May 03, 2016

Lisa Owens

Finding your way in the new work world
Lisa Owens' debut, Not Working, has been on so many "most anticipated" lists, we've just about lost count. Well, the wait for her highly inventive, hilarious and poignant novel about Millennial professional Claire and her desperate search for her ideal career (if such a thing even exists) is finally over. We caught up with Owens and asked her a few questions about the issues facing Millennials, her own quest for a dream job and more.
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Lisa Owens' debut, Not Working, has been on so many "most anticipated" lists, we've just about lost count. Well, the wait for her highly inventive, hilarious and poignant novel about Millennial professional Claire and her desperate search for her ideal career (if such a thing even exists) is finally over. 

We caught up with Owens and asked her a few questions about the issues facing Millennials, her own quest for a dream job and more. 

What was your initial inspiration for Not Working?
The work theme was something I’d been thinking about for a while, not as a subject for a novel, necessarily, but a preoccupation I’d noticed in many of my peers who were beginning to question whether the jobs they’d fallen into (or gratefully snatched up) as graduates might not be the thing they wanted to do for the rest of their working lives. At the time I started writing, I  had no idea whether it was a substantial enough subject for a book (and I should say Not Working is about other things besides—families, long-term relationships, city living) but I did know I hadn’t read anything that dealt with this particular sense of feeling like you’ve ended up in the wrong place, and not knowing how to go about making it right.

Millennials often get a bad rap in think pieces. Was it important for you to humanize them and delve into their very real, everyday struggles in today’s world?
When I was writing the book, I honestly didn’t think of Claire as a Millennial, but as someone going through a particular (if contemporary) personal crisis. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that older readers as well as people my age have identified with Claire on different levels.

The "everyday" aspect was very important to me: I love fiction that deals with the texture of day-to-day life as it’s experienced and wanted to build a story around those micro moments that make up the weeks, months and years around the major life events—meals with your parents, nights in with your partner, going to the supermarket—which can, in their own small way, hold as much truth and import as the big, dramatic, macro events like births, deaths and marriage.

You left your own career in publishing after six years in order to pursue writing. How did you deal with the pressure to find your “dream job,” and what advice do you have for those in a similar situation?
Perhaps I’m imposing a narrative on my experience with hindsight, but I think if I’m really honest, I did always want to write, and working in publishing was an excellent displacement career while I worked up the courage to go for it (and pay the bills in the meantime). As career changes go, though, it might be as un-dramatic as it gets—unlike say, going from being a vet to cordon bleu chef.

To anyone in a similar situation, I would suggest trying to approach the dream job by degrees if possible—I did an evening course in creative writing before I left my job to do the full time M.A. and then made the decision to try & finish my novel. I needed to know I could actually hack the lifestyle and knuckle down to deadlines. The courses were instrumental in showing that I could do both.  

Much of the novel unfolds in a kind of stream-of-consciousness series of vignettes that further highlight the Millennial mentality and their fast-paced lives. Was this a conscious decision, or did this happen naturally during your writing process?
The very earliest seed for the book came from a document I’d been keeping for a while of fragments and observations: not fully fledged ideas, but scraps of dialogue and images. One day I looked at it and realized they all shared a tone so I began to expand them into vignettes and experiment with how to arrange them. The narrator, Claire, emerged pretty quickly, and her circumstances (jobless, aimlessly roaming the city) soon became clear when I asked myself: who would have the time to notice these incidental things? The vignette structure seemed to marry well with the work / purpose theme and the voice: that of someone who is lacking direction and focus but desperately seeking it.

Claire is a character that is easy to connect with when it comes to her big questions and concerns about career happiness and her everyday moments of reflection, but there are plenty of moments where her degree of privilege and outlook make for some painfully funny scenarios. How important is humor to your writing?
Humour in literature is often looked down on as being un-literary, but some of my favourite authors—Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Mary Robison, George Saunders—write with great wit as well as humanity. When I realized Not Working had a comic tone, I decided to embrace it rather than shy away from it.  I’m a huge fan of comedy in general, so in a way it’s not surprising if some of that has seeped into my writing.  

Not Working was involved in a pretty high-profile publisher auction. What have been the most exciting and unexpected moments so far in your debut publishing experience?
The auction itself was the most surreal and incredible experience. Meeting publishers and hearing them talk about something I’d written as a viable book was really like a dream come true. The very first deal was weirdly a foreign one for Danish rights – I remember thinking at the time, well, if it doesn’t sell in English I’ll just relocate to Denmark. Talking to the editors (in the U.K., U.S. and Canada) who ended up buying the book was particularly special: they just got exactly what I was trying to do. It was so gratifying after 18 months shuttered away in the library to hear people responding with such passion to what at times felt like a totally insane pursuit.

Which authors do you look to for inspiration? Do elements of pop culture also inform your writing?
The authors I’ve mentioned above (Lorrie Moore, etc.) all cropped up at various times when I was writing – they each have such a singular and appealing style, and on the days when I was struggling I would reach for their books to help me find my way back to the basics of what I was trying to achieve. I also really like A.M. Homes and Ben Lerner. In terms of pop culture, definitely: "The Office" (U.K. version) and "Seinfeld" were both inspiring in the way that they deal with ennui and minutiae respectively. In terms of music, my anthem for the book was the song Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes which seemed to tap into some of the same questions Claire is facing: what is my place in the world, and why won’t someone tell me what it is? I used to listen to it on my way to the library to write. Lena Dunham and Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig also work with similar themes about contemporary living and purpose: I watched their work while I was writing and felt a real kinship in terms of their concerns.

What are you working on next?
Good question! I’ve recently had a baby so suddenly all the time I had to write & read & think has not-so-mysteriously disappeared . . . I know I want to write another novel, but if you come back to me in a year hopefully I’ll be able to answer this more effectively. In the meantime, lets say I’m working on being a good mother.

Get the Book

Not Working

Not Working

By Lisa Owens
Dial
ISBN 9780812988819

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