It can be hard to date, but even harder when your best friend is in the hospital, your friend who is involved with annoying people asks you to go out with her, and a previous fling is on your mind. That’s what’s happening to Alice, a 24-year-old who just quit her job and spends her days visiting Mia in the hospital or working on her unfinished novel, just trying to get by.
The complexity of friendships is a major theme of A Bit Much, Sarah Jackson’s debut novel. Alice wants to be a good friend and visit Mia, but doing so reminds her of her freedom and Mia’s worsening state. Going out with Anne makes her feel bad, as Anne is prone to cruel comments disguised as honesty. And when she meets James, a new neighbor that might have some romantic potential, she isn’t sure when to think when Dylan, a previous crush, stays on her mind.
We caught up with Jackson to talk about messy lives, imperfect endings, and what inspired her new novel.
Congrats on your debut! How does it feel to have this product of work out in the world?
Thank you, first of all. It’s really exciting. It’s also really scary, but a lot of people have messaged me on Instagram — the Bookstagrammers — and honestly, those messages have meant so much. Obviously, it means a lot when people I know have told me they loved it, but I think there’s always a fear, like, ‘Do people need to know me personally to totally connect with everything I’m saying?’ So, those messages where people say they related to the book and they loved it have meant a lot to me. I read those several times. Focusing on those positive messages is what I’m trying to do.
Alice’s life feels like she’s constantly dodging security lasers, trying to find something to do that doesn’t make her feel awful. Why did you want to write about the downsides of life and a particularly rough period for this character?
I wanted to talk about that just because some of those darker experiences have been my own. But also, for me, darker or sad moments are written in a way where I can connect to them emotionally or it feels like it’s not just me who has experienced these things. Even if you don’t know the writer or you haven’t met someone in person where you can have this conversation with, you do feel not alone in a way. For a lot of people, I think they can’t talk about these things or they don’t feel comfortable or sure how they want to express it. It’s almost like you’re having a conversation with what you’re reading, sometimes. I wanted to write something honest from a certain perspective, and hope to make people feel less alone.
So while her best friend Mia is in the hospital, unable to do much, Alice is debating whether or not to live, date, and be free because she knows Mia can’t. What inspired this dynamic between them?
So when I was 17, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had just started university at the time, and had to leave. So I structured Mia’s treatment similar to mine, where I had to be in the hospital for many days at a time. I wrote Mia’s character fairly different from my own, because I didn’t want to write my exact experience — I wasn’t interested in writing a memoir. But I like to take experiences I’ve had or witnessed, and create on top of that. I’ve always been interested in friendships and the dynamics there, especially when it’s either a codependent friendship or uneven, where one person really relies on the other, who can be quite free. I haven’t experienced this dynamic personally, but I’ve seen so much of it and found it endlessly fascinating.
I’m sorry to hear that. I hope everything’s better — it’s good you were able to use that experience as a jumping-off point for a creative endeavor.
Yeah, some parts were harder to write than others, but I think there’s self-protection in fictionalizing it. I did want to make Mia pretty different than me, though I’ve experienced a lot of things she has and a lot of the feelings she’s experiencing while dealing with a serious illness. It was still a protection thing, to write from the perspective of Alice. I don’t know if ‘more fun’ is a good word for it, but I thought it would be interesting for me. I just don’t want to write exactly about myself, because it seems boring.
The party scenes were so spot on — there’s always obnoxious people like Anne, or the artist who calls himself “Ekphrasis.” Were they inspired by people you met or just by a worst-nightmare scenario you thought up?
I think the worst-nightmare scenario is more interesting to read, but there are definitely people who I have met who are like this. No character is exactly any of these people. But most of these characters are in their early 20s, and a lot of the times when I’ve met people, you’re just getting a part of them. You’re getting the part that they want to be perceived, and they’re acting out of insecurity or judgment, and you only see a part of these people. Sometimes Alice acknowledges that, and sometimes she doesn’t. She’s very insecure and judgemental herself, but I was mostly just joking around because they have irritated me. But there’s probably more to them, so it’s a light joking.
Alice’s constant struggle in wanting to write, trying to, and giving up, is something I can definitely relate to. Were you like that in your writing process?
Oh, yes. So, I wrote the first chapter of this in 2010. It’s not like I’ve been writing constantly since then. So I wrote the first chapter, and didn’t touch it for another year, then wrote quite a bit within two months. It’s just a losing confidence thing, really. I didn’t touch it for another three years after that, but it was always at the back of my mind and I wrote down little notes. I really was fighting a lot of self-doubt, and then there was another 5 years. So it’s been a real struggle with confidence and being, like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’
I will say though, when I had that first draft which took me a while to get to, I cut more than half of what I wrote. Full characters. A lot of people in their early 20s can write an amazing novel; that was not me. I’m so happy the first draft is not what people are holding in their hands. I think I needed the time to look back and reflect and think about the characters in a different way, especially Alice and Mia. I think I was able to write a more layered relationship there.
I’ve shared that story with other writers as well, who are like, ‘Oh, that makes me feel better.’
I wanted to talk a little bit about the ‘unlikeable narrator’ trend that’s going on right now — several of my favorite books like My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Hysteria, The New Me, A Certain Hunger, have narrators who don’t make the best decisions. What made you want to portray Alice in this way?
I always knew that a lot of people wouldn’t like Alice. I just really wanted to write something honest. For Alice, with her anxiety, depression, and really loud insecurities, she already thinks a lot of people won’t like her. Although Mia thinks Alice can be too much, Alice knows she loves her. Mia has notes for Alice, basically. That’s also why her relationship matters to Alice so much. Mia also sees things about Alice — Alice puts up these blocks, so people can’t get too close to her.
I wanted to show the darker or cruel thoughts that Alice has, because I just wanted it to be honest. She’s hiding these feelings and thoughts from a lot of people. I wanted to show what that can look like. Sometimes, even if it’s just intrusive thoughts that aren’t actually true, but you feel them in the moment, whether it’s about yourself or someone else, or whether you can work through them or they’re harder to get over. Some people have told me that some of the things Alice thinks or says are things they’d never want to admit that they have felt or thought or said. But they did feel that they could relate, in that moment. And not everyone will relate to Alice — if someone said that they didn’t like her, I’d get it. Like, I’m not gonna fight that. But it’s funny because people tell me they like Alice, and I’m like, ‘Oh, really?’ She’s not easy. She’s a challenging character.
Much of the book concerns complicated relationships, and I like how you didn’t shy away from the messiness. People are rarely perfect, and every character in this book does at least one thing you cringe at.
Thank you so much, yeah, I did want to write realistic characters. You said everyone does something you cringe at — for me, it was important to do that. With Mia — while I was going through my treatment, and even after, while watching things where I would see this sick character who is just an angel, the perfect sick person, really. They have maybe one breakdown, but for the most part, they’re brave and amazing. I think Mia is still there for Alice, and she is a strong person in ways, but she can also be irrational and cruel sometimes. I wanted to show all of those parts. The ‘model sick person’ thing can really upset me. It sends a weird message where it’s like these characters have to have all these amazing qualities for you to feel compassion for them. I didn’t want Mia to feel like that. Obviously, Alice’s flaws are way more front and center, but that was important for me as well.
Totally. She’d do some stuff that might be a little passive-aggressive towards Alice that I’d be mad at, then backtrack, like, ‘Oh, I forgot she’s sick. Can’t be upset at her.’ It was this odd dynamic.
Yeah, it’s funny you mention that, because Alice said something like that at one point, but of course you can be mad at her. But it’s weird because they’re both tiptoeing around each other. Mia is trying to take care of Alice in a way where she’s frustrated. She doesn’t know what’s gonna happen with her life. I like reading and watching messiness, I guess. And I know a lot of people won’t relate to what’s in the book, but I wasn’t necessarily trying to go towards the mass appeal, rather than go toward what felt honest and fun for me to write. ‘Fun’ is odd to say, I guess I mean interesting as a writer.
I liked the ending — it didn’t offer anything conclusive, but that’s consistent with the general tone and flux of the whole book. Why did you want to end it this way?
Well, thank you, I feel like it’s consistent with the book. But I had read a couple of Bookstagram or Goodreads reviews about not getting closure, which I think is so interesting. I don’t necessarily look for closure in films or books or anything like that. It’s more so feelings are what I’m hoping to connect to.
Spoiler alert for the ending!
I feel like with the death of somebody, even if you know if it’s gonna happen or have a heads up — in this case it wasn’t totally clear — it’s rare to feel closure. Especially so soon. The book is set during the span of just a few months. I didn’t want to do the ‘Month later…’ where she’s fine. I wanted to keep it within the frame that I had built. Mia’s death eclipses everything for Alice. Some people would have loved resolution with James and Dylan, for example. But in this moment, her life has just blown up. This person who means everything to her is gone, and that’s all she’s thinking about. Which was how it was from the start of the book. To me, it was a natural place to end — it’s the worst thing she could imagine. What a great pulling for a book!
I also feel like Alice wouldn’t do anything different. It made total sense with her character to just stop.
Yes, thank you! That’s very smart. Can you also say that I said that? Just kidding, but that’s true. The last paragraph, I had to figure out how to word it. The same thing was gonna happen, but I had to stick to Alice’s voice and say it how I thought she would say it. She will say something and you don’t know if she’s actually gonna do it. I agree with you — she wouldn’t even have a plan. She’s just feeling things, without trying to feel them. It’s really hard to prepare emotionally to lose somebody, of course. And it wasn’t clear to her or the reader what was going to happen. Some people have said it felt abrupt, but, you know, that’s death. I could have made it so she picks one of the guys in the end, but I’m just not interested in that type of ending. When a person you really love is gone, that’s all you think about, and it does explode your world.
A Bit Much is available now.