“6pm on a Thursday, and while I may not have applied for any jobs, I have made myself eligible to win a Mini Cooper, two nights in Paris and seven in Miami, £500 of vouchers for a Scandinavian clothing brand, an enormous TV (which I plan to sell on), an espresso machine (which I’ll definitely keep), tickets to three exhibitions, a case of Prosecco, a juicer, a designer handbag, a designer coat, a meal for two at a corporate-looking restaurant in the city including a cocktail on arrival but no wine, membership to an independent cinema franchise and a VIP package for two at a female-only day spa, so no one could argue it’s been a completely wasted day.”
Claire Flannery, the heroine of Lisa Owens’ first novel Not Working, finds herself floundering after quitting her job in order to discover her true calling. She could be viewed as Bridget Jones for a new generation, but with an emphasis on finding fulfilment through work rather than finding a man. Described by Nathan Filer as “insanely funny but also moving and true”, Not Working will have resonance for anyone who has struggled to find their place in the world.
AP-T: How did you get started?
LO: The very beginning of the book, the seed of it, came from this document I had where I had been keeping general observations and ideas and scraps of dialogue and things, and I looked at it one day and realised they were all written in the same voice. Then I started playing around with them and expanding bits and pieces and saying, “this is a person, this is a voice, who is it?” and it became apparent that it was someone who had a lot of time on their hands, who was casting about and maybe looking for direction in some way. It was quite organic, in that I had these bits and pieces that were all over the place and this sort of mirrored this person that I was tuning into. And then it went quite well with the idea of someone who didn’t have a job and who was trying to find some use for their time.
How did it turn into a narrative?
I’ve been thinking about it recently. It’s sort of an anti-narrative of someone who doesn’t have much get-up-and-go and someone who is trying to find a job but is also failing miserably at it – it doesn’t have a really gripping plot, so to some extent I feel that the plot came out of how far I could push that. She is in some ways quite a difficult and frustrating person but also sympathetic, and that relationship with the reader and the other characters in the book where there’s a point when you are just like, “Oh for goodness’ sake, just get on with it!” – thinking about that helped me to modulate the plot.
I was interested in how old Claire is? Does it matter if she’s a millennial or not?
It’s deliberately not mentioned in the book because I tried it a few times but I found that people tended to read themselves into her. If I put a fixed age then people were suddenly kind of “Oh, she’s much younger or older” and it tended to jar, but I always thought of her in her late- to mid-twenties. The millennial mindset that people talk about, I was thinking about that in the context of other women in her life, and obviously her dad as well, who’s done the same job for forty years, and beyond that her grandma who had four kids and just took it in her stride and didn’t complain.
It’s quite terrifying for Claire that she doesn’t have any idea what she wants to do and that she might have her children and then be in her late thirties and have to go back into the world of work.”
I suppose a person who was in Claire’s specific, fairly directionless state in their forties, well that’s more the subject of a tragedy than a comic novel. But Claire’s position does have resonance for people of all ages, I think. And maybe women are questioning their careers, etc. at an earlier point now that it’s more common to have your children later in life?
I think you’re right about the having children thing, that the pressure is now on for people to have their career before having children. It’s quite terrifying for Claire that she doesn’t have any idea what she wants to do and that she might have her children and then be in her late thirties and have to go back into the world of work. It’s definitely a problem for some people.
I think Claire’s dissatisfaction with her career is a kind of perennial issue isn’t it?
The sort of thing that roots it in the now is that the internet has created this explosion of jobs so that if you’ve got an arts degree there’s so many things you could do but they are kind of all the same, like general admin or thinly veiled admin, so it’s even harder to work out what you want to do even within the world of publishing. There’s this anxiety of choice.
Were you conscious that Claire’s crisis could be viewed as being very middle-class?
I think that’s true of a quite a lot of literature in many ways. Julian Barnes and a lot of older male writers have always written about middle-class concerns in a way that they perhaps don’t get questioned on as much as newer writers. I think there’s lots of reasons why it’s maybe become an issue in the last couple of years. She is self-aware in that respect – not all the time, there are times when you think “just get a grip!” – but there are times when she’s aware that she’s being a bit ridiculous but she still doesn’t know how to get herself out of this rut she has found herself in. I wanted it to be a novel about daily life and experience as well, and so that inevitably brings into it certain things about living in London, and being a middle-class person living in London, it brings in different reference points.
Did you have ideas about society that you wanted to convey or was it just about the character?
I think the voice for me was so strong that everything came from that. There’s a Lydia Davis quote – she always gets asked about her very short fiction, “is that you?” and she says the impetus always comes from something she’s thought, but that as soon as she puts it down on paper, it becomes someone else’s perspective. And that’s the most accurate way I can explain how some of the observations in the book came about. They’re not my views, but obviously because I wrote it they are things that occurred to me and I then put down on paper.
Was it deliberate not to include very up-to-the-minute references and brand names?
Yes it was deliberate in far as I think it can be quite jarring and it can date things even by a few months… even a dating app or something has such a short shelf life. I wanted to create this recognisable world, and that’s partly why the structure and the gaps are there because the spaces are hopefully allowing people to draw conclusions as to why certain things are in there or certain observations get precedence over others.
How important is Claire’s relationship with her boyfriend?
A big thing for me was not wanting this to be a book about finding a man because that’s out there, that’s been done. Not to disparage it, but that’s not something that interested me. And I was interested in the idea of someone who did have a secure relationship long-term – aside from the odd shaky moment – and has that security to some extent financially and emotionally as well, but also feels very lonely within it, and that is not always the thing that makes someone’s life fulfilled. I feel like I’ve read books that deal with that maybe further down the line, when people are in their fifties, but I haven’t really come across something that examines it at an earlier stage. I think in lots of ways she feels lonely even in her relationship because her partner knows exactly what he wants. He’s on a set course to becoming a brain surgeon, which is a job that he can keep until he retires.
And it’s a job that you can be proud of, that you don’t have to mutter into your gin-and-tonic when someone asks you what you do in the pub.
Exactly! And then in her friendship group, even though it isn’t the case, she feels that everyone is outperforming and out-earning her. And within her family too, she doesn’t have anyone to turn to in this time of inner crisis – she doesn’t have anyone to reach out to because she doesn’t have brothers or sisters. Her dad is split down the middle and she’s not speaking to her mum.
Are there writers you were trying to emulate, or use as models for this book?
Before I did the writing course at UEA, my favourite kind of literature was often quite rural and domestic – writers like John McGahern, William Maxwell, William Trevor – and so that was the sort of thing I had in mind that I might write. And obviously this is completely different. It’s not that my taste changed, but I was awake to this other kind of writing. There’s a book by Ann Beattie called Chilly Scenes of Winter which she wrote in the ’70s and it’s quite interesting in that it’s quite dialogue-heavy. It’s about a guy who’s had a break-up and it’s quite funny, he’s hanging out with his best friend a lot and his mum is having a nervous breakdown. It’s about the post-hippie age and the people who survived that, young people who were kind of “who are we and what do we do?” Even though it was written in the ’70s, it felt very fresh in terms of the voice. There’s another American author called Mary Robison who’s not written loads but wrote a book called Why Did I Ever. And whilst I was writing this, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation came out and I got really depressed because it’s really good!
How did you know the book was finished?
I edit as I go, so it was a very painstaking process because I couldn’t really move on until I was happy that a sentence was right – which feels hellish because you can come away from a week’s writing with fewer words than you started with, which can be insanely demoralising. A lot of 2014 was a dark, dark period of editing and cutting out a few quite long chapters. It was quite instinctive, and because of the form of the piece, I felt like if something was going to be in there, it really had to earn its place. It was a weird sense I got, often, that this just doesn’t quite work, it doesn’t quite do enough. I hit a wall and I went away to California and it was a really great trip. I’d become really obsessed with what I’d done and then just decided to close it off for a whole month. For some reason being out of London for a month enabled me to finish it in a way I don’t quite understand.
Did you show your work-in-progress to anyone?
Yes, my agent, and a guy called Thomas Morris who wrote a short story collection called We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. He was on my course and I think he was the very first person who ever read it. He had read a lot of my writing over the year and he just responded to this in quite a different way to anything else I’d written. It made me really pursue it in a way that I’m not sure I would have otherwise!
Lisa Owens was born in 1985 and grew up in Glasgow and Hertfordshire. After reading English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, she spent six years working in publishing. In 2013, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She lives in London with her husband, the actor and comedian Simon Bird. Not Working is published by Picador in hardback and eBook. Read more.
Author portrait © Alexander James
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.