One of the joys of having been around a while and being dafty outspoken about things is that people tweet me and send me things. Yes, I know this is exactly what most people dread, and I know saying I enjoy it opens me up to more of it. And yes, I really really really don’t have time to read everything I’m sent and however guilty I feel about that won’t change the fact that if I’m ever going to write another book I just don’t have time to read everything I’m sent. But I will open it, and have a look. And if it really really grabs me, I’ll want to tell people about it. Owing largely to the peculiarities and nicheness of my taste, the frequency of that grabbing is incredibly low. But when Alice Furse emailed me about her book, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, I was grabbed. First, because she mentioned the Bechdel Test in her pitch. Second, because the way she wrote her email did what so few of even the most experienced writers seem able to do – get their voice across in the shortest of blurbs. Third, because the situation at the heart of the book – the disappointment of being twenty-something and finding that life is full of dead ends when only a few years earlier you were told as a student that the world was your oyster – is one that strikes so many chords with me. And then I opened the book, and the voice took hold of me straightaway. This is a beautifully written exploration of a much underexplored time in life. It is reminiscent on the one hand of the aimless desperation of Murakami’s affectless twenty-something narrators (only this is a protagonist with more backbone), and on the other of the works of the new generation of novelists like Jenni Fagan who combine social commentary and dazzling sentencecraft.
Here’s the very brief Amazon pitch, in itself a mini masterpiece:
“It’s an endless winter in suburbia, and a young graduate who dreams of fading into anonymity moves in with a traffic warden and accepts a mind-numbing job in an office.
Slowly, she starts to believe that the apocalypse is imminent, but unable to find anyone who understands she hatches a plan to save herself – before it’s too late.”
I have to start by asking why you chose to self-publish…
The short answer is, getting Everybody Knows out there and being read is a lot more interesting than endlessly writing to publishing people and crossing my fingers that one of them will take a chance on me.
The longer answer is that I wrote it a few years ago, and right after it was finished I met with a literary agent who sent it out to his contacts. It got reasonably far at a few publishing houses, but they all said the same thing: they liked it, but couldn’t figure out how to market it.
About six months ago it occurred to me what an utter waste this was, and that I’d put so much work into something and no one would ever read it. I also now have three years of PR experience under my belt, so it seemed a good time for giving it a proper crack.
You have a Creative Writing Degree behind you. These have created their fair share of controversy recently. Do you feel that the course helped you to find your own personal voice, or did you feel it smoothing away your uniqueness? Would you recommend it?
I would absolutely recommend it, yeah, and I’m not just saying that because I invested such a huge amount of time and money in my degrees! Doing that gave me space to think about myself as a writer, the nuts and bolts of storytelling, plus a better knowledge of what’s already out there.
I enjoyed a close relationship to my writing teacher at uni, who was the first (actually, the only) person to tell me that I should write a novel, a notion that seemed totally laughable to me at the time. Studying writing gave me permission to give something I’d always loved a proper go.
Perhaps not everyone needs permission – if I had more of an experimental streak perhaps the answer to this question would be very different.
Which leads to the subject of voice – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has a very strong, distinctive voice. How easy was it for you to find that voice?
I want to say not easy at all because it took me years of writing bullshit to get there, but in a sense that’s a lie because I can’t really write in any other way. As you can probably tell from the novel, I’m not a great fantasist. I like cold hard reality and no frills dialogue.
Recently I’ve become really interested in the concept of ‘a voice’ – maybe because I’m working on a number of short stories and they’re all slightly different. A voice is never something that’s set in stone, is it? My suspicion is that it should always be developing. Perhaps a writer is like Woody Allen’s shark and if it doesn’t keep moving it dies.
When you pitched Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to me, you mentioned the Bechdel Test. With A Year of Reading Women, recent coverage of the Bechdel Test, and greater prominence for the work Vida does, it looks from the outside as though we are finally seeing progress in making women’s voices visible within fiction and the coverage of fiction. How far do you think we’ve come, and how far do you think we have to go?
Great question! The statistics that have inspired the Year of Reading were shocking and despressing – in 2012, 16% of the reviewers at the New York Review of Books were women, and only 22% of the books reviewed written by women. Whichever way you look at it, that suggests we have a long way to go in championing women as legitimate members of the literary world.
Having said that, I’m desperately uncomfortable with the idea women are separate and need special campaigns and awards. I hate the idea that we’re The Other. We’re not. We’re just living lives and writing about them, same as the blokes.
I only heard about the Bechdel test after I wrote Everybody Knows – basically, a film or book passes if it has one female character, talking to another female character, about a subject that isn’t a man. I was pumped when I realised Everybody Knows passed it totally by accident, and in a sense that seems like better progress.
Perhaps this is something that self-publishing will have a hand in helping: if a publishing house can’t market my book because it isn’t chicklit and I go ahead and do it myself, then all the better.
You are writing about a traditionally underrepresented age group in literature. Why do you think this is, what makes it so interesting to you?
My narrator is 24 and I was 25 when I wrote it. Now that I’m nearly 30 and look back, it’s actually a very awkward age. I hadn’t grown into my own skin at all, though I felt as if I should have. I carried a heavy weight of expectation – mainly my own – of what I should do about marriage, and babies, and career, and what on earth I should do with myself. Didn’t know what I wanted, what I was good at, what my options were.
All this is great material for writing though, so god knows why it’s such an underrepresented age – if I hadn’t been writing about it all I’d have exploded.
You say you want Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to reach out to people like The Bell Jar reached out to you. May I ask about that experience, and how you would love to see it replicated?
I was 14 when I first read The Bell Jar and it will have a place in my heart forever. Of course, I was far too young to have understood the societal pressures she was writing about in terms of marriage and babies and choosing a career path, but I also fell in love for the first time that year and my boyfriend was forever trying to stop me from wearing make up and talking to people and taking drugs, so it was all kicking off really.
Plath’s was a voice I could not only relate to but also admire. It’s very honest, and frankly women aren’t used to having an authentic account of their experiences reflected back at them so it blew me apart. The common idea that it’s only for teenage girls and this is a neat way to dismiss it, but utter bollocks.
As for my book, I wouldn’t dream of it having the effect that The Bell Jar had in any real sense, but if one single person writes to me saying that my book has helped them to feel less alone I’m framing it.
In contemporary literature we need more…
Real women. And books passing the Bechdel test.
In contemporary literature we need fewer…
To end where we started, you are just starting out as a writer. Publishing is so up in the air now, how on earth do you go about planning a career, or even knowing where you see yourself in 5 years?
I dislike planning life and always have done. I try to look for opportunities to do things I enjoy rather than think about a career or dreaming of being famous. When I moved to London I was a dealer in a casino just for the hell of it and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I currently work at a sports radio station, which is a good laugh and pays the bills. I’m working on several things for magazines, and have also just started using my PR skills to publicise a new online comedy radio station called Mansize.
The fact is, you never know who you’ll meet tomorrow and where it’ll lead, so you might as well just do the things you find fun.
And keep writing.