What can you tell us about your new book A Virtual Love?
It’s a novel about love and identity in the age of social media. At the heart of the story is the relationship between two characters, Jeff and Marie, but it’s not a traditional romance. Their love is built on mistaken assumptions from the online world that spill over into the rest of their lives. Marie thinks Jeff is a famous blogger, and he goes to increasingly desperate lengths to play the part and keep the deception going.
You are the author of On the Holloway Road, which won the Luke Bitmead Writer's Bursary, so what can you tell us about this?
Winning the Bursary was a big break for me, because the prize was £2,500 and a publishing contract. I’d taken a big risk in leaving my job in journalism to be a novelist, and up to that point I’d spent several years doing lots of writing but with little success. Winning the award and becoming a published writer changed my life. I got an agent as a result of it, and now have a second novel out. It’s impossible to say where I would be now if I hadn’t won – there are many talented writers out there who never get a publishing deal.
Why is it important to highlight what can go wrong in the virtual world?
I think we’re at a moment of transition. We’re spending more and more time constructing identities online, but are only just beginning to understand the ways in which we are changing as a result. The benefits of social media are huge, of course, but I think it’s also important to look at some of the other effects. Often the drive for popularity, measured in numbers of friends or followers, can become quite addictive, and can lead us to shape our online identities into advertisements for our real selves, with the boring or embarrassing parts edited out and only the best parts shown to the world. Since everyone else is doing this too, there’s a kind of dishonesty in a lot of online relationships, and they can be driven by anxiety. Often the constant contact and communication only make us feel more alone. Much of this applies in the ‘real’ world too, of course, but I think it’s heightened in the world of social media, where you’re constantly on display and where popularity is measured so openly.
How important is social media in your world?
As a writer, I find it a great way to connect with readers around the world, as well as other writers. Through my blog and through conversations on Twitter, I’ve met people from Thailand to Utah and from Africa to Australia. I also love to hear from readers – in the past, writers only got critiques of their work from professional reviewers, but now people are talking about books all over the web, and it’s great to be part of that. I’ve been amazed by the number of different interpretations people have had of my books, and I enjoy talking about other people’s books as well. Writers can no longer claim that theirs is a lonely business.
I do limit my social media time, though. Writing a novel involves withdrawing from the world and stepping into the fictional world I’ve created, so I need to keep the internet switched off each morning, and only go on when I’ve got enough of my own writing done.
You have a degree in modern history from Oxford University and a masters in journalism from Columbia, so how much has this helped you in your fictional writing?
The history degree: not much! The journalism was more helpful, though, because I learnt a lot of things that I could transfer to fiction. The principles of good writing are the same, even across very different genres. A good novel, like a good newspaper article, has to grab the reader’s attention from the first sentence, and work hard to maintain it to the end. Both fiction and journalistic writing can almost always be improved by making ruthless cuts. And the tough editing from my professors completely cured me of a disease I suffered from when I was younger: being too attached to the words I’d created, and resistant to other people’s suggestions. So although my style of writing is completely different when I’m writing a novel, I did learn a lot from studying journalism.
Where did your inspiration come from for the novel?
I had the idea for the book about four years ago, when I was thinking about the different identities I had online, and how they corresponded to my real self. Although I hadn’t set out to lie or create false identities, I realised that none of my online profiles were really me. They were versions of me, designed for external consumption. I was also thinking about the fact that I’m part of the last generation to have grown up and entered adulthood without access to the internet. If I was seeing these changes in myself, then I wondered what it must be like for people who’ve grown up immersed in online worlds and knowing nothing else. That’s when my characters first started to take shape, and from there I began to flesh them out and tell their story.
You spent six years in New York working as a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, so tell us about this experience.
I loved working for The Wall Street Journal. I’d always wanted to be a writer, and now for the first time I was being paid to write every day for a living. I also had some great editors, and learnt so much from them every day about how to tell compelling stories. Financial journalism, though, was not really what I wanted to write, and pretty soon I found myself getting up at six in the morning to work on my own writing for an hour before work. I realised it wasn’t just writing that I wanted to do – it was telling my own stories, giving shape to my own view of the world. That’s why I left in the end, and moved back to England to focus on what I’d always really wanted to do: write novels.
You have been featured in several publications, so what can you tell us about some of these?
I enjoy writing short stories for magazines and anthologies. An interesting one I did recently was for Still, a collection of stories inspired by the photographs of Roelof Bakker. It came about quite by chance, when I wrote a short blog post saying I’d enjoyed Roelof’s photography exhibition. He then got in touch with me, and explained that he’d like to produce an art/literature book, with his photographs paired with short stories inspired by the images. I wrote a story, then contacted a few writers, and Roelof contacted more, and soon he had a collection featuring 20 writers from around the world, from Granta Best of Young British Novelists winner Evie Wyld to Malaysian writer Preeta Samarasan. It was great to see it take shape, and finally be published in book form.
What is your biggest fear of the virtual world?
I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid. I think it brings huge benefits, and I have faith that for the most part we’re capable of handling the downsides. I just think that throughout human history, we’ve created new technologies but then the technologies have also shaped us. Often we focus on the obvious benefits, and only notice the more negative effects much later. My novel A Virtual Love is an attempt to explore some of the aspects of social media that people aren’t talking about so much at this relatively early stage.
What is next for you?
Well, I am moving to Crete soon, in search of better weather and more affordable housing than I have been enjoying in London. I am also working on my third novel, which is about an ancestor of mine who was a claimant to the throne of Spain in the mid-nineteenth century, but gave it all up to move to England and experiment with a new technology called photography. So it’s partly a historical novel, although there is also a contemporary component. A lot of the books I needed to read about him were in Spanish, which I didn’t speak. So I have been on a crash course in Spanish, which has been fun! I’ll be hard at work on that for quite a while yet, while also doing short stories and bits of journalism and other writing to break things up and give me other things to work on -- and to pay the bills!