Debut author of the forthcoming Invincible Summer, Alice Adams, meets me in a quiet coffee shop, somewhere that is apparently a crucial part of her writing routine. "I used to have rituals and everything a particular way, but I think that’s actually bad for writing, because it’s so hard to get your perfect conditions, and you use it as an excuse not to write. My conditions for writing are that I turn off the internet and just sit there. That’s it. Isolating yourself and making yourself bored, so that there’s nothing you can do except write. You’re forcing your mind into a situation where it has to start working for itself." It’s a practicality and determination which, by halfway through our conversation, I’m starting to suspect is trademark. We discuss how it feels to be a debut novelist, Adams’ background in banking and writing to reflect life.
On being a debut
"I’m approaching the publication with excitement – it’s the culmination of a huge amount of effort – but also some amount of trepidation," Adams says. "Because obviously writers are people who lock themselves in a room for years on end creating a book, and then come blinking out into the light with people wanting to interview them and that sort of thing – it takes some getting used to! There’s a certain weight of expectation that I hope I can live up to. Obviously, if the whole thing’s a massive flop, it will be slightly excruciating, and put a dampener on some of my hopes of carrying on as a novelist." The book comes out from Picador on 28 June.
We move from how it feels to be a debut onto how Adams started writing. "Books have always been a massive part of my life. I read voraciously as a child. To me, the most wonderful thing you could be in life was a novelist, but it seemed a bit like being a rock star or a movie star, it wasn’t a career plan. So although I quite enjoyed writing and English lessons when I was young, I didn’t have any serious aspirations to do it."
After she left school, Adams studied Philosophy at university, before going into banking. "Banking was quite demanding and didn’t leave room for much else in my life. Writing wasn’t a priority. Reading always was, reading’s been one of the constant things in my life, but writing not at all. I had a youth to misspend and rent to pay and so I probably didn’t write anything for about ten years from my teens to mid-twenties.
"Then, I suppose it just started niggling at me. It was an itch that I had to scratch, and that went on for some years. Writing was just something I did, something I enjoyed doing. It was taking up more of my time, more of my mental space and energy." At some point – she doesn’t remember when – she decided to write a novel. However, because of her work, Adams found she didn’t have the time as she needed to write, so she decided to take nine months out to do a Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester. "It was a way of legitimising taking nine months out to focus on writing, and a way of explaining what the hell I was doing."
Having finished the novel, Adams went through the "usual process" of getting published and, though "fantastically elated" at the prospect of now being published, she admits it’s been hard work. "It was a much more intensive process than I expected – because I had no exposure to publishing. My background is banking, so I had no idea how publishing worked at all, really."
Background in banking
After her MA, Adams made a career change, taking a pay cut and becoming an analyst at a university, so that she could focus on her writing. "What I really miss is maths, computer programming and problem solving. It’s a really specific thing that you don’t really do anywhere else in your daily life. To do that sort of job, you have to be a person who loves that sort of a job, where you’re at a desk with some models you have to build, just sitting there coding for ten or twelve hours. I actually quite like that, so for me even though it pressurised and stressful as well, I miss it! I don’t say that very often because people kind of look at you like you’re an alien but it’s tremendously satisfying work. There’s a right or wrong and an endpoint: the code either works or it doesn’t. Whereas sitting down with a blank sheet of paper in front of you, that’s different."
Adams’ history in banking comes out in Invincible Summer, notably in the storyline of Eva, one of the four twenty-something protagonists who the reader follows from university graduation for fifteen years. "It’s always a question of how much of it’s autobiographical: the book is not an autobiography! Eva’s story in the book is not my story at all, but having said that, I couldn’t have written Eva’s story without working in the City, you wouldn’t be able to write about that without having some experience in that milieu. I suppose it is what got me interested in the themes in the book. They’re not front and center, but rumbling along in the background are economic questions, themes about banking, the boom and bust, the morality of different kinds of political systems and how economics fit within them. The characters lives are affected by these macro economic forces – as they affect all of our lives!"
Fiction reflecting life
Though Invincible Summer might be Adams’ first novel, she has had short fiction published before, including in The Times. "Those early pieces of validation you get are worth 100 times the later ones, because you don’t know whether it’s ever going to happen." Though she still writes short fiction, she admits she doesn’t do it as often anymore. "Sometimes it’s good to explore an idea, and I can get to the end and think, ‘Ok, that’s done now’, or I can think, ‘There’s a novel in this.’"
The switch from writing short fiction to long fiction, Adams instantly describes as "agonising," she laughs, then her face turns serious again. "Writing a novel is a much more difficult process because of the sheer length of it and the stamina required. When you write a first novel, the chances are that no one will ever read it or like it. The only reason for doing it is that you can’t not do it! It has to be a need in you. Even if you laboured away on it the rest of your life in total obscurity and never got any validation, you would still want to do it, because the value of having writing in your life is worth more than everything you sacrifice to it: the time, the energy, the risk of rejection, the agony of doubt – all of that stuff that every writer goes through."
Despite the agony, she’s working on a second book. "What I can say is that I hope it will appeal to the same sort of audience. It’s not a sequel, it’s entirely different characters and settings, but it’s similar in tone. But I don’t want to say too much because things do change!"
Privacy around her writing is something Adams seems to value strongly and says she didn’t particularly look for support when she was writing Invincible Summer. "I was experienced enough in writing to know that to get good feedback, you kind of need a finished product. It was just an act of bloody-mindedness, writing a novel. And of course, if you tell people you’re writing a novel, every time they see you they ask ‘Oh, how’s the novel going? Have you got an agent? Have you got a publisher?’ But it doesn’t work like that, so in many ways the best thing to do is not tell anyone about it! I haven’t really sought support, I knew it was something I had to go away and do in isolation, and I did it." In addition, she says if she had received encouragement or feedback, she may not have believed it. "I’m suspicious of praise and criticism."
She may have written in private, but the book is very much inspired by her life experiences. "Different bits of it come from different places. So much of it is rooted in my own life, but so much of it isn’t! They say ‘Write the book you want to read’, and that’s what I did. I didn’t necessarily feel like anyone else was writing it because I was coming at it from an angle of being at a certain point in my life, being older, and thinking ‘My goodness, me and my friends, we’ve lived our lives.’
"We’ve lived overseas, we’ve f*cked things up, we’ve had so many ups and downs and we’ve had to find ways through all that. Sometimes we’ve done that admirably, and sometimes we really haven’t, and those seem to me things worth writing about. I thought, ‘Well there must be a lot of other people in this situation, and yet I don’t feel that I’m picking up any books that are writing about this stuff honestly.’ It is quite excruciating to write about this stuff honestly.
"It’s a piece of my heart. There’s so much of the things that I care about that are in Invincible Summer, from the small things to the bigger things. Because all life is a combination of those things and I wanted to reflect that."
Rights: Adam's in-demand debut to Picador