Halfway through my interview with writer Jem Calder, he gives me some much-needed writing advice as I mention my plans to start a writing career: “There’ll be a lot of noise and stuff that’ll demotivate you, but, almost to an extent that seems insane, you have to pursue a single thing, and if you do that, you’ll make it,” he said.
This mindset was how he continued writing Reward System, his debut book, which features six interlinked stories about how technology shapes our relationships — having an obstacle like a boring job provides some resistance to writing, and tests how bad you want it, he says. Several of the book’s small details, like banter between service workers or party-fueled social anxieties, were inspired by his own life, but he doesn’t think of the collection as autofiction. The neuroses of the two main characters, Nick and Julia, can be shared by anyone, especially as they inhabit a vague city-place which is never defined, almost existing in a sort of void.
We caught up with Jem to discuss his new collection, awkward social interactions, and finding the time to write in the smallest of life’s pauses.
Congratulations on your debut story collection! How does it feel to have your first book out?
Good! But with any major life achievement, I’m sure you know, once you achieve the thing it doesn’t feel at all what you thought it’d feel like. You still have your same brain you had while you were working on the project. And you now lack the comfort of having this nice little thing you had to distract yourself. In all honesty, it’s been kind of crazy. This has been a big life dream for me, and to have it out with Faber and Farrar, Straus and Giroux is much more than I ever thought I’d be able to achieve. Now I have to do something else, bigger and better.
That’s probably the most interesting answer I’ve gotten to that question. You said you ‘still have the same brain’; were you looking to become someone else? Like, ‘Okay, person No. 2 for book No. 2.’
[Laughs] That’s funny. The thing is, I’ve read back over the stories for various things, I’ve done readings. Now I’m working on new stuff, and there’s a huge gulf between the person that wrote [Reward System] and the person who is writing these things now. On the one hand, I do still have the same neuroses and anxieties that led me towards writing in the first place. But a lot of it feels like it’s written by a very different person with very different concerns. But that’s not to say I’m not proud of the achievement.
I wanted to ask why you wanted to write a short story collection, when the interlocking characters and a consistent voice could have formed a novel.
That’s a good question, and to be honest, there was some discussion about whether it would be marketed as a novel. I was pretty adamant that I wanted it not, because I think if you expected a novel and you read it, you’d feel a bit cheated. In terms of the short story form, a big part of it was practicality. I started writing the book and I hadn’t had any work published, hadn’t even finished a short story until I wrote the one about the dating app halfway through the book. That gave me a boost, like, ‘Maybe I could do this.’ But I was working a day job and also working side jobs, so it was hard to try and find time to write. Obviously, I knew I wanted to do it; it was my biggest priority. The first couple of stories were early work, and I wanted to give myself a chance to develop and change style and explore different interests. There was sort of a ‘finding my voice’ element to it as well. And I think it worked out well, to be honest, because part of the thing I like most is how the registers are a bit different. Some of the stories feel warmer and organic — the one where the characters run into each other and have a conversation that flows quite naturally — but others that feel very mechanical, deliberately complex. So I liked giving myself that range.
The idea to have the characters repeat and have them turn into a larger narrative only really came when I was a few stories in and I had the realization — the concerns I wanted to write about haven’t really changed. I’m interested in the same problems, and how they develop in people’s lives over their mid-20s. It started to seem absurd to create new characters to just chuck the same problems at them over and over again. I like that you can check in with Nick in one story, you don’t see him for about 50 pages, and then down the line, see how he’s dealing with his problems — or not dealing with them.
You take a magnifying glass to human relationships and situations — particularly the restaurant and Tinder stories, where every miniscule detail is brought to light. Do you find yourself taking note of when these things arise in life, or was it mostly retrospective or imaginative?
That’s a good question. Not as often as you might think. I take notes all the time and when a thought is interesting to me, I want to do something with it. Having said that, I’ll pre-plan all these little things, and then I’ll hear someone telling a story. I know people who work in restaurant circles, and I’ve worked in the service industry for a long time, and I have all these anecdotes and ideas and things I remember people saying to me, and I’ll want to fit them into a story, but very often, they’ll be the first things to come out, because they don’t come from the same imagination in the same way. That’s not to say there’s nothing in there — there’s one detail from the restaurant story I really like — a character asking another one for the bathroom code, but there is no code, and that actually happened to me, and it was one of the most absurd interactions I’ve ever had in my life. How can you convince someone there is no code for the bathroom? There wasn’t even a keypad. So, little things like that which do come from real life really have to ferment in your imagination for a while. It’s very rare that I’ll see something out on the street and then that’ll make its way directly into the project without some sort of weird distortion process that happens in my brain. That kind of separates it from autofiction, as well. I’m interested in having a narrative drive the thing, even if it’s mostly subdued, and about relationships, and there’s nothing too exciting, I’m interested in fiction not in real life. There’s autofiction I love, but a lot of it is interesting because of how well it recapitulates actual reality into prose. I’m more interested in fiction — I like stories and I wanted it to stand on its own, doesn’t require you to compare it to real life.
I wanted to talk a little about the first story, “A Restaurant Somewhere Else” — I thought it was a really interesting move to have the longest story first, and it’s also structurally interesting while introducing us to the character of Julia and her insecurities. What made you want to start with this one?
I didn’t want to start with that one. [Laughs] for all the reasons you said, I was like, ‘This cannot be the first one.’ I was worried that someone would pick it up, and see the subheadings. But I talked to my editor about it, who was like, ‘It’s fine. People know how to read.’ There is some sort of formal complexity there. I Didn’t necessarily want it to be placed because of its length, but in terms of the things it’s doing, it’s the best tasting menu — not to use a pun — of the things I’ll do later on in the book. It covers some nice ground, it has a solid story. Like you were saying earlier, I like honing in on everyday details and prying what art I can out of them, and I think that story does it really well, so it was fit to go first. Chronologically, as well, that’s the first story with the recurring characters. Natural fit in terms of that, terrible fit in terms of everything else.
The title, too, matches with the vague sense of location throughout the book, especially in this chapter. So much focus is on the restaurant, I kind of imagined it floating in space, alone from everywhere else.
Yeah, and I do that quite deliberately. People who live in London say it’s obviously set in London, people in the U.S. think it’s set in their city. There is this broad applicability because none of the locations are named. I intentionally kept it quite vague because I have this feeling of all the major metropolitan cities all being a bit identity-less. There are a lot of interchanging factors, all the finance runs globally, nothing is that local anymore. I do think it has sort of a displacing effect on people’s relationships and the way it seeps into our everyday interactions. Sort of a weird, semi-anonymous life. Sometimes city life feels very nonspecific to me. Like it could be happening to anyone else, and I’m just there for it.
I like the thing you said about space, because that’s how it feels to live in a city. There are a few areas that are lucid in my mind, but the rest are just clouds in my mind. You know how in Grand Theft Auto, you haven’t unlocked the map yet, and there’s just these blocked portions, that’s how a lot of places are to me. There’s little pockets of things where I know what’s happening, but the whole vast structure, I’ve got no idea.
I loved the next story, where Nick is in focus, attending a somewhat awkward birthday party where he stalls in the bathroom. Where did the inspiration for this character come from?
Yeah, that’s probably the most autobiographical element — well, I won’t say that, because a lot of the characters have a little bit of me in them. But certainly the direct life issues he’s dealing with, which are chronic procrastination and feeling demoralized, I think there’s a lot of it about and the internet plays a large part in it. Whether you’d say substance abuse issues, but certainly, I think when you’re at that stage in your life you have no stopping mechanism. Take internet use, a lot of these apps have no stopping cues — they have the infinite scroll mechanism. You’re just in this completely absorbative behavioral loop — it runs you, you don’t run it. You might be able to reassert control over it, but you kind of can’t. It’s designed to be a losing game for you. And I was interested in a character who is just at his lowest point. He has this thing he might be able to do, but even that, he doesn’t really do. I know a lot of people who are like that — I’ve been like that, for a lot of myself as well. Knowing you have one interest, and you won’t pursue it because you’re pretty sure you’ll fail. But time really does go by.
The trajectory that Nick goes on in the book is similar to the one I’ve had in my life, but there are also things he does that I don’t do and things I do that he doesn’t. In terms of at a party and feeling like isolating yourself, that’s pretty much me in any social situation.
The pandemic makes a cameo in the last story, where Julia and Nick are catching up more regularly. It really changed our patterns of communication with each other — is this why you wanted to include it in some way?
Yeah, I think so. The problem with the pandemic is that anything you can say has been said to death already. It’s a bit of a truism, but it didn’t change anything, it just accelerated the things that were already happening. I guess I was interested in that — a lot of the themes for the book I had been teasing out while we were in lockdown, the subtext was all stripped away. None of this was metaphorical anymore — the jokey idea that a person spends seven hours a day scrolling on their phone — that was literally all people had to do. I wrote that story while the lockdowns were ongoing, and I’m glad I did it. For me, the way to do something like that is to have a really tight area of focus. There’s no need to focus on anything larger or worry about what the future is gonna be, or the severity of it. I really wanted to hone in on two people’s conversations they were having. I was glad to be writing a short story collection at that point, because it can be contained, — quarantined, if you will — in the collection, whereas if you’re writing a novel and you want to set it around that timespan, it’s not really satisfying to be, like, ‘Two years pass…’ You need to dig down into that. Working on longer projects now, that’s something I’m interested in, because how do you account for that period in peoples’ lives? And you have to make it interesting. That’s something people forget, but what I care about is that you have to make your stories interesting. I know that sounds stupidly obvious, but people tie themselves in knots trying to make things interesting that might not be.
I loved your Granta essay about finding creativity in small doses at work and writing in search bars, wherever you can, which is called back in the story “Search Engine Optimisation.” I thought that this idea matched the style of the story, where it was sharp little vignettes of office life.
Yeah, I literally wrote those while I was in those jobs, but they took me forever to do. It took an embarrassing amount of my life to write because I was working. But I wouldn’t have it any other way — I was talking to someone the other day about work-life balance, where if you’re writing something, how do you deal with having a job, or finding work. They were talking about it in a more optimistic way, like, having your day job or career gives you a bit of traction. You have a little bit of resistance in your life, something to push back against. Obviously, it would be a huge luxury to write fiction without having a job. But that’s a slightly more optimistic way of seeing things. It reminded me when I was writing those stories, if I’m completely honest, the unspoken thing behind that Granta essay and the workplace stories — it’s entirely likely that if I had the material circumstances to just sit and write, I might not have done it. I wouldn’t have felt keen enough to do it.
I feel differently about it day to day, but it’s not always the most pleasant thing to check back on what you did yesterday and see that it fucking sucks. It’s good to have a motivator like that, some element of your life that’s unsatisfying. It’s super annoying, because I remember thinking, ‘This sucks. I hate my life. If I ever make it, I’ll never look back and think that these were the best days of my life.’ It actually kinda was! Which is so stupid. You really need to know why things are a problem. Work is important to me as a subject as well because all your readers are working, and it might not occupy enough space in fiction. It’s usually just a background organizer. Contemporary fiction I enjoy tends to tackle that problem a little more rather than just being an unseen thing.
I thought it was impressive that, despite shifting characters and POVs, your voice remains constant throughout the collection. It made us seem like an outside viewer, zooming in and retracting, but still within the same universe.
At the time, it kind of wasn’t deliberate. But I remember finishing and thinking the authorial personal relating to the text, whoever is telling us this, doesn’t exist any more. And that’s just by virtue of having finished the thing. It dies so quickly with finishing the characters. It really has to do with your very specific aesthetic and emotional concerns at a given time. But I’m grateful it has died, even though it makes it tricky to start again and re-learn things. It’s an interesting task, to be working where you feel good about something, to have it absolutely gone. But I can see a sort of consistency there that I didn’t see at the same time.
Now that the book is out, what are you working on now? Do you think your next project will be another short story collection or a novel?
I’d definitely like to write a novel, but I know it’ll take a long time. Reward System took a long time, and I tend to sort of be forgiving of other people’s work, but with my own — it can take a long time to even be willing to put something down. So that’s the goal, it being all lined up, putting a short story collection out and then a novel the next year, but you have to be honest with yourself. It has to percolate, you have to take time figuring out how to do things. But I’m working on new stuff, and it’s a lot of fun.
Reward System is available now.