It's Lit! Hot Debut Author Olivia Sudjic Talks Us Through Her Favourite Books

Photographed by Holly Whittaker
Welcome to It’s Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who’s reading what.
Picked as one of The Observer’s ‘New Faces of Fiction’, Olivia Sudjic’s highly praised debut Sympathy has been described as “The first great Instagram novel.” “My narrator’s journey is partly based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Through the Looking Glass,” says Olivia, who started writing Sympathy in 2014. An ultra-modern thriller, Sudjic’s book explores intimacy and identity in the age of the internet. It tells the tale of 23-year-old millennial Alice and the object of her online affection, Mizuko, who she obsessively studies and subsequently stalks via social media. Smart, funny and provoking, this warped love story is every bit as addictive as your ex’s Instagram account.
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Currently at work on her second novel, we visited Olivia at the flat in southeast London's Peckham she calls home to sneak a peek at her very precisely organised shelves. “For some reason, I prefer to keep fiction books in a private space, whereas non-fiction feels less revealing,” Olivia says. “I have cookery books too, but mainly for decoration.”
Who taught you to read?
I imagine it was my mum. And I remember Biff and Chip books at school and sitting on a big toy rabbit – the ‘reading rabbit’. I need one now as I’m so bad at finishing books I start. My attention span is getting really short.
What were your favourite books as a child?
Dr Seuss, Where The Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, Five Minutes' Peace, The Velveteen Rabbit… I could go on but I might cry. When I got older, it was all about Roald Dahl. I was an only child who carried a large Sony tape player everywhere (no headphones) and I had a little briefcase full of books on tape. I still remember the creepy music from The Minpins.
What are you reading right now?
Close To The Knives by David Wojnarowicz. I went to a night of readings and performances organised by the brilliant writer Olivia Laing in honour of him and wanted to read his memoir right away. Also, Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole. I loved his novel Open City, and I follow him on Instagram, which is life-affirming. The first is a slim paperback that fits inside any bag so I read it when I’m out of the house. Cole’s is a sizeable hardback I keep by my bed – they’re essays.
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Photographed by Holly Whittaker
When and where do you read?
Mainly on the underground to avoid eye contact.
Where do you buy your books? Do you have a favourite bookshop?
Burley Fisher Books in Haggerston, the London Review Bookshop by the British Museum and Daunt’s on Marylebone High Street. My local is the Review Bookshop in Peckham, which is a little gem.
How do you choose what to read next?
Well-read friends and The New Yorker's Hilton Als' Instagram.
Have you ever belonged to a book club?
No. I would like to. A friend runs an informal poetry night where we each bring two poems and anonymously put them in a ‘poetry pot’ to pick from, read out and discuss. It’s great as I need a spur to read poetry sometimes.
Favourite poem?
the lesson of the moth by Don Marquis.
Photographed by Holly Whittaker
How do you organise your bookshelves?
Literary criticism and academic books I collected at university stay up in my attic, where I have a little desk and shelves. In my bedroom I keep fiction, short stories and poetry. I try to organise chronologically but the shelves are at random heights so some won’t fit where they need to. In the kitchen I have nine shelves of non-fiction, organised as: art, politics, history, philosophy, memoir, etc. I don’t have toilet books. I keep magazines stacked by my sofa because it makes me feel like a grown-up.
Are there any magazines you read regularly?
The New Yorker and the London Review of Books. I buy Granta, n+1 and The White Review whenever I can. I’ve also been known to buy New Scientist, AnOther and The Gentlewoman, but I try not to as I have hoarder instincts.
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Photographed by Holly Whittaker
What do you use as a bookmark?
I fold! I’m sorry, I’m a terrible person.
Is there a book you’ve read more than once?
So many. I enjoy re-reading. I would have to, as I studied literature at university! The text I’ve probably read more than any other, for better or worse, is King Lear.
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley. He’s a friend who now works as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Here he writes about the refugee crisis and everyone should buy it ASAP. It’s brilliant, brave reporting and very moving. I’m currently re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood for an event I’m speaking at about literature and resistance under Trump. I’m really looking forward to watching the TV version starring Elisabeth Moss. If you have anxiety or insomnia – and who doesn’t, given the news – Little History of the World by Ernst Gombrich is the most charming and calming book to read a chapter of before bed. The famous art historian wrote it in 1935, aged 26, over the course of just six weeks. Technically it’s for children, but it’s probably more comforting for adults. It’s full of little jokes and the Nazis banned it for being too pacifist. Reading it – or better yet, being read to from it – is like having a very soothing grandparent setting the world to rights.
Photographed by Holly Whittaker
Were there any books in particular that influenced Sympathy?
One was The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist. It was from there that I got the idea of the internet helping you to find someone identical to you. I reference it a few times in the book. I also tried to channel the paranoia of that text.
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Another was James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which was first published in 1824. It’s a psychological thriller, and my student copy has the word ‘meta’ written in pretty much every margin.
Then there’s Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass – the sequel and in many ways opposite to Alice in Wonderland. Alice finds this world not down a rabbit hole but by passing through a mirror into a house (Looking Glass House) that’s just like hers but in reflection.
After I finished my first draft I read Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, Lydia Davis’ The End of The Story, and, though I’d seen the film version already, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. They didn’t influence as such, but editing the final version I had them in mind, giving me permission. I also had the surreal experience while reading Lydia Davis’ novel of encountering a thought in there that was almost identical to one I’d had in mine. I love it when that happens – when something specific occurs in two texts by accident, and it makes you feel connected to that writer. It happened recently with Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. It’s like a flirty wink.
Olivia’s Reading List
The Twits by Roald Dahl
Close To The Knives by David Wojnarowicz
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis
King Lear by William Shakespeare
The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Little History of the World by Ernst Gombrich
The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
The End of The Story by Lydia Davis
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic is published by ONE/Pushkin Press and is also available on audible.co.uk.
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