In Alice Adams’ debut novel, Invincible Summer, the author introduces readers to four friends as they embark on their life after college. It’s a synopsis we’ve heard before, but Adams provides such realism in her dynamic characters that this book offers both a breezy read as well as one that challenges all who come across it. The author spent a decade in banking before writing this stand out debut about realizing we’re already in the good old days before it’s too late. I chatted with the British-based Adams about why this genre is so appealing to writers and readers as well as her writing process before touching on the major question that encompasses the ones her characters ask in the book.
So many writers have attempted to write a book about a group of friends leaving college and navigating their twenties. Why do you think so many writers are infatuated with this dynamic? What drew you to it?
A few possible reasons: firstly and most prosaically, a high proportion of writers are college-educated and are writing novels in their twenties and thirties, so they’re writing about their own recent lives and experiences.
That period is one of the most intense and unpredictable times of life, so it lends itself to interesting fiction. It’s a time when you have all these relationships that feel like they’ll last forever, but one minute you’re up all night drinking and talking about the meaning of life and falling in and out of love and the world stretches out ahead of you in a sea of possibility and then, BAM: jobs, homes, marriage, children, success, failure, heartbreak, struggle, loss. Real life, in other words.
So although in some ways the set-up may be familiar, there is nothing more fascinating and infinitely varied than human lives and relationships, and that’s what I was writing about in Invincible Summer. To a degree we all have a tendency to write from our own experiences, because it’s what we feel strongly about and can write about with verisimilitude – if we didn’t it probably wouldn’t resonate with anyone because wouldn’t contain enough truth. I’m not talking about literal truth here, because obviously all fiction is a sort of lie, but emotional truth. And I feel that Invincible Summer, while definitely not autobiographical, contains a lot of emotional truth. I’m writing about things I know and care about.
I loved how you portrayed your characters’ lives. How did the four main characters evolve throughout your time writing this novel?
Thank you. They evolved as you see on the page, but that’s the tip of the iceberg, really. They lived inside my head for years like imaginary friends, talking to me and revealing bits of their characters at random moments, and there was an awful lot of backstory in my mind that didn’t make it into the book.
What was the hardest scene, passage, dialogue, or chapter for you to get right?
The hardest to get right was Eva’s day trading [and] the markets. It was difficult to me to put in the right amount of detail to make it realistic without drowning the reader in jargon and complexity. That chapter was the one my UK and US editors sent back to me for the most rewrites.
But the scenes I care most about getting right are those relating to Allegra’s birth, and Sylvie’s coping with her disabilities. I didn’t undertake writing about this lightly. It was important to me to do it with sensitivity, especially knowing there will be readers affected by these tremendously difficult issues in their own lives. I greatly hope that those readers will come away from the book feeling it was handled with realism but also compassion and hope.
You worked in banking for a decade. How much of this book was written during that period? Was that where you generated the idea?
The words weren’t actually being put down on paper during my years in banking, which were incredibly busy and short on free time and mental space, but the ideas were germinating and the characters gestating. I couldn’t have written this book without that experience.
What was your writing process like? Are you a writer who outlines meticulously or more of a free-spirited writer?
I am an incredibly organized person in real life but my writing process is chaotic. I am disciplined about devoting time to writing – I just mean that I do not plan novels out in advance or even write scenes or chapters consecutively. Sometimes an idea or fragment suddenly sprawls into a chapter years later. We all have tensions within our personalities and this is probably one of the fault-lines in mine, the simultaneous desire for order and disorder, safety and danger, being both a follower and a breaker of rules.
Who are some contemporary writers that you can’t get enough of?
Hmm. I don’t know about ‘can’t get enough of’. I’ve stopped doing that thing where if you love a book, you devour everything its writer has ever written. Most people write no more than one or two masterpieces in their lifetime, and those are the most widely read and distributed, so the books that one reads first are often these, and then everything else is downhill from there.
Also, good fiction involves a kind of magic, and just like a magic show you enjoy it most when you can’t spot the sleight of hand. The more books you read by a given writer, the more familiar and transparent their methods become, and the tricks and cracks can show up retrospectively. Reading voraciously has definitely made me a better writer but it has also made me a more discerning reader, and sadly that diminishes some of the easy pleasure I used to get from reading. These days I sometimes find myself reading like a grouchy editor. So, if something fills me with awe and wonder I like to leave it alone and not risk spoiling it. I’m not advocating this as an approach for anyone else, only saying it’s how things are working out for me lately.
Shall I just answer the question now? Contemporary writers I love: Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch), Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad), Rachel Cusk (Aftermath), Siri Hustvedt (What I Loved), Marilynne Robinson (Gilead), Martin Amis (London Fields and Experience), Jonathan Coe (The Closed Circle).
You’ve said “walking is the writer’s secret weapon.” Has there been any inspiration from where you have been walking lately?
There are a number of superb places to walk featured in the book and I’ve walked all of them in the last few years: Corfu, the Languedoc, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Walking is brilliant for your mental and physical health and also for creativity. It has a rhythmic, meditative quality; the putting of one foot in front of the other, the slow process of moving across a landscape, the macro focus on the views of the landscape itself, coupled with the micro view of plants and wildlife and terrain.
The chapter on the Camino in Invincible Summer was a late addition during the editing process, inspired by my own Camino last summer. Particularly on very long walks like that, there is an element of submitting to things outside your control, stepping into the unknown and just letting the world happen to you. After 20 or 25km day after day maybe your legs hurt, maybe you take a wrong turn and have to retrace your steps, maybe the weather is disappointing: it rains, you get wet, the visibility is poor. You have to cope with adversity and not rage against it in order to carry on, to remain mentally strong and not waste energy.
There is an ascetic streak in me that likes the simplicity of having to pare possessions down to the lightest possible load and live simply. The simpler things are the more your mental world opens up, having freed up extra capacity to devote to it.
All of this is great discipline for writing.
Which ties into my cliche last question, and I’m sorry for it: what’s next? Plot-wise, thematically, genre?
The novel I’m working on now is the same genre as Invincible Summer, whatever genre that might be. There’s an endless debate on what distinguishes literary from commercial fiction and I’m not about to get stuck into it here. But the new one, while different in many ways, is similar in tone/voice and should appeal to the same readers.
Plot-wise, I don’t want to give too much away because things can and do change right up to and into the editing process, but it features psychoanalysts, baristas, writers and mathematicians…
I think my preoccupation with certain themes is present in all of my work to a greater or lesser extent: love, loss, friendship, the nature of the universe, the existence of God, the changes wrought by the passage of time, the extent to which we are the masters of our own fates as opposed to being simply tossed about by larger historical forces beyond our control. These themes were all present in Invincible Summer and are also in the novel I’m currently working on.
I lied… One last one. If you could know the answer to any question, what would it be?
Well, now. I’m going to ask a question that is actually better in a way than the questions my characters ask, in that it encompasses many of their questions. It is this: Is there any objective basis for morality?
I could easily write a five thousand word essay on why this would be my question, relating as it does to the existence of God, the underpinnings of human interactions and society, the meaning of life (or lack thereof), the nature of the fabric of the universe (is it all atoms and entropy, or are there other layers of reality outside the realm of the material universe?) I think that a yes or no answer to that question would be the one that would most change my life if I knew it.
Still, if the answer were ‘no’ it would be hard not to collapse into existential despair. Or maybe it would be in some ways a relief to think that we are just a temporarily-stable bundle of particles, scrabbling around in the dirt until the lights go out (as Benedict puts it in the novel). Then nothing would really matter, in a way. Would that be a blessed relief or an impossible thing to live with? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the real question, eh.