Sally Rooney has become the first Irish winner of the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award for her "fearless, sensual" debut novel Conversations with Friends (Faber).
The 26-year-old is the joint youngest winner in the prize’s history, along with Zadie Smith in 2001, and was presented with the prize at a ceremony at The London Library on Thursday evening (7th December). It is the second year in a row that a Faber novelist has won the award, after Max Porter scooped the prize for experimental novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers last year.
Judges described Rooney’s debut as featuring "nods" to Jane Austen's Emma and praised its "intelligent prose, lucid style, and fierce intensity" which offered an "erotic quadrille" on second reading. It was bought by Faber publisher Mitzi Angel last year as part of a two-book deal following a seven-publisher auction.
Conversations with Friends has sold 4,475 copies copies according to Nielsen BookScan and The Bookseller’s Alice O’Keefe has described it as “a novel that asks what it really means to be intimate with another person”.
Angel told The Bookseller that she felt "proud of [Sally winning the award], she’s quite young".
The publisher said it was a “mix of warmth and intelligence as well as the words themselves” which grabbed her attention when she first read Conversations with Friends.
Angel added: "I can’t say much about her second book yet but it’s on the horizon, it’s approaching, it will be on my desk very soon. She is at the beginning of her career, I think she will write lots of amazing books in the future, she’s very talented."
Rooney expressed surprise and delight on winning and praised the other shortlisted writers, as well as her partner without whom “not a word of the book would have been written".
The "intimate story of high-risk relationships, youth and love" beat off competition from four other shortlisted authors: Minoo Dinshaw’s biography of the great and strange British historian Steven Runciman, Outlandish Knight (Allen Lane), Claire North’s The End of the Day (Orbit), billed as “a novel of life, death and everything in between”, The Lucky Ones (Spiegel & Grau) by Julianne Pachico, a debut collection of stories, and The Lauras (William Heinemann) by Sara Taylor, a novel which considers identity and relationships, set against a rolling backdrop of the North American landscape.
The prize was judged by novelist and political commentator Elif Shafak, historian and biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett and the Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate.
Holgate described Rooney’s debut as featuring “nods” to Jane Austen while being “thoroughly modern in feel”. He said: “Choosing this year's winner from five such outstanding writers was immensely difficult, but for line by line quality, emotional complexity, sly sophistication and sheer brio and enjoyment, Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends really stood out.
“To have produced a novel which nods all the way back to Jane Austen's Emma, while being so thoroughly modern in feel, is quite something, and Rooney proves herself with this debut to be a really worthy addition to the extraordinary list of past winners of the Young Writer Award.”
Shafak said: "From the very beginning till the end, it has been a fascinating journey to judge this prize and spot upcoming literary stars across disciplines and genres... And even though it has not been easy at all to let go of such a shortlist, Sally Rooney’s extraordinary debut, Conversations with Friends, quickly won our hearts and our votes.”
She added: “I salute Rooney’s intelligent prose, lucid style, and fierce intensity – all of which will stay with the readers even long after they have finished reading this wonderful book.”
Andrew Holgate and Sally Rooney
Hughes-Hallett revealed she was drawn into the “sophistication of its erotic quadrille” on the title a second time. She said: “This book stood out for its glittering intelligence, its formal elegance and its capacity to grip the reader. At first reading I was looking forward to bus journeys so that I could read some more. Second time round I was still delighted by the sophistication of its erotic quadrille.”
Dublin-based Rooney is the first Irish winner of the award, founded in 1991, and joint youngest winner with Smith for White Teeth (Hamish Hamilton) who claimed the prize 16 years ago. Rooney was also shortlisted for the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in March.
Sponsored by literary agency Peters Fraser + Dunlop and run in association with the University of Warwick, the prize is awarded annually to the best work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish author aged between 18 and 35, either published or self-published. A prize of £5,000 is given to the overall winner and £500 to each of the four runners-up.
This is the first year the award has run in association with the University of Warwick, which is offering the winner a 10-week residency, and providing a year-round programme of on-campus and digital support for award alumni and the shortlisted authors. On 29th November, prize organisers held a free one-day festival of events and workshops entitled freeflow, bringing together inspirational thinkers, authors, journalists and performers.
In October, the British Council was announced as the international partner of the award.