Edna Bonhomme, Silver Press Contributing Editor, spoke with Rachel Connolly about her debut novel, Lazy City. The text explores home and grief in the modern age. Near the beginning of the text, the protagonist, Erin, leaves London following the death of her best friend. Returning home to Belfast, an au pair job provides a partial refuge from her grief and volatile relationship with her mother. She spends late nights at the bar where her old friend Declan works, and there, Erin meets an American academic who is also looking to get lost. Her unlikely, secretive relationship with religion offers a different kind of sanctuary altogether. Although the story mainly focuses on Northern Ireland, the themes resonate with everyone, especially millennials, who are figuring out where they belong.
Rachel Connolly has written essays for the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The Baffler and lots of other places. Her short fiction has been published in the Stinging Fly and her first novel, Lazy City, was out last month. Before our conversation, we spoke about her Lazy City book tour, traveling, and bad Americans. (Spoiler alert: Rachel admits about an American character, ‘I love I love how cringe he is.’) I mentioned how I read her book alongside Sheila Heti’s How to Be a Person and why I appreciate funny women writers. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Edna Bonhomme: In your book Lazy City, you place us squarely in Belfast at the bar with childhood friends who are now adults and also in this liminal state of life. Why did you start the book this way, and what made you want to allow us into a space where people were just being themselves in this casual fashion?
Rachel Connolly: That’s an excellent question. I think there was a perfect piece of criticism by Jess Bergman, ‘I’m Not Feeling Good at All’, in The Baffler, and it was about this as a trend, covering three novels by women. Still, I think it applies to recent books by young men and this trend for protagonists who are relatively isolated from the world and don't have friends. They work at a job, but it’s like a job they hate, and they’re completely disconnected. Like, they have a boyfriend, but they hate the boyfriend. And they have almost no connection to the world. I found reading that essay formative because that was something I felt while reading books. Still, I hadn’t articulated what the problem was. So when I was writing my novel, I wanted it to be a person who was in the broader lattice of the world – I wanted it to be a person who had friends and had arguments with friends and had this sort of structure and community around them. It was important to me that the book felt modern but also realistic. So many things about the contemporary world are wrong and isolating, like living under capitalism and stuff, as we all do. But it’s not as if we all go around miserable all the time. So much of what makes our lives feel meaningful is relationships with friends, going to a bar on a Friday, drinking with old friends, and connecting that way. That was something I wanted to do in my book, bring out that life is terrible in many ways, but there’s still lots of good stuff about life, too. And that is in the kind of close relationships that we have.
Edna Bonhomme: So in many ways, the American is a character that I wouldn’t say I like in the book, but he admits that that’s what he’s searching for when he goes to Belfast. He wants a slower pace of life or something that doesn’t resemble the hyper-chain-store kind of fast-paced, north-eastern lifestyle. But at the same time, it also comes across as condescending, a type of tourism. I want to know, how do you balance that within the work?
Rachel Connolly: It’s funny. He’s the only character in the book to describe himself as a writer. And he comes off badly. He is something that I’m fond of; I’m fond of him as a character because he is pretty deluded. That’s something that I have a lot of sympathy with because I noticed that a lot, particularly in writing and publishing scenes, there’s a type of person you will meet who is not producing much work. He has been doing a PhD for a long time. This character might be tricky to interact with, but I feel a lot of sympathy for him. He is not engaged with reality and not confronted with the facts of his life. And he probably has an image in his head of all this great stuff he could do. But that stuff is different from what he’s doing. That was a character I wanted to put down on the page, because it’s someone who I meet a lot.
I was also interested in writing about how young people experience capitalism and how they talk about it. Whereas some people have a terrible experience, under capitalism, the American has an excellent job as an academic. He’s decided to live in Belfast in a pretty touristic way. And he’s very like, ‘Oh, my old neighborhood, it was so gentrified,’ but it didn’t mean he couldn’t live there. That was kind of a thing I wanted to draw out in the book, like the way that he speaks about his life is quite damning when, in fact, you can observe that his experience of it is positive. He’s like a white, wealthy man, but he has to constantly assert that he has this status under the system, which he claims is uncomfortable. I wanted to put that on the page.
Edna Bonhomme: What are your memories of Belfast and writing in that city versus writing in London? In which place do you feel most at ease when you’re writing?
Rachel Connolly: I wrote most of the book in London. When I was doing a draft of it, I went back to Belfast and stayed with my mum for a couple of weeks and walked around a lot. I made up a lot of places in the book and one of the first reviews was by a critic from Belfast, he pointed out that if you’re from there you obviously know where I’m talking about and I was really pleased with that. I liked the idea of doing that because, if you’re not from Belfast, you can’t Google these places, which was a funny thing to do. But I was like, people will either get what I’m trying to do here, or not. I was pleased that he got it. I don’t believe in hewing so closely to realism. That’s not part of my project. But I do believe in walking around and trying to generate the essence. All of the time spent in Belfast, which is only a couple of weeks when I was doing the draft, was just like paying attention to the essence of and how I feel about Belfast. Just like the stuff you notice most when you’re walking around, which is very much these kinds of blue mountains in the background: red and blue everywhere. Trying to get that sense on the page was necessary.
Edna Bonhomme: I want to ask a little bit about your childhood, which is to say, did you read a great deal as a child, and what was part of the kind of literary repertoire that you had? And you can decide which age group meant the most for you as a reader.
Rachel Connolly: I didn’t grow up in a house with many books by any stretch of the imagination. My parents weren’t big readers, but my mom would take us to the library, and we’d check books out. And I loved books for the escapism. I loved that you could go off and be away somewhere else. And that’s really what I treated them as. We’d get out five books, scan them all, and return and get more out. I’m pretty rebellious. Even as a child, I read risky books. So, when I was five, I acquired books intended for teenagers. I read D.H. Lawrence when I was ten because I knew that book was banned. I’ve always read a lot, but not in a well-structured way. I’ve never studied English literature. At university, I did maths and physics. And as a result of that, I’ve always just read what I find interesting. So, I’ve read very little Victorian literature. I’ve read some of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens’ books and Frankenstein but few other Victorian authors. So, Victorian literature is not a major influence on my writing. I ended up having a different canon. I get compared to other Irish writers, even though I’ve never studied literature at an Irish institution. I have not read all the seminal Irish writers. I’m not an Irish writer in that way. Some of the societal themes and stuff will be the same. But from a style context, like, you know, like Anna Burns is a significant influence of mine. But it’s generally not this massive thing in my work that I’m canonically Irish.
Young writers get compared to all of the other debuts, and my book is compared to another book by a Belfast writer that came out earlier this year. I couldn’t have read that when I was working on mine because it was out a few months before. And style-wise, it’s so different. It’s an epistolary novel, and it’s past tense. And, for example, the author doesn’t use dialogue for characterisation, so we deal with dialogue in fundamentally different ways. Victorian realism very much influences it and my book is not like that. This is why I get slightly disappointed when I receive identity-based and not style-based criticism.
Edna Bonhomme: Do you think this also applies to women writers? Do they get compared to each other by their gender? But to what extent do you think that, well, do you believe that gender is reflected in your writing? Do you think it’s necessary to have a voice tied to your gender identity?
Rachel Connolly: We’ve spoken about this, maybe in a friendship context. But I’m interested in presentations of women that are three-dimensional and that allow for expressions of vulnerability that don’t just sit into this soft kind of presentation. Because some women are weak and feminine in the way that people usually use that word. But many women don’t feel comfortable presenting themselves in that way for all kind of reasons. That’s also a very racialised presentation. While editing, I became conscious that the protagonist doesn’t show in a vulnerable fashion because she’s uncomfortable doing that. I guess it’s somewhat out of sync with how women are currently presented in some films and books. I felt strongly about not changing her to make her more palatable because women’s experiences are often flattened. Many people are always saying there are more books by women now than there were, but there is still a specific presentation of womanhood that is highly dominant.
It was essential that other things I see in my life, from the people I know to the different ways of existing as a woman, surfaced in my book. There’s an extensive discourse about the fact that there are fewer books by men and more by women. And I think it’s a bit of a shame because we do sort of ignore that women’s work, even if women write more books, is still treated with quite a lot of contempt. There’s still a tremendous amount of misogyny levelled at women writers. And you notice that there’s a very unserious way of interacting with women: dismissive treatment of a book or not considering the book a work of art, but, instead, as a diary. And so every single interview I’ve done, I’ve been asked how much of this is based on my life. This is such a thick question because I will never say yes. It’s like you’re not going to extract anything out of me by asking me this. Rather than being taken seriously, these interactions often come with the stupidest questions possible. There’s a very reductive will not to treat books by women as a masterful creation. And that is something that’s still prevalent.
Edna Bonhomme: Do you ever have writer’s block? And if so, do you try to do something else that somehow keeps you connected to writing? Like scribbling or reading or walking?
Rachel Connolly: I rarely do, but I almost think because I never stop, because I like to email myself all the time about notes. I always work on a few different things simultaneously. I’ll work on short fiction. I’m doing a bit of another novel at the minute – essays. I’ve always had many other things on the go. And I almost think that’s helpful in the writer’s block sense, because I’m just – like literally as I’m walking around – constantly emailing myself lines and sentences, or I write stuff down in notebooks. I think there’s just this constant sense of a swirling vortex going on. And it almost means I never sit on a blank page because I don’t work like that. I send myself notes and I write stuff down. And then, by the time I come to work on something, it’s half-done already, if you know what I mean. So I feel like I never really start a piece of work from the very start, I always feel like I started in the middle, and maybe that’s why the writer’s block thing never seems to strike.
Edna Bonhomme: You are a novelist, and you’re a literary critic. Can you talk about the shifts in your writing style when writing a novel or creative work more broadly versus cultural criticism? How do your writing approaches support and/or complement each other? Do you see them as antagonistic sometimes?
Rachel Connolly: That’s a great question, because I believe the style of my novel is quite different from the type of my pieces; it’s not a novel that’s written in the way an essay is written. Part of my project in fiction is trying to explore character representation. So dialogue is a big focus for me in vision, discussion, little tics, and how people interact. If you’ve read a lot of my nonfiction, like my journalism and my essays and whatever, you would come to my fiction almost expecting it to be written like a block of text, if you know what I mean. Maybe expecting it to be past tense and descriptive, like its dialogue would not be in quotation marks. It would just be described as, ‘they discuss this’, and that’s not what it is.
The difference in style speaks to me almost like I see those two types of writing doing such different things. In an essay, everything has to be so watertight. Everything has to be argued, and I’ve covered all of these bases and shown you that I’ve thought about all of this. Whereas in fiction, I take a lot of it out. With my novel, I want people to have different takeaways about the characters. I want to spell things out sparingly. My thinking and my sort of like the conclusions that I suppose I’ve come to about the characters, I take a lot of it out. I don’t tell you they were doing X for Y reason. I’m just like, you can think about it and think about why a person might do X. Whereas in my essay, I would never leave something like that dangling.
In an article, it’s an idea that I feel like I’ve come to a point of clarity over, even if that clarity is not a definitive conclusion. Whereas with fiction I love exploring that sense of inconclusiveness; to sit in that sense a lot more. And so, in that sense, they are antagonistic to each other because they, to me, occupy such different positions that they’re almost pushing in different directions in terms of what I want someone to take away from them.
Edna Bonhomme: You’re in the midst of the publicity part of your book tour for Lazy City, and that means participating in book talks, literary festivals, and so forth, and in a way confidently pleasing your publisher, as well as showing your face and being present for book signings. To what extent are you enjoying this process, or do you envy writers like Elena Ferrante, who don’t have to do this at all, or Sally Rooney barely does this as well?
Rachel Connolly: Ideally, if I could do all my work and be anonymous, I would. But with nonfiction, you can’t really. But yeah, if I could do all of my work anonymously, I would do that because I don’t like the intrusion into self that comes with writing.
I think a thing that comes with being like a left-wing writer is people think you should have particular views about specific topics or you’re expected to announce your stance on things. And I wouldn’t say I like that expectation at all. I’ve tried to step back from that, especially with talking about death on social media. Although I understand the impulse.
There’s an expectation of how you’re supposed to present your views that I just realised I felt pretty uncomfortable with and want to step back from. And so that is similar to some of the book publicity stuff. I did a radio show, and a woman journalist asked me: ‘Which bits are based on you?’ And I was like, ‘None of it’s about me.’ And then she kept poking. At the time, I thought, ‘I’m a journalist and do interviews, too. If I’ve said no, I’ve said no.’ She kept poking and I got more irritated.
I realised I don’t have to be nice if someone asks me a question I don’t want to answer. Some women think they have to be friendly and answer stupid questions. I’d rather not. But many novelists get a book out and must learn how media works. Publishers could do a better job of saying, like, you can answer something with a joke. You’re allowed to say, ‘You’re not allowed to ask me that.’ You’re allowed to push back. And it doesn’t mean the person won’t speak to you again. It doesn’t mean it will negatively impact you in any way, like anything you perceive to be an incursion of your comfort levels. You’re allowed to say no. And I believe publishing broadly does not do that – the publishing industry could do a better job of doing that.