It’s a bright afternoon in late January and the gleam of low sun hitting the laptop screen is a welcome respite from day after day of bleak grey skies that dissipate all too quickly into night. Today marks the publication day of Olivia Sudjic’s latest novel, Asylum Road. Due to our UK lockdown, there’s no event planned, no bookstore readings scheduled and no celebratory drinks with her editor at Bloomsbury, nor with her close friends or family. “It's that feeling of almost not being real,” says Olivia from her North London home. “The context right now is so surreal as well – nothing really feels real. But, I am reliably told that today is publication day,” she adds, enthusiastically.
Born and brought up in London, Olivia wanted to be a writer from an early age. She read English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, where she won the E.G Harwood English Prize and was made a Bateman Scholar. Her first novel, Sympathy was a timely debut, described by The New Republic as “The first great Instagram novel”. It’s a razor-sharp tale of obsession, identity, online intimacy and the paranoia experienced by millennial protagonist, Alice Hare. The New York Times described it as “an uncomfortably contemporary tale of unrequited love in the internet age.” A year later in 2018, Olivia penned an essay titled Exposure drawing on her own experience with self-doubt and anxiety along with the work of Rachel Cusk, Elena Ferrante, Maggie Nelson and Jenni Offill. Exposure was praised for its honest depiction of anxiety and how there’s a tendency for writing by women to be invalidated purely on the grounds of their sex.Olivia’s latest novel, Asylum Road, is a piercing story of trauma, identity and the notion of borders – between families, nations and that meandering line between control and uncontrol, order and absolute chaos. We see the main characters, Luke and Anya on a journey from their early, heady days of romance to five years on where the relationship is under great strain. “Through that very intimate scale of two individuals, I wanted to actually look at what was going on in the world around them,” explains Olivia. “It's very much about our state of current anxiety and the increasing feeling of fragmentation with everyone ending up in their own reality.”
The prose in Asylum Road has a cadence that carries you along with a taut urgency. Sentences are more matter-of-fact than meandering and this restrained approach, without the interference of quotation marks, creates a rhythm that takes us through each chapter with ease. “That's really important to me so I read my work aloud,” explains Olivia. “With this latest book, it didn't feel right to signpost the speech parts too much, for example, as it broke up what looked like the rhythm on the page. I wanted it all to feel like it was flowing through this one person's perspective,” she adds. “I like to write the kind of books that are hopefully compelling and propel you in a certain direction with momentum. To be propulsive, the sentences need to have that kind of rhythm.”
For Olivia, writing fiction was something she “put in the attic” for a time after graduating, working instead in branding and strategy. “When you're constantly unpicking other people's masterpieces, it doesn’t really inspire you to write your own,” she says. “I think Zadie Smith talks about that, where she says something like, how could you pipe up if you're reading Shakespeare or Milton or any of the canon.” Working in strategy and writing straplines, Olivia felt her words were restricted and tied to an underlying message. “Now with the types of books I write, I really hope I don't have a message or a kind of answer, they are very much questioning, or I hope they are.”
While Olivia’s fiction doesn’t necessarily provide answers, her contemporary novels do highlight aspects of life as we know it - from Instagram obsessions to a need for escape from our realities and a yearning for a greater understanding of the human condition. “I suppose right now I would find it really difficult not to write about contemporary life because it just occupies our every waking minute,” she says, speaking to me on Zoom – another reminder of our current global situation. “Even if I wrote historical novels I would still probably be trying to grapple with it. I would find it very difficult not to in some way engage with it. I think that's how I make sense of the world – to try and distill it into these forms.”
Interview by Andie Cusick.
Photographs by Tino Chiwariro.
Olivia wears the TOAST Wool Cotton Gansey Sweater. Shop our current collection of knitwear.
Olivia Sudjic is a writer living in London. She is the author of Sympathy, her 2017 debut novel exploring surveillance and identity in the digital age, which was a finalist for the Salerno European Book Award and the Collyer Bristow Prize, and Exposure, a non-fiction work on anxiety and auto-fiction, named an Irish Times, Evening Standard and White Review Book of the Year for 2018. Her writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Paris Review, Financial Times, Guardian, Granta and Wired. Her second novel, Asylum Road, told from the perspective of Anya, who escaped the siege of Sarajevo as a child, is published by Bloomsbury.