Transgressive writing and the ‘flow-state’: Sally Rooney and Joanna Walsh In Conversation

 

Joanna Walsh writes criticism for the Guardian, the New Statesman, and the National (UAE) and is fiction editor at 3:AM Magazine. Her most recent books include Hotel and Vertigo. ‘Hotel Haunting’ is an excerpt from Hotel. Sally Rooney is a writer from County Mayo living in Dublin. We published her story ‘Mr Salary’ in our recent issue of new Irish writing.

 

 

Joanna Walsh:

I’m Joanna Walsh. I’m here at the Irish Writers Centre to talk to Sally Rooney, who is a writer living in Dublin. She’s probably the youngest writer in Granta‘s Ireland issue. She doesn’t yet have a complete book out but she does have a work in progress. And, she was featured poet in the Spring 2015 issue of the Stinging Fly, her nonfiction has appeared in the Dublin Review, her short fiction was featured in the anthology Winter Pages, and of course, she has a story in Granta.

You write poetry, essays, short fiction, you’re working on a novel. I’ve found that a lot of Irish writers work across genre and I wonder whether that is something to do with the opportunities afforded by the range of magazines, of literary journals that are out there.

Sally Rooney:

I think that’s certainly true, actually. And, I wonder to some extent if all young writers, or many young writers at least probably experiment with genre before they settle on something, if indeed they ever settle on something, that they feel is like their form. I am lucky to have had the, sort of, publishing experience that I’ve had so far in Ireland. I think it is largely facilitated by the great journals that are out there and their willingness to publish young writers.

Walsh:

We first met at Nollaig na mBan, the women’s Christmas event at the Irish Writers Centre in January, in which eight women writers spoke about women and writing, mostly Irish writing. I was very impressed because at that event you read from notes, which is something I personally could never do. But I found that in your essay from the Dublin ReviewEven if you beat me’you say, ‘When I was twenty-two I was the number-one competitive debater on the continent of Europe’. I was fascinated by this experience, and how it relates to your writing.

Rooney:

Yeah. I had great fun writing that essay, and the editor, Brendan Barrington, was fantastic to work with in the Dublin Review. Yes, I was an avid competitive debater in college, which is something slightly embarrassing to admit. And, it’s interesting to wonder the extent to which it, sort of, influenced my writing because, of course, both of them are deeply concerned with language, what we can do with language, and how effectively we can do it.

Walsh:

I liked the bit where you said of writing these debate speeches under a very great pressure in very sort amounts of time, ‘You think the concepts, and then the concepts express themselves. You hear yourself constructing syntactically elaborate sentences, one after another, but you don’t necessarily have the sensation that you are the person doing it.’

Rooney:

I think that’s probably very similar to my experience of writing prose, particularly, and I wonder if it has something to do with – in the essay I sort of discuss the idea of ‘flow-state’ – this sort of state you just click into and you feel that something is being channelled through you. That is probably a very vague and silly way of putting it, but you feel you’re sort of at one with yourself and you’re doing something that just suits you perfectly in that moment. And, that’s something that I was lucky to experience in debating, and it’s something I definitely experience when writing is going well. And, for me, it’s almost always a state that is concerned with language and using words.

Walsh:

I was really interested in a lot of things that you said about women and writing, in that essay. You said, ‘For woman speaking – even just opening her mouth – in public is something rash, a transgression.’ Was that quoting Cixous?

Rooney:

That was quoting Cixous, yeah, that is ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ I think.

Walsh:

It reminds me of something else I read recently, Katherine Angel’s recent piece ‘Fuck Philosophy’, which she wrote for Queen Mary University of London. She quotes the philosopher Justine McGill about women who have repeated experiences of having speech acts fail. So I was wondering about women’s speaking and writing, and of course, your speech at Nollaig na mBan?

Rooney:

Yeah, I wonder the extent – I’m not sure – the extent to which I’m confident of the idea that women speaking is always transgressive. I think to a large extent women can learn to speak and write in ways that mimic traditionally masculine forms, and I think that the fact the speaker happens to be a woman, or the writer happens to be a woman, doesn’t necessarily make those forms transgressive in and of itself. So I suppose what I’m trying to do is to find ways of expressing myself which try to subvert those forms in order to make the speech act, or the writing act, transgressive in a way. But it’s difficult ’cause we’re trapped in those forms I think, or at least I feel.

Walsh:

So you do want writing to be transgressive?

Rooney:

I do. Yes.

Walsh:

That’s fantastic. I’m interested in, also, what you say about things like emotion and the bodies in your short stories. ‘Mr Salary’, which will be the story in Granta, and  ‘After Eleanor Left’ are the two short stories I’ve read by you. There’s a kind of alienation from the body. I know that Cixous in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ certainly was talking about reintroducing the body into writing and that this was a strategy women could use. You talk about ‘my blood-formation system working as usual, my cells maturing and dying at a normal rate.’ There’s this feeling of separation from the body, an ability to stand back from it and evaluate it. I was also interested in your Dublin Review essay; you say ‘If you’re a girl, judges don’t just want to know you’re smart; they want to know you care.’ So I was interested in this worry that you had about speaking and passion as well.

Rooney:

It’s a concern that I return to pretty much constantly, probably not only in my writing but in my actual life. The extent to which as a woman you feel that expressing an emotion or attempting to live empathetically is sort of facilitating the ideal of womanhood, which is based around caring, and often thankless caring, thankless emotional labour. That by trying to be an emotional or caring person, or to embody those concepts in your work, you’re in fact facilitating that idea of womanhood. So how can we, sort of, map out a way of expressing emotion and expressing the importance of intimacy and empathy without reiterating those ideals.

Walsh:

It’s very interesting in your stories, there’s a lot of dialogue, as in the extract we’ve just heard, but the dialogue is often quite ineffectual as a conveyor of emotion. It seems quite dialectic, playful. It often doesn’t say what the protagonists want to say. You contrast with internal monologue in which you can see what the character is really thinking. Or sometimes not at all, as in ‘After Eleanor Left’, where we’re left to infer what the real state of these people is. We hear them talking, and we know that the talking is fairly superficial.

Rooney:

I love writing dialogue, and I’m very interested in speech act, and I love listening to people talk, and I like talking. I’m interested in what we are communicating when we’re not necessarily communicating.

Walsh:

So am I, actually.

Rooney:

At least in superficial terms, we’re not communicating what we seem to be thinking about. But then, what is it that our words are doing, and what are we communicating to each other. I think power operates, as you say, in a sort of dialectic fashion in those exchanges of dialogue, even if it’s not doing it in a very explicit way. I think there is a sort of operation of power in the way we exchange words with each other.

Walsh:

I really like in your Dublin Review essay where you talk about the kudos that you got from winning these debating competitions, and you say, ‘I don’t think I will ever again want something so meaningless so much’ and something to do with the meaningless of the words and the meaningless of the way you covered the debate, the topics in a very superficial way because of lack of time. You were just given the topics minutes before you had to speak. But to bring that back to something else I found really fascinating, that I say, is your description of a minor traffic accident when you were on a debating contest in India. You say, ‘We all felt overwrought, not because the accident itself was so bad, but because something we had taken for stable was now not stable; the little seal of protection had ruptured. This didn’t feel like something we had agreed to.’ I love that after all the words, after all the things meant to convey meaning, what seems to be at the heart of this, is this little rupture of stability, this kind of absence of something which is almost indescribable.

Rooney:

I’m glad that you picked up so much from that. I think I was struggling to express that kind of complexity, so thank you for crediting the essay with that exploration. I am interested by how we’re encouraged to place meaning in certain forms of achievement and accolade. I think academically it’s quite similar; we’re encouraged really from a very, very young age to think of ourselves as students, and to evaluate our performance in life either by how much money we’re making or by what kind of grades we’re getting, or by some other sort of external metric. Those moments when we draw away from those systems and we realise they don’t exactly express our value: that kind of rupture interests me a lot.

Walsh:

Yes. The two short stories are really about relationships that are very difficult to define; the characters don’t really know what their relationships with the other characters are. These are kind of romantic relationships, on the whole, and also friendships. What you have to express again is this kind of inexpressible thing. What you describe are relationships that don’t have names.

Rooney:

Yes. And that’s something that I think is present in all my fiction. The idea that relationships constantly take forms that don’t really fit into categories that we use to describe those relationships, that we use words like ‘boyfriend’ or ‘husband’, or even like ‘daughter’ or ‘sister’, and we believe that those convey a meaning about a particular human relationship, when in fact the kind of intimacies that we develop as human beings are often complex and they overrun those categories and become weird and not quite right.

Walsh:

Weird relationships.

Rooney:

Yes, weird relationships, that’s sort of what I’m interested in.

Walsh:

Can you tell me about your work-in-progress? Anything?

Rooney:

Yeah, I can tell you a little about it. So, it’s a novel. It’s a novel-shaped work of prose and it sort of concerns a woman, a college student, who starts and enters into an affair with a married man, who’s a little older than her, about ten years older than her. It also concerns her very, very close best friendship with a young woman who used to be her girlfriend when they were in school. So again, it’s very much a, sort of, How do we label these relationships? What are these forms of intimacy? And it’s also, I suppose, about observing how power operates within our personal relationships, often in ways we’d prefer it didn’t.

Walsh:

I’m really interested to finish with, perhaps, if you can talk about something about how you feel you fit in to the Irish writing scene, or don’t, or your place here in relation to world writing.

Rooney:

That’s an interesting question. I think I feel very at home in the Irish writing scene because I know the people in it and because they’ve been very kind and supportive to me. So lots of figures in the Irish publishing world I feel have been supportive of me, and of other young writers, and in that sense, I feel a real belonging in the community of Irish writers. I’m not sure that I really have a sense of Irishness, or what that means. I think I probably grew up on the Internet as much as I grew up in a particular geographical location, which is the west of Ireland. I didn’t grow up in Dublin. I moved here when I was eighteen to go to college. And I never read exclusively Irish writers or had any preference for reading Irish writers above, I suppose I grew up reading American fiction largely.

Walsh:

You have an MA in American Literature.

Rooney:

Yeah. So that was, sort of, my area of interest where literature was concerned. I love the Irish literary scene because of the people who are in it and the kindness that they’ve shown to me, but I don’t necessarily feel that my writing is defined by a sense of Irishness or that I have any confidence to talk about what that sense of Irishness might be.

Walsh:

Are there any writers from here that you particularly recommend? Perhaps ones that haven’t really necessarily travelled across to the UK.

Rooney:

From ‘here’ is a complex word.

Walsh:

Yes, that’s very true. I’m just trying to do shorthand.

Rooney:

Claire-Louise Bennett’s book, Pond. Is it an Irish book?  I suppose it probably is. I love that book. I think it was just a fantastic collection. ‘Collection of stories’ is probably actually being too specific for whatever that book is. I think it was an extremely fine piece of writing. And, again, it’s confusing to label it as Irish writing. I’m not sure that I would.

Walsh:

Yes, I’m not sure that she would, actually.

Rooney:

No. Well it was published here, so that’s the one that springs to mind.

Walsh:

Okay. Thank you very much, Sally Rooney.

Rooney:

Thank you very much, Joanna.

 

 

Photograph © Eamonn Doyle / Neutral Grey / Lauren Elkin 

 

 

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