How Sally Rooney Went From Underdog To Household Name

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By Abbie Kean

If you have not already heard the name Sally Rooney, where have you been? The 30-year-old author from County Mayo in Ireland, accelerated to fame over the past year as her work took people by storm during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sally studied English at Trinity College Dublin, where she was elected scholar in 2011. She started, but did not complete a master’s degree in politics there, completing an American literature degree instead, and graduated with an MA in 2013.

She completed her first novel when she was just 15, which she has since described as “absolute trash.” Rooney then began writing “constantly” in 2014. Whilst studying for her degree, she went onto complete her first novel, Conversations with Friends, writing 100,000 words of it in just three months.

Sally signed with Tracy Bohan of the Wylie Agency, and Conversations with Friends was subject to a seven-party auction for its publishing rights, which were eventually sold in 12 countries. The novel was published in June 2017 by Faber and Faber. It was met with overall positive reviews, getting Rooney the award for Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year.

Sally Rooney for Vanity Fair

The reception her first novel was met with could not have prepared her for what was next. Normal People. In September 2018, Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People was published to critical acclaim. It was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, voted as Waterstones’ Book of the Year and won Best Novel at the 2018 Costa Book Awards. However, it was not until April of 2019 when the novel’s TV-adaptation premiered, that Sally’s star quality was fully realised on a massive scale.

The BBC Three 12-part series, starring Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal as the main characters Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, was met with critical acclaim. The story follows the complex friendship and relationship between the two young teenagers, who both attend the same secondary school in County Sligo, Ireland, then later as students attending Trinity College Dublin. The two then weave in and out of each-other’s lives in the years that follow, showcasing the tumultuous reality of growing up and falling in love.

Over 16.2 millions viewers accessed BBC I-Player to watch the show, making an entire population of people become totally enamoured with the story, and the woman that gave us it. The sales of Normal People, the novel, began to skyrocket and demand was fiery, with over 40,000 sales in 2020 alone. The popularity of the series is the catalyst that was required to give Sally Rooney the “status symbol” she now holds.

Due to the success of the Normal People TV-adaptation, BBC Three and Hulu are now teaming up to bring Sally’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, to the small screen. Filming began last week in Northern Ireland, and the show will star Joe Alwyn, Jemima Kirke, Sasha Lane and Alison Oliver. The show is set to air next year.

The mammoth success that Sally Rooney and her work now has achieved, left millions of us with the question of what comes next. At the beginning of 2021, that question was answered. In January, Sally announced the release of her next novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, which will come out in September of this year. Similar to the first two stories, the novel will follow young people navigating love, friendship and sex. When the cover art for the book was released, social media went into absolute overdrive. I would think it is safe to say, there will be a high point in the book industry’s calendar when the novel is finally published in just over four months-time.

I also feel it is important to note that Sally Rooney’s rise to fame in such a short time, does go to show how society picks and chooses which writers are lionized. Last year was a time of racial reckoning in the UK and across the globe. However, it was straight, cis, white writers like Rooney who held the spotlight and not just given fleeting praise like countless, amazingly talented Black, POC and LGBTQ+ writers that are out there. Not to take away from the magic of Sally Rooney’s work, but even she herself has acknowledged her privileged position in society, both in race and class amongst other things, and it is something we must assess when discussing this topic. Would the author herself have really been given the title “Salinger of the Snapchat generation” if she was not in the societally projected position of superiority?

That being said, the realities that her words and characters have transported us all to deserve great recognition and admiration. I know that for me, Normal People and Conversations with Friends, both, have become two of my favourite pieces of work of all time. The journey that the novels take you on as you consume them are nothing short of breath-takingly beautiful voyages through your own hearts and minds, as they force you to question your own values, experiences and position in life. I do not see the popularity of Sally Rooney or her works of art dying down anytime soon, and I expect we shall see the same sort of support and passion for all her future projects still to come.

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