What We Learned From Annie Ernaux and Sally Rooney’s Head-to-Head

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Annie Ernaux Sally Rooney Charleston
Left: Annie Ernaux by Sophie Davidson. Right: Sally Rooney by Kalpesh Lathigra

At Charleston Festival, two of the most acclaimed authors of the century spoke about writing, womanhood and the Nobel Prize. Here are five takeaways from their conversation

From the moment it was announced, it was always going to be the literary event of the year – Glastonbury for book lovers. Annie Ernaux and Sally Rooney in conversation on the closing day of Charleston Festival: two of this century’s most acclaimed and adored authors sharing a stage, nestled in the Sussex countryside, on the exact spot where some of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists and writers came together to imagine a different society, a different world. When they went on sale, tickets inevitably sold out in minutes.

The author of more than 20 works of fiction, memoir, and prose that hovers and flits between the two – revealing all our lives to be works of storytelling and fantasy – Ernaux is widely regarded as France’s most important writer. Her books mine the intimate realities of her own life, while simultaneously putting social hierarchies, gendered and class expectations, and under dispassionate but uncompromising scrutiny. From Ernaux’s back street abortion in Happening – an agonisingly brief account of shame, trauma and the grim reality of misogynistic attacks on women’s bodies – to her mother’s dementia in I Remain in Darkness, to the entire, collective social and political history of France throughout the second half of the 20th century in The Years, Ernaux’s books excavate and scour the past, taking nothing less than life itself as their true subject.

As people gathered in Charleston Festival’s marquee, there was an undeniable frisson of anticipation, people gathering to pay homage to one of the greatest writers of the modern age. In 2022, Ernaux won the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first French woman to ever receive the award. “The word iconic gets thrown around a lot these days,” a member of Charleston’s festival staff said in her introduction to the event, but, like the Nobel Prize, it is hard to argue that Ernaux doesn’t deserve the accolade.

Over an expansive hour of conversation – in which Ernaux’s comments were translated by the astonishingly skilful Julia Hartley – here are a few things the audience learned.

Ernaux has not been able to write since winning the Nobel Prize, which fell into her life “like a bomb”

Given the buzz around the event, and the buzz that has swallowed Rooney and her writing since the publication of her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, it is perhaps unsurprising that her first question to Ernaux concerned acclaim itself. The Nobel Prize is an incredible recognition of your work, Rooney suggested, but has the attention it brought with it also been a bit disruptive?

I’m going to be brutal, and say I obtained a prize I never wanted,” Ernaux replied. “The Nobel Prize fell upon me. It fell into my life like a bomb. It was an enormous disruption.” Even more devastatingly for fervent fans and followers of Ernaux’s work, she went on to say that since winning the prize she “cannot write, and the act of the writing was always my future”. Acknowledging that it was “a great recognition of my work”, Ernaux said that “to not be able to look forward to writing, is actually really painful to me”.

Yet, she also provided a glimmer of hope, away from the attendant anxieties of prize culture. “What touches me is not the prize itself, but my conversations with people,” Ernaux declared – “when they say to me that they see themselves when they read my work. It’s the feeling that the prize does not just belong to me, but to all of us. That matters to me.”

“The Nobel Prize fell upon me. It fell into my life like a bomb. It was an enormous disruption” – Annie Ernaux

Ernaux sees her work as an attempt to grapple with “what has been unsaid”

Many of Ernaux’s books, Rooney noted, “confront the pain and violence of living as a woman, in a culture that has so much hatred for women”. But at the same time, she suggested that, for Ernaux, it seemed “gender can be a source of pleasure as well as pain”. Yet, asked whether it was important for her to accommodate both of these experiences in her work, Ernaux seemed to gently reject Rooney’s terms. “I don’t think in terms of joy or pain,” Ernaux said. “What motivates me to write is to describe the things that have been left unsaid.”

By way of example, Ernaux described how “in the transition from my childhood to married life, gender inequality suddenly became very concrete and real, and painful”. Later, writing the novel Simple Passion, Ernaux’s focus was, instead, the feeling of being subsumed by desire – which, she noted, is “not as painful.”

“I know it’s very loaded to say I don’t see my work as ideological, it’s not intended to be feminist,” Ernaux acknowledged, “but really I’m just trying to write about my experiences as a woman, and how they came about.”

“I know it’s very loaded to say I don’t see my work as ideological, it’s not intended to be feminist, but really I’m just trying to write about my experiences as a woman, and how they came about” – Annie Ernaux

Ernaux always starts writing many manuscripts at once, and “then one takes over”

“When I was a young writer,” Ernaux said, gesturing warmly to Rooney – the young writer sitting across from her – “I didn’t think I was good.” Part of the reason for this, she said, was that she “didn’t have a plan”, and “wasn’t putting out one book after another”. Instead, what she had “was questions”.

“I always start several books,” Ernaux declared of her process. “And then one of them will take over, and I can’t really explain why or how.” She did, however, give an example. In 1999, Ernaux had three possible books she was beginning to work on. One was The Years, the other was A Girl’s Story, and the third was Happening, which, she noted, is about her experience going through an illegal abortion aged 23. One day, Ernaux was listening to the radio, and a requiem she loved started playing. “That music always brought to mind my abortion,” Ernaux said. She took it as a sign she needed to finish Happening. “I wrote it in six to eight months,” Ernaux professed, “I couldn’t do anything else at that time.”

“I know when I feel like it’s working, it’s taking off,” she said of her intuitive process. Yet, clearly, nothing is abandoned, just set aside until allowed to take over at a later date. “I think I’d rather die than not finish something,” Ernaux declared.

“I always start several books. And then one of them will take over, and I can’t really explain why or how” – Annie Ernaux

Ernaux thinks writing can be “an act of reparation”

Noting that two of her books are about her father and mother, Rooney asked Ernaux if she sees her writing an act of love for others. “I think the act of writing is inherently ambiguous,” came Ernaux’s reply. Thinking of I Remain in Darkness, the book about her mother, she admitted “certainly, there is a lot of love there. But I also violently confronted and resisted my mother during my life, and so that book was an opportunity to atone”. At the same time, Ernaux suggested writing can be “the very opposite thing,” and that you can use the act of writing about another “to castrate them, to kill them”.

A little later, Ernaux’s killing words still ringing in the audience’s ears, Rooney brought up that Ernaux has often said her desire to write emerged from a desire to avenge her people – meaning the working class and also women. This came as a surprise, Rooney said. “There doesn’t seem to be anything vengeful to your writing,” she suggested, and said that, for her, Ernaux’s work had a “non-judgemental, exploratory” quality, “that isn’t characterised by anger or bitterness.” So, how does she understand vengeance?

“When I talk about an idea of revenge, I’m really talking about avenging my class and my gender by revealing past injustices,” Ernaux explained. “I’m not doing that to pass judgement, I’m doing it as a form of reparation. I think writing can be an act of reparation.”

“It sounds too Catholic and excessive to say I write out of love for humanity,” Ernaux said with an unmistakable glint in her eye, “but certainly I write to do something for others. Not everyone,” she qualified, “not the powerful, they don’t need it, but I’m writing for those that do”.

“I think the act of writing is inherently ambiguous” – Annie Ernaux

Ernaux publishes her diaries to put her novels “at risk”

The reason Ernaux felt she could publish her diaries in Getting Lost was – unsurprisingly, given Ernaux’s writerly obsession with mining the past – to do with the passage of time. The diaries that became Getting Lost were ten years old, and Ernaux had not opened them for six or seven years. When she did, “I didn’t feel like I was reading a diary,” she confessed, “but reading a novel.”

“I publish my diaries to put my novels at risk,” Ernaux asserted. Repeatedly publishing a fictionalised version of her life’s events before publishing the “unfiltered” diaries tracking the same time frame, Ernaux said what she is trying to show is that “the same story, the same event can be told in hundreds different ways. And that is what writing is,” she said finally. “Writing is a point of view.”