“Life On Life’s Terms”: An Interview with Jem Calder

By Lily Kuenzler

When I meet Jem on Zoom, he asks that I don’t put the video recording of our interview online: “Videos seem to last forever on the internet, don’t they?” he says. Yes, they do. And so, another toxic trait of digital life is added the extensive list that has been brought to light in Jem Calder’s debut collection: Reward System. Although much of the collection, and much of my discussion with Jem, centres around the problems with living in this modern and disconnected world, he does offer the antidote to this state of being: genuine human connection.

Q: What made you decide to link all the characters in this collection?

A: I wanted the book to explore really specific ideas. The problems my characters face are all similar: communication issues, addiction issues and relationship issues. It seemed to me that I could think through those altogether, as opposed to separately. I had the thought: if this character is called Nick, am I just going to invent a ‘John’ who is completely interchangeable with him? I also got invested in my own characters. I thought: Oh, I kind of hope these people are able to have some good in their lives. It was driven by my own curiosity. 

Q: It’s interesting to hear you say that you wanted the best for your characters. Did you give them that?

A: No, not really. The characters certainly don’t end up where they want to be, which I think is one of those conditions of life that is true for everyone. You never really end up in the situation that you want to be in. The two main characters don’t end up where the reader wants them to be, or where they would necessarily like themselves to be. But at the same time, you have to deal with things that feel inevitable. It would feel like I was cheating these characters out of their own reality if I made everything perfect. While I was writing the collection, I was interested in portraying life on life’s terms. I asked myself: what are the conditions of reality? And how can I represent them in the most interesting literary way? 

Q: Is there an antidote to the digital entrapment and fairly depressing modern world you present in this collection?

A: No. Technology holds us separate from each other and only allows us to engage with people in flat ways. We treat others as objects, not as actual people. It has a spiritually deadening effect on us over time. You couple that with work conditions getting less personal and we end up feeling incredibly alienated. That’s the depressing reality that the book is putting forward. It’s a recognition of the modern condition we’re dealing with, aggravated by technology. We’re at the thin end of the wedge in terms of that problem, which is to say that technology is only going to get ‘better’. We have a very consumptive economy here, based around people buying products that are manufactured abroad. When you optimise buying online, people end up compulsively buying and consuming. When that mode of consumption is optimised highly enough, that is just an economy based around addiction. All these people are addicted to their own compulsive behaviours, because their lives make them feel stressed. So they drink too much, or they use the internet too much, or have weird relationships with other people and unhealthy relationships with dating apps. If I’m being completely honest, I think that’s only going to get more extreme. The optimism comes through people having honest human relationships. When they force themselves to be people that they’re not ashamed of. Life is too depressing to pick up a book and read about how depressing life is. So I attempted to show how honest human relationships can be redemptive, even if those relationships aren’t always going to be happy. In fact, they might break your heart or become another source of difficulty in your life, but they are also the only thing that makes it worthwhile. 

Q: I found that you write women’s interior thoughts particularly well. What gave you so much insight into how women’s minds work?

A: Because of my name, loads of people thought that the stories were by a woman early on. I think the best thing a writer can do is vacate themselves from their work. I am always trying to remove myself from the stories. Not in terms of biographical details: I have loads in common with the central characters, Julia and Nick, and even other peripheral characters are similar to me. But I’m always trying to give them their own existence and interiority. I’m actually not inventing a new person — not to reveal the whole magic trick — but I am only trying to convince you that this person is real for 20 pages at a time. So long as you get the details right, characters can feel very real. Contemporary literary fiction is in some ways a feminine form: a lot of contemporary fiction writers are women. I’ve never approached that as some huge divide I can’t cross. My interests probably do align in a feminine way, at least in terms of my writing and I’m quite open to that. It came naturally to me. My reading of other things has influenced this. I’m a big fan of the short story writer, Alice Munro. I read everything of hers over and over again. I think a lot of her thought patterns have crept into my writing. She’s probably my biggest influence.

Q: What’s your favourite Alice Munro story?

A: There’s a book I really like called ‘The Beggar Maid’, which is an interconnected one. It’s basically a novel. And there’s a story she’s got called ‘The Dance of Happy Shades’, which is really cool. I could pick up anything by her. 

Q: You mentioned that your biography has affected the collection. How?

A: The obvious one is feeling directionless. With Julia and cooking, she knows she’s good at it and it’s something that passes the time easily for her. But she also has doubts about it as a career path: she has the feeling of being in two places at once. I don’t really know how to bridge that gap. It’s something I’ve felt since I was a kid: feeling like you’re an uninvited guest. Nick has that as well — he doesn’t feel fully where he is. And he feels like he’s better than everything he’s doing. But he’s not, because he’s still doing it. Your life isn’t going to change unless you change it. My characters are very indecisive people. That indecisiveness ends up being a tragic flaw. For me personally, what has been a huge problem is having strong feelings about something, and then just not acting on them, sometimes for years and years. For example, my writing. I wanted to write for a long time, but I took my early 20s off from writing — I didn’t produce anything for that entire time because I was convinced I’d never be able to get published or that no one would be interested. But look where we are now. 

Q: What does your writing process look like? Morning, evening, coffee, 2am with red wine – what are the mechanics?

A: Definitely not the 2am with red wine. That’s not to say that I haven’t tried that in my life. Writing is disciplined. I’ve had a lot of jobs — I’ve done service industry work and manual labor. To me, writing is similar to those kinds of jobs, more so than an office job, because you need to show up on time, you need to physically be in front of your words on the page. Writing needs to be something that you show up to. I’ve heard the analogy of shovelling snow. You will be looking at your driveway and think, I don’t want to go out there: it’s cold, and it’s going to be really boring. But after five minutes of shovelling snow, you’re into the task — you get to the end of your driveway before you know it. For me, it’s sheer force of will. I would also say that, drinking and writing are complete opposite activities. They have nothing in common. I think there are many writers who do too much of one and not enough of the other. There are people who are asleep at the wheel and not working hard enough. You need to be firing on all cylinders, you need your entire focus, you can’t mess around with this. So I try to put in as much time as I can. For me, and for anyone reading this who’s interested in their own practice, I would say time is your best friend. My favourite things I’ve done are the sentences I worked on for, no exaggeration, two weeks. I have a sentence in mind where I woke up every day and spent hours on it. That’s not to say that I’d just sit there racing over one line again and again. But that was my mental screensaver for the rest of the day. I think the pressure is different with short stories because it’s a truncated form. Every word you’ve left on the page needs to mean something. Otherwise, people are going to think you’re wasting their time. Every sentence needs to explain why it’s there.

Q: What’s the sentence that played in your mind for so long?

A: It was the first sentence of the whole book. I knew I wanted it to be difficult, a bit weird, but also introduce the character and establish a setting in which people are uncertain about the future. I wanted it to do so much heavy lifting. You’re only as good as your last sentence. Every sentence needs to feel like it could be the final sentence of the story: it needs to be strong enough to recenter it. In the process of editing, you learn that just because you want every sentence to be strong and coherent, that’s not an excuse to make them overly complex. There’s a writer I like called Tao Lin who said: “When I’m editing, I’m trying to save the reader time.” That’s a great mentality to have. Get everything on the page and make it as original, spiky and cool as you can. But when you come to editing, you need to make sure it has zero fat. There can’t be any excess in it. 

Q: In ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ you address the reader directly as ‘You’. “When was the last time you read a full short story without, at some point, taking an intermission to check your device; refresh your feeds” (p.220) Why did you decide to do this? 

A: We have a dependence where we can’t go 15 minutes without looking at a screen, or else something in the back of our head starts yelling at us. I deliberated over that sentence for ages. If I’m reading something, and someone is trying to teach me a lesson, like: hey, reader, you use your smartphone too much, I don’t want it to be hidden away in the story. Just say it. If you’ve got something to say, say it. I spent ages fiddling around in the margins, then I realised the most effective way to do that is just to drop the pretense for a second. By this point, I feel like you can trust me because you’ve read 200 pages of my book. I think I can communicate to you really directly. I can say: here’s a thing I think I know about you

Q: In ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ you also say: “Just a conversation, like between adults” (p.238). What do you think characterises this feeling of not really being an adult?

A: That character, in my head, is in his 30s or 40s. He’s definitely an adult, but still conceives of himself as being quite a bit younger. Economic circumstances, among other things, have led to this. Since the 1980s, wages have gradually stagnated, but productivity has steadily increased. In other words, people are working harder than ever before for the same amount of money they were earning forty years ago. That economic reality has filtered into culture and people’s behaviour. Millennials don’t have enough money to buy homes, or own cars — everything is rented and temporary. That feeds into personal relationships too. There’s a writer called Mark Fisher, who would say this is the neoliberal condition. If you’re part of our generation, you are replaceable. You see it in dating apps: if I get sick of the person I’m dating, I can just swipe left. And your employers can do that with you as well. It’s a mental state that is a response to this economic reality where none of us really have any purchase in the physical world. So, we retreat into the virtual space of the internet which has this nostalgic, friendly feeling to it. But it’s also just completely gross. That’s why a lot of these characters are spinning their wheels and feeling like they’re not able to make an impact. 

Do you have any words of advice to our budding writers here at Word Factory?
A: Aside from work, which is an inevitability, find out what is stopping you from writing and deal with that. It might be an emotional thing, or it might be drinking too much at the weekend so that by Monday you just want to sleep after work. Your writing will only be seriously good if you take it seriously. The reason I sound like a military drill instructor here is because the thing I really lacked when I started out was discipline. I would write half a page and ask myself, Why is my writing bad? Why does no one want to read it? I was the victim in this scenario. If you want to be good at writing, you can’t let yourself be that. You have to be sturdier and more dependable for yourself.

Lily Kuenzler is a young writer/theatre maker based in London. She has written several short stories and publishes them on her podcast ‘Tongue Torn’ which can be found on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. This year, she is taking her play ‘The Worst Thing You Could Do’ to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.