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Sally Rooney on the dark humour in her first novel

The Irish writer Sally Rooney was shortlisted for the 2017 Sunday Times EFG short story award. She speaks to Sophie Haydock about the morbid humour in her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, and coming to accept her runaway success, at the age of 26

  • What can we expect from your debut novel, Conversations with Friends? It seems to say a lot about what it is to be young and female, but do you want it to be understood as having more dimensions to it than that?
    No, not really. I don’t think I can tell readers what to find in the book; but I guess I also think the lives of young women are a perfectly fit subject for a novel. Of course, as a young woman myself I don’t experience life as one long commentary on the themes of youth and femininity, and a novel with a middle-aged male protagonist probably wouldn’t be read as a statement on “what it is to be middle-aged and male”. But people can approach the book however they want. It’s not up to me anymore.

    Was it a departure for you to write a novel when you’re so well versed in the short story form?
    Thanks for the kind words. I’m not sure I’d call myself “well versed” in the short story. I’ve written about four or five fully completed short stories in my life, and actually, I wrote all of them after I’d finished the first draft of this novel. Rather than going from stories to novels, which I think wiser writers usually do, I went from the longer, more capacious form to the shorter one, trying to get more compact and sparing as I went along. Then I brought that experience to the editing stage of the novel, which I think helped a lot. I find the two forms can co-exist pretty happily.

    Is it more intense to write over 300 pages, or a more succinct short story, do you find? Did you find it a natural or a difficult process to navigate?
    Both experiences, writing a novel and writing a short story, are intense, but writing a novel lasts longer (at least in my case). With a short story, the stage of very acute focus only needs to last a few days or weeks for me before the editing stage starts. A novel has to remain in focus for a long time, maybe over a year. When I begin writing something, I’m never sure if it will turn out to be a novel or a story. I have to wait and let the duration and intensity of my interest make the decision for me.

    Do you feel that your literary influences for this novel are different to those you draw on when you write short stories? Which writers would you say influenced this piece of work?
    I think the influences are largely the same, with a few exceptions. Like the short story, the novel is a form of its own, with a history and traditions of its own; whether I was conscious of drawing on those traditions or not, which I mostly wasn’t, I think they found their way in there anyway. I read Austen’s Emma shortly after I finished writing the book and was amused (and also slightly depressed) by some of the glaring structural similarities. Maybe there’s no getting away from the looming presence of the 19th-century British novel.

    How important was it for you to inject humour into the novel, and into your writing in general?
    I find life extremely funny on a daily basis. I can’t imagine looking at the world and not finding it humorous, if only in a morbid way. But then humour is also a social phenomenon. It’s hard to imagine a friendship that doesn’t involve laughing at the same jokes. I think whatever comedy is in the book wasn’t a result of a conscious effort to lighten the tone, but of an attempt to observe honestly how social relationships work.

    What do you believe are the defining characteristics, if there can be said to be any, of Irish fiction? Have there been specific things that have shaped the Irish narrative voice or its way of storytelling?
    I feel like I never say the right thing where Irishness is concerned. To be honest, I don’t really believe in nationality. I suppose I’m a nationalist, in the sense that I identify with the anti-imperialist traditions of Irish nationalism. But contemporary ideas of “national identity”, the notion there’s something essential about the (implicitly white) Irish experience, are increasingly deployed not for the purposes of anti-imperialism, but in service of deportations and the direct provision system. I don’t want my work to be even a minuscule part of that project of national identity. But I don’t think I ever manage to express this idea very well.

    What about the future of Irish fiction – do you see any new trends emerging?
    The last few years have been such an interesting time for Irish fiction, and I think over the next few years we’ll continue to see new writers emerge with fresh and distinctive voices. Literary journals like The Stinging Fly and The Tangerine offer such a hopeful glimpse at the near future of Irish literature – in particular, I think of fellow young writers like John Patrick McHugh, Michael Nolan, and Nicole Flattery, who are already publishing brilliant short fiction in Ireland and elsewhere.

    What do you want readers to take away from Conversations with Friends?
    Such a huge question. Having written the book, I suddenly find myself having to think about what the book is for, which is really a way of asking what literature is for. I don’t know the answer. I think, within the novel, I was trying to pose questions about the way we live, but I don’t think I answered any of those questions to my own satisfaction. Literature should probably do more than entertain and amuse, but if I have managed to entertain or amuse anyone, that’s nice, too.

    You’ve had a huge amount of success already – at only 26 – what’s next for you, in life and literature?
    Hmm. Thank you. Hard to know how to respond to that. I have obviously been very lucky in a lot of ways. I’m working on a second novel at the moment, set over a period of about four years in the lives of two young people. For now I’m just trying not to think about what I’ll do when it’s finished.

    Conversations with Friends is out now (Faber & Faber 14.99)