We recently spoke with author Alice Furse, talking about her debut novel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, reviewed earlier this month. Take a scroll down and see what she had to say about social media, self-publishing, the state of play for recession-struck post-graduates and her own experiences, reading inspirations, Bukowski and tons more.
CF: The experiences of the main character are described in-depth and intimately, like her relationship with the Traffic Warden, observing strangers at the station, her work routine and colleagues – all that stuff feels excruciatingly real. How much of the book is based on personal experience?
Alice: Predictably for a first novel, a lot is based on my own experience. In a sense I don’t really know how to write any other way yet – it was an attempt to understand what the hell was going on with my life and I half-hoped others would relate to it, though if I’m honest I hadn’t banked on publication. Paradoxically, I felt very alone when I was writing it, yet I was sure I wasn’t the only one to feel so disillusioned coming out of university and into the real world.
There’s a famous quote along the lines of writing being like a river passing through a straw so you have to be careful to cherry pick the pivotal scenes and cut the boring parts. But then, part of the novel is about what it means to be terribly, terribly bored.
CF: She always seems to have a book nearby – there are intriguing references to Roald Dahl, Iain Banks, and others; often they seem to read as a soundtrack to her mood and what’s happening in her life. What governs your reading habits? And which authors could you simply not live without?
Alice: It’s so funny what readers pick up on in Everybody Knows that I never saw! You’re totally right and I love the idea of books being a soundtrack within another book, even if it was unconscious. Now you say it, I wish I’d written about BS Johnson because I love him and read Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry while I was writing (along with a plethora of other office novels). Joshua Ferris got in there though.
As for reading habits I don’t really have rules about what I read but I can’t remember sticking with a book that I didn’t pretty much immediately enjoy. I might have missed out on some great books because of it, but there are simply too many to be wasting valuable reading time on one I don’t like.
In terms of authors, I couldn’t live without Magnus Mills. I like to think you can see some of his influence in Everybody Knows with the totally paired down setting and blunt, loaded dialogue. I love Margaret Drabble. Cormac McCarthy. My major find of last year was Evie Wyld – All the Birds, Singing was just so skilfully written and I’ve given copies to about three people since.
CF: She tears Bukowski – the original factotum – to pieces, in the figurative sense. How do you feel about him?
Alice: Good question. In general, I like his writing. I loved Post Office because it’s about work and it’s grim and gritty. However, it’s Women that the main character tears apart and although I feel like a bit of a dick for saying it now the book genuinely made me angry. My feelings were probably stronger because I read it when I was getting to grips with how the inequality between men and women is hard-wired into our culture. I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to suggest that a woman simply could not have written a book like that without her character being called into question, and I suppose I was becoming aware of the absolute unfairness of it all.
CF: Despite it being somewhere many people spend the majority of their day, there isn’t much contemporary fiction set in the workplace or the office that isn’t played mostly for laughs – I’m thinking of likes of The Office or Parks & Recreation as good examples. Why do you think that is? Why don’t writers want to talk frankly about work?
Alice: I wrote about this recently when I reviewed a fellow office novel. It is weird. I’ve always found it fertile ground for writing as most of us have a bit of a love/hate relationship with our jobs and you come into close contact with characters you’d never otherwise meet.
Perhaps a lot of novelists don’t have day jobs outside the literary/academic world. Or maybe publishers feel they can sell books more easily on grounds of escapism… but reading a book is so different from the actual experience of work I hardly see the connection. I guess not everyone wants reality from a book.
CF: It seems like the high hopes she had fade quickly once she enters the job market. In the context of the global economic crisis, recession, unemployment rates, etc. how easy or difficult do you think it is for post-graduates in 2015? How did you find it once you’d left university?
Alice: I think it’s really tough for young people now. A whole generation has been told they have to go to university to stand any chance of having a decent career, but there aren’t enough graduate jobs to go round.
So many companies want experience but you can’t get that unless someone gives you a chance, and I was very frustrated with that as it’s a huge double bind. I worked hard to put myself through university and felt a bit cheated at the end when I just couldn’t seem to get a foot in any door. My brother graduates this year and my heart aches for him a little bit – I really hope he has it better than we did, graduating on the cusp of a recession.
CF: It feels like a realistic conclusion, rather than a happy ending. Where do you think she will be in five to ten years’ time?
Alice: I can’t really answer this question without giving too much away about the next book, as it’s likely to follow on a bit. Adventures in London. That’s all I’m saying!
CF: I’m curious to know how her friendship with Young Nathan develops. Would you ever revisit the same characters in the future?
Alice: I don’t think I’d revisit the same characters as they belong to that office. Funny you should mention Young Nathan though as I based him quite heavily on someone I knew and we shared a similar feeling about the office, though we didn’t keep in touch. I’m trying to find him to let him know I managed to get a novel out of the experience because I think he’d get a kick out of it, but I guess there’s every chance he’d just find it too weird…
CF: You’ve discussed the pros and cons of self-publishing in the past, but recently there seems to be a real spike in the number of first-time authors offering free e-books as a way to get picked up by publishers or noticed by readers, especially via Facebook and Twitter. Where do you stand on it?
Alice: Well, self-publishing can definitely get you noticed – that’s how Everybody Knows was originally picked up by Burning Eye.
In terms of generating income, self-publishing lends itself much better to genre fiction series – it’s much harder to get any traction with ‘literary’ fiction. If you’ve written the first book of a series and are confident of writing another quickly and selling that one, it makes a lot of sense to hook people in by making the first one free.
However, if you’ve written the latter chances are you won’t just pump out another all that quickly so it’s not a great tactic. I think it’s dangerous to give away your work for free, it suggests that you don’t think it’s worth anything. You’ve got to be patient, and in it for the long game.
CF: Further to that, how important is it to maintain a healthy social media presence? Can you do without it?
Alice: I have mixed feelings about social media. On the one hand, to ignore social media completely seems foolish – the other day I sold a book to a stranger over twitter by joining in a conversation. I love the jokes and also get a lot of information about the publishing industry and have found out who’s who, how books are marketed by big houses and small presses, what literary events are happening and so on.
The problem is it’s too easy to waste time scrolling through news feeds when you should be cracking on with writing and the idea of finding validation in the number of followers I have is pretty revolting. When I go on holiday I love leaving all electronics behind. My phone broke six weeks ago and I haven’t bought another yet – much as I love my mates there’s something nice about not being available for everyone 24 hours a day.
CF: Have you ever Googled yourself? Were you happy with the results?
Alice: Well, I work in PR so checking Google is second nature but I only do it if I get a little spate of activity on twitter or on my blog so I can see what’s new. I’m slightly cynical when writers say they don’t read their reviews – getting coverage can be hard work and I like reading what people think about the book as I’ve usually approached them personally.
CF: The physical book was published in October 2014, how have things changed for you between then and now?
Alice: In some ways nothing’s changed in that I still live in the same flatshare and work in the same place. But I’ve achieved something that I’ve dreamt about since I was eight and wrote stories while lying on my belly in front of the telly. My horizons feel wider since getting published. I’ve done things I wasn’t sure I was capable of, like throwing a launch or performing readings. And I’ve met so many fun and incredible people in the literary world – it feels like a real privilege to be among them. It feels like I’ve finally found my voice. A bit.
CF: You just started at Burning Eye Books as the fiction editor – how’s it going? What do you do all day?
Alice: After spending years submitting work to lit mags, agents and publishers, it’s fascinating to see the other side of the coin – I suddenly understand why rejections are worded the way they are (and why they take so long). There’s pressure to form a decent opinion about every piece of work that you’re sent, and there are so many considerations that go into making the yes/no decision. You have to back up everything you say about someone’s work, and knowing what work is for you and what isn’t is a real art.
I still have a day job so that’s where I spend my days – Burning Eye work is strictly evenings and weekends but it’s something I’m genuinely excited about working on and helping to build. We’re going to take chances on things that big publishers wouldn’t, and maybe level the playing field for those who traditionally don’t get a chance. The idea of discovering great writers and passing on my good luck to help someone else is incredibly appealing.
CF: You mentioned in an interview back in October that you were working on a number of writing projects: how are they going
Alice: I’m working on the second novel, but I have to snatch small chunks of time to write it before work or on trains so it’s not coming as fast as I’d like… In a moment of endorphin rush madness I signed up for the marathon last year and the training has been waaaay more time-consuming than I thought, plus I still put a lot of energy into getting Everybody Knows out there and with reading and editing for Burning Eye – and fitting in a social life.