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Sally Rooney
Photography Jonny Davies, via Faber

Sally Rooney talks about dealing with fame in the wake of Normal People

Speaking about the ‘hell’ of celebrity, the author has also opened up about the influences of her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You

Sally Rooney has spoken out about the “hell” of fame, describing how “profit-driven” industries turn gifted people “into a kind of commodity”, and how she dealt with the wild publicity that followed her second novel, Normal People, and its subsequent TV adaptation. The comments come as she promotes the Normal People follow-up Beautiful World, Where Are You.

Beautiful World, Where Are You itself centres on a famous author, Alice, who struggles with the attention that comes with her success, and the pressure of following up her previous, highly-acclaimed books. In a new interview with the Guardian, Rooney distances herself from the protagonist, saying: “I have no appetite for writing about myself and things that have actually happened to me.”

However, she does share the character’s distaste for publicity (alongside several biographical details). In the interview, she describes the experience of celebrity as “enduring variably serious invasions of (...) privacy from the media, from obsessive fans, and from people motivated by obsessive hatred.” 

As Normal People — and Lenny Abrahamson’s TV adaptation, which Rooney co-wrote —  blew up, she apparently stayed away from reviews and profiles, and muted her own name on social media. However, she says that it was impossible to completely shut the attention off: “Coverage of the Normal People television show was so ubiquitous that I really could not avoid encountering it even when I tried.”

Anyone that opened Twitter during the early months of lockdown is likely to be familiar with this feeling, given the never-ending conversations about the show’s revolutionary sex scenes and that chain worn by Paul Mescal’s Connell.

“Of course, that person could stop doing whatever it is they’re good at, in order to be allowed to retire from public life,” Rooney adds of those stuck in a “poisonous” system of celebrity. “But that seems to me like a big sacrifice on their part and an exercise in cultural self-destruction for the rest of us, forcing talented people either to endure hell or keep their talents to themselves.”

In a New York Times interview (August 28), Rooney similarly expresses reservations about literary fame and the intentions of those that cultivate it, saying: “The culture around authorship is not really benefiting anyone, even the people whom it appears to be benefiting the most.”

Rooney explains that writing Alice, who struggles with this culture, was partly a way to work through her own experiences. “I hope I don’t regret saying this, but I think that is why I had to write this book,” she says. “Because my life had become so dominated for a time by the success of my previous two.”

Beautiful World, Where Are You also focuses on Alice’s best friend, Eilieen, as the pair find themselves living very different lives in their late 20s. Much of their relationship plays out over email, as Alice is jetting off to Rome with a man she’s met, and Eileen is going through a break-up in Dublin, and flirting with a childhood friend named Simon. The novel is published by Faber, and will hit bookshelves on September 7. In testament to Rooney’s fame, and fans’ enthusiasm, advance reader copies have recently hit eBay for hundreds of dollars, despite the publisher’s ban on reselling.