“Some stories just aren’t mine to tell”: the Irish writer Sally Rooney, 26, has been shortlisted for her story, Mr Salary. She talks to Sophie Haydock about her early success, the extent to which fiction should draw on “real life” and the influence of luck
Tell us about your story Mr Salary. How did the plot and characters develop?
The two central characters, Sukie and Nathan, appeared together in several abandoned short stories before they ended up in this one. The loose idea was always that Sukie, a student with a troubled family history, would move in with Nathan, a prosperous family friend in his thirties – but I had to attack this dynamic from many angles before I ended up with the current version of the story.
Was it an easy story to write? What were the challenges of shaping it into something so satisfying for us as readers?
Most of the alternative versions were set at an earlier point in the characters’ lives; once I finally decided to set it later, the story wasn’t very hard to write. But as above, many dubious drafts had to be written and put aside before that could happen. This final version is in the first person, from Sukie’s perspective, but I have several third-person drafts lying around, as well as one from Nathan’s point of view. I often find I have to go through this laborious process to find out what story I’m trying to tell. Happily for me, I find the act of writing very enjoyable.
Is your story autobiographical in any way?
I’m always curious to know what I could possibly communicate to readers by answering this question. How would the story be different if it was or wasn’t autobiographical? For example, I could say that one episode near the close of the story is drawn from real life – the sequence in which Sukie watches a rescue boat on the Liffey. How does that information make the scene different for readers? Does it imbue the reading experience with some kind of increased authenticity because of its proximity to my real life? Or does it imply that rather than being the invention of a creative mind, this incident was just something that happened to me as a passive observer? In which case, is the story somehow less “literary”?
So, should authors draw on their own experience, do you think, or pull ideas from other, un-lived worlds?
I think it’s always hard to say what authors should or shouldn’t do. In my own case, no matter what I set out to do, I’m unlikely to end up doing it, or at least not the way I planned. For this reason, I tend to avoid committing myself to any particular approach in advance.
So do we have a responsibility, as writers, to be true to our own heritage, or are we able to inhabit other lives and experiences?
I don’t think we have any special responsibility where heritage is concerned, but I do think we have some responsibility to acknowledge our limitations. When it comes to inhabiting other lives and cultures, there are always questions of political power at play. While I can’t speak for anyone else, it’s been important for me as a writer to cultivate a little humility about the scope of my imagination. Some stories just aren’t mine to tell.
You’re 26. How does it feel to be experiencing such success so early in your career? Does age matter when it comes to literature?
I imagine success is probably nice at any age. I’m not sure whether being 26 has made me appreciate it more or less. (People are going to read that and think: less). As to whether age matters in literature, I know I sometimes look forward to getting older so that I can write more convincingly about older characters. If it weren’t for that, I probably wouldn’t look forward to it at all.
What are the foundations of a perfect short story? And what are the magic ingredients, in your opinion?
What a difficult question. Right at this moment an academic somewhere is probably entering every great short story into a complex algorithm in order to answer this question using hard data. For me, a perfect short story needs at least one compelling, unresolved, somewhat mysterious dynamic between two or more people. Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants is a good example of this idea at work; Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People is an even better one.
When did you first begin to write, and why? Do you remember the initial urge to pick up a pen?
I can’t really remember a time before I could write. I completed my first novel at 15, although naturally, I consider everything I produced up until the age of 21 to be worthless garbage. I warmly look forward to feeling that way about my current work when I’m in my thirties.
What was first short story you read that really caught your imagination? Why?
On a trip to Paris about 10 years ago, I bought a copy of Miranda July’s collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. I think that book has probably had a permanent effect on me as a writer. In particular, I was fascinated by the disturbing and exhilarating story Making Love in 2003 – it seemed, like the best fiction, to come straight out of my own brain onto the page.
What advice would you give to other short story writers who may be looking to be in your position this time next year?
I couldn’t possibly be in this position without the intervention of pure luck, so I’d like to at least acknowledge that before dispensing advice to other short story writers. That said, I think it’s always a good idea to read and write as much as possible. Another piece of advice is to become a better listener in your personal relationships. As life skills go, I think listening is second only to writing where writers are concerned.
And finally, is there anything you’d like to say about your experience of being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award?
Just that I’m very pleased and honoured to be included, and I wish the other writers on the list all the best.
Photograph: Jonny L Davies