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Just who is Sally Rooney, the author of bestseller Normal People ?

As her bestseller Normal People comes to BBC TV screens, John Meagher profiles the writer who has captured the zeitgeist as the voice of the millennial generation


Growing fanbase: Sally Rooney

Growing fanbase: Sally Rooney

Growing fanbase: Sally Rooney

Books Are Magic is an independent store in Brooklyn that is celebrated for its author events. Last April, Sally Rooney was due to appear at the store to promote her second novel, Normal People. Demand for tickets was so high that the event had to be moved to a nearby church. Vanity Fair quipped that the author's readers weren't so much fans as disciples, while it prompted the American culture magazine Vox to publish an article titled 'The Cult of Sally Rooney'.

The 29-year-old from the Republic of Ireland has achieved a measure of success that most can only dream of. Her two books, Conversations With Friends and Normal People, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies each, have been translated into several languages and have enjoyed ecstatic critical acclaim.

Right from the off, Rooney has attracted a host of celebrity admirers - everyone from Taylor Swift to Barack Obama. The latter included Normal People in a list of the books he most enjoyed in 2019. Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for her portrayal of Carrie in Sex And The City, was especially gushing. "This book. This book," she said of Conversations With Friends, "I read it in one day. I hear I'm not alone."

Next month, BBC Three - in partnership with US streaming service Hulu - will screen a 12-part adaptation of Normal People. The project has attracted significant talent, including Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, who made the Oscar-nominated Room, and Mark O'Rowe, the acclaimed theatre director, who co-wrote the script.

And, even before a single minute has aired, the Dublin production company behind the project, Element Pictures, announced that it would also be adapting Conversations With Friends for the small screen. It, too, will be screened by the BBC.

Declan Meade was one of the first to recognise Rooney's talent. The founder of the Stinging Fly literary magazine - which has given many authors across Ireland, north and south, their first break in the 20 years of its existence - says Rooney first signalled her talent while still in school. "She sent us poetry she had written," he recalls. "I don't think it was published until she was at Trinity [College] but there was no doubt that there was considerable talent there."

Rooney had a comparatively normal upbringing. Born in 1991, she is the middle of three children, with a sister and brother. Her father, Kieran, worked for Telecom Eireann and her mother, Marie, ran an arts centre in Castlebar, Co Mayo. By her own admission, she wasn't a stand-out student at school. But her love of reading was apparent from early on - as was a desire to demonstrate her own creative writing.

"I never thought that I wouldn't be writing," she has said. "I always thought that no matter what I did, I would always have writing. I couldn't imagine sort of navigating the world without having recourse to writing stories about it. I would feel quite like lost without the ability to put words together on paper and try to, like, capture something."

She blossomed when she went to Trinity at 18, although she has admitted to having been troubled by the disproportionately high number of privately educated students who go there. She joined the university's debating society and was part of a team that won a major European competition. Rooney was said to be a diligent student and one keen to make an impression outside the confines of the university.

It was an essay in another literary journal, The Dublin Review, that effectively launched her career. 'Even if You Beat Me' was inspired by her experience of being a formidable student debater. The London-based agent Tracy Bohan read it and soon took her on.

It was while doing a Master's in American Literature at Trinity that Rooney wrote Conversations With Friends. Its first draft was completed in just three months. The book concerns an on-off bisexual couple, Trinity students Frances and Bobbi, and their complex relationship with an older and outwardly successful husband and wife. It excited a lot of people when Bohan first sought a publisher.

Faber and Faber - the renowned London publishing house - won the rights after a veritable seven-way bidding war. A figure from Faber described Rooney as "the Salinger of the Snapchat generation", and the line stuck: it's been trotted out time and again and Rooney is now said to hate it.

Even before the book was published, there was huge excitement about Rooney in literary circles. And, on publication, the reviews were glowing. A rapturous New Yorker notice described Rooney as a "psychological portraitist" who is "acute and sophisticated about the workings of innocence". Conversations With Friends was published in 2017 and featured in several best-of year-end lists. It was also nominated for the Folio Prize - an award considered by some to be an alternative to the Booker.

Rooney wasted little time in writing a follow-up. Normal People came out in 2018 to even greater acclaim, as well as appearing on the Booker longlist. A story of young love between a boy and girl from a fictional Sligo town and the challenges their relationship faces once they both go to Trinity, its universality connected with readers from around the globe.

And it soon came to be seen to be ripe for adaptation. "Young people's lives now, more than ever, are complicated and confusing and yet they are exerting agency on the world and that, I think, makes them - and their stories - relevant to all of us," according to Piers Wenger, the BBC's controller of drama.

It's a sentiment shared by Lenny Abrahamson, who shared directorial duties on the series with English film-maker Hettie Macdonald. "The territory is so interesting," Abrahamson told the Guardian. "It's a positive account of two young people falling in love. It sounds simple, but there's a lot cynicism around that kind of material. It's a look at intimacy in the 21st century and a portrait of a very tender relationship. It's radical in a sense."

So, what makes Rooney so popular? Niamh Boyce, author of admired novel The Herbalist, says: "To be simplistic, the popularity lies in the fact that the novels are good reads that capture the zeitgeist. Rooney's prose flows with a directness and honesty that's very clean, and makes the novels compulsive reading.

"It's refreshing that work which explores female intellectual and emotional coming-of-age is being taken seriously for once, and not packaged away under pink covers. The marketing and covers have done justice to the work, which isn't always the case."

Not everyone is enamoured with Rooney's writing, however. When approached by this writer for an appraisal, one well-known Irish author demurred. "I'd be strung up if I went public on this," he says, "but I'm really not that wild about her books. Of course there's a lot of technical skill there, but Normal People in particular feels quite slight. Maybe I'm being a bit unfair, but the adulation seems disproportionate."

English author Will Self is not a fan. "You only need to look at the kind of books being lauded at the moment to see how simple-minded they are," he told the [London] Times last year. "What's now regarded as serious literature would, 10 or 20 years ago, have been regarded as young adult fiction. I read a few pages of the Sally Rooney book. It may say things that millennials want to hear reflected back at them, but it's very simple stuff with no literary ambition that I can see."

Rooney, herself, is currently a fellow at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center. She's working on her third book, tentatively titled Beautiful World, Where Are You? According to the press release from the centre, the book is "examining aesthetics and political crises".

She is also unlikely to care what the naysayers think. A figure in the small Dublin literary world says she has remained grounded. "Her head is very much on her shoulders," she says. "I think she's really appreciative of how people have responded to the books, and I know she wants to get the next one finished.

"One downside of making such a big impact all over the world is that you're constantly in demand, especially if you're involved with a TV adaptation, and while that's well and good, it can eat into the time you'd need to get another book done to your satisfaction."

Normal People airs on BBC Three in April. Date to be confirmed.

Irish Independent