Lisa Owens’ début is a novel suffused with wit and charm that follows a young woman’s attempts to navigate the great expanse of time she is confronted with while “not working”.
Told through short chapters and observational vignettes, Not Working (Picador, April) chronicles the experiences of twentysomething Claire Flannery as she decides to quit her nondescript job in marketing and “figure out what she wants to do with her life”. However, this endeavour is not as straightforward as she hopes.
“She has this sense that she’s been in the same job for a number of years and that maybe it isn’t exactly what she wants to do,” Owens says. “As soon as she gives up her job, she then doesn’t really know where to start looking and finds herself slowly sinking into days and days of spending time on the internet and going to cafés . . . basically just wasting a lot of time.”
Owens deftly demonstrates how Claire’s grand plans to get fit, read more and get to “grips with the economy, and modern art” deteriorate into watching viral videos on the internet and arguing with her trainee brain-surgeon boyfriend, whose “very obvious purpose” leads Claire to feel “lacking in some way, [which] puts a bit of a strain on their relationship”.
The idea of “purpose” is the root of the novel and came to Owens from a sense she had, that as people get older they start to wonder “whether what they have chosen to do—possibly at random, or seemingly at random after university—was actually the right thing for them.” She adds: “That seemed to be the sense I got from speaking to people, that people were so desperate to live in London and pay the rent, or be able to afford to go out, that they took a job and they found that suddenly years had passed by and that they were still [at that same job]. Then they start wondering whether they should think about changing [careers].
“But obviously you have to consider the sacrifices you make by starting again, maybe having to retrain, not having any money for a while. So you have to weigh up those risks. I was interested in what would happen to someone who made that decision but didn’t know what they wanted to do.”
Owens, who quit her job as an editor at independent publisher Profile Books to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA), says “shades of” Claire’s journey mirror her own experience. “Unlike Claire, I knew that I wanted to write, so that lack of direction that is her ‘journey’ wasn’t mine because I felt like I did know what I wanted to do.
“In some ways, the writing process weirdly mirrored hers because I was having to self-start every day. I was going to cafés and going to the library and really trying to get this thing going. It was really something that only I was invested in at that stage and that only I was going to get done—in the way that in her job hunt, no one is going to be throwing job offers at her. So I think that definitely fed in, this sense of desperation when you are thinking, ‘Why can’t I be more proactive and productive?’”
Although Owens shares similarities with her character—both are young women living in London who have recently left their jobs—Owens says Claire is more “extreme” than she is. “Claire is quite extreme in the way that she really obsesses over things and has her anxieties . . . so I think in those ways we are a bit different. But we probably share a sense of humour, perhaps. I’d hope I was a bit less trying than she is—I think she would be a difficult person to live with.”
Claire’s hijinks and random, pithy observations lend themselves well to the structure Owens employs in the novel. “That kind of mindset was quite interesting to me and the vignette structure worked in that way, because she suddenly has a lot of time to notice things and a lot of time to get annoyed by things. That seemed to work quite well.”
Attempting to link these observations to a stucture and plot was challenging, she says: “Knowing that obviously readers like a story, I tried to satisfy that desire while also trying to be true to the lifelike texture of the novel, without it necessarily being this kind of huge story and this huge kind of intricate plot, but something that was relatable. I definitely had days when I thought, ‘Is this a big enough story?’ and ‘How do I modulate it?’”
The voice that pervades the book was borne out of the first scene Owens wrote—it also became the first scene in the book—in which Claire has an altercation with a man about a plant growing outside of her house. “That was where the voice came from, this person who was at home during the day having this slightly odd, passive-aggressive argument with a stranger. I think from there I just had this sense of who this person was and that she was lacking direction, clinging on to these little kind of projects in a way—or making more of them than there needed to be just because she didn’t really have anything else going on.”
Not Working’s witty observational nature has drawn comparisons to Bridget Jones’ Diary, which Owens says is “surreal” and “hugely flattering.” The book was the subject of an eight-way auction between publishers, a “really weird and incredible” experience for Owens. She says: “I used to work at Profile and I’ve seen these things play out before. It was very surreal and wonderful to be on the other side of it. I’d quit my job and had done this masters and was writing this novel without any sense that it would go anywhere at all and that was just incredible vindication. I still can’t really believe it.”
Owens feels that working at Profile subconsciously informed her decision to become a writer: “There was something about that atmosphere and working with authors from the beginning and seeing how amazing it was for them, coming with an idea and then having this finished book in their hands. It was something I didn’t fully know myself that I wanted. As the years wore on I thought, ‘I’ll give this a go and see how it is’.”
This led Owens to enrol on the Creative Writing MA at UEA, “to sort of see whether I could do it”. She says: “I’m not one of these people who had written every day. I did write a bit as a child and then I just didn’t, for years and years and years. So I really wanted to know, if I was going to try and write something, that I could actually bear the lifestyle. It was this great year of experimentation and of trying things out. The great thing about UEA is the calibre of other students who are there; there are people on that course who have been such valuable readers of my work since—and hopefully will be in the future.”
Owens has plans for a new book but has found a new sense of “purpose”. “I’ve just had a baby, so that’s kind of taking up my time,” she says. “It’s slowed things down for me on the writing front for a little while, but I absolutely would love to write another book.”
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 5th February 2016.