Writers - Read Rooney!

May 04, 2019

Sally Rooney is my writer of the year. 'Conversations with Friends' - my book of the year.

At just halfway through the year, and with Ms Rooney just 26, you may think this is a moment of ill-considered or reckless admiration on my part. You may think I'm really stretching things to claim she is the heir apparent to Hemingway, based on one novel.

But I will make a case for that based not just on that novel but the short story 'Mr Salary' for which Rooney was Winner of the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. I should add that with her new novel 'Normal People' being published next month, Ms Rooney is not a one-book wonder. 

Sally Rooney writes with such a painstaking candour and more as I will show below, that I am sure we have great things to come from her. 

It is the case that the 'truth' will set you free as a writer, as Hemingway himself practised sp robustly, and Sally Rooney purveys the same unadulterated clear spirits. 

Where her first novel does not sprawl across wars and continents, she may presently not be elevated to the canon of the greats, yet her prose is so troublingly lucid and exacting, she's knocking on those doors.

She works hard, produces many drafts, and has a whinge-free appetite for writing - and a modesty - which signifies to me the beginning of a great body of work. From the work published thus far we may, as writers, learn a great deal and that's astonishing in its own right.

She has been described as a 'Salinger for the Snapchat Generation', which is not quite right though she cites Franny and Zooey as an influence. At a glance, people will take from that phrase - Catcher in the Rye. Wrong. Where the wonderful Catcher in the Rye depended for its magnificence on a voice, this is not the case with Sally Rooney's work. It's not an act of derring-do it's more of a Seamus Heaney type excavation, the mode of a craftsman not a showman. It digs deep.

But the good news is that you too can write like Rooney, just as Rooney writes like Hemingway, if you relax and focus at the same time; you tell it true. This kind of work does not require you to live a big life of a reporter at the centre of world-changing events. If you mark her methods closely enough, you could transform your writing very quickly. 

We have been told 'literary' fiction is dead and we need to get with the plot, but every time a writer writes with this clarity and we fall as a reader into a 'real' world in fiction, the possibilities for us as writers and readers, for fiction itself, for its power to enchant and eat us alive are refreshed. It's a question of honesty, courage to work closer to the edge, and work and re-work. Time to renew those writing vows...

The gift this young writer gives old hands is a reminder how writing first felt. (She does the same with 'love' as a subject, by the way, sex too. She makes you feel all over again.) Ms Rooney is unashamed to admit she writes for the joy of it, putting in long hours - 16 to 18 hours days - she told The Guardian, during the writing of Conversations with Friends.

She wrote 100,000 words of Conversations With Friends in three months, while also meeting the deadlines for her master’s in American literature, and then spent a year writing successive drafts where “I don’t think a single sentence has survived from the final third of the book.” 

"I don’t think of myself as busy,” she says, “because I don’t even have to get dressed most days.” She sits at her desk in dressing gown or pyjamas or big jumper. (The Guardian.)

'I know many writers find the act of writing immensely difficult and arduous, but for me it's a lot of fun. I enjoyed almost every day I spent with this book, and I feel very grateful for that.' 

 'Most of the alternative versions (of Mr Salary) were set at an earlier point in the characters’ lives; once I finally decided to set it later, the story wasn’t very hard to write. But as above, many dubious drafts had to be written and put aside before that could happen. This final version is in the first person, from Sukie’s perspective, but I have several third-person drafts lying around, as well as one from Nathan’s point of view. I often find I have to go through this laborious process to find out what story I’m trying to tell. Happily for me, I find the act of writing very enjoyable. '

I am going to look at some of her special qualities and her prose techniques. It's a whirlwind tour...

1. Tell what you see. 

Tell the truth and nothing but. Don’t rely on fancy prose or poetic turns of phrase just say what you see. Easy as this:

‘The new terminal was bright and polished, with a lot of escalators. I had just brushed my teeth in the airport bathroom. My suitcase was ugly and I was trying to carry it with a degree of irony. When Nathan saw me he asked: What is that, a joke suitcase?

You look good, I said.'

(From Mr Salary.)

'My father lived in a little terraced house near the petrol station. I rang the doorbell and put my hands back in my pockets. Nothing happened. I rang again and then I tried the handle, which felt greasy. The door opened up and I stepped in. Dad? I said. Hello? The house smelled of chip oil and vinegar. The carpet in the hallway, which had been patterned when he first moved in, was now walked flat and brown. A family photo taken on holiday in Majorca was hanging above the telephone, depicting me at age four in a yellow T-shirt. The T-shirt said BE HAPPY.'

(From Conversations with Friends) 

 'A bluebottle crawled along a knife which has been abandoned in a large jar of mayonnaise.' 

(From Conversations with Friends) 

'She said I was tanned. I let a few split hairs fall from my fingers to the kitchen floor and said: oh, am I? I knew I was.'

(From Conversations with Friends) 

2. Understand the purpose of 'conversation' as human intercourse:

'I can often only reach an idea by talking about it with other people,' Sally Rooney.

Conversation - Middle English (in the sense ‘living among, familiarity, intimacy’): via Old French from Latin conversatio(n- ), from the verb conversari.

Remember - conversation is a way of working things out; thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Deploy it.

It’s the only reason a writer goes out, to gather intelligence, and report faithfully how we may come to know each other and ourselves.

There’s liveliness in the intimacy and Rooney applies the even-handed, naked gaze of realism of two people with different agendas. But the protagonist, in whose feet we stand, is the one provoking the discovery of self, wanting as a young person to know how they’re seen as a way to understanding who they are. This active questioning and listening is a facet of the brilliance of youth - gone from the pomposity of those post-forties - which Rooney owns:

'That’s shock you’re talking about, I said. I mean bereavement.

What about your ex-boyfriend that I hate?

Dennis? He would actually like it if I died.

OK, that’s another discussion, said Nathan.' 

(From Mr Salary)

Remember, we converse through many different channels such as texting and messaging which are not as chaotic as live conversation. The potential here for you as a writer is to put more at stake in these exchanges. They carry great weight, being more considered that live conversation, yet are a two-way negotiation of sorts, unlike the letter. You have to keep an eye on what each person wants.

This is a conversation by instant messenger:

'Nick: if we never actually see one another

Nick: then the affair just consists of like

Nick: worrying about the affair

Nick: do you see what i mean

me: I can’t believe you’re breaking up with me over instant messenger

me: I thought you were going to leave your wife so we could run away together

Nick: you don’t need to be defensive

me: how do you know what I need

me: maybe I’m actually really upset

Nick: are you

Nick: i never have any idea what you feel about anything

me: well it doesn’t really matter now, does it

Do you see how loaded these can be? They're not an afterthought or a bonus for the modern reader; they're crucial. Rooney has seen the power of the form.

'I loved when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document which we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke which nobody else could understand. I liked to feel that he was my collaborator.'

(From Conversations with Friends) 


3. You, the author, represent your kind at this point in time:

Rooney is one person. Her characters are individual people given whole to the page. But they stand for so much more. Rooney places us in the present time - with properly accurate use of our new forms of communication - but she doesn't dodge the ancient baggage of being a woman. This is what I stand for, this is what I was born to stand for, she seems to say. The heritage in Rooney's work is of being particularly able to read the signs.

No flinching from being a woman for Sally Rooney. No discretely initialled author's name on the book jacket. She stands on her two feet but feels the old world beneath them.

‘They hated each other and I mediated their mutual hatred in a way that made me feel successfully feminine.’ (Mr Salary)

'Emotionally, I saw myself as a smooth, hard little ball. He couldn’t get purchase on me. I just rolled away.' (Mr Salary)

So with Sally Rooney's work we have politics, if you want to call it that. She does. 

From an Interview with Refinery 29:

Do you see it as a feminist book?

'Oh yes, very much so. And I think the kind of questions that it’s concerned with are feminist questions about how men and women relate to one another, and how women relate to one another, and how we can work our way out of these quite oppressive relationship norms that have dominated for such a long time. The sort of culturally normative forms of relationship are pretty oppressive, traditionally, and so I think the novel asks how we can escape that, and what terrible mistakes are we going to make along the way?'

4. Intelligent characters who are smarter than you the author.

'Characters', Hemingway disliked the term, are two-dimensional plot-serving pop ups. Not in Rooney's book. They're people, smart, defiant, flawed trying to get through, trying to be understood and to understand themselves. They're scintillating. You can see the veins.

5. Love.

All of the above would be sufficient in itself to make Rooney one to watch, but it's her esteem for love which elevates her above the writers she admires like Miranda July. Rooney believes in it. God knows we want it, we want to believe in it. Isn't it why we read? Or a big part of why we gobble up 'romans'?

Because she is not cynical here, she is not mannered, but warm-heartedly true in her telling,  the life-giving possibilities of the written word appear.

‘My love for him felt so total and so annihilating that it was often impossible for me to see him clearly at all. If he left my line of sight for more than a few seconds, I couldn’t even remember what his face looked like.’ 

(Mr Salary)

'He lifted his arm off the back of my chair and put his cigarette out in the ashtray. The temperature seemed to drop perceptibly, and I saw everything in dimmer colours.'

(From Conversations with Friends) 

The recollection of how early love feels is a dose of age-defying serum for even the most hard-boiled reader (or writer.)

‘Inside the door of his apartment, against the wall with the coat hooks, he kissed me. I felt feverish and stupid, like a thirsty person with too much water suddenly pouring into their mouth.’

(Mr Salary)

What else?


Rooney writes emotional sex, without shock value. She gives us what we suspected might be the case, though you'd never know it from other books, TV and films - an earnest heartfelt interaction that can come close to an awakening.

There is an extraordinary scene on P120 which you must read.

'I felt that I had no understanding of what was happening between us.'

(From Conversations with Friends) 

The Hemingway factor:

Here's some evidence to back up my Hemingway 2.0 claim:

'He gave me a look then, like he was finally dropping some long pretence. It was a good look, but I knew that he could practise it just as well as any of the others.'

(From Conversations with Friends) 

 'The muscles of her back moved smoothly under her skin, and in the glare of sunlight her tan lines were almost invisible, so she appeared whole and completely perfect. The only sound after that was the sound of her limbs moving through the water. It was very hot, and we had finished the pastries. The light had moved and we were no longer in the shade. I drank some more wine and looked out for Bobbi’s figure.'

(From Conversations with Friends) 

The Lack of Resolution of Real Life.

It's the desire for an ending which propels the story, almost paradoxically, as we go from one unresolved, unspoken possibility to another. This is the energy which drives narrative, not plot twists or untoward events:

‘But you’re a decent girl, he said. Whatever they might say.

With this enigmatic truce our conversation ended. I tried to talk to him further, but he appeared too tired to engage, or too bored.’

(Mr Salary)


Here's the erring human being, the modest craftsman at work.

Says Rooney:

'For me, ideas always spring from characters and dynamics – everything else arrives later and takes a bit more working out. So this book began with the idea of two college students, former girlfriends, who befriend a married couple. ...Still, life is a hard thing to be sincere about, so I think it's better to be funny right up until the point you're ready to be sincere.'

Plot without the plodding...

She doesn’t jerk us around with hiding key plot points in the manner of today's 'commercial' potboiler. Hemingway was very against this, he instructed that if you know something at the point of writing it’s your duty to tell it. Why this succeeds, is that it encourages the writer to reach beyond the truth, a hand passing through an open window, reaching, if you like. We’re all reaching, one way or another, writers and readers, failing to quite understand. And Rooney places us, on the same unsafe ground she's on, reaching to understand, and her plot is driven by how far she can bring herself to go as a writer. The discomfort is sensational.

We want to know. We don’t want to know. We have a feeling of our lives being half-lived, that is not sad, because in conversation with friends, in the next intimate exchange we have, tomorrow or the day after, we may yet know more. It’s hopeful. It’s beautiful.

I've scratched the surface of Ms Rooney's talents here. Sally Rooney is a writer for writers. 

'It was in my nature to absorb large volumes of information during times of distress, like I could master the distress through intellectual dominance. This is how I learned how unlikely it was that Frank would survive. He never would have told me himself.'

Sometimes she takes your breath away, but to tell you what and why and how would be all too revealing. If you want to know more about yourself, read her work. If you want to start writing like Rooney, try one of our novel writing courses.


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