What Does It Mean To Be A Normal Person?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What does it mean to be normal? It's the question at the heart of a new book from the Irish writer Sally Rooney. "Normal People" follows the relationship of two young students, Connell and Marianne, who share an intense affection for one another but cannot figure out just how to be together. Sally Rooney tells Rachel Martin that the character's relationship shapes their own identities.
SALLY ROONEY: The opening phase of their relationship, when they're in secondary school, is, for various reasons, kept a secret. And even though that secrecy is in a way a little bit oppressive for both of them, I think it's also in a strange way kind of liberating because it means that their relationship is kept apart from the social world and kept protected from it, in a sense. And they find new ways to express themselves and to kind of carve out an identity or a sense of self just for one other person.
You know, they're at that age where they're really trying to figure out who they are going to be as adults. You know, they're 17, 18, 19. They don't really know themselves very well yet. And so, yeah, I think their intimacy is a really formative part of how they develop an identity in those years.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: They are each suffering in some way. Is that what continues to draw them to one another over time? Do they recognize that in each other?
ROONEY: Yeah, I mean, it is certainly true that both of them suffer. But then, to what extent do they suffer more than others, you know? I mean, I think it's probably true that everyone around them is suffering too. And maybe they're not attuned to the suffering of other people as much as they are to their own.
And maybe, at that age, for some reason they offer one another a window into each other's lives that, when they look around them at other people in their social lives, in their families, among their friends, they just don't seem to be able to see through other people in the same way that they can see through each other. So maybe it is that they can instinctively recognize that there is a commonality in the kind of suffering that they're experiencing and that they're just not able to recognize that commonality in other people, necessarily.
MARTIN: I guess that's also what struck me, is that they don't seem that self-aware, which is kind of what it means to be an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old, that your own perception of your pain is all-encompassing and perhaps disproportionate to the kind of suffering or pain that other people have.
ROONEY: Yeah. I mean, I definitely think there are moments in the book where their self-awareness fails hugely. And it may be, you know, because they are very young. I mean, they're almost children when we meet them. And then, when we leave them, they're 22.
But it may also just be that that's what people are like - or, I suppose, that's what these people are like. I mean, I don't know, if we met Connell and Marianne down the road 20 years later, that they wouldn't necessarily still be trying to learn some of the same lessons. Like, I don't think that it's necessarily age-limited. It may just be individual-limited, in the sense that that's just the kind of people that they are, I think.
MARTIN: I'd like to ask about two specific pivot points in the plot. Connell and Marianne grow up together in the same community, and they are affected by the social strata that puts them into various groups, locks them there. What happens when they go to college? They end up going to the same place, right?
ROONEY: Right. So Marianne has kind of convinced Connell to apply for the same university that she's going to, which is the university in Dublin. And he does. Then their relationship, in the meantime, has completely fallen apart. So they're not even on speaking terms, but they both end up going to the same university. And of course, inevitably, because Dublin is small and because this college is small, they do run into one another. And when they do, they're meeting each other in a very different social context with, you know, having developed kind of different identities in the meantime.
So Marianne, who was a social pariah in secondary school, has now become a little bit popular, almost celebrated, whereas Connell, who had so many things going for him in school, finds that the particular forms of masculinity - I suppose, specifically working-class masculinity - just isn't really available for exchange in this social environment. It's just not working for him. And he feels, like, very confused and puzzled as to why he can no longer trade on the same kinds of charisma that apparently were so effective when he was in school, and he does feel very lost. So the social positions that they were in seemed to have almost exchanged themselves completely.
MARTIN: And then I wanted to ask about another moment where things change for them. When Marianne goes to Sweden, things seem to shift profoundly again then.
ROONEY: Yeah. So Marianne takes an Erasmus year, which is like a program where you can study abroad for a year. And she goes to Lund in Sweden, and Connell stays behind in Trinity. And during that period, they're both suffering, I think, not simply or not even primarily because they're apart. But it does mean that the kinds of suffering that they encounter, they don't necessarily have the same coping mechanism they might have if they were together because they're so used to sort of having each other on hand to work through all the various crises they encounter, many of which are caused by one another.
ROONEY: And so when they're apart, I think it is - it's different for them.
MARTIN: You have noted a couple times in the course of our conversation that, for you, writing this story, it's not like you had agency over every development, that you were, in fact, just kind of observing the characters in the tale that was unfolding before you. And I wonder if it's - does it just stop when you finish the last page, or do you find yourself continuing to watch that story unfold? I mean, do you imagine who these people are in middle age, for example?
ROONEY: Yeah. I mean, it's funny. Certainly, when I finished the book, I was still very much with the characters in my mind. And I found these two very hard to let go of, I mean, just because, I suppose, in one sense I spent so much time with them in my brain that I was kind of used to relying on them, in a way. And they - so they did stay with me, definitely. But since then, I've started working on new things. And I guess I spend most of my time now with sort of new imaginary people in my brain.
ROONEY: And I don't find myself returning to Connell and Marianne in quite the same way or quite so often. But I don't necessarily think it would be impossible for me to return to them substantially later on and sort of find out what they're up to. Like, I do (laughter) like the idea that they're kind of there and that I can check in with them to see what happens in their later lives because I suppose, to me, whether or not I did justice to this in the book - I can't obviously say - but to me, they really did feel like full human beings, as it were.
ROONEY: So I almost believe that they are out there having a life and that it's just - maybe my job, down the line, is to check in and see whatever became of them.
MARTIN: The novel is called "Normal People," written by Sally Rooney. Sally, thank you so much.
ROONEY: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD SONG, "STRATA")
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