Interview by Ellen Tannam and portrait by Jonny L. Davies
We spoke to the author of Conversations With Friends about likeability, Meg Rosoff and communism jokes
What made you want to write a book?
In a way, I didn't really decide to write a book – I had an idea for a short story and it just spiralled out of control. I never sat down at my laptop and thought "okay, today's the day, I'm going to become a novelist." But I had always vaguely planned to write a book at some point in my life so I was glad to catch myself in the act of doing so.
How did you come to writing Conversations with Friends in particular? Was there anything that sparked the impetus for you to write it?
For me, ideas always spring from characters and dynamics – everything else arrives later and takes a bit more working out. So this book began with the idea of two college students, former girlfriends, who befriend a married couple. The central four characters came to me pretty much fully formed, and actually the opening pages remain almost completely intact from the very first draft.
This sounds trite, but whose work do you find inspiring - not even necessarily aspirational. Who do you enjoy? Writers, actors, musicians, friends, dogs...
Not trite at all! If anything, too difficult. When I'm in the middle of writing a book (which I am now, and have been almost continuously since 2014...!) I find it difficult to really, truly enjoy the work of other contemporary writers – either I get impatient and want to go back to work, or I get jealous and disheartened. So, lately I've been reading Sarah Ruden's translation of Virgil's Aeneid, which I'm finding profoundly beautiful and moving.
I also like visual art a lot, though I have no academic background in art history and don't really understand much about it.
Like most normal people I listen to a lot of music. While I was doing the final edits on this book last summer I was really into the Frankie Cosmos album "Next Thing" – it's a great record, very funny and dark, and I think it gave me some useful guidance.
The book is a lot of the time really witty, what kind of sense of humour do you love/hate?
Thank you! It's hard to say what I do and don't find funny – I feel like I'm surprised a lot of the time by what makes me laugh. I do like the absurd communist humour on Twitter, though sometimes I wonder if the absurdities of capitalism are in fact too grim to be amusing. Still, life is a hard thing to be sincere about, so I think it's better to be funny right up until the point you're ready to be sincere.
Still, life is a hard thing to be sincere about, so I think it's better to be funny right up until the point you're ready to be sincere.
What are your hopes for after this book?
I hope to finish my second book. A third book would be nice at some point but I'm trying to keep it realistic.
What has been the most enjoyable part of the process of writing a novel?
I know many writers find the act of writing immensely difficult and arduous, but for me it's a lot of fun. I enjoyed almost every day I spent with this book, and I feel very grateful for that.
What do you do for fun?
I draw (badly), and I can play music and sing a little. I am a casual observer of the Premier League and a keen tidier of my own house.
What was your favourite book as a kid?
I read Meg Rosoff's "How I Live Now" when I was thirteen or fourteen and it totally blew me away. For years afterward, everything I wrote reached back to that book in one way or another. I should give it another go – I'm sure it would surprise me all over again.
I liked the book because obviously there was definitely a plot, but it existed more so as a way for you to explore the characters - do you enjoy getting to know the people you are writing? In particular, when they might not be necessarily likeable?
In all honesty, I've been surprised to hear that so many readers find the central characters unlikeable. To me, my protagonists always seem like good people in difficult situations.
Maybe this means I myself am an unlikeable person (highly probable), or that I have an unusually high tolerance for bad behaviour. But of course, I made these characters up, so the least I can do is go to bat for them. They have changed my life, after all.