The Sweetest Debut: ‘Sympathy’ Author Olivia Sudjic on Social Media, ‘Fleabag,’ and “Being Broke with Focus”


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and how they explain their books to different people in their lives.

This week we hear from Olivia Sudjic, whose debut, Sympathy, is about online identity, infatuation, and stalking. It follows a woman confronting a void in her past, and beginning to fill it with an obsession over an another woman’s Internet — and then real life — presence. As NPR recently put it, it “could be about falling in love in the digital age. Or it could be about falling down a digital rabbit hole.” With the novel having hit the shelves on April 4, Sudjic spoke to us about everything from balancing teaching with writing, to the wide generation gap social media has engendered, to Phoebe Waller Bridge’s TV series, Fleabag.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

The Talented Mr Ripley with smartphones. A story about how infatuation destabilizes our sense of self and of being alone in an age of ‘connectivity’.

What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

Social Media. I don’t want to sound like a brat; it’s hardly something to be smug about, but people over a certain age live in another world to their kids and grandkids in this respect. They can’t appreciate the extent to which apps like Instagram, and associated algorithms, determine the lives of young people, and how everything can be manipulated. For those readers, this context needs spelling out otherwise certain parts of the plot seem too implausible. That implausibility is part of the point.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

Marinating is a good word. Maybe it was more like composting for me though. I’d say the original idea came to me at the start of 2014 and the book was sold in October 2015, so nearly two years.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

The Bible.

A book you’ve read more than two times.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It’s short.

A book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project.

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

Transparent by Jill Soloway. Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge was also suggested to me after I wrote Sympathy, the final episode knocked me out.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Toni Erdmann, by Maren Ade.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

No. The only time I did while writing Sympathy was when I wanted to get myself into the right frame of mind to write something that I didn’t know how to do. I tried to listen to Sampha in order to write an emotional scene, but it didn’t work because what emotion can you add to Sampha? Then a friend recommended I listen to counter-intuitive music, so I listened to shit upbeat pop, basically Kiss FM, and that worked much better.

Who is your fashion icon?

Phoebe Philo. Even her name is perfect.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

First reaction is somewhere remote, bright but cold with mountains and/or lakes. Somewhere with a view, where I wouldn’t be tempted to go outside too much except for mulling-over walks. Somewhere like Iona, an island in Scotland. In reality, I need coffee shops and people to watch whose language I speak. Maybe upstate New York? Is Trump in power in this fantasy?

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

My dad wanted me to be an architect, and I obliged as a child insofar as I liked drawing plans of my dream house — I took apart his furniture and made elaborate dens. But then I started saying I wanted to be an author and illustrator at the age of eight or so. I wanted to be Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl in one. Then there was a phase of liking the sound of “Interior Designer” when I began trying to turn my parents’ very minimalist apartment into a kind of homage to Victoriana with curtain tassels. Then I graduated in a recession with an arts degree and thought maybe I should be a lawyer, but I did an internship and realized I’d be hopeless, so I spent a while on the millennial snowflake job safari before coming back to writing when I was twenty-five.

Did you have a new years resolution for 2017? If so, what?

Finish reading books I start. I’m terrified by how little I can concentrate on reading at the moment. Don’t be too masochistic or read all the reviews of my first book if/when they come out this Spring. Write a second novel by October that is wildly different to the first.

What freaks you out the most about four years of Trump as US President?

As someone living in the U.K., his gaslight approach to fact and fiction. Everyone will slowly go mad.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Coffee shop for the initial stages of writing when silence is a deafening distraction. Then privacy (but not a library) for when the stabilizers come off and I need to prowl around the same room for twenty-four hours at a time and pee in a bottle if the urge arises when I’m right in the middle of something good.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

Desk and couch. Edit anywhere. I should add I don’t need to be stationary; mainline trains are excellent places to write.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

Late night. I need to feel like time is almost up before I can really get going.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I’ve only ever done this once before so I’m trying to fine tune my process at the moment with my second book, but definitely messy draft. I collect fragments together then see if I can make something out of it. I’d like it to become less like that, more deliberate. I’m trying to be more spare with my writing. I think that because Sympathy was the first thing I’d ever seriously tried to write, a lot came rushing out and now I can be a bit calmer and more discerning.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

Tutoring, eBaying off my shit, credit card, and the occasional meal from a benevolent baby boomer. I moved into my parents’ house, then my grandparents’ house, and then my other grandparents’ house — a total of two years living rent-free — in order to get my first book done. I still teach but I’m trying to be strict with how many hours I do. There’s no point quitting a job to write if you’re just going to be busy finding other ways to make money. Better to be relatively broke but with focus… though I have no dependents and I’m sure that changes everything.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I don’t really do both at once because I can’t fully inhabit a work of fiction of my own if I need to go teach someone Cat on A Hot Tin Roof and talk to them about their exam stress. It’s like trying to remember a dream after you’ve already been out of bed doing normal things for a while. I carve up my time so that there might be three consecutive months where I’m tutoring solidly all week, doing bits of journalism, admin and tax returns etc. I don’t beat myself up for not writing. It’s composting time. I make notes and jot down ideas or plot structure, but that’s it. Then when I have a critical mass of those notes and just enough cash to see me through for a few months, I hit pause on money-making schemes and live like a nun, see no one, go nowhere, eat beans. It’s a bit selfish, I might have to rethink it.