The following is taken from notes I jotted down at the event.
Last Sunday evening I attended a packed event at Toppings bookshop in Bath where Sally Rooney gave readings from her latest novel, the Booker longlisted Normal People, and discussed how she approached her writing. She was introduced by Matt, one of the booksellers and an obviously ardent fan. Sally then read from the opening pages of her book.
She told us that she wished to tell the stories of the protagonists, Marianne and Connell, from each of their perspectives. She first started writing about these characters in short stories, set when they were in their twenties. Her first attempt placed them at a political protest but that story didn’t work out. She then wrote a second story about them which was published in The White Review. As the characters kept turning up in her writing she decided to allow them to stay and to develop them further.
At this stage Sally didn’t have a publishing contract. The jumps in time in the novel occurred because she was writing about the stages in the characters’ lives that she was interested in. Normal People was written over a two year period but Marianne and Connell had been with Sally for a year longer than this.
Matt asked about the genesis of her first novel, Conversations With Friends.
Sally was studying at Trinity College Dublin for her Masters. She had a scholarship that covered fees and was working part time in a restaurant. She had no real idea what she would do next. The book was her first attempt at a full length novel. It turned into a long long novel. Once finished she set it aside and wrote the short stories about Marianne and Connell. She worked on both these manuscripts, back and forth, for her own amusement. She knew she wanted to be a writer but with no contract felt under no pressure, enjoying the freedom to write what she wanted. She suspects that there will be pressure with whatever she writes next, that she will feel a need to create something new and different.
Matt asked what it is about the novels that resonates so with readers.
Sally has no idea. When writing she considered her subjects niche and of limited appeal. They are culturally specific, about the life she was living (although not autobiographical). She is grateful that people like her books but has no idea why certain novels work. She now wonders why she thought such specificity would not be liked as many of her favourite novels involve characters that are nothing like her.
Matt asked how she got an agent.
An essay Sally wrote was published in the Dublin Review. This was spotted by an agent who contacted her asking if she had a novel, giving her the motivation to tidy up what became Conversations With Friends.
Sally talked about how strange it feels to see her novels as a product in a bookshop, to see a fixed version of the text. If she wants to she can still go to her laptop, pull up the word document and change it!
She loves writing and feels grateful that she can do this now. It feels incredibly rewarding having this imaginative existence. The pleasure of writing is completely separate from the experience of publishing a book.
Matt asked about the idea of masculinity. He said it blew his mind reading about Connell’s recognition of how he should behave alongside the reality of his behaviour.
Sally explained that during the process of writing she isn’t aware of broader ideas. She writes how characters are and how they act. Later she will think about issues covered more, asking if she is doing the character justice or making him a puppet to express her ideas.
Ideas of gender are a series of cultural texts. Children grow up being exposed to what is regarded as appropriate for a boy and a girl. They absorb this. Navigating expectations as a young person can be difficult and complex.
Sally wishes to be able to sympathise with her protagonists. She wishes to remain optimistic about the possibility of redemption.
The second reading was taken from the chapter in Normal People where Connell has just started at university and attends a party. Sally’s reading brought out the ironic humour of the text.
Questions were invited from the audience.
A reader asked about the endings of both novels as she felt they stopped rather abruptly.
The ending was the part of the stories that Sally struggled with most. When writing Conversations With Friends she regarded it as a tapestry in which every loose thread must be tied. She then realised that she could actually just end it if she wanted. This was liberating. She chose to leave the ending open. With Normal People she got to around the tenth draft and saw similarities with a book she was reading, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The overlaps may be a byproduct of her total immersion in the text but it helped her understand how her book should end. She believes in ambivalence, inconclusiveness.
Sally was asked what books and authors inspire her.
As well as Daniel Deronda she named Emma by Jane Austin which also has echoes in her writing. Emma is another twenty-something year old woman, with similar problems despite living two hundred years ago. Sally enjoys eighteenth and nineteenth century bourgeoisie novels, the intimate lives of those who have a lot of free time. The Irish experience is, of course, culturally and politically different due to historic land ownership.
She also enjoys reading contemporary short story writers. For better or worse she is influenced by texts and tweets.
Sally was asked about how she handles class, why Connell’s working class background is so integral.
Reading has informed an image of society. It is hard to write without observing the texture of how class structures interactions. Sally came from the West of Ireland to attend Trinity and felt alienated. A much larger proportion of Trinity students than is normal in Irish society come from elite families. She was determined to prove that she could be as good as them.
She feels invested in and wants to be sensitive to class issues.
Sally was asked what sparked Marianne’s submissiveness and power, if she researched these issues.
No, she didn’t research. She doesn’t wish to create a commentary on such issues. She writes about the characters she creates, how they carry past experiences. They will be influenced by trauma but also every other thing – layers of experience. She is not trying to write as an expert. She wants to be politically sensitive but also true to the weirdness of individuals.
In Normal People she was telling one story – the relationship between Marianne and Connell. It was not necessary to include every other detail of their lives.
The third reading concluded the evening. This was a section where Connell attends a literary event. He is suffering depression which perhaps feeds the cynicism expressed. It was amusing, given the venue and audience, that Sally chose this to read.
Photograph Credit: Toppings twitter feed – @ToppingsBath
As staff cleared away the many seats two queues formed: to buy books and have them signed. Despite the length of the queues it was good to see that the author found time to chat to each reader.
It was getting late so I decided against waiting and headed back out into the rain to make my way home. Sally came across as genuine and interesting. I was glad to have attended this event.
Normal People is published by Faber & Faber. Signed copies are currently available to buy at Toppings in Bath