A Brief But Spectacular take on turning COVID-19 grief into action
‘Conversations with Friends’ author Sally Rooney answers your questions
Judy Woodruff: Now Jeffrey Brown is here with the author of our latest book club pick and, at the end of the conversation, what to read next month. Stick around for our latest selection with The New York Times.
It's all part of Canvas, our ongoing series on art and culture.
Jeffrey Brown: It sounds perfectly ordinary, "Conversations With Friends." But the novel by that name about two Dublin college students and their relationship with an older couple was an anything-but-ordinary debut for a young Irish writer named Sally Rooney.
"Conversations With Friends" was our book club pick for September.
Sally Rooney joins me now.
And welcome to you. Thanks for being part of this.
Sally Rooney: Thank you for having me.
Jeffrey Brown: So, in one way, this was a coming of age story, but set in a very particular time, place.
Tell us what you were after.
Sally Rooney: Yes, absolutely.
I think it's right to describe it in one sense as a coming of age story. So, as you have said, it follows these two college students. It's told from the perspective of my narrator, Frances.
And it's very much about her relationship with her ex-girlfriend, her best friend, Bobbi. And it's also about their encounter with a married couple, who to these young women, who are 21 -- and in the course of the book, and this couple seem much older, much more glamorous, much more sophisticated.
In fact, they're quite young. They're only in their 30s. And so it's a book set in Dublin sort of in the present day. And it follows the journey of those four characters and the sort of interrelationships that develop between them.
Jeffrey Brown: It's a love story, but it's also a kind of running commentary on social life that the characters are encountering.
It's set very specifically in this post-economic crash, right, 2008?
Sally Rooney: Absolutely.
Jeffrey Brown: What ideas did you want to get across there?
Sally Rooney: So it wasn't necessarily that I was undertaking a project of social commentary, as such, but I suppose what I was trying to do was observe the texture of the world that I myself was inhabiting.
So, even though all the characters are completely fictional and their exploits are very much figments of my imagination, the world that they live in was and is very similar to the world that I was living in as I wrote the book.
And so, in that sense, maybe it does accidentally provide some kind of commentary on the city of Dublin at that time, from one very limited, I should say, perspective.
Jeffrey Brown: And a number of our readers wanted to know about the particular characters, where did they come from, where they -- of course, they want to know, are they based on real people?
Sally Rooney: I feel if I knew the answer to that question myself, I would be able to write a novel sort of every month, because I can -- I never know where are the ideas for my characters are going to come from.
They do arrive to me what seems fully formed, sort of whole, even with the interrelationships between them kind of intact. And then my job as a novelist is, I feel I'm to follow the thread of where those relationships are going and to try and explore them on the page.
But the characters really seem to walk into my brain. And they aren't based, certainly not consciously, on anyone that I know or any fictional characters I have read about before.
They're sort of just the whole thing, and they come to me as they are.
Jeffrey Brown: One reader, Mary O'Brien, she noted, as did others, the constant push and pull between the emotional life and the analytical, which we see constantly throughout the book.
And no one can seem to escape the emotional life in the end, right? So she noted the character saying, "You can't always take the analytical position."
Where does this push and pull come from?
Sally Rooney: I think, certainly, that the narrator that I conceived for myself here, Frances, is somebody who's a little bit more comfortable on the analytical level than she is both experiencing her emotions and also inhabiting a sort of physical body.
Those things don't come so easily to her, whereas the kind of intellectual life, she finds a little bit more comfortable. So I think, for me, it was interesting to take her out of her comfort zone and force her to confront these parts of life that, for her, are a little bit more -- a little bit messier and more difficult to deal with.
Jeffrey Brown: Much of the conversation between friends is by text, by e-mail, all of them used extensively in the novel.
Is that because that was just natural to you?
Sally Rooney: Yes, I mean, partly because it was natural and partly, I think, because it was interesting.
I mean, look, as a writer, I'm very drawn to text and words. And so uses of language always interest me. And I feel that the Internet gives us new ways of using language and has really embedded written language in our lives in a new way.
So the fact that so many relationships are now conducted almost primarily through the written word for a writer is sort of very juicy and interesting, because I love the written word.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Sally Rooney: So I was, yes, really interested in pursuing how it is that people build relationships using language alone.
Jeffrey Brown: Well, but it's also very interesting, because you know there's all kinds of discussion and talk about what our lives on screens are doing to us, interrelationships, communications with our friends and loved ones.
Sally Rooney: Sure.
Jeffrey Brown: Do you see it changing?
Sally Rooney: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think we have -- our lives have become more textual. And we spend more and more time looking at screens. And most of what we look at on screens are words of one kind or another.
So, of course, that shift into textuality is very compelling for me as a writer, because my whole life, my whole working life is about text. But I suppose I feel that, as a novelist, my job is to observe, rather than to judge, so just to try and depict and to get into a granular level of detail about what it feels like to live out these kind of lives, without sort of judging whether or not that's a good or bad thing.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, we will continue our conversation online, where you can find it later on.
For now, let me say, thank you, Sally Rooney.
Sally Rooney: Thank you so much for having me.
Jeffrey Brown: And before we go, I want to introduce our pick for October.
It's a shift to a subject very much part of our political campaigns these days, as candidates, legislators, judges, and citizens assess and debate the political power of corporations, especially after the Citizens United case.
The book is "We the Corporations" by law professor and author Adam Winkler.
As always, we hope you will read along and join us and other readers on our Web site and our Facebook page for Now Read This, our book club partnership with The New York Times.