A Starter Kit for Sally Rooney, the Book World's Trendiest Writer

Here's everything you need to know to get into the literary star.

sally rooney
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

This weekend, Hulu debuted Conversations with Friends, the second series based on a Sally Rooney novel to hit the platform, once again offering up 10 episodes of emotional entanglements, warmly lit sex scenes, and Irish accents. Rooney's novels and their subsequent television adaptations have become a cottage industry. The Irish author has been hailed as the great millennial literary hope, a scribe who captures her generation and their language better than anyone else. And while that may be slight hyperbole, her appeal is undeniable, which the Conversations with Friends show once again makes clear.

Sasha Lane (American Honey) and newcomer Alison Oliver stars as friends Bobbi and Frances, studying at Trinity University in Dublin. At a poetry reading where they perform, they meet Melissa (Jemima Kirke), a glamorous writer married to Nick (Joe Alwyn), a handsome, yet slightly less successful actor. Both younger women become entangled with the couple. Bobbi is infatuated with Melissa while Frances begins an intense affair with Nick. They holiday in Croatia. They have deeply intimate, intellectual conversations.

But before her work became no-brainer TV adaptation fodder, how did Rooney become a book world star in the first place? And how does someone get into her work? Here's a primer for just that.

The essay that started it all

If you want to get to Sally Rooney's roots, the best place to start is her essay "Even if you beat me," published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Dublin Review, which chronicles her university debating career. As The New Yorker reported, the publication inspired a literary agent to get in touch with her; the piece is a good summation of Rooney's voice, detached but engrossing, and her personality. "But I didn’t want to debate in order to express passion: I wanted to be aloof and cerebral like the speakers I most admired," she writes. "Nothing had prepared me for this encounter with my own apparent ardour." It's a statement that you could imagine coming from Frances in Conversations with Friends. Rooney's characters are constantly being surprised by their own emotions.

Sally Rooney's novels

The easiest place to start with Rooney's literary career is the most obvious: Her novels. She only has three of them and each, while dense with thought and feeling, are also easy reads. One of the reasons Rooney has been hailed as the Voice of Millennials is partially because her writing is so accessible. She has an innate knowledge of how people in her generation speak and simply exist, which translates into relatable (and often very sexy) stories.

Rooney's debut novel Conversations with Friends, which begat the Hulu series which prompts this investigation, came out in 2017. Rooney followed that up in 2018 with Normal People, which charted the lengthy relationship of Marianne and Connell, who are divided by class and social status. Finally, last year she released Beautiful World, Where Are You, yet another chronicle of millennial malaise. The central characters are Alice, a successful novelist who recently had a breakdown, and her best friend Eileen, who makes proverbial pennies at a literary magazine. Alice and Eileen exchange lengthy emails, and the novel is essentially half epistolary, jutting back and forth between their experiences and their correspondence.

The fandom

Sally Rooney is trendy, which is something it seems like Sally Rooney herself hates. In Beautiful World, Alice can be read as an author stand-in, bristling at the cultural cache authors like herself wield. And yet Sally Rooney is very popular, at least for an author who is not an already famous person. Even Taylor Swift loves her!

When Beautiful World came out, Rooney's publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux sent out extremely Instagrammable swag boxes, featuring Beautiful World bucket hats—how Gen Z—and Beautiful World tote bags. Celebs like Lena Dunham posted their treasured goods, inciting waves of jealousy among the literate cool girls and guys who didn't get the galleys. There was even a coffee truck, branded with the Beautiful World cover art, co-sponsored by Graydon Carter's newsletter Airmail.

Considering Rooney herself is a Marxist and the subject of the book is an author retreating from her own attention, all the intense marketing seemed a little much. “If you care so much about Sally Rooney, you’d have to be skeptical of that, or at least aware of it," Vanity Fair writer Delia Cai told the New York Times. But it's also all proof that Sally Rooney's work has become an aesthetic in and of itself.

normal people, paul mescal, daisy edgar-jones
'Normal People' | Hulu

Normal People

Before you dig into Conversations with Friends, you're probably going to want to watch the first Rooney series to hit Hulu, Normal People. While Rooney took a backseat for Conversations, she was intimately involved in the writing of Normal People along with Mark Rowe and Alice Birch, the latter of whom returned for the latest adaptation. Normal People is arguably an easier book to translate to the screen, with the natural arc of the romance between its characters. It's also the more devastatingly sexy novel; all of Rooney's books have a lot of sex, but Normal People's sex is most thrilling. In what was a coup of casting, the series creators found Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal to star as Marianne and Connell, two actors whose chemistry speaks for itself. Mescal, in particular, became a meme thanks to his gold chain necklace.

The controversy

As sexy as Rooney's novels are, they are also deceptively political, mainly because Rooney makes no secret of hiding her political views. As I previously mentioned, she's a Marxist whose characters are always negotiating their class status even as they fall in and out of bed. Rooney's beliefs have of course come up in discussing the promotion of her work, but they got more specific attention when she announced that she would not be allowing the Irsaeli publisher Modan to translate Beautiful World into Hebrew, an outgrowth of her support for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement to protest human rights injustices in Palestine. Subsequently, two Iraeli book chains said they would stop selling her novels. It's all part of the puzzle that makes Rooney so fascinating as a figure. On one hand, she's impossibly trendy, beloved by an artist as mainstream as Taylor Swift. On the other, she's prickly and borderline unknowable, willing to alienate her audience for her beliefs.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.