it did feel like I had to work within constraints to try and protect that sort of identification that you’re talking about.
Heidi Julavits: Do you think we could talk about sex for a full 60 minutes?
Sally Rooney: Yeah. Probably, yes. Yes.
Heidi Julavits: It’d be kind of a fun challenge.
Sally Rooney: Yeah, I almost think like the more we talked about it, the more we would find to say, but yeah.
Heidi Julavits: Just seems to be so much more to say about it than I even thought. I mean, I’m kind of, I’m actually going to be continually sort of flirting with it as we go on, but, okay.
So also, as I was preparing for this interview, I was chatting with this woman, not about you or your books necessarily, but it just made me think of your books, cause I was reading them at the time, and I asked this woman like how things were going in her life and at home, and she said, “life is as harmonious as it could ever be for a woman in a heterosexual relationship.”
And this is obviously a totally reductive observation, reductive to the point of being completely inaccurate, but at times when I was reading your two novels, I think that they are kind of about the inherent challenges of heterosexuality. And I would love you now, about this observation, you are free to agree or disagree or complicate.
Sally Rooney: Yeah, that’s interesting. I have tended to write about relationships between men and women, not always where both parties in the relationship are heterosexual as such, but that the relationships on the page tend to be between men and women. And I am drawn back to writing about those relationships. They do fascinate me. And the inherent power imbalance in any relationship that involves gender, which is every relationship, is interesting to me.
I think, first of all, as a novelist, I’m not convinced that any relationship can reach a sort of zero power point. I think that there’s always some degree of power dynamic in every relationship, and I think I tend to write about relationships where that power dynamic first of all, tends to be in flux, and secondly, tends to be complicated by specific differences. So like class differences, age differences, and of course, gender differences.
And maybe that’s why I keep writing about relationships between men and women. Again, because the gender difference just complicates everything in a way that feels interesting to me to write about. Of course, I hasten to add, if this isn’t obvious, but same sex relationships are incredibly interesting to read about. For some reason, I return to writing about relationships between men and women.
I, yeah, I mean, I read a really interesting essay on the internet–the author’s name, I wish I could recall off the top of my head, but I can’t. It was about the kind of trend in popular discourse for talking about heterosexuality as a prison, and sort of saying, “Oh, I’m trapped in heterosexuality.”
And I think it’s a, it’s, that discourse has emerged as a response to a particular moment, maybe in feminist conversations, which is a moment of like exasperation and a feeling of maybe hopelessness in response to present political circumstances and in response to what feels like, maybe, sometimes feels like no progress in terms of gender relations. After the problems were identified, what feels like a long time ago, it’s sometimes feels as though we haven’t actually made progress toward correcting those imbalances in those intervening years, decades, whatever.
And so maybe from that moment of exasperation has come this feeling of like, heterosexuality has nothing to give us, it’s a prison for people who are trapped in it, it makes people behave horribly and it’s kind of, there’s nothing we can do. And I think, I mean, maybe at times my characters succumb to that way of thinking, but I also want to be resistant toward that way of framing human relations as well.
Like, I don’t really, yeah, it’s funny, like I don’t really think of myself as someone who writes about heterosexuality as such, but of course, I do write about relationships between men and women that have all the complications of heterosexual relationships in them. And I do feel like I want to resist that sense of hopelessness or sort of predetermination around gender roles. Like I always feel like pushing back against that, in a way that I hope is useful and not just kind of reactionary, cause I know I have that tendency sometimes as well.
Heidi Julavits: Do you have that tendency?
Sally Rooney: Yeah, to just like whatever everyone is saying, to be like, “well I think the opposite of that,” without really, like, is that useful? And sometimes it is useful to just have somebody who will say the opposite, so that–and I don’t mean like to say really stupid or offensive things. Hopefully I don’t, I don’t have that tendency, I hope. But just to react against whatever the predominant narrative is. And then hopefully, sometimes, that can be helpful, cause you can find like a synthesis between the ideas. But sometimes I think it’s just a silly thing.
Heidi Julavits: Do you believe it? Like when you are being reactionary, are you saying what you believe?
Sally Rooney: I find it very difficult sometimes to know what I believe. And sometimes I say things and believe that I believe them, and later realize I don’t, or I say things that I think I don’t believe and then in the act of saying them realize that I do in fact believe them. So it’s very hard for me to settle on a position intellectually a lot of the time, particularly when I’m formulating positions in response to what I feel is sort of like a moment in the discourse. Like, “Oh, a lot of people are writing about or saying this. Well, in response to that…” My view always feels like it’s–you know, it’s either I’m in harmony with all of them, but then of course, that’s only because I’ve read what other people are saying, or I’m reacting against it, but equally, that’s only, you know, it’s a reaction as well.
So it can be really hard to know what I actually think. And I sometimes think, as a novelist, that can be helpful. Like it’s better to not really have a very fixed idea when you go into things, because you can discover ideas as you go.
Heidi Julavits: Yeah, I was just reading an essay in the new Lydia Davis book of her collected essays, and she has such an interesting just way of being both reactionary and not at the same time, where she keeps talking about how she, when she was younger, she just really wanted to write a conventional story. She really wanted to do that. And yet she kept sort of failing to do that. And yet the desire to do it kind of persisted in her creative life. And I loved the idea of somebody who both values this thing that you also can’t do and continues to, not define herself against it–I think it would be very natural to be like, “I can’t do that, so that thing–it’s not worth doing.”
Sally Rooney: It’s funny, I kind of feel like in a way the inverse of that, and I have not read Lydia Davis’ essay, so I may be picking up wrong the point that you’re making. But I sometimes feel as though my novels are like a failed attempt to write a unconventional story. Like I found, I tried to write something new, and then I found that I had come, I was completely boxed in by the form of the novel and ended up with something that was just completely a novel in every way. Like I was like, “Oh, I’ll do something different.” And then turned around and looked at what I had done and was like, “Oh, this is literally just a novel.”
And I feel like I vary between feeling disappointed in myself and sort of like self-critical about my inability to break out of that form, and then sometimes I think the, it was the drive to break out of it that actually allowed me to do it successfully, like to finish, I don’t mean successfully in–I just mean to literally finish writing a book, or in this case, two books. Like I needed to feel that I was doing something else in order to actually trick myself into doing, into the writing of the two books.
Heidi Julavits: So what did they look like in your mind?
Sally Rooney: I think I felt, you know, at the beginning of the conversation, we were talking about, like, reacting against certain writers. I think I probably felt like–and I love the early novel, the early 19th century and Victorian novels in English. But I guess I felt like I had, I wanted to break out of that, of those conventions. Firstly, because they’re so loaded, in terms of class and gender, and also because I felt like, when the circumstances change, the forms of expression have to change. So it felt like we are experiencing these radical changes in our cultural circumstances, and like the, you know, the onus is on me in some way to respond to those in a, with a fresh artistic response, like with using new tools.
And I just feel like I completely didn’t do that. I used exactly the same tools as a Victorian novelist, you know, rather ineptly in my case, but basically the same conventions using all the same devices and stuff. And you know, without intending to do that, but feeling in the end like there was nothing else I could have done. Like every time, you know, the doors just kind of opened in front of me and I kept walking through them, sort of without meaning to.
Heidi Julavits: Is there somebody who you feel is using new tools?
Sally Rooney: Mmm. Yeah, I was going to say, that’s the annoying thing. No, and that’s the great thing.
Heidi Julavits: You’re like, but no one’s succeeded, so there you have it.
Sally Rooney: Then I would feel better, right? No, but there are contemporary writers who I think are doing things that challenge the form of the novel. I think of Sheila Heti. Her books, I think, are like so satisfying to read as novels, and yet they do things that are not simply borrowed from the techniques and devices of the Victorian novel.
I also think Zadie Smith, her novel, “NW,” again like breaking the novel in a way that still remains immensely satisfying to read, in the way that the best classic novels do. So, yeah, there are writers who can do it. There are, and I learn from them, but I feel like I’m obviously learning the wrong lessons, because I’m not doing it myself.
Heidi Julavits: I mean, it’s such an interesting thing then about–I mean, in a strange way, I feel like sometimes when I have conversations about novels and conventionality or experimentalism or any of these things, in some ways, I’m like, well, yes, that’s how we talk about art, it’s like on this continuum, and you constantly, there’s an avant garde, right? There’s the sense that you’re always trying to, in theory, as an artist, do something that hasn’t been done before.
And then there’s part of me that’s like, well, I don’t want to see it as a continuum. I want to see it as just like this big mess of data points. You know what I mean? And in that configuration, I guess I would say I dunno, I feel like you did succeed in doing something that doesn’t really feel, like if you take it off of the line and you bust the line up into a bunch of different like spots and throw them around. You know what I mean?
Sally Rooney: Yeah, I know. And I also think it is important to be critical of that instinct, that’s sort of the myth-of-progress instinct, that like you begin with the early novel and then it just kind of chugs along, like in a linear form. Whereas in fact, there’ve always been sort of competing tendencies within the novel. I mean, like the canon that we’ve decided now is the canon was not actually always perceived as such. Right? So we have one linear story that we’ve imposed on the sort of evolution of the novel as a form, but that story does not really tell us a whole lot, or it tells us one thing, but it doesn’t tell us loads of other important things.
So I think you’re right. It’s actually more important to visualize the whole thing as a complicated collection of data points.
Heidi Julavits: What is that? There’s like a word for that when you just have points.
Sally Rooney: Scatter, scatter something.
Heidi Julavits: Scatter something.
Sally Rooney: Yeah, it has the word scatter in it.
Heidi Julavits: Scatter, scatter…scattershot?
Sally Rooney: I don’t think it’s that. Is it like a scatter graph? Oh, no, I, yeah, no, I don’t think it’s called that. I have no idea. I’m sorry.
Heidi Julavits: Yes, I’m, yeah, that’s the best we can do, not having–I do have my phone here, but we’re not going to look it up. Scatter. Okay.
So sort of coming back. Yeah, do I want to come back–let’s come back to gender for a second. I was really interested–again, I keep relating to like, “and when I was reading your books, I was doing this.” When I was reading your books, I also went to see “Slave Play.” I don’t know if you saw “Slave Play.”
Sally Rooney: I did not see it.
Heidi Julavits: By Jeremy O. Harris. Okay. Well, I’m just gonna–I might talk about that, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. But, I was interested, in both novels, I felt like the closest that Connell and…
Sally Rooney: Marianne.
Heidi Julavits: No, other man in…
Sally Rooney: In “Conversations with Friends?” Nick and Frances.
Heidi Julavits: Yes, exactly. That the men, that Nick and Connell, sorry–I have a migraine for anyone who’s listening. So that’s why certain basic facts are not really available to me. The closest that that Nick and Connell comes to understanding the historical gender bind that they’re in happens when they refuse to act as sadists even when asked. And when Connell refuses to choke Marianne and Nick refuses to choke Frances. Are they escaping a stereotype or are they confirming it?
Sally Rooney: It’s funny. I have–I don’t tend to read a lot about my own work, just because it feels weird to do that for me. But I did read one very interesting essay–and I feel so lucky to be in the position of having interesting stuff written about my work. And I did read one really interesting essay about my–about “Normal People,” and specifically, about that moment where Connell refuses to participate in this sort of BDSM thing with Marianne.
And I think, this essay was somewhat critical of that moment, sort of seeing it as a, maybe like a get out clause for the male character, that he’s sort of redeeming himself as a man by refusing to participate in something that would in fact be consensual and has been like, requested and asked for by a woman who’s put herself in a very vulnerable position to make that request, and that rather than embarking on that journey with her in a sort of full-hearted way, he kind of shrinks from it because it reminds him of the position, the masculinity that he does in fact embody and can’t get away from, even if he does say no.
So I think that’s there as a reading, and I think that’s valid. And I have heard it in conversation about the book, and I understand why that kind of moment can bother people for that reason.
Another thing though that I do feel is that, like, men also have legitimate preferences. And I think that Connell really would have hated that, like as a person. Like, you know, I mean, I don’t think it was a moral moment or any kind of moral victory, not at all, but it was an expression of a legitimate preference. Like that was not going to be–not only was that not going to be sexy and enjoyable for him, it was going to be really unpleasant and not nice. And I feel like people should not need to do things like that in order to fulfill some kind of gender exchange or whatever. You know, like to participate–people have their own desires and anxieties and fears that never, of course, fully transcend gender or get outside the political reality that we all inhabit together, but are nonetheless within that framework, sort of legitimate and have to be worked with and worked around in any relationship.
So I felt like in a way, certainly that those moments of refusal on the part of those male characters–and I kind of had not put it together in my own mind that those moments echo each other so closely–they’re not in any way like moral triumphs for these men, where they’re like managing to refuse the worst parts of masculinity, but they do reflect something that is real about what those men are going through in their own lives, in their own minds, and what they feel and what they desire.
So I think that’s something that’s like, just difficult, but it, there’s no way to unknot that using the terminology of gender or power alone, if that makes sense. Yeah.
Heidi Julavits: I mean, it’s sort of interesting. I obviously haven’t read this essay that you were referring to, but what seems like an interesting maybe porousness, is like the difference between what you, your preference as a novelist, and then the character’s sexual preferences. Right? And like are the, are their acts in the bedroom in some way being interpreted as your view?
Sally Rooney: Right!
Heidi Julavits: Like I like how you put it, where it’s just like, he just wouldn’t like that.
Sally Rooney: Yeah. I mean…
Heidi Julavits: Like, it has nothing to do with me.
Sally Rooney: Right. Right, of course. But then that when you get to that point of disavowal, you realize that you’re talking nonsense. Because like, I invented these people, so what he wants, it’s up to me to decide what he wants.
Heidi Julavits: Yeah but is it? I don’t know. Yes and no. I mean, obviously you have total control of the situation, but I mean, there is something to be said, you know, like it could also seem like not your failing, but his failing. You know what I’m saying?
Sally Rooney: Yeah. And I mean, I think like, you know, I think most people would intuitively recognize that if the–maybe this is a really simplistic way of talking about it–but that if the genders were reversed and it was the male partner asking the female partner in a sexual situation for something she didn’t feel comfortable with, we would feel like it was really important for her to be able to say no.
So I think like, it’s also important the other way round, like people have to, in a healthy relationship, people have to be able to say no to things they don’t want to do. And again, it was never intended to be read as a moment of sort of moral recuperation for those characters. It was just like a personal, you know, inability to navigate that in a way that felt comfortable.
And then of course, I use that for maximum dramatic effect, cause that’s like my job, as the novelist behind the curtain, sort of manipulating all these events. And maybe I do that in a way that’s not, you know, that’s like not right or that is problematic or troubling. I don’t know. But I feel like the instinct probably, you know, in process, it feels like the instinct comes from the character and then I have to make something of it, if that makes sense.
Heidi Julavits: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is, I mean, whatever. This is just like kind of playing chess in a weird way, like switching out the players, in a boring way. But it did make me wonder, for example, if a scene like that would’ve played out differently if, for example, Frances had asked Bobbi to choke her.
Sally Rooney: Yeah. And I didn’t write, in “Conversations with Friends,” I did not write about the sexual relationship between Bobbi and Frances, almost at all. And I think the reason that happened from a, again, from a process point of view, was because that novel was written in the first person, and it felt like Frances’s narrative voice really was almost like a form of power game in itself.
Like it felt like she used the narrative in order to exercise power over the other people in her life, by characterizing them in a particular way and characterizing their actions in relation to her in a way that made sense to her. I don’t think in a sadistic or cruel way, but in a way that made her–allowed her to access some kind of meaning or some sense of stability in her life. That she was like, “he was this type of person. She was that type of person. And here was I, in the middle, also this other type of person.” And that by doing that, by constructing the narrative in that way, she was fulfilling something for herself, and that was like part of her narrative voice for me.
And then so trying to write about her sexual relationship with Bobbi, when the way that she talked about and orated her sexual relationship with Nick was, felt like such an, invasion might be the wrong word, but such a sort of anatomizing of him as a person, and it was very unsparing–I could not really find a way to do that for Bobbi without it seeming to sort of undermine or betray the feelings that Frances had for Bobbi, which were feelings largely of sort of adulation and admiration. It felt like it was so difficult to bring what seemed to me like her quite unsparing and cold narrative gaze onto those moments of privacy and intimacy between them. And it was almost like I wanted to reserve that space to be untouched by her narrative voice.
I don’t know whether, I mean, I think that was probably just a failure on my part. Like I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t get how to do it. But it meant that that novel definitely did have that gap in it. And it’s like really difficult to imagine, then, how these situations would have played out if it had been Bobbi, because that’s a side of Bobbi that we never get to see.
Heidi Julavits: Yeah. I don’t know that I felt that it was a gap, as much as a…I mean to me, it felt like a purposeful omission. It felt like a space that felt, yeah, that it wasn’t my business somehow?
Sally Rooney: Right. Yeah.
Heidi Julavits: Which, sometimes things aren’t your business.
Sally Rooney: Yeah. I mean, I still don’t know, and I haven’t read that book for a few years. And I kind of like, don’t really want to read it again at the moment. And I think, I’m sure if I do ever go back and read it again, I will encounter that gap in a new way and perhaps feel like it was, you know, one of the big failings of the book, or perhaps feel like, no, it did kind of, it was the best compromise I could find for the kind of book that I was trying to write. But it was definitely a difficulty and it was something that I wrestled with while I was writing the book.
Because it felt like important, like her relationship with Bobbi, that romantic sexual aspect of it is important, and I think the romantic aspect is probably there, but I, yeah, but their sexual relationship isn’t on the page in the way that her relationship with Nick is.
Heidi Julavits: Yeah. Okay. So again, moving into sex in a different way. So Marianne and Connell in particular suffer from a lot of miscommunication, and in a sense the end, I mean, one of the many engines of “Normal People” is sort of the fuel, it’s running on the fuel of miscommunication. And I kind of realized at a certain point, somewhat shamefully, like partway through the book, that their miscommunication was kind of like sex for me, as a reader. And then I started to yearn for their failed connection.
Sally Rooney: That’s very interesting.
Heidi Julavits: And like the power shifts, right. More than I yearned for their resolution. And, basically like I wanted bad things to keep happening to the characters that I liked so that the book would keep going.
Sally Rooney: Right.
Heidi Julavits: And so, and then it made me wonder how much a book’s ability to let a reader like privately explore their worst impulses or most shameful sides as a human being is also maybe what makes us so fond of that book. And I guess I just wonder like what you think about that and if you’ve ever had that experience? And then, like, did you have any formative reader experiences, like cathartic or shame-based or whatever, that you tried to replicate in your books?
Sally Rooney: Oh, I think as a reader, I tend to be–and I chastise myself with this a bit because I feel like it makes me really uncomplicated, but I tend to be the kind of reader who like roots for everything to work out. And even though a lot of my favorite novels don’t have endings where everything works out, and on the contrary have, just, are just a series of things going wrong, horribly wrong, and then even more horribly wrong for the entire novel until it’s over, I still have like a really strong attachment to things going right, which is why those moments where things go wrong feels so unsettling and I guess kind of powerful to me as a reader when I become invested.
But I do–I would say it’s almost childlike, my ability to root for things not to, bad things not to happen to characters when I’m reading. And that I struggle to make bad things happen to the characters that I write about, because I, you know, I get to feel fond of them, you know, especially after I’ve been writing the book for a while, and then I kind of just want everything to be okay. Like I want to give them a break sometimes, and I feel a little bit of resistance to like, things going badly wrong.
So I wonder why then, like it’s, you know, hearing you talk about “Normal People,” I guess it is a novel where like things just incessantly keep going wrong, but then on the other hand, nothing–well, okay, some very grim things do happen.
Heidi Julavits: I mean, it seems that things go, don’t go, I mean, are going wrong. I actually have this “Anna Karenina” quote that I, again, while I was reading your books, I was also reading–I was inspired to go actually and reread “Anna Karenina,” and it’s like a moment that I was like, “oh my God, this is exactly what you’re doing in that book over and over and over again.”
And it’s, this is obviously, “she” is Anna. “She could not have known that his expression reflected the first thought that occurred to him, that a duel was now inevitable. The thought of a duel had never entered her head, and therefore she explained this momentary expression of sternness differently.”
And I sort of feel like you’re right. Like, that isn’t even–I feel like you sort of throw up moments like that again and again and again and again in the book, and also really challenges me to realize that like, oh, I also interpreted it incorrectly. Right?
Sally Rooney: I’m really interested in that. You know, obviously in the second book, the whole thing is sort of a dramatization of the characters’, sometimes drastically different, sometimes only slightly different, interpretations of the same events. Like that’s sort of the dramatic structure of the book. It’s like, he thought that this happened, but she thought that this happened, when in fact the same thing had happened to both of them, but, you know, they read it differently. And so it’s a book about reading, which I suppose all books are.
Yeah, I mean, what kind of blows my mind about that quote from “Anna Karenina,” is just how different that narrative voice is from the narrative voice that’s predominant in fiction today. And it’s so exciting to read it, because like you, in the same, in the course of the same sentence, you get to see into both of their minds.
Yeah. Whereas now we just do it one at a time, right. Like the vast majority of novels, it seems to me–and of course I haven’t read the vast majority of novels, so that’s too much of a generalization–but like, it seems like–yeah, all of them. But it seems like now the rule is sort of, you stick with the perspective of one character. And you have to mark any shift away from that character with a very clear mark, whether it’s the end of a chapter, like I did in “Normal People,” or some other way of signaling, we have now left the consciousness of one character, we’re entering another. Whereas like Tolstoy apparently thought nothing of just flitting from consciousness to consciousness within the space of a sentence. And it is amazing, the effect that that achieved.
So yeah, I mean, just purely from a sort of technical novelist’s toolbox perspective, I think it took me like an entire novel to do what Tolstoy just did in one sentence kind of thing. It’s like, it’s amazing to see how much consciousness can be packed into such a small space. It’s really hard, I think, to achieve that effect.
Heidi Julavits: Yeah. Yeah. I, this kind of gets into, I guess, that idea of there being two consciousnesses, or like two people that you’re sort of cycling between in a book. Obviously, or not going to say obviously–I am imagining many people already know that you, I was going to say were a champion debater, but I’m sure you still are.
Sally Rooney: No, definitely past tense.
Heidi Julavits: I’m sure it’s an ongoing championship.
Sally Rooney: No, it’s very firmly in the past.
Heidi Julavits: Anyways, and I was thinking about like, I was trying to sense your debate training in your work, and it does seem that you are a really brilliant kind of master at taking dramatic advantage of disagreement, or like you’re always, maybe this is your reactionary self coming to bear, but you’re very, there’s always like a rejoinder, right?
And this is a quote from “Conversations with Friends” where Bobbi says, “I just feel so mad at them. They treated us as a resource,” and then Frances says, “you’re disappointed we didn’t get to break up their marriage.”
And I guess I was just wondering if there were, you know, if this is some sort of skill you have that you’re conscious of applying to novel writing, or if there are other aspects of debate training that helps you train or perform as a novelist?
Sally Rooney: Yeah, I mean, what I tend to say about this is that I think it’s probably the same set of instincts that led me to get involved in college debating, were the same, among the same set of instincts that led me down the road of writing novels, which is kind of like an enjoyment for playing with language, and an enjoyment for expressing, or trying, sometimes very poorly, to express complex concepts in succinct language.
And also a taste for like, the rejoinder. Like, when one character says something, another character wants to respond, often contradicting or supplementing or agreeing in part, but also trying to turn the agreement a little. So those kind of shifts in conversation were what energized me about debating.
When I was a debater I never liked to give the first speech. I think I almost got through my entire like debating career without ever doing that. I always liked to be speaking after someone so that I could disagree vociferously with what they had just said. Giving the first speech was like uninteresting to me, and made me feel very like vulnerable and not sure of what to say, whereas when somebody had said things I disagreed with, it was like the easiest thing in the world for me to get up and be like, “well, here’s why you’re wrong.”
And so I guess that that ability to say the second thing is part of what I enjoy doing as a novelist. That when one character says something, it’s easy for me to, or it feels easy for me, to reach into the consciousness of another character and know what they would want to say back.
And a lot of the energy, I think comes from that interplay. You know, that sense of going from thesis to antithesis or whatever, that wanting to keep that energy and that momentum in play all the time. And often I write too much dialogue because like, I don’t want to stop, you know, I just want to keep that energy going, so I have to delete lots and lots of dialogue because like my characters could just, I feel they could just talk all the time, because there’s always something to disagree with, right? Like there’s never any final statement that they feel happy to just let it rest.
And they are obviously very talkative people, you know, in–almost all the sort of main characters in both the books are very talkative. Connell, I think probably being the exception, one of the protagonists of “Normal People.”
Yeah. So it, I think it’s probably the same set of interests and instincts that maybe were somewhat sharpened during my time as a debater, I don’t know, but that were probably preexisting to some extent. That I then like brought into my practice as a novelist.
Heidi Julavits: Okay. So I want to talk about material stringency. Neither of your novels traffic in a lot of physical description, but definitely “Normal People”–the second time I read it, I was so struck by how there’s just not a lot of objects. There’s like not a lot of objects. You know? There’s–at one point I think her room is described in college, and there’s like a teapot or something, and I was like, “Oh my god, a teapot!” It just seemed like the most radical thing to encounter.
Sally Rooney: You’re welcome for that teapot.
Heidi Julavits: Anyways, and I guess I just, I mean, this is a bit of a stretch, but maybe not. Like is this a sort of ideological or political choice on your part? Because, like I kind of started to feel like it was environmentally irresponsible to use a lot of material objects in fiction, and that like objects in fiction also have a carbon footprint.
Sally Rooney: Wow.
Heidi Julavits: Right? If only a psychological carbon footprint.
Sally Rooney: I did not think about that. Yeah. I mean, it’s been said that my characters was don’t eat enough, and they don’t sort of inhabit the physical world enough in other ways. I sometimes do describe what they’re wearing, I don’t tend to make much of it, I don’t think, but like sometimes I’ll say she was wearing a turtleneck or, but it generally won’t go into like detailed description, even of clothing and certainly of other objects. I mean furniture, like if I absolutely have to, maybe, but like I don’t tend to do it a lot.
Heidi Julavits: She sat.
Sally Rooney: But, yeah, exactly. She sat. It’s not really relevant. No and I do find sofas, beds and stuff make huge appearances. So like, it’s almost kind of like setting the stage for a play. And like, as a set designer, I am a minimalist. You know, I really only want the items on stage that you absolutely have to use.
So I mean, I guess, I think honestly, part of that comes, maybe exclusively comes from, I’m a very impatient writer and I’m very, always have this anxiety hanging over me about boring the reader. I really feel like one of my big limits as a writer is that I’m worried of boring the reader all the time, so I can’t sort of allow myself to describe physical environments in great detail or to talk about things that don’t really sort of quote unquote matter to the plot.
Now you may say, there aren’t really any plots in my books, so why do I worry about it that much? That would be a good question. I guess I have a feeling of what the sort of submerged plot is. In other words, I feel like I know where the energy of the book is coming from. And if a scene does not touch directly on that energy and indeed transform it in some way that’s significant for the next scene, it doesn’t belong there. And then if you go down to the sentence level, it’s like, but does that cup really transform the dynamic, you know? And the answer is almost always no.
So I can think of a couple of times when it’s like, yes, I’ve needed to mention physical objects because they touch on this dynamic. You know, she needs to be holding something or looking at something in a way that’s significant. But most of the time, no. And again, I’m not speaking about that as if it’s a virtue, cause I don’t think it is. And some of my favorite novels, like, I mean, you think of like “Swann’s Way” or whatever, of course, not like every single mantle or shawl that’s described in that book could touch on whatever is the central dynamic. And yet, you know, it’s one of the greatest novels ever written or whatever. It’s an amazing novel.
So it does feel like what I’m doing is really constraining myself unnecessarily, or maybe I’m just not an, I’m not a very good novelist, so I have to really stick to the one, the idea that I have and allow that to come through, otherwise I’ll kind of like lose it or get distracted or something. I don’t know.
Heidi Julavits: Well, I mean, it’s funny that someone would have said, all right, it’s true, maybe–actually, I remember tons of meals that they have. I feel like your characters eat–I think that they’re very healthy eaters.
Sally Rooney: Thank you. I feel like. Yeah, I mean, some of, they’re always going to dinner parties, so they must be eating something.
Heidi Julavits: I mean the presumption is that there’s some food there. Do you need to spell it out?
Sally Rooney: Right. Well, I don’t know. I mean, I would like to think, and again, I feel sometimes like I’m very bad at talking about the books, cause I haven’t read them in a while. But I hope that my characters do eat normally.
Heidi Julavits: But I mean, I guess what I was going to say is that, I guess there’s different ways of, like being physically in the world, maybe? And I really noticed it in “Normal People.” People are so in their bodies. Like it’s almost just like a body book in a way, you know. It’s just sort of like she’s in her body. And the way that you described the experience of being embodied, I dunno, it was very striking to me. And so I think there’s just a different kind of physicality that you are describing that maybe doesn’t have to do with holding a cup.
Sally Rooney: Yeah. I mean like now that you say that, I suppose my sort of like philosophical intuition would be things don’t really matter to me as much as bodies do, right? Like minds and bodies matter to me and things just don’t really matter. Like I don’t really own anything that I care about, but I know a lot of people that I really care about it. So I guess like maybe I am reflecting that hierarchy of preferences in my way of writing, because it’s just like stuff, you know, who cares? Like, I mean, some of it you have to have, but it’s not–it doesn’t feel like important to me, in a sort of conceptual way.
Whereas like, physical bodies and like minds and you know, whatever you want to, the heart or the soul or whatever, like the spiritual or emotional aspect of being a human being–those things are very important to me, even on like a day to day level. I don’t care about stuff that much and I’m easily like distracted from thinking about, you know, practical things and like, and material objects. Whereas I find it easy to spend a long time thinking about, you know, physicality and emotional lives. So yeah, I mean, I guess it probably does reflect some kind of unconsidered preference on my part. Maybe. Maybe.
Heidi Julavits: Okay. So, I’m sorry that I’m continually holding to things that you’ve written or said, but that’s just the way it goes, isn’t it?
Another observation you had about debates, the piece that you wrote about your debating career: “the machinery that drives effective speeches isn’t lastingly mysterious. Observe it for long enough and you can see the moving parts.”
And I guess I was wondering, are you worried that that will ever be true of novels, or like, is that what you’re hoping for? You know, like, are you hoping for the point where you get maybe, yeah, bored, maybe by a design, and that pushes you into some new space? I don’t know.
Sally Rooney: Yeah, I mean, you, I think you always do. Like what I felt with my previous two books is that like each one of, like each time I write a novel, it teaches me how to write that novel, and then I immediately can never use any of those lessons again, because I’ve used them to write that novel, which I never want to write again. You know, it’s like, “oh no, now I’ve learned all this stuff that I…”
Heidi Julavits: Is there literally nothing? I’m curious actually, because I feel that that is true, what you’re saying, and yet I can’t accept it. I’m just like, there must be something transferrable. Some transferable thing.
Sally Rooney: I don’t know if there is, like, certainly I feel my life has been enriched by the process of writing them. So I take that away. I have that in my pocket, you know, the enriching experience of having written those books, which I found like on the whole very, very joyful, very happy experiences. But like, did I teach myself anything technical that I could then apply? Maybe on a very basic level, yes, I did find out how to structure sentences without repeating the first word at the beginning of the sentence a lot of times, you know, like little things, like watching it for word repetition, stuff like that. I mean, can that make a great novel? Obviously not.
You know, so, no, you can’t, I feel you cannot learn a technique that will make a novel the work. You can only learn how to make that one novel that you’re writing work. And once you’ve learned that you’ve dispensed with that already, you can’t do it again. You can’t use the same trick again. I think.
Heidi Julavits: Trying to think of some analogous, métier, or something, where this is also true. Like in what, I’m just like, is there any other situation or job or pursuit or whatever, where like literally it’s never, there’s nothing you can bring from one to the next?
Sally Rooney: Well the other creative–once I was watching this interview, I think it was like the Dick Cavett show, an interview with Paul Simon from like the 1970s, and he was in the middle of writing the song “Still Crazy After All These Years.” And he was like stuck. And he was explaining that he didn’t know what chord to go to next. He was like halfway through writing the song, I think genuinely.
Heidi Julavits: Are you going to tell me that Dick Cavett actually wrote that song?
Sally Rooney: I don’t think that’s what happened at the end of the interview. But, and I think genuinely he had not actually finished writing the song yet when he was playing like half of it. And it, that reminded me of the sense of when you learn how to write that song, 51 you can’t write that song again.
Like you’ve taught yourself how to write one, but you can never, and in fact, you can never use that chord sequence again, because you’ve done it, like and people have heard it, so they already know it. So there’s a kind of, you really have trapped yourself into not being able to use those lessons because you’ve shared what you did with the world.
So if I went back and used, like reused some of the kind of narrative devices that I taught myself how to do with “Normal People,” anyone who read that book with like would recognize them, I think. So I think you can’t, you literally can’t do it. Yeah.
Heidi Julavits: That’s interesting though, because sometimes I feel like, I mean this is not really true. I sometimes feel like there are writers or artists of some sort who–their identity is involved, their identity involves doing the same thing again and again and again. Right? I mean, like to some degree, there is something that carries over because there’s like a Sally Rooney novel or a, you know what I mean?
Sally Rooney: Totally.
Heidi Julavits: Or I remember reading an interview with Alfred Hitchcock 52 and Truffaut, they have that interview, it’s really amazing. And I remember being really jealous of the way that Hitchcock talked about how obsessed he was about whatever, the things that he probably was not so healthily obsessed with, but regardless, and how he just was like, “yeah, I just keep going after that one thing and I’m never changing. Like that’s just my, that’s my beat, you know?” And there was something so unapologetic about it that I really sort of respected and kind of envied.
Sally Rooney: I have utmost respect for that. And what I will say is, I do actually think that’s compatible with what I’ve been trying to express. So I think on the one hand, you have technique, like the quote from the debating essay that you read, I think is about technique. It’s about how you construct. And how you construct a novel is a form of technical sort of mastery.
Your themes and concerns are sort of like separate to that. And I think most if not all of the great novelists, and maybe the great artists in any genre, have basically the same themes and concerns 53 forever. Like they just have things that they’re really interested in and they just want to write or make movies or make songs about those things. And the technique always has to be different, because otherwise you’d literally just be writing the same novel again and again because of the themes and concerns are the same. So.
Heidi Julavits: You could just change the names of some people.
Sally Rooney: Right, exactly. Or do it like flashbacks or something. Yeah.
Heidi Julavits: I mean really, you could just save yourself the problem of just like re–just send the same file…
Sally Rooney: Just send the same manuscript again. Yeah, it was fine last time, right? So I think something has to change. And so for me, it’s like the technical aspect of the storytelling, you have to like master a new way of doing that in order to approach the themes and concerns from a new angle.
But like, I cannot lie and say that my themes and concerns have substantially changed. Like I’m interested in intimate relationships. That is what I have written about, that is what I am writing about. I don’t know what will happen to me in future–maybe I will never write a book again, but if I do, I imagine it will have many of the same themes.
Heidi Julavits: It’d be great if you were just like, I’m writing a book in which there are 54 no relationships between…
Sally Rooney: Right! Right.
Heidi Julavits: They literally are not allowed to have relationships. That is the constraint I’ve erected for myself.
Sally Rooney: And I’ve realized that almost every time that I don’t get something, like a book or a film that other people whose opinion I respect have really enjoyed and I try and watch it or read it and I just don’t get it, it doesn’t appeal to me–almost always it comes back to some weird, and perhaps wrong, intuition that I have about the relationships. It’s like something in them didn’t click for me and I don’t get it. And everything else about it could be like really compelling and visually stunning, whatever. But if the, if something about the relationship isn’t clicking for me, I’m not engaging with it properly.
Heidi Julavits: Are you talking about “Marriage Story” by any chance?
Sally Rooney: I’m actually not. I enjoyed that movie. I enjoyed that movie. Yeah. I mean, yeah.
Heidi Julavits: Yeah, it’s funny when you were talking about how no relationship ever achieves a sort of like zero power dynamic rating. That isn’t how you 55 put it, but like, there is no power–or there is no power disparity, I guess. It makes me wonder like, I mean, yeah, could you just not have a relationship? You know what I mean? Like is that sort of what a relationship is, is negotiating a power differential?
Sally Rooney: Yeah, I think certainly for the novelist that is so. And I mean, I think like I’m so much, I feel so much more qualified, though still only tentatively qualified, to talk about novels than I am to talk about life.
I feel like in life, my intuition tells me that some relationships probably do reach equilibrium, that in the long term they become more or less sort of on average, quite stable, in terms of their power balance. But that in fiction, those relationships are really difficult to write about and to make compelling because they fundamentally don’t change very much.
So the relationships I’m drawn to writing about as a novelist are the ones that are not in equilibrium, or not in equilibrium yet. That are like struggling to get 56 there. And then I’m sort of watching how that, how they attempt to find, by sort of unbalancing and rebalancing and through sort of reversals.
Like in “Normal People” a couple of times, or maybe just like one significant time, there’s sort of a power reversal where the character who was very vulnerable and socially ostracized becomes sort of very well liked and socially powerful, and then the opposite is true of the other protagonist. And so those kinds of things really fascinate and interest me because they offer, you know, a sense of momentum, a sort of energy for the narrative.
Whereas like, if two people are really very stable and loving and happy together, that is a wonderful thing that I wish I could make compelling in fiction, but I haven’t been able to do that. And I think part of it is that we expect to encounter opportunities for change and transformation when we read narrative fiction. And it’s hard to find those in a relationship that has reached equilibrium already.
Heidi Julavits: See, I wonder if any 57 relationship ever reaches equilibrium. I mean, there’s a part of me that feels like there is acceptance of the power disparity, which is different from reaching equilibrium, you know?
Sally Rooney: Yeah, but I also think like power works in so many complicated ways and in so many different facets and levels of our lives, so that of course one person in the relationship could have more power in one sense, but then taken into a different scenario, say in a family conflict, another person finds themselves with a, you know, with more sort of power at their disposal.
So in all these different situations, and then placing the relationship in all the different contexts where it has to work, it could be that on balance you do find a kind of equilibrium. I don’t know. But I think that kind of appeals to me as an explanation for very long, happy, stable relationships. Yeah, not that they eliminate power disparity in every situation, but on balance, they found a way of remaining at a sort of equilibrium. Or just negotiating, as you say, an imbalance that they can both acknowledge in a healthy way.
Heidi Julavits: And then that 58 actually makes a lot of sense because, right, like a couple or a friendship or whatever could have negotiated a certain sort of power equilibrium based on a variety of factors that it’s like, well you do this, but I do this and whatever. And then that’s why like a new element is either injected or removed from the relationship, and then that’s how it gets all–like now you have kids, or now you lost your job or, right?
Sally Rooney: Right. Yeah. And those are the moments that obviously a novelist hones in on. Like, I’m rereading “Emma” at the moment, the Jane Austen novel, which I love, and which is one of my favorite novels, and it’s only kind of on this reading that I’ve realized the whole novel is really triggered by the fact that Emma’s governess, Ms. Taylor, leaves and marries and becomes Mrs. Weston and leaves the house and no longer lives with Emma. And that sudden loneliness, this complete sort of void in her intimate life is really what throws her out of 59 equilibrium and begins the whole process of the novel. That like, without that inciting incident, kind of none of it would’ve happened.
And so that was so interesting to me, because it happens in like the first page or whatever, and I’d never really paid it that much attention before. But it really is like we meet her at this moment where what was once equilibrium has now been disturbed and she needs to try and find a new equilibrium that will balance her kind of emotional life in some way.
Heidi Julavits: Okay. Usually this is a really–I don’t know that it’s a boring question to ask, but it feels sort of pro forma, but in this case, I think it actually is maybe a little less so, because I know that you’re in New York this year at the New York Public Library, and you’re there researching…
Sally Rooney: Right.
Heidi Julavits: Something. So I wondered if you could talk a little bit about, yeah, like you guys get to basically request any book or map or whatever, shard, from the archive. So what have you been requesting?
Sally Rooney: Well, that is a good question. How could that question be pro forma? How many Coleman fellows do you interview?
Heidi Julavits: I guess the pro forma question is what are you working on next?
Sally Rooney: Oh, right, okay. I thought it was like, what are you reading now? Okay. Well, the question’s…
Heidi Julavits: The pro forma question is, what did you ask the librarian for yesterday?
Sally Rooney: Right, right.
Heidi Julavits: What does your yellow slip say?
Sally Rooney: I love those yellow slips. Yeah. So I mean, so the question kind of, I guess, has two facets, which is like, what am I reading, what is my research for my new project, and then what is the new project? So I am researching a new novel.
I’ve mainly been reading kind of–first of all, I’ve been reading theory and history of the novel as a form. So I’m really interested in like what a novel is, and my sense of the conventionality of my own work and like what–so if my work is very conventional, which I think for better or worse, it is, I should really understand what those conventions are, right? Like I should familiarize myself in greater depth rather than just sort of offhandedly presuming that I know, like, what are these conventions and where did they come from?
So I’m reading Ian Watt’s “The Rise of the Novel,” which so far I’m really enjoying. It’s sort of a survey of like 18th century novels: DeFoe, Fielding, Richardson, and about the sort of socio-political conditions that generated the English-language novel in that century. So I’ve been finding that really fascinating.
Heidi Julavits: Is that like, the Bank of England–isn’t the Bank of England somehow involved in the rise of the novel?
Sally Rooney: I mean, industrial capitalism definitely is. I have not reached the specific Bank of England chapter that I’m sure may well be in there.
Heidi Julavits: Right, because people suddenly had to, whatever, I’m making this up possibly, cause whatever, we’re just making stuff up.
Sally Rooney: Sure.
Heidi Julavits: But right, it was about like, suddenly people had to, you were no longer, if you were going to like lend somebody some money, suddenly there was the ability to lend money to people you don’t know. Usually you’re like, in the town, you’re like, “don’t lend, you know, Fred, money, he’s a drunk and he won’t pay you back.” Right? And so suddenly having this sort of like broader economic opportunities meant that you had to kind of understand how people thought who you would never meet and make judgments about whether or not you’re going to lend them money.
Sally Rooney: That’s very interesting. I hadn’t not thought about it from such a strictly financial perspective before. And that may well be in this book that I’m reading, I don’t know, cause I haven’t finished it yet. But there is definitely the rise of individualism at that time and the rise of urban spaces.
So like the movement away from small rural communities where as you say, everybody literally knew each other and knew each other’s families and knew everything about one another, to urban environments, which are largely anonymous, where you cannot know the background of the people that you’re dealing with. And so that’s one of the big moves that makes the sort of world of the novel more possible. And the breakdown of old social sort of aristocratic forms and the rise of the merchant capitalist class and all of like, I mean, all of the factors to do with the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe.
And also the sort of philosophy of individualism, the idea of the individual as being sort of the base unit of society, which I often forget, has not always actually been there. It feels like such a philosophical presumption for me that it’s actually hard to imagine growing up in philosophical circumstances that didn’t emphasize the individual and like the rights and obligations and duties of that individual as sort of the basic unit of all other thought. But that is relatively new. And so the novel sort of coincided with, and also kind of helped to produce that way of thinking.
And so, trying to familiarize myself with the history of, again, particularly the English-language novel, cause English is the only language I can really read fluently. I would love to be able to read in other languages and I obviously do try and read in translation. But then, yeah, I’ve also been reading just like novels.
So I’ve been reading a lot of Natalia Ginzburg, the Italian novelist. I think she’s a genius and so, and I just love everything of hers that I read. And again, I think she’s a writer who, I haven’t read all of her novels, but I think she’s a writer who you can say like, the themes and concerns are–she’s constantly returning to them all the time, in a way that feels totally authentic and that you just have to respect and admire. It’s not that she’s writing the same book again and again, but that her concerns are so deeply felt and that they just recur again and again, and even certain motifs and scenes kind of recur in a way that feels like her work belongs together as one sort of lifetime of artistic endeavor, like the way that we were talking about, you know, Hitchcock or, yeah.
Yeah, and I’ve been reading a little bit of philosophy, and I’ve been reading a little bit about sort of Christian ethics and Christian mysticism. I’m writing, trying to write, a novel, which is set, as will surprise no one, in present day Ireland. It’s about four characters, and it’s about a friendship between two women who are living in different parts of the country, one in Dublin and one in the West of Ireland. And also simultaneously about their sort of romantic lives. So part of the book–I hope one day it will be book, right now it’s just kind of an unfinished manuscript–but part of it is their emails to one another. And then the other sort of half of it is narrative about what’s going on in their separate lives.
So that’s what I’m working on. And I mean, I’m not like tailoring my research to anything specific in their lives. I mean, I understand the circumstances of their lives quite well because they live in places that I’ve lived and they, you know, the environment that they inhabit is very close to the environments I’ve inhabited. But it’s just trying to deepen my understanding of the novel itself, and then to read a little bit of philosophy, to help me sort of, to help me understand what I’m doing, which I don’t have a very good understanding of, but I’m trying my best.
Heidi Julavits: You are obviously living abroad at the moment. And we, my husband and I lived in Berlin for a while, a few years ago. And, I was really struck when we were not living in our own country, how it appeared from afar to be run by child lunatics basically. And how normalized that becomes when you’re living in your own country. And not until we weren’t here anymore could we sort of see how kind of uniquely like bratty and irresponsible and impetuous our own government was.
And so, I guess I’m just wondering what it’s been like for you to be living not in the country where you grew up and where you tend to live, and if it’s given you any new perspectives, or maybe you just really miss it.
Sally Rooney: Yeah. I am homesick actually. I kind of love where we’re living. We live in a really nice neighborhood and there are many things to love about New York as a city, and I think it’s fascinating–for me, I’ve lived in Ireland my entire life. I’ve never been out of the country for more than a few weeks before. So it’s something that I’m glad that I’m doing and that I will be glad that I have done. But it is hard. And I worry about that impulse of sort of like, “well in Europe we do things differently.” Like I worry about sort of becoming attached to like Europeanness in a really weird way.
Heidi Julavits: And yet weirdly, you can do that here because we are so insecure about Europe still. So if you tell me this is, I’d be like, okay.
Sally Rooney: Oh, no.
Heidi Julavits: Let me make sure I do that.
Sally Rooney: Yeah. I think it’s, and it’s like, I don’t have any other referent available. The only place that I’ve ever lived before was in Europe. So I, it’s like, that’s the only one I can reach for, like in Ireland, it’s different, in Europe it’s different. And I want to sort of take my foot off that pedal for a bit and just try to understand what life is like here on its own terms. I don’t think that I’ve succeeded.
Heidi Julavits: Please let us know.
Sally Rooney: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve succeeded at that, but I mean, like the US is a fascinating and really incredibly culturally, philosophically diverse country, which is, in that sense, very different from the sort of, from the, I think, different from Ireland in that sense. Like, I mean, Ireland is a much, much smaller country and it’s definitely home for me, and I miss it a lot, but living in New York is a hugely different, rewarding, but very challenging experience for me, and what I’m trying to do is just allow that to take up its own space and not to be constantly saying, “Oh, well, in Ireland we do, you know…”
Heidi Julavits: Like what’s an example?
Sally Rooney: Like down to the tiniest most mundane details. Like I find myself complaining a lot about groceries here and things like that, and I really want to stop and just allow…
Heidi Julavits: Cause they’re not fresh? Or they’re–I would like to know, no, seriously, what is wrong with the groceries?
Sally Rooney: I feel like, you know what? I think it’s just that when you become used to doing something a certain way, or I think I have the kind of character where I become used to doing something a certain way, I’m resistant to change. And I made the decision to come here, which I’m very glad I did. And so I feel I really need to push myself to accept the things are different and the people do things differently.
And also to try and understand why things are different. I mean, it would be very easy, I think, to come over here as a European, as an Irish citizen, and say like, “Oh, the political system here is broken. There are so many things wrong with it.” And that is true. But I think it’s more important to try to reach for a deeper understanding of why that brokenness persists in the system. Because, you know, fundamentally all political systems are broken. Certainly in the EU, political systems are broken. And so I think it’s to step back a little bit from the ease with which I reach for like, “Oh, but that’s America, you know, their political system is broken,” and to try and sort of live with its reality and to come to understand it on hopefully a more, you know, on some slightly more complex level than that, if that makes sense.
Heidi Julavits: Yes. I still think there’s lots to complain about with respect to the groceries. I’m just saying, like that is one area that I feel, one of many areas I feel could be greatly improved. Okay. Well, thank you so much for, coming to this apartment. We are in an apartment in New York City, near Central Park, and talking with me because, as you know, we tried to do this before and sadly it didn’t work out.
Sally Rooney: Which was very sad. And I know that some of the people listening to this may have had tickets to attend that event in San Francisco, and I can only apologize. I felt really terrible in a lot of ways. You know, I was too ill to do the event, and then, of course, I felt terrible for letting everyone down, so I apologize very sincerely. Thank you if you are tuning in, if you’re one of the people who did have a ticket for that performance, and thank you, Heidi so much for this conversation. I’m really glad that we got the chance to do it, albeit in this form.
Heidi Julavits: Yes. Thank you very much.
Sally Rooney: Thank you.