At 30, the Normal People author is already the most talked-about novelist of her generation. As she readies her third novel, she’s bracing for more (unwanted) attention

Sally Rooney appears before a stark, white background, stripped of even the most incidental feature. It makes me laugh: in 18 months of Zoom meetings, I’ve encountered people in their bedrooms and home offices, in front of bookcases and windows – situations that, no matter how bland or contrived, still betray some minor, contextualising detail. The empty staging today is, evidently, something that Rooney, after two hit novels and the rapid onset of an unwelcome fame, clearly wishes might extend further than a video call. Later in our conversation she will tell me celebrity is a condition that, in many cases, “happens without meaningful consent – the famous person never even wanted to become famous”. Now, after exchanging greetings, I mention the singularity of the naked white walls and she laughs and says merely, “Yes.”

There are some good reasons for the 30-year-old’s reticence. Her first two novels – Conversations With Friends and Normal People – were published in quick succession to the sort of acclaim that put Rooney in a category of exposure more consistent with actors than novelists. The books featured characters in late adolescence and early adulthood struggling through first relationships while starting to organise their thoughts about the world. They were erudite and self-assured, written with a dry, flat affect that was often very funny, and contained the kinds of fleeting, well-wrought descriptions that infused every scene with a casual virtuosity. (Early on in Conversations With Friends, Frances, the heroine, sleeps with Nick, a married man, and taking the bus home afterwards, sits at the back near the window, where “the sun bore down on my face like a drill and the cloth of the seat felt sensationally tactile against my bare skin”. Rooney’s ability to unpack a thought or feeling without forfeiting economy is one of the great strengths of her writing.)

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