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Thursday, October 6, 2022

‘I always secretly wonder which of us is the real artist’: Sally Rooney in conversation with Patricia Lockwood | Sally Rooney

Sally and I began this conversation when I was in London, having flown there to attend the Dylan Thomas prize ceremony. My husband, Jason, had experienced a medical emergency on the plane from Los Angeles and had been rushed to Charing Cross hospital as soon as we touched down, so my emails were written under the influence of steroids, cold medicine, and pure adrenaline; Sally’s were written under the influence of a little cup of water. Realising, perhaps, that I hadn’t looked forward to writing an email for a very long time, I begin by asking her a simple question: when did email die?

Sally Rooney: Email is dead?? I’m reeling. Why do people keep emailing me then??

I suppose maybe you mean email is dead in the way that the novel is dead: sort of exhausted as a cultural form. I’m pretty fond of exhausted cultural forms, though. And you have also written a novel, so you surely understand. I think if email were cooler, I wouldn’t find it so interesting. I admire its relative neutrality and lack of visual identity. I wonder if this is also true of novels. Both forms effectively consist of blocks of plain text on empty backgrounds. The openness of that arrangement attracts me. Once forms are exhausted or dead, maybe they become more capacious.

I am interested to know what you think of as a “live” form.

Patricia Lockwood: I had been saving and saving Beautiful World, Where Are You because I still have intermittent trouble reading after Covid. Then, seemingly at the second we arrived in London and had to get Jason to hospital, I developed bronchitis and was given prednisolone, which makes reading perfect. I’ve got about 100 pages left and want to read it this morning on the plane home; once you start it up in the air you should finish it up in the air. So I’ll continue on at 30,000ft and send another letter when I return.

It would help me to think of these emails as letters, because it turns out I hate asking direct questions and am never going to do it again. Here’s what I’ll say – I don’t know that Alice and Eileen [in Beautiful World] are writing emails. We don’t get the links, the ahahas, the raccoon videos. They’re doing the online equivalent of writing with quill pens – they have to, because this is going in a book. We are given their relationship, the weight of their history, the tendrils of their communication, and the technology does not matter. It struck me, over the cycle of the last few years whenever a book was held up as addressing technology and the modern moment, that this was almost always true: they were more traditional than usual, not less.

A live form, to me, is one that I don’t quite know how to use. It is like a new body. Whenever I’ve found myself in a state of febrile excitement on the internet, it’s been when I didn’t know what I was doing – I was learning my way around, lifting up limbs and discovering their reflexes, making a place voluptuous. Are you formally comfortable inside the novel, or do you relearn it every time? Do we return because it is capacious enough to hold our ignorance and exploration, not the things we want to fill it with?

Patricia Lockwood in in Savannah, Georgia.
Patricia Lockwood in in Savannah, Georgia. Photograph: Bailey Davidson/The Observer

SR: On email: no. We’re going to have a formal disagreement here, and I think it’s healthy. In my life online, ahahas and raccoon videos are for messaging and tweets. My emails (in life and in fiction) are formally pure. You say “letters”, but I say, no. They’re just obviously not letters. They’re emails. They autosave in a drafts folder during composition, they arrive at the instant of being sent, and each one is visible and searchable at all times to both sender and recipient. Back when I was writing my first novel, which was in the first person, I remember thinking of the narrative technique as “email voice”. I wanted the narrative to have an email-like quality. And in this latest book, large parts of the narrative are in fact fictional emails. Now you’re telling me the technology doesn’t matter?? No. It matters, Patricia … It matters very much.

I’m interested in your question about whether I’m formally comfortable with the novel. The answer is, with caveats, no.

I don’t think writing novels becomes formally easier the more you do it. You might think, when first you toil your way through writing a novel, that you are at least teaching yourself enormously valuable and difficult lessons that you will never have to learn again. But by the time you finish that book and start a new one, those lessons no longer interest you, and you actively try to avoid reusing any of the things you worked so hard to learn before. In this sense, writing a novel is like forcing yourself to acquire a very complicated skill and then, as soon as you’ve succeeded, losing all interest in ever using the skill again.

Everyone who writes, professionally or otherwise, basically already knows this as a matter of instinct. For instance, let’s imagine that I’m someone who really enjoys writing, which I am. I get an idea for a scene, and I write that scene, and then, for technological reasons, the work gets deleted and I have to start again. Depending on how much work has been lost, this can be a very distressing experience. Why? Because I have to do a piece of work again that I supposedly enjoyed doing the first time. If I really enjoyed doing it so much – not the accomplishment of having done it, but the act of doing it – why should it be so painful to have to do it again? (Of course, there are some writers who just hate the whole process of writing, which means they never have to contemplate this contradiction, although there are other downsides to their way of life.) For me, it’s because I already taught myself what I wanted to know the first time. The writing can be enjoyable and exciting when it involves discovery: of character, of language, of technique, etc. But when I’m just typing out something I know already, it’s depressing. So in my experience, there are intrinsic obstacles to growing more formally comfortable in a given genre. The pleasure of writing is derived from the frisson of discomfort.

I’m going to send you this reply now before it gets any lengthier and more unwieldy! I’m sorry. Are you home yet?

PL: Re: the emails – whenever someone starts disagreeing with me in long paragraphs, even ones as wonderful as yours, I listen at first and then I start wondering, in a wrestling match between us, who would win? I am picturing both of us wearing André the Giant-type singlets, and in this scenario I am more flexible than I am in real life. I will say, that when I read the sections of the book that I will no longer think of as “epistolary”, I thought, with a shiver of personal delight, it sounds just like Sally is writing to me!

I am NOT at home yet because yesterday afternoon, having made it from London to New York, and just as we were about to board our flight home to Savannah, I was sitting at my gate at JFK watching a documentary about the making of The Dark Side of the Moon. I was nurturing a tremendous hard-on for David Gilmour – you have to be horny when you fly or else the plane will never stay up – when Jason collapsed. The paramedics rushed him by ambulance to Jamaica Hospital. He is now stable and the doctor told him he should try to fly home as soon as he can, so we’re taking the first flight out this morning.

When we got to the hospital I was going to write you right away, but I was so tired, and I had been writing so many emails that really were emails (wrestling move), that I just started reading your book, as if there were nothing else for me to do in the world. I feel that this experience has tied me to you for ever.

I couldn’t stay with Jason because of Covid protocols, so they put me in this empty little conference room that had been abandoned by God. Someone had stuck a bloody plaster to the ceiling, as commentary, and there was a whiteboard where someone had written “Happy Mother’s Day!” While I was sitting there someone texted me that this was the hospital where Donald Trump had been born, and it really felt like that. I mean, all you want in a hospital waiting room is something to distract you. But because I was alone, and everything was so heightened, I really did feel that I was reading about the world underneath the world.

I thought I was going to be in that room for ever. I thought I was going to die there, with Donald Trump being perpetually born above me. Every so often it would go completely dark, because I was sitting so still that the automatic lights perceived there was no one in there. And I came to these passages of physical description – more of it than in your first two books, I think. It was like you were staking out actual territory, taking us by the shoulders and saying: “You still live here.” Alice and Eileen holding each other, the beautiful world. And maybe it’s just because I’m writing about To the Lighthouse right now, but those passages almost seemed to be observed from that point of view – the sweeping up of the house after the Ramsays are gone, the bright revolution of the eye of the lighthouse, the point of view of nature and time. It watches the four people by the sea almost as if they are dead – but in a peaceful way, not the way Alice feels sure she is dead already as a writer, as a famous figure, as a subject of discourse. It’s like tides lapping up to them as they’re lying on the beach, naturally including them in the catalogue of elements that will be sucked away.

Texts were coming in from friends, giving me the names of surgeons at better hospitals. Jason would occasionally call, sounding half in and half out of the world. I felt that I needed someone to come and put me back into my body. I was not crying at what was happening, but sometimes I cried a little at the book.

SR: I’m very glad you’re home again now and that everything seems to be OK for the moment. If the novel kept you company during such an extreme ordeal, then I’m touched. I feel that everything I write is so small and quiet that any contact with real crisis might just touch it over into the trivial. But I suppose it depends. I would like to write books from which nothing is excluded. You would be in there, and Jason, and empty conference rooms, motion-sensor lights, text messages about surgeons, wrestling metaphors. I don’t want to write books that are cold and stylised and feel closed off from life. Reading your email the second or third time – after we’d been in touch elsewhere and you had let me know that he’d been discharged and you’d arrived home safely – I felt like maybe my mission should be to write novels that can be read by frightened people in hospital waiting rooms. And if I let that principle guide me from now on, then my books might be more serious and sturdier, better equipped for contact with real life. But I’m not even sure if that’s true.

As a rule I don’t like to endure anything in life that I can’t use in my work. If something happens to me in reality that feels too distressing, too ugly, or too confusing to bear any relationship with my work, then I feel that whatever I’m writing must be dishonest. Partly I suppose that’s why I wanted Alice’s career to resemble mine so closely. It has to do with a principle of honesty that’s hard for me to describe exactly. The book would have felt false and meaningless for me if I hadn’t found space inside it to accommodate that part of my life, however idiotic it was. And then, inversely, my real life would have felt even more idiotic and painful if I couldn’t at least make use of it somehow in my writing. That’s not to say that the book describes “real events”. I’m terrible at describing real events. But the novel did have real emotional and intellectual experiences, in the form of fictional events and characters. The real catastrophes that have happened to me, like the one your email describes, have all ended up in my books, though almost always unrecognisably.

Every time I talk with you about writing, and we discuss the contrasts in our processes, ideas, preferences, values, I always secretly wonder which of us is the real artist. My work is so mundane and technical, and your work is so unpredictable and extraordinary. I’m sometimes a little bit droll, but you’re always hilarious, to a degree that actually becomes confrontational and philosophically challenging. I can write sex scenes, kind of, but you can erotically live-tweet Bambi to an audience of millions. We’re interested in some of the same things, but you’re capable of throwing yourself courageously into the extremes, and I’m not. I like to drink a glass of tap water and think my little thoughts. (‘What if one of the characters calls another one on the phone?’) My admiration for your work, and for you personally, makes me feel doubtful about what seems too great a disparity between us. But maybe it’s possible to embrace the dichotomy without wrestling.

Speaking of which: when I was struggling with the ending of the novel, a friend suggested I should read The Waves. Sometimes I’ll read something that comes in at a particularly unexpected angle to my own thoughts, and that way I can get new ideas. The Waves helped me a lot – it’s a beautiful book, which I’d never read before, though I love Woolf. So your words about To the Lighthouse made me happy. I also read Henry James’s The Golden Bowl for the first time, while I was writing the novel – another friend sent me a copy as a gift. Like many of James’s male characters, the Prince in The Golden Bowl has a truly unbelievable level of erotic charisma. He doesn’t even have to say anything: his presence alone is mesmerising. I really admire and love the almost hypnotic power of James’s characters on the page. Both Woolf and James are master stylists. But the style is always in service of something: that’s what I strive for, as I suppose we all do.

Isn’t this an email?? Nothing in it matters unless it interests or amuses you. I’m aiming only to seem gently inane and consoling, at best. In real life, I’m thinking of you both and sending love.

PL: I don’t know either. If I saw someone reading my novel in a hospital waiting room, I would physically take it out of their hands. Actually another woman came in while I was waiting, they were doing chest compressions on her father in the hallway, and I ceased to be a writer at all, but some sort of organisational force, offering tissues and consolation and information. Exactly the same thing you would have done, or anyone. If you tried to write consolation it wouldn’t work. What consoles or distracts in those moments is another person’s complete and pleasurable absorption in a thing that may not matter at all, the sense that life and the world go on like a river outside you.

I think I know what you mean about using your life in fiction. When I got to the end – even knowing how novels work! – I thought, I hope Sally is not ill, I hope she is not in pain. I hope she was not in hospital with a breakdown. I thought that at the end of Conversations with Friends as well, I hope Sally doesn’t have endometriosis. There is something there that was transmuted into text, so that while you read you reach out as if to try to relieve it. Part of the pain I feel in reading is for the characters, but part of it is always for the writer, what they must have been through.

When you say, “I always secretly wonder which of us is the real artist”: this is so funny, and so narcissistic, and exactly the same thing I do. Before we met – we did an event in a church where I stole the priest’s cassock – we were both afraid of each other. When I read the unexpected mention of me in Conversations with Friends [Frances says they admire “the poet Patricia Lockwood”], I thought, but she wouldn’t like me. She would see right through me, as if that’s what you go about doing.

When we were together another time, at a barbecue restaurant, you said something that I found very touching. You were gently impersonating yourself in the writing of a new work, and you made this excited gesture, and you said: “There’s this guy, you’re gonna love him.” And I thought, they are real to her, the characters. They must appear to her in her bedroom at night. She can take them up the stairs, she knows what the wear on their sleeves looks like, and their life is going on underneath hers at all times. And sometimes she is looking at me, and sometimes something flashes to the side of me or just behind, that is the gesture of another hand.

So maybe we are right, that you see through us. But we aren’t the point – you are seeing through us to something else you need to see. And I think now, this is the core of you. That you see these things, and it is true of your reading as well, that you walk among characters, in the flesh, in the clothes of the period, with the words in their mouths, and sparkling.

You want a sex scene in the waiting room as well. (I was hoping for one between Felix and Simon [from Beautiful World] and David Gilmour, but it was not to be.) I have thought a lot about why yours are so good, so electric, and it’s because they actually seem to contain the human exchange, the moment of friction that must be played out before you can surrender. I wondered, why am I so shy to ask a direct question? And it’s because it was so close to being in one of your bedrooms. It almost borders on that moment – where I step too far, and you rise or rebut or show that core of rigour, and then we must break past it somehow, so something else can happen. And it can’t happen here, but maybe somewhere else, just off to the side.

SR: When you say you feel pain for the writer, this might touch on the idea of autofiction, and the relation between that idea and what we (respectively) are doing in our work. Of course, when I read your work, I also feel for the character and the writer at the same time – I feel for some conceptual being that seems to unite the character and writer together. And although I write more conventional novels, and I don’t ask the reader to imagine that the events of the novel have literally taken place in my real life, the principle of honesty applies.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

I suppose that in writing about physical and emotional pain, I’m asking for a certain kind of trust from the reader. Maybe the unspoken agreement is that I don’t force my characters to endure levels of pain that go beyond my real experience. If I did that, I would feel that I was violating the reader’s trust somehow. I wonder if that’s a principle borrowed from autofiction, even though my work is otherwise more conventionally novelistic. When we read Middlemarch, I don’t think we need to feel that George Eliot personally went through some form of suffering that we would consider equivalent to what her characters endure. It’s not part of the contract between reader and writer in that case. Maybe in the modernist novel, that concept starts to emerge, and then autofiction takes it to its limit: the integrity of the work would be destroyed completely by that kind of dishonesty. I feel a certain kinship with autofiction, maybe for that reason, although my writing doesn’t fit into that tradition at all.

But even though my work does seem to ask something personal of the reader, I don’t speak in public about any personal difficulties I may have experienced. I’m fairly guarded by disposition anyway, but much more so in public life. I don’t mind talking about my work, if it interests anyone. But I have nothing to say about my life, and especially not the parts of my life that (may) have been difficult or painful.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I do sometimes become curious as to why exactly I take this attitude. It’s not – obviously – born of timidity. In fact I think, as you seem to sense also, that it’s a kind of aggression on my part. In our line of work, a person can find themselves coerced, contractually or otherwise, into doing a lot of things they don’t want to do. I suppose it’s a point of pride for me, one of the very few I have left at this stage, that I can at least refuse to be coerced into being emotionally vulnerable in public. No! As far as my public statements are concerned, I am completely invulnerable, and I have never suffered a day in my life. It may not make any sense, or have any useful consequences, but I would rather die than give them what they want.

Your description at the restaurant sounds like me! By which I mean, very embarrassing. But it’s true, I do live with my protagonists as if they’re real. What excites me about publishing my work is sharing the characters with other people. My most intense and life-changing reading experiences have always involved deep attachments to fictional characters. And that sort of mystical, almost spiritual, experience of attachment is something I try to accomplish in my novels. All the other aspects of my work – aesthetic or ideological concerns, for instance – are subordinate to that ambition. In a way you might call it an expression of religious belief. When people develop strong feelings about my characters, it makes me feel that I’ve done the right thing in publishing my books.

On this same topic, I think people who criticise my prose style have a point. I don’t think my prose is fantastic. But it’s secondary to the characters for me. My novels are not fundamentally about language, they’re about people and their lives. If I need to show one of my characters looking thoughtfully at the ceiling, I’m often not interested in finding a new unexpected way of phrasing the gesture. I’m just impatient to get her looking up at that ceiling, so I can get closer to what’s really going on for her – intellectually, emotionally, whatever. As a result, my prose can sometimes end up flat and repetitive, and although I try to smooth it out and make it nicer, I don’t always succeed.

There are so many things I fail to do in my work. I’d like to be a better writer. But the hardest disappointment is in feeling that I’ve failed to do justice to my characters. I hate the idea of thrusting them out into the cold hard light of publicity to be jeered at and reviled. They really do mean as much to me as if they were real. It’s with foolish but necessary optimism that I say things like: “There’s this guy, you’re going to love him.” In the end, a lot of people won’t love him at all, or even notice he’s there, through my failings as a writer and through the bizarre state of the discourse around my work. I content myself with the hope that behind all the noise and distraction, in a quiet interior somewhere, someone is encountering that character, and they do love him. The beauty of that kind of love: that’s what makes me want to write novels.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney is published in paperback (Faber). No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury) won the Dylan Thomas prize.

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