A Conversation with Olivia Sudjic

The author of Sympathy gets real about girl crushes, Google stalking, and not being Facebook friends with your spouse.

While Sympathy is Olivia Sudjic’s debut novel, her success is more than just beginner’s luck. This electrifying story of obsessive love, family secrets, and the dangers of living our lives online has already been named by Entertainment Weekly as one of the 16 debut novels to read in 2017 and the New York Times Book Review called it “an uncomfortably contemporary tale of unrequited love in the internet age.”

At twenty-three, protagonist Alice Hare leaves England for New York. She becomes fixated on Mizuko Himura, a Japanese writer living in New York, whose life story has strange parallels to her own and who she believes is her “Internet twin.” What seems to Mizuko like a chance encounter with Alice is anything but—after all, in the age of connectivity, nothing is coincidence. Their subsequent relationship is doomed from the outset, exposing a tangle of lies and sexual encounters as three families across the globe collide, and the most ancient of questions—where do we come from?—is answered just by searching online.

Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright chatted with author Olivia Sudjic about her novel Sympathy, New York City as a character, and 17th-century portraits as the first Tinder profile pictures.

Read It Forward: Where did you get the seed for your novel Sympathy?

Olivia Sudjic: It’s quite specific actually, which is funny because now it’s almost not really visible in the book at all. When I was still at university, I came across this 17th century English polymath who was obsessed with mystical, scientific, strange, and in this case bogus, medicines.

One was called Sympathy Powder. This was when the word sympathy didn’t have the same connotations it has now to empathy. Back then, it was simply meant as a connection—the correspondence between things.

The belief was that this medicine could link people and things across time and space. I fixed on Sympathy Powder as the starting point for a novel, the idea that people from the past could connect.

Since it was my debut novel, I thought, “How can I get taken seriously?” My solution was to use something from the past, ideally about medicine.

It was an accident that I was in New York to write it. I quit my job because I needed fear in order to get it done. My parents thought I was crazy, which is ironic because they’re both in the arts, too. But I think you learn that when parents say they want you to be happy, they really just want you to be safe.

RIF: Exactly. Don’t have any debt.

OS: I came to New York to stay with my grandmother, and to get away from my friends in London to protect my time. Whilst I was here trying to write this idea about this medicine, New York was like a strangler fig that just took over the story and eventually became the book itself.

RIF: The story evolved once you started writing in New York City?

OS: Yes, I used New York as the setting for the novel. I also let go of the idea that it had to be set in the past and that it had to have a third person voice. Given that the protagonist is a girl around my age, I was reluctant to use the first person. I didn’t want it to sound like it was me.

After a while, I thought that shouldn’t be my consideration. I shed that self-consciousness as I went along. And I don’t think a male writer would have had that worry.

RIF: Yeah.

OS: I originally was thinking of medicine as a metaphor for technology, our current day sympathy pattern—the way that we can suddenly be in a room on the other side of the world or we can track back to every message we’ve ever sent to someone. We can obsess. We can feel like we’re living in all these different alternate realities all at once. So, that’s where the novel came from. Obviously, the title therefore stayed, but the setting and everything became very different from what I initially imagined.

RIF: So, New York strong-armed its way into being a central character?

OS: Exactly.

RIF: And reading it, I felt like the city really embodies Alice’s searching and longing for connection.

OS: I think that’s important because in some ways it is a love story, or more like a girl crush story. Because she doesn’t really know the person that she’s so obsessed with. And so, in that sense, I think Mizuko represents New York or this place that Alice is trying to fit into. How do you root yourself in a place? You find a person that to you represents that weird, double-bind between loneliness and connection, fear and love, all that stuff. She sees Mizuko and she’s like, “right, that’s a bite-sized piece of my idea of what New York is and I will use that to latch on and find a way in.” New York is very key to the book, which is ironic given that it was going to be set in Japan [Laughing].

RIF: Did the thread of Alice coming to New York from London to stay with her grandmother, did that arise out of your own experience?

OS: Definitely. I felt like it was so phony to be trying to write this book without some explanation of how I was here and what I was doing. Then the story could take off but I needed that framing narrative to make myself feel like it was real. Otherwise, it felt too “Once Upon a Time…”

RIF: “…this girl finds herself in New York…”

OS: Right. I wanted to shed those pretend layers of “I just found this message in a bottle and it arrived as the story.” I needed to have myself on an observation platform near it, or in the story somehow.

I also wanted to have a character who was not part of the immediate present, who felt like she belonged to a slightly different world that was increasingly being marooned. A lot of the stuff in the book isn’t really new. You could set it in any age, in a way.

But technology has sped up to the point of one generation in the space of about ten years can suddenly have this immense shift. I now feel very different from a 12-year-old.

We have completely different experiences. It used to be like, nothing changed for years and then the car was invented. And then nothing changed for years and then something else was invented. Now it’s like every iPhone generation brings with it huge changes in the way that you interact with people.

RIF: Right. So, what are you saying about the difference between the carefully crafted sort of personas that we put on line versus reality?

OS: I think we have always—throughout history—created personas.

RIF: You can do that in a letter, I guess.

OS: You can do that in a letter. In the 16th and 17th century, they did that through painting portraits. A king wouldn’t meet a bride necessarily until he’d seen a miniature picture of her. And then you know she’d arrive at the castle and look nothing like it. My favorite piece of history in England is Henry VIII having his German wife arrive and he’s like, nope — she looks nothing like her picture. Send her back. [Laughter]

So, public image fashioning has always been a crucial part of the human psyche and the private world that you retreat back into. Now the blur between them means that you aren’t necessarily even just fooling other people, you’re often fooling yourself.

You can forget what your external persona is versus your internal private world. For example, if I am reminded by Facebook that this photo happened ten years ago today, and I look back at it and it’s of me and my ex, it suddenly brings me right back to that moment. It makes me maybe feel weird about who I’m seeing at the moment.

RIF: Oh, god, I hear you. Right.

OS: You know? And suddenly that ability to see yourself as you once were or the way that you present yourself to somebody else or whatever it is, it collapses those selves and for a moment you’re like, wait a second, who am I right now? What’s true to me right now? I think the main difference is that we used to be conscious of our separate lives and be able to manage them and keep them separate whereas now they intrude on each other all the time.

And we don’t have any control over that. The irony obviously being that we designed these technologies but as with all tools, I think the things that you design end up designing you back [Laughing].

RIF: Yes!

OS: They start to alter the way that our brains work. For example, I mentioned the word “ex,” and I think it’s relevant to the book. How do you decide when a relationship is over when it’s all present still? Everything is recorded. All the images are all around you. You can just so easily slip back in. You know you shouldn’t be able to know what your ex is doing right now [Laughing].

RIF: You should sever ties, yeah, but you can’t if their profile is still public!

OS: Yeah, but that public self that they’re putting out there and your public self you’re putting out there—it all just starts to smush into this very confusing soup. And you don’t necessarily have a linear line of progress of you moving into the future and shedding the self that you used to be five years ago and becoming someone new.

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Even the way now that you can Google a date that you’ve never met before. You might be looking at photos that have no bearing on who they are now. You assume you know them but it’s a different them.

There’s a speed and a collapsibility and an ease with which we can now access those different selves. It used to be like when I go outside my front door, there we go, there’s a clear marker. Whereas now we don’t have that because our personas follow us wherever we go.

RIF: Do you think that the internet makes it harder now to become close to new people or be surprised by them?

OS: I definitely think both of those things are true. We assume that we know them and we assume nothing can surprise us because we’ve done our homework. It turns us all into these little spies and it’s somehow become normal to know what their parents do, where their grandma lives, who they went on holiday with, all that stuff. Everything about their jobs is on LinkedIn. But you’re not really getting to know them in a more real time, honest way. And so, for example, the person I’m seeing at the moment, we have a no Facebook, no Google rule.

RIF: Nice. I like that!

OS: Because I wrote this book, I started feeling creeped out. [Laughing] I wanted a date to tell me things and me to learn about them that way and vice versa. I didn’t want to feel like I read about them already online somewhere or looked at their pictures and then formed an opinion that they then had to disprove.

I think that now there are things like post-internet art, and I do wonder if there are post-internet relationships.

I have a friend who a year ago met someone on Tinder. And now they’re actually engaged but she straight away took him off Tinder and then has refused to ever become his Facebook friend. She also says that when they’re married, they will not become Facebook friends. It’s like putting up a firewall to control the medium.

I do think it makes it harder to know and be surprised by people in the sense that you assume you can’t be surprised and you assume you do know them.

RIF: Right.

OS: The surprise is that then something comes up and you’re like, “That did not flash up when I was stalking you!”

RIF: Exactly. That was not on my newsfeed!

OS: Yeah [Laughing].

RIF: And even Alice, when Mizuko is telling her this subtext about the short story that she’s written, which Alice has already read so many times, it’s still illuminating to hear it from the author’s mouth.

OS: Exactly, and then suddenly she panics. That should be an opportunity not for her to fake it, but to actually have some level of truthful interaction to ask questions, really get to know her, but she’s more concerned with being ahead of her at every turn. It’s like a game, right?

RIF: Yeah.

OS: She doesn’t understand that maybe it’s nice to be asked questions and for someone to actually tell their answer. She assumes the way to flatter someone and to get Mizuko to be interested in her is to know it all already. So, to me, their relationship is a version of how we now expect machines to know us. Like the algorithms that have recorded all this stuff about us and then, in a blunt instrument way, give us back what they think we want to know.

At the moment, despite not having Googled pregnancy tests in quite some time, I’m getting constant advertisements for pregnancy tests. I must just be that age. That’s my demographic and Facebook is constantly saying are you sure? [Laughing] You sure you’re not pregnant? I think I’m sure, Google. What do you know that I don’t?

RIF: I love the love in this book because it’s obsessive and it only seems to go sort of one direction, although Mizuko surprises us sometimes and there are flashes of it from her end. Do you think this sort of intense admiration and obsession happens in relationships between women, whether it’s in friendships or romantic relationships? How is it compounded when romance is involved?

OS: I think any girl who’s ever had a girl crush on an older girl will have experienced that weird level of intensity that comes with it. In a way, it’s easier to have that intensity when sexuality isn’t a part of it. It’s almost like your brain goes into overdrive because your body’s not even involved. Your brain does all the obsessing and it’s not even really thinking about the physical part of it. I remember so vividly when I was 12, at school, I was so keen on this 18-year old who at the time felt like so mature [Laughing]. She used to wear her hair in a certain way and I was just obsessed with that small token. I think it’s easier for girls to develop that with the less input they get from that idol. From afar, it’s way easier to obsess because you’re not getting any real sort of interaction, so your mind goes into overdrive.

But, when you say Mizuko sort of occasionally surprises, I think it’s not necessarily clear to the reader even if that’s always true. Sometimes when I was writing it, I wasn’t sure what was real and what was Alice’s most wished-for fantasy version. The fact that she is often caused pain by it suggests that there are parts of it which must be real. But I wanted to have brief moments when it seems like they could be getting closer and closer to something happening but maybe it’s not really happening. The action is primarily happening in Alice’s head, and it’s similar to the way that digital takes away the physical.

So, I do definitely think girl crushes are more intense. [Laughter] And those physical moments happen between Alice and Mizuko, they almost confuse her feelings more. She’s almost happier living it out in her own head. When the physical moments come, she doesn’t really know how to interpret them. Certainly, when she has physical moments with men in the book, they don’t do much in terms of enhancing her understanding of the person. They exist almost like roadblocks.

RIF: Everything is seen through Alice’s filter, and if we were to interview Mizuko about it, who knows what she would say, “Oh that girl who was following me around…”

OS: I’ll say it’s first-person narrated, but Alice is physically writing this as an account. I think the reader is perhaps unsure at various points whether it’s revenge and it’s an attempt at reconnecting, or some penitent act of, regret or whatever it is. There are points at which you can’t really tell what her angle is, why is she putting it out there.

I think it would be unkind to suggest that Alice is necessarily this malicious, manipulative person at all points but I think definitely at times you should be unsure that maybe Mizuko wasn’t like how Alice presents her.

RIF: That actually touches on another question. The narrative plot thread unfolds very slowly. You find out secrets very slowly and deliberately and then all at once and you’re like, “Ahhhhh. This is so interconnected!”

OS: I wanted it to start like almost a Great Expectations–style novel. I wanted it to feel like you thought you knew the storyline, but then…

Novels are comparable to social media or crafting online profiles because you begin and you think you’re going to know this person. But this person isn’t real. It’s all made up, and you’re projecting yourself onto it. There’s so much that’s comparable.

One of the few things that the novel still has over other forms is that you don’t have to know all that much about the characters. For example, you don’t what Alice looks like for a long time. And in the first chapter, you don’t necessarily know that she’s a girl. All kinds of things come out slowly. Almost like Alice’s catfishing. [Laughter] But by the end, all the plot threads do come quite rapidly. I wanted it to feel a flood—like this wave is slowly coming in and by the end, it’s all happening at once.

I worried that readers who aren’t so used to social media would have trouble with the idea of being able to go back in time and look forward. I wanted the plot to have an elliptical feel so she scrolls back and forth almost between moments. But I hope it’s not too confusing [Laughing].

RIF: No, it illuminates it for the reader. Because you’re like, “Oh okay, this actually happened right when Alice got to New York. But we already know what’s coming in Alice’s future, because we’ve seen the news feed, as it were.

OS: Yeah. Exactly. I wanted to have that balance between a character and plot-driven sort of narrative. I think Alice says at one point when she’s reassuring Mizuko about the place of the novel and its continuing relevance, she’s saying something like… it’s like a game of chess and you know all the moves that your opponent can make but it’s about working out what they’re going to do and then in what order.

RIF: Hmm, yeah.

OS: Mizuko’s worried that the plot is over because in any story now, it’s like why didn’t she just Google it? [Laughing] It’s easier to set a novel in the past because now we just expect them to resolve everything quite quickly with an app.

But you know what she’s saying is that, yes, you know all the possible permutations of what could happen but it’s about what you reveal and when.

RIF: There are many mentions of women’s health and reproductive rights in this book, including an incredible scene at Planned Parenthood.

OS: I think Alice, as she goes through the book, feels more and more like the city is becoming responsive to her. Except it seems like Mizuko’s getting more and more resistant.

As everything else becomes more pliant, it stops feeling like we’re actually making these choices for ourselves. It becomes, “hang on, did I make that choice because I really felt that way or it’s what I wanted? Or because somewhere, some software designed at Google has given me what feels like a menu of options but it’s actually an algorithm based on what it knows about me already, giving me what I want?”

I wanted to explore that feeling of choice, being pro-choice. We think we’re making so many more choices on our own volition at the moment. We feel like we have agency through technology, but at the same time, it’s quite mysterious. There’s this coded language behind it that none of us really understand.

Google has an ethicist who used to be a magician actually. He talks about how it’s all a magic trick, where you feel like you’ve got this choice like pick a card, any card. But actually, it’s all designed and you’re just not sure how. So, I wanted the interactions around Planned Parenthood to feel like Alice was making a choice but then somewhere along the line that choice turned into an assumption.

The point about choice is that you have a right to get an abortion and you have a right not to. It’s your choice. No one has any control over your body. There’s a line between your public and private self—we were talking about this earlier about the threshold of a door—whatever it is that you use to mark what is your real self and what is this persona. She talks about the body being a natural barrier. That’s how you keep the outside world out and how you keep your inside world in and no one should have any control over that.

It’s a very visceral, physical part of the book. She’s been gliding through the book almost weightless. At one point, when she’s still in England before she comes to New York, her body starts to almost feel like it’s not really a part of her. She has this very strange like post-graduate sort of illness phase where she just locked herself in her room. When she gets to New York, she feels lighter and lighter and she’s not really eating and she’s sort of floating down the street and she doesn’t have to make many decisions, she can just go left or right, and the grid just takes her places.

But then things start to tie her down to her body like, “oh, I have another body inside me or an illness.” Mizuko’s fever and all these moments start to bring her back down into her body. That’s scary at points but equally, it’s when she achieves some of her moments of agency. It starts when Sylvia goes into hospital and suddenly physical bodies are vulnerable. I think that’s where the reader is more sympathetic towards Alice, having viewed her with a bit of skepticism up until that point.

RIF: When Alice is grounded, the reader really feels her. There’s the whole thread of physics in this book. Was that something that you were drawn to?

OS: I think the reason the physics felt relevant was because of this whole question of where did the internet come from? What’s the origin of this thing that is now so daily and thoughtless, like breathing? I do feel like if you’re going to talk about the physical world versus the digital world and what’s real and what’s not and all your different many universes that you live in, either as multiple versions of yourself or other people’s little universes that bump against you in the street, you know, whatever it is, how is that rooted?

After a while, you can talk about the internet for ages and ages and you just get more and more abstract. More and more confused. I wanted to find a way to root it somehow to the fundamentals.

I wanted it to have all these layers—like passing through layers of the Earth—how do you get at the very core of what is all of this, what did it all mean?

I wanted Alice to be as unpredictable in her interests as possible. I wanted to steer as far from stereotypes as I possibly could. So, she is possibly gay, mixed race, adopted. You can’t pin her down.

But, I was also concerned about not making it too intense, like I have to get my footnotes out every single time I come up against it.

RIF: No, it was cool that Alice was touched by physics through her father’s job. It felt organic.

OS: There was a time I was so into physics I had read everything I could that was for laymen. I felt very strongly that all the supersymmetry versus multiverse felt like if you massively reduced and simplified it, that is what everyone is struggling with on a daily basis. What am I supposed to do—is that one path to me or is it an accident?

RIF: Exactly. Is there one person for me or is it totally random?

OS: Are we on this path that is unfolding without us really having to do much and it’s all happening as it should? Or are we going through life making random mistakes? Everyone is fighting their way to work this stuff out.

Author Photo: Colin Thomas

OLIVIA SUDJIC was born in London in 1988. She studied English Literature at Cambridge University where she was awarded the E.G. Harwood English Prize and made a Bateman Scholar. She lives in London and started writing her first novel, Sympathy, in 2014.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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