What is happening in our world? Who is doing what? what is going on now? These are questions that will be answered. Enjoy.
Sally Rooney Talks New Book Normal People
If you spend any time on the Internet, you may have heard of Sally Rooney. At 28, the Irish-born author of two sensational novels, Conversations With Friends and Normal People, has earned seismic praise, including the mantle, “the Salinger for the Snapchat generation.” When Normal People landed this April, it skyrocketed to viral fame with legions of admirers, who have crowned Rooney a prophet of fiction by, for, and about millennials.
But to characterize Rooney solely as a millennial writer is to undervalue her prodigious gifts—namely, the delicious psychological acuity that makes her novels crackle, and her ability to explore the influence of sociopolitical systems on individuals who alternately suffer and thrive under their weight. While her novels traffic in the thorny complexity of how young people relate both online and offline, as well as the dispiriting economic realities mediating the relationships of a post-recession generation, they are also wise beyond their years. Written in crisp, elegant prose, with an abiding generosity for their characters, these novels signal the arrival of a formidable talent.
Normal People is a pas de deux between two Irish teenagers, both star students: Marianne, a loner from an affluent, abusive family, and Connell, a popular jock born to a teenage single mother, who works as a cleaning woman in Marianne’s home. After a short-lived high school romance, Connell and Marianne pinball toward and away from one another through their studies at Trinity College Dublin (Rooney’s alma mater), where their intense connection is disordered by misunderstandings, unkindnesses, and jockeying for a place in Trinity’s fraught social hierarchy. Esquire spoke with Rooney about power imbalances, masculinity, and how to practice kindness in fiction.
ESQUIRE: Connell often looks to others to instruct him in what to do and how to be. You write, “His personality seemed rather like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others rather than anything he individually did or produced.” Is this apathy, or is just the formlessness of being young, and finding out who you are?
Sally Rooney: I think in his case, it’s a kind of anxiety. It’s not wanting to do anything that might not be the normal thing to do. It’s constantly having your behavior at the mercy of whatever happens to be considered normal, and then not always having a template for that. I know there’s a moment early in the book where he wishes that he knew how other people’s private lives went on, because he feels so at a loss in knowing how to proceed. He is definitely someone who wants to know what’s considered normal, and then sometimes feels panicked when he can’t figure out what that is. I do think it stems from anxiety—a desire to be perceived a certain way by others. And internalizing that anxiety, I think, much beyond the actual pressures that are placed on him in an external sense. There are peer-related pressures, but in his case, he exaggerates the degree to which those press on him for psychological reasons.
Does it hold him back?
His desire to conform? Absolutely. In the first passage of the book, it holds him back from having a healthy relationship with someone he loves or believes himself to love, and someone who really seems to love him. They can’t have a healthy, equitable relationship because of Connell’s immense desire to be perceived as normal by others. I think there are healthy aspects to it, but he takes it so far that it’s no longer a healthy impulse. He really desires to be seen in a particular way, and he’s willing to modify his behavior and do things he probably doesn’t believe are right in order to maintain that perception. It holds him back from doing the right thing.
Connell goes through some traumatic experiences—there’s the nonconsensual encounter with his teacher, and the suicide of his friend Rob. What struck me was how he was able to work toward a place of asking for help in those moments. He comes clean to Marianne about the teacher, and he seeks professional help about Rob. We know, statistically speaking, that many young men struggle to be transparent about their feelings. What enabled him to transcend that and seek the help he needed?
I think very specific sociocultural factors like the fact that he is a student of a university that offers a free counseling program, and a flatmate who said to him, “Look, you should avail yourself of this service, because it’s free.” The fact that a male peer had said, “It’s acceptable for you to do this,” and the fact that he could do it without any economic barriers. Certainly there are gendered aspects to people’s ability to seek help in those situations, but there are huge socioeconomic aspects, as well. It was the fact that he found himself in a position to be able to ask for help that was the first big barrier. And then also, at that point in the book, he had moved on from the teenage conception of his identity, and was no longer, to quite the same degree, wrapped up in what other people thought of him. Perhaps because he had been broken down by circumstance. He was just so unhappy that he was no longer able to think in those terms. Also, there were the years of his very intimate relationship with Marianne, and the influence that had on him in terms of making him accept himself more. Probably all those things came together to make him more open to seeking help at that point in his life.
The Rubrics, the oldest building within Trinity College in Dublin. Sally Rooney’s alma matter serves as the setting for her latest novel, Normal People.
How did the nonconsensual encounter with his teacher change him?
Connell is a character who struggles a lot with feelings of shame. Rather than seeing himself as a victim or someone to whom bad things have happened, he sees himself as culpable to some extent, like he’s done something wrong that led to something bad happening to him. It’s much easier for him to narrate his life to himself in that way, so that’s the narrative he reaches for. I think the likely response on his part was to feel ashamed, and to feel like he had done something bad, and that if people found out, he would be humiliated. Because of the narrative that he reached for, those were the feelings that he brought with him. The fact that Marianne is the person he reaches out to is helpful that’s not the narrative she’s going to reach for. She is going to immediately say that he hasn’t done anything wrong and that somebody has taken advantage of him. Having that counter narrative available to him then when he does reach out to her is helpful for him in working through what happened. I think it certainly compounded deep feelings of shame that he was carrying around, feelings that made him feel fearful and anxious. When it happens, he thinks, “Of course this happened to me. It was my fault and it’s an example of the kind of person I am.” It compounds all the bad feelings that he already had about himself, and reiterates the narrative of his life that makes him feel like nothing is ever going to go right.
With Connell and Marianne, there’s this seesaw of power and influence that’s always in flux between them. You write, “In a rush, he feels his power over her again.” How would you classify that power? Is it sexual, emotional, economic? Is it all of those things?
Definitely it is sexual and emotional. He feels that she has a loyalty to him that he doesn’t necessarily have to return in order to get it. Sometimes he is loyal to her, but he doesn’t have to be in order to receive her loyalty back, and I think his awareness of that makes him feel he has a huge amount of power over her. That her feelings for him are unconditional. He’s proven that to himself because he treated her poorly and she came back. Once he learned that lesson, he feels this dangerous, almost heady sense of, “It doesn’t matter what I do to this girl. She’s so willing to be mistreated by me that it’s kind of scary.” At the same time, it feeds his ego to think he’s so important to her that she would do anything for him. I think those feelings are complicated for him. He’s not always happy that he feels that way; he reproaches himself for fetishizing that level of power. There are certain things she asks him to do that he doesn’t want to do because it feels like he’s acting out the kind of power that he’s afraid of in himself.
While Sally Rooney’s novels traffic in the thorny complexity of how young people relate both online and offline, they are also wise beyond their years.
You go so far so to call his power over her “effortless tyranny,” and Connell even admits to himself that he has “cultivated” that power. With that in mind, do you think that he exercises his power over her in a responsible way?
Definitely not a lot of the time. That was an interesting thing for me to watch and process, because if I had chosen to tell the story simply from either one of their perspectives, I don’t think it would have had the same interest for me. To follow it from only her perspective, at certain points I would’ve felt locked out from why he was behaving in such a manipulative, domineering way. Solely from his perspective, it would’ve been like, “Why would she put up with this?” I really needed to be with both of them to understand—to sympathize and to be there with him even when he was doing bad things, and also to be with her when she was in some cases passively allowing these bad things to be done to her. Power is a feature of human relationships. I was very interested in this character who’s very young and has very limited life experience. How is he going to negotiate this sudden rush of power that he has over another person? I was interested to see how his ability to negotiate that was going to change from the time that he handles it poorly at 18 to a time to a more complex understanding by 22.
You excel at writing sex. Not just the pleasure, but reservations, the awkwardness, the emotional complications. What, for you, are the keys to writing an effective sex scene?
When I hear the phrase “sex scene,” it’s interesting for me, because it’s a scene, so it does what any scene should do. If you’re only writing it in order to show that the characters have sex, you could just say they had sex. That’s all that’s being communicated. You don’t need to describe anything because it can be assumed. For it to be worthy of a scene, something has to change, because scenes are not about moments of exposition—scenes are about dynamic and change. If I’m going to write a whole scene, I need to feel that there is a reason why I’m making the reader pay attention to what’s happening here, because by the time it’s actually finished happening, something will actually be different between these people. Sometimes it’ll be an exchange of intimacy that hopefully makes the reader understand why these people find each other so compelling. It’s dramatizing what is drawing them to one another on this level, and without it, it wouldn’t be comprehensible as to why they spend five years circling each other. Or it can be a moment of complete disconnect, where they’re not able to make that connection, and that then makes something shift in their dynamic. That’s obviously another reason why we want to write the sex as a scene and not say, “After they finished having sex, they went for a walk.” That’s my approach. I only write about sex when I feel it’s telling us something different or new about these characters—when it’s showing something actually happening to them rather than just filling you in on the fact that they have a sex life. That can be done faster!
I only write about sex when I feel it’s telling us something different or new about these characters.
Were you conscious of any difference writing sex from a male perspective versus a female perspective?
Not really. I did sometimes have that moment where I thought, maybe I have no idea what men experience during sex. When I was writing, I was very confident that I knew Connell, and that I could get into his head in those moments. But I did have, yeah, I did have little moments of reservation and doubt where I thought, maybe people will just read this and think, “What? No!”’ But you have to have confidence in your ability to reach beyond your experience. You have to have confidence in your own imagination and ability to transcend things that separate you from the people that you’re writing about. I have to have faith that I can do that, and to hold myself to high standards, but also to disallow myself from going too far down the rabbit hole.
As they explore BDSM together, Marianne feels at first ashamed. She feels like her sexualization of violence debases her before Connell. But later in the novel, they seem to have reached a common understanding. You write, “He can let her submit willingly, without violence.” How does that sexual journey shape and change them both?
They don’t really accommodate violence into their sex life. I think some people have read this as me saying it’s bad to accommodate violence into sex. For me, it was that Connell doesn’t like BDSM, so people shouldn’t do things they don’t like. We also know that he’s had nonconsensual sexual experiences which were very painful for him. The idea that he should do things that make him uncomfortable because it’s what his partner likes—I don’t think that’s a good program of thinking about sexuality. They have to accommodate each other. I don’t think it’s about finally finding out that what Marianne wants is bad and wrong, but it’s about how to find a way of negotiating what they both want. It’s also about Connell recognizing that the power imbalance has always been there. Even in the very beginning, when he was forcing her to keep their relationship a secret, he was exercising that power over her, and that did become part of their sexual dynamic. It’s about him coming to terms with the fact that actually he has, in many ways, been dominating her all along, without wanting to admit it in himself. Now that he can admit it, they can do that in a way that’s healthier for both of them. I certainly wasn’t trying to say it would be wrong for Marianne to want violence as a part of her sex life, but just to say that if both people aren’t interested, there’s still a way that they can both be honest about power disparities that have structured their sexual relationship.
After a lifetime of feeling like a loner, later in the novel we see Marianne allowing herself to depend on Connell, and it feels like progress for her. But for Connell, he often seems unsure of who he is without Marianne. He attaches his self-worth to her, as when you write, “That’s the only part of himself he wants to protect, the part that exists inside her.” Do you think his dependence on her is necessarily progress?
I think Marianne is more open to the idea of depending on him than he is to depending on her. He resists it, at first by telling himself he’s resisting it because she’s a social pariah, he can’t afford to risk his status. Later her has to ask himself, “Why am I so reluctant to be vulnerable with this person, to give myself to her?” It’s very scary to allow yourself the possibility of being hurt by someone, and he just doesn’t want to get that close to anyone. It’s a process of allowing himself bit by bit to get that close. It’s a little bit of a victory that he even gets there even though it doesn’t mean that they’re going to spend the rest of their lives being together in a conventional sense. I think it does mean they’re going to be in each other’s lives for a long time, at least, because they’ve let each other in now in a very big way.
That’s the human project, in a sense. How many times can we be kicked in the heart, then get back up and ask for love again from someone else?
Right! Or even the same person! If you think love is something worth going on with, there’s so much pain inherent in that. It’s a question of how you can make sense of that pain, how you can open yourself to that pain knowing that it’s the price of being open to being with other people. That’s true in a family context too, and in the context intimate friends. These characters are learning about that in a romantic relationship, but the same question haunts all of our relationships.
If you think love is something worth going on with, there’s so much pain inherent in that.
Connell and Marianne are often unclear and unspecific on the terms of their relationship. You write of him, “He’s not sure what friends are allowed to enjoy about each other.” As young people form more casual, nebulous relationships, how do you think that affect the identities they form and the connections they develop?
While rigidly defined relationships may have been more socially predominant in previous generations, it doesn’t mean they reflected the material reality of how people lived. Monogamy has been a big ideal for a long time, but has it been a big reality for a long time? I’m very skeptical that societies have ever been truly monogamous. The ways that we describe and talk about our relationships have changed a huge amount, but there is a sense in which the certainty of human relationships has always been at play. Relationships are messy and often transcend the terms that we impose on them. Maybe boyfriend and girlfriend were more readily available items of vocabulary in previous generations, but did they perfectly describe the relationships they were talking about? The messy feelings and the messy activities? There’s also a social sanctioning to labels—when you describe someone as your boyfriend, you’re allying your social capital to this one individual, and that’s something that Connell is very reluctant to do with Marianne at first because he is ashamed of her, and then later because he’s intimidated by her. We all know that the ways we talk about relationships has changed immensely, and that people’s relational habits have changed. People are getting married much later now, so it’s true that it’s not just that the terminology is different now. I also think there is more of an expectation that people will spend a lot of their early adulthood meeting different people, having different relationships, and exploring different possibilities. But my only job is to be sensitive to how things are now. I don’t think it’s to comment on the degree to which they shifted, or how far they’ve shifted. I think it’s just to see them as they are and try to do justice to that in what I write.
Connell and Marianne seem frequently to miscommunicate. These days, we communicate more frequently than ever on more platforms than ever. Do you think that that level of accessibility to one another breeds more misunderstandings?
I think miscommunication is something novelists have always been interested in. As a writer, you’re interested in language, and you’re interested in where language fails. How it fails to accommodate and describe our experiences perfectly. Because it’s philosophically interesting, we reach for language to express everything about our experience of being human, and yet language so insufficient. It’s all we have, but it’s not enough. And that problem is very interesting, particularly if you are a writer, given that language is your only tool to do what you’re trying to do. Miscommunication is something I circle around because I find it interesting, but in another sense, it’s a very helpful device sometimes. I think I overused it, because it’s really hard to write a novel. It’s really hard to write about a happy relationship, because you meet these people and they’re already happy. How do you dramatize that? There’s a stasis to happiness, and so having then accepted that, I do sometimes think I am guilty of conspiring to keep my characters unhappy when it might be possible for them to be a little bit happier than they are. In fairness, miscommunications tend to be situated within a cultural, political, and social landscape that presses on the ability to communicate. Of course the ways in which we could communicate are so rapidly multiplying that they can often be sources of miscommunication, as well.
As a writer, you’re interested in language, and you’re interested in where language fails.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing young men like Connell these days? What are they up against?
I think largely the same challenges that women of their generation are facing, to do with employment and with housing. The housing market has not been kind to members of our generation. Material problems, socio-economic problems, problems with the system. Specifically for young men, I think there is a sense in which we as a culture are struggling to identify forms of masculinity that are not oppressive. I think that there is a sense of deep uncertainty about identity that can set in when you feel like you’re playing a dominant role in a system that you don’t necessarily endorse. I’m not saying that’s a malaise that’s afflicting most young men, because I have absolutely no authority to speak on that. But I do think there’s a sense in which men are seeking a form of masculinity that doesn’t make them feel like a bad person for engaging in it. I don’t think we, as a culture, have figured out an answer to that.
I do subscribe to the school of thought that says that the patriarchal social system, while obviously being devised to favor men as a class and to deprive women as a class of certain key socio-economic rights, nonetheless it’s not actually that pleasant for the people who are experiencing it as men. We’re all thrown these roles at birth in a coercive system, then expected to attach huge amounts of our psychological wellbeing to upholding these roles, and I don’t think that’s pleasant for the people who play the dominant roles, nor the people who play the inferior parts. I’m not trying to say it’s equally hard for all of us. As a class, men are absolutely advantaged, but as individual beings moving around as members of that class, do they actually love it? There’s that conversation in the book where Peggy says, “Do you not actually enjoy your male privilege?” And Connell says no. It’s an imposed identity for him that you have to just make peace with in some way, and I don’t think that’s necessarily easy.
How do you manage to be so kind to your characters?
I see that as my first job. If I ever find myself not doing that, I have to get up and walk away from the laptop, because there’s no point. I often ask myself, “What am I doing? Why am I writing novels? What is the point of this way of life?” I don’t have many convincing answers to that question, but I do know that I couldn’t answer it at all if I felt I was inventing fake people in order to hold them up as being inferior to the person who invented them. Establishing some kind of winking, nudging relationship with the reader, saying, “Look at these idiots. They’re not like us. They do such silly things, whereas we’re such sophisticated people.” Because I want to avoid at all costs finding myself doing that, it means I have to stay close to these characters all the time, which means that I can only write about people who share certain key aspects of my outlook on life.
I don’t think I could write about people whose way through the world was so abhorrent to me that sympathy failed me. There are writers who can do it, and I admire that hugely. But for me, I would find it hard to write characters who look out on the world we live in and say, “Yeah, that’s okay. All the injustices and stuff? Fine—doesn’t bother me.” I would find that really hard. That means I tend to write characters who share my way of seeing. I guess that’s just the first principle with me—I always have to be there with them, to not insist on the distance between them and me. To try to respect their dignity as people. Once I do that, I feel I can justify why I spend my time making up fake things. In a time of global political crisis, I think that’s definitely the first question I have to answer for myself.
I tend to write characters who share my way of seeing.
What’s on your bucket list as a writer? What do you still want to accomplish, and what kinds of stories are you itching to tell?
I’m not very ambitious. I’m not someone who thinks in terms of wanting to achieve things. All I want to do in my life is write this story the best way I can write it. Just do justice to every single aspect of it, all the psychological twists and turns. Make all the characters as compelling and interesting as I can, and nail every scene. And that’s what I always want to do. I have a little idea about characters, and I want to execute it as well as I can. That’s the only thing that ever motivates me. It’s never the idea of the book being published. The writing is the bit that I do this for, and at the end I submit to it being published. I’m not someone who is motivated by my books being out in the world. There are lovely things about it, and I’m extremely lucky to be in a position where I can do it, because it means I can have money to live on to write the next one. No complaints about that. I’m delighted to be writing full time, because I really did not like having a normal job. I wish anyone who loved writing as much as I do could do that. But the idea of having my books out in the world is not something that ever gets me through writing the one I’m currently writing. As far as what I want to accomplish, the answer is always just the next thing.