Olivia Sudjic, author of the blisteringly brilliant Sympathy, sat down with her editor Elena Lappin to discuss her debut in five quickfire questions.
1. Setting aside the fact that they are all figments of your own imagination, which one of your characters could you see yourself being friends with if they were real?
Silvia and Alice. But we’re probably all friends with some fairly questionable people by mistake or out of loyalty, plus I’ve been known to rush into friendships, so maybe Mizuko too.
2. Your novel’s driving force seems to be a mix of anxiety and a fearless sense of adventure. Did you have this feeling when you were writing it?
If “fearless sense of adventure” were pivoted toward “reckless abandon”, then yes. Definitely anxiety. I have bouts of imposter syndrome, I’m fairly outgoing until I feel like people have expectations of me, when I can get very nervous. I get panic attacks, stage fright, and take beta blockers sometimes, though most people would assume I’m all hyperactive jazz hands and no volume control. When I started writing, I’d quit my job, been dumped, and moved in with my parents, so at times I felt like I had risked a lot, not least my pride, and had everything to lose, so that this book (or not finishing it, or not finding a single reader for it) would mark hitting the bottom. At other times I felt as if I had nothing to lose, and that I could focus my energies into something which would have permanence, even if only for me. It helps to have some fear, even if it’s only financial, when you’re writing a first book, you don’t want to be too comfortable.
3. You were 24 when you started writing SYMPATHY, and are a few years older now that it is being published. What happened to your book, and to you, during that process?
Oh, I was 25 in fact, exactly like Adele (that’s a joke, if only). I got an agent and sold it to publishers when I was 26. I edited it, with much help from my editors, and copy-edited and promoted it pre-publication when I was 27. It’s being published now I’ve turned 28, so I think/hope I’ve grown up a lot in that time. I feel like I’ve never done anything so personally exposing, but also that I’ve never done anything which has been so personally satisfying. I also moved back out of my parents’ house, which was great news for everyone.
4. SYMPATHY deals with the psychological dangers of the internet, yet it also benefits from a great deal of sympathy and excited buzz on social media. Is this a paradox, or a natural connection?
Both! I don’t think I set out to write a moralizing or didactic book. I don’t think the internet is inherently bad, I wanted to note that it’s speeding along unchecked. Its “owners”, in a sense, need their silicon bubble deflating, and its “users” are often unaware or in denial, of its real effects, of how it is shaping their lives. I wanted to question – through fiction rather than pseudo sociological journalism – the utopian mantra of “Technology is a force for good”. It’s a force for anything people want to use it for, like technology always is. It’s open ended. That said I need to stop harassing the followers of my public Instagram (@babynovelist) with Sympathy-related spam.
5. Who is Olivia Sudjic?
I was planning on asking you to delete this question, but that’s probably a sign it’s a good one. Not really my public Instagram self, not necessarily the person answering these questions, I’m developing a bit of a stage persona so that interviews and Q+As feel less strange and estranging. It’s weird when people refer to you by your surname, and as a writer in the same breath. I always think: who’s that?! Like there’s been a mix-up. But I have pretty unstable moods and I’m currently on hormonal contraception to boot, so who really knows the answer to this!
There are certain people who make me feel my most comfortable. And I feel more myself now I’m no longer 25. While writing this book, I learned what I did and didn’t want to put up with in my life, and faced up to some of what I didn’t want to put up with in myself. I used to be very afraid of any kind of change and fairly risk-averse, but I’m no longer so like that. I also used to be too trusting, and I’ve got more cautious. Ultimately, I’m a loyal Capricorn goat who favours consistency, but I think being a person open to change, especially when that means owning up to mistakes or revising my opinion, is no bad thing. I doubted the wisdom of putting my own name on this book at first. There aren’t any other people named Olivia Sudjic in the world as far as I know, which is annoying. I wish my surname was Jones so there’d be a bit of undergrowth to hide in. Sometimes I also wish I’d used a pseudonym, but most of the time I think it’s right I didn’t. Women writers have spent a long time being Anonymous, and it would have got pretty complicated too.