Olivia Sudjic debuted to rave reviews with her novel “Sympathy“, which deals with a subject we’re all too familiar with – the human relationship with social media. The story follows Alice Hare, who discovers the online profile of a Japanese writer named Mizuko Himura. Intrigue turns into infatuation, leading to some creepy, yet all-too-believable Instagram stalking.
Partnering with British Council Malaysia, The Cooler Lumpur Festival has invited Olivia to participate in this year’s festival themed ‘Notes from the Future’. Ahead of her sessions, we speak to her about her life, her book, and more.
Congratulations on the huge success of your debut novel. Why do you think it has taken off the way it has, like being dubbed “The First Great Instagram Novel”?
I didn’t think it would be received as warmly as it has by reviewers, and a number of kind booksellers and readers who have contacted me. They make or break a debut obviously. But I felt so anxious in the lead up to publication that all I really feel now is relief that the most daunting part is over and I can forget about it like it was one very long, shameful text I sent while drunk. I think the quote about it being the first great Instagram novel is due to a lack of contemporary novels that deal with the facts of 21st century life in a way that feels natural. Which is how using a smartphone every minute of the day now feels – natural. How do writers convey these kind of things so they appear seamless, and how can we write characters that reflect our rewired, 21st century brains? There are people starting to do this, and doing it well, but not many.
Prior to this, you were working at a branding consultancy, when you had what presumably was a “quarter-life crisis”. It’s a scenario that a lot of “millennials” (for the lack of a better, less judgement-laden word) are familiar with. Tell us more about what went through your mind – the decision to take a 6-month sabbatical, then being told that the job was no longer waiting for you, and getting that “it’s do or die” feeling.
Technically the job was – very generously – still waiting for me, but because I’d barely managed to write anything in the six-month break, I decided I needed to pull the rip cord and get rid of plan B. I had a wobble after that, and the job was by then gone, and the only option was to move to an office in Dubai, away from my home. The decision to take the sabbatical came from a moderately severe quarter-life crisis, and knowing enough about the way I work that I wasn’t going to be able to write paragraphs in the morning and evening around work.
I needed to stay in the fictional world I was creating, and not break my concentration. It’s like a dream you need to stay in.
Letting too much of the real world intrude between bouts of writing is disruptive to me at certain stages of the writing process. Primarily in the beginning. I liked my former job, and the people there, but the work was all-consuming and I’m an all-or-nothing person. It used up the same part of my brain that writing does in a way. Maybe it would have been different if I’d been a gardener or using my hands rather than writing strategy all day. Once I quit I began tutoring English to students for money but I could make that work around my writing. The do-or-die feeling came because once you’ve announced such a grand, foolish intention – to write a novel – and you’ve quit your steady job, and moved back in with your parents, and basically regressed to being a teenager, you’re going to feel pretty stupid if you don’t have a good crack at making the insane plan work out.
What is the inspiration behind “Sympathy”? Is it something personal to you?
The very first inspiration (because there were many and various sources at different points in the writing process) was not personal. It was reading about a weird seventeenth century “medicine” or pseudo technology called ‘Sympathy Powder’. Basically a salve that certain people believed connected people and things across time and space. In England, they thought this might have a number of applications – from a way to solve the problem of longitude, to a cure for wounded people by applying it to the weapon that wounded them, rather than the victim themselves. Bizarre. But I was interested in it as one manifestation of the recurring idea throughout history and in different disciplines (from physics to poetry) that everything in the universe is connected, made of the same essential matter. This became the seed of the idea for writing about the Internet.
To Elle UK, you said “A man can write the most personal-sounding story that completely overlaps on their life and it’s about the universe, but when a woman writes about the universe, everyone thinks it’s really about her.” Forget about the men – do you think women can play a bigger part in fighting gender stereotypes and sexism?
A bigger part than men can?
Stereotypes and sexism towards women comes from the way men perceive women, so the onus is on them to educate themselves and reevaluate women and women’s writing. Not on women.
A first step would be to have a look at your bookshelves if you’re a guy, and note the ratio of male to female authors there. If you notice a disparity, address it. Female subjectivity should not be interesting only to women. What women can do is be fearless – not to write in order to please men but themselves.
Does it scare you, how social media – this intangible, untouchable, unquantifiable thing in cyber space – has such as big influence on our lives? What do you think it’s going to be like for future generations?
The influence itself is not what’s scary, it’s the lack of awareness and understanding of how that influence actually works. We are influenced by unconscious biases all the time, but the fact that a like, a click, an accepted cookie, from a decade ago can invisibly inform your search results, for example, that’s what scares me. That we imagine the medium to be neutral, and ourselves to be increasingly omnipotent in cyberspace, there’s this gratifying fantasy of control because we have all these buttons and apps, but the underlying reality is that we are caught in the crosshairs of marketeers, Google, nosy governments.
The normalisation of surveillance is one thing, but if we don’t understand how this information is used and where it comes from…I think it’s reasonable to be paranoid about personal freedom and individual choice. I hope that for future generations there will be a proactive approach to taking control over your own personal information online.
Martha Lane Fox has written about this subject – how we need to take back control of our ‘digital destiny’ and make the internet more moral. Tim Berners Lee – the creator of the internet – has come to the same conclusion. If we don’t then the internet, which was supposed to open up our individual worlds, help us locate ourselves within a much larger network – connect us up with the rest of the universe essentially – will increasingly close in around us, keeping us in a feedback loop. *dramatic cliff hanger music, dons tinfoil hat.*
What’s next for Olivia Sudjic?
I’m trying to make headway with my second novel. I don’t want to say much about it here except that it is contemporary again, and it’s not about technology, though of course that permeates. The main plan is to keep writing, the experience of being published has made me super stressed and worried at times, but it’s still the only thing I want to do.
Are you going to be the next great Instagram celebrity?
No. And with zero regrets.
Finally, what would you say to all the millennials out there having a quarter-life crisis?
Get it out the way when the damage is mitigated by being very young still. Go big on your quarter-life, get it out your system before you hit forty.
Catch Oliva Sudjic at The Cooler Lumpur Festival, happening at Publika Shopping Gallery, 17-20 August 2017 in the following sessions:
Saturday, 19 August 2017, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
So. You. Want. To. Get. Published.
Workshop facilitators: Olivia Sudjic and Hanna Alkaf
So you think you have a story to tell? So you want to get published? Get advice from two debut authors about the sometimes rewarding, often heartbreaking world of publishing. Find out what agents and publishers are looking for, learn how best to pitch your work, and most importantly, figure out your story and how best to tell is.
Admission is FREE, but pre-registration is required: http://yumm.my/CL2017x19
Saturday, 19 August 2017, 3:00 – 4:00 pm
Nevertheless, She Persisted: Writing as Resistance
Speakers: Olivia Sudjic, Bernice Chauly, Hanna Alkaf
There is no escaping that free speech is under threat. As our digital spaces continue to proliferate (and thrive), as our words and voices find new places to call home, we find ourselves under greater pressure towards silence from both public and private entities. How do we resist? How do we persist? On this panel, Fuad Rahmat speaks to three women about the importance of writing and self expression as a way to challenge the status quo and the powers that seek to silence us.
Online registration – RM50: http://yumm.my/CL2017x19
Seats limited to 30 pax.
Sunday, 20 August 2017, 1:00 – 2:00 pm
Writing Across Difference
Speakers: Olivia Sudjic, Leif Randt, Uthaya Sankar SB, Taiyo Fujii
How do writers approach difference? Be it linguistic, cultural, disciplinary, even the medium on which words are published. In this panel, three writers, practiced across such differences explore the way such diversity comes together. How does writing shape the way we encounter difference, how we engage inequity and inequality, and how can we use writing as a tool for changing attitudes about difference.
Admission is FREE, but pre-registration is required: http://yumm.my/CL2017x20
Check out the rest of the programme on The Cooler Lumpur Festival’s website.
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