The author of Sympathy and Exposure, Olivia Sudjic has written her first short story for Comfort Zones. On a shopping trip with Jigsaw editor-in-chief Ana Santi, she talks about cats (without spoiling the brilliant ending of her story), physics (her superpower, if she had one) and her writing uniform.
Without giving too much away – and spoiling this brilliant story – Soft Hair is about a woman who cat-sits for a couple she doesn’t know, and has to make a tough cat-related decision at the end. Do you not like cats…?
I wouldn’t say I was a cat person…! It’s the opposite of comforting to me to spend time with a cat because they don’t need you. Whereas with a dog, I love the fact that their aim in life is to please you and be loyal to you. I also feel like the stereotype of a writer is come across as this crazy cat lady, and that maybe I’m not living up to it! Here I am, currently wearing a cardigan and for a long time I lived alone and it’s like… what’s wrong with me?!
It’s also your first short story, isn’t it?
Yes. It’s arguably a lot harder. A novel is a marathon, but a short story has to do so much more work and only use what’s absolutely necessary. The other thing I’m allowed to do more with a short story is throw something in that doesn’t have an answer. It’s more freeing more me. I really admire short story writers like Lydia Davis. If you were to do a screen play of her stories, almost nothing would happen. And Alice Munro, she’s really good at those endings of “who knows…?”, which are really satisfying.
The title – Soft Hair– has little to do with cat hair and everything to do with Stephen Hawking’s final scientific paper, Black Hole Entropy and Soft Hair. Are you a physicist, too, or was this subject matter out of your comfort zone?
I’m not a physicist! But if I had a super power, I would love to have the brain of a physicist. Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons on Physicsis is this beautiful book that is basically about how physics relies on metaphors to make things understood. And the metaphors are often quite poetic. So I wanted to take these ideas that were in the news, and the words around them that I was drawn to – like soft hair. I remember when I was studying at school and the metaphysical poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvel – they loved bringing new and weird mathematical and scientific ideas into their work. If you take something like that, where you have no assumptions about what it is or means, and then try to imagine what it could be without any reference or context – that was out of my comfort zone!
But you became a novelist kind of by accident, right?
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a writer – most people do – but I was more interested in reading. So it wasn’t until I’d actually written Sympathy that I thought: “oh, this is a product, I guess, that will have to be sold!” Before that, I hadn’t done any creative writing since I was 18. Maybe if I hadn’t graduated into a recession with an arts degree I wouldn’t have been so risk-averse! So I took a job in branding and strategy, and I loved it, but I realised that having a personal voice was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I got an agent and the book was finished that I said: “oh, and now it’s a book that will end up being bought – or not – or going to auction – or not – or ending up on shelves and in readers’ hands.” It sounds really naïve. In my mind, this was a book that I might write, not as a diary, but as an essay for a tutor. In some ways I think that was good because it means you’re not self-conscious.
And then there was the limelight…
It was quite a jolt, which is why I wrote Exposure after Sympathy, because of this whole industry that you have to take part in and navigate. All the interviews and talking about yourself, which is very different if you’re a female writer. It’s not like any of it is bad, it’s just that there aren’t that many careers where these split personalities are required. If you think about Natalia Ginzburg, for example, she wrote books that were ostensibly in the in the period of fascism in Italy, but when you read the actual stories, they’re about what she fed her children – tomato pasta or whatever – and for a lot of men, historically, that’s not interesting. It doesn’t tell us anything about the context of Italy in that time. Oh, but it does! There is no version of the truth that is too small or unimportant to tell. That’s sort of what Exposure was about – constantly making women feel like they just write personal stuff that’s not relevant to anyone else.
Which naturally led to the idea of comfort zones?
Because of Exposure I had been thinking about comfort zones already. The idea of the novelist in the shed, and then suddenly the novelist on the stage. And things I want to write about are often what might be seen as the domestic or the small or where not much seems to happen. Those are the books I’m drawn to, like Rachel Cusk for example.
Now onto something completely different. You once met your style icon, Phoebe Philo, didn’t you?
We were staying in the same, small hotel in Spain, with only six rooms. I wasn’t going to say anything, but then I realised that all meals were communal so it would be rude not to say hello. My boyfriend said: “is that the Phoebe Philo you keep banging on about being your style icon?” Obviously for him, he doesn’t get the minimal vibe… I think I asked her to pass the muesli or something, and then we chatted. And my boyfriend said: “you know, she’s a novelist!” And I was like, shut up! I like understated and minimal. I think that if I was putting too much creative energy into a look it would distract me a bit from what I’m trying to do in my work. I need a uniform so I can focus.