Thursday, August 20, 2020

Chris Previews Emma Jane Unsworth's Virtual Visit

From Chris: As you perhaps know by now, I'm super excited for my virtual chat with Emma Jane Unsworth this coming Sunday afternoon - August 23, 1 pm - to interview her about her brand new novel, Grown Ups - released as Adults in the UK, for those of you who like to know those titles from across the pond. Speaking of the pond, that's the reason for the afternoon event. Unsworth joins us all the way from London for this special event. How'd we convince her to? With not one, two, or three, but four glowing staff recommendations. More on those below. To whet your appetite for this interview, I sent a few preview questions off to EJU this week, and here's what she had to say:

CHRIS LEE: Grown Ups is so much about the dark, toxic places social media obsession can take a person and the very real mental health disasters it can cause. When we first meet Jenny, she’s trying to get the perfect picture of a croissant to post, and if she can’t get that photo, it’s going to ruin her day, her month, maybe her life, regardless of how good the pastry actually tastes. That said, do you see any positives that living online bring into Jenny’s life? 

EMMA JANE UNSWORTH: To Jenny’s? I think she might be past positives. Certainly when we meet her. She’s spiraling. She has to be. That’s the drama; that’s where it’s going. But I think by the end of the novel she is finding ways to interact healthily online, and keep it fun and purely recreational. I don’t hate social media. I just think it can be a dangerous place for a vulnerable person. It can be a lifeline. But it can be a toxic hellhole, too.

CL: Speaking of the internet and croissants, you’re pretty online yourself, and there is evidence there that you’re pretty into croissants. So – is it life imitating art or art imitating life here?

EJU: It’s art imitating art and life imitating life. It’s a bit of everything I felt between the years 2011-2014 and also nothing real that actually happened. It’s semi-autobiographical fiction and if that sounds like a cop-out, that’s exactly why I write it! There was a period of time in my mid-thirties when I drove my friends mad because I was obsessing over how I presented myself online. It was an ugly time. A vibrant time. I have never been addicted to alcohol or drugs, but I definitely came close to something resembling addiction with the internet. One friend in particular gave me a really hard time about it. But she also pulled me out of the hole. 

I suppose I write what scares me, and the internet scares me, or it did then, and I wanted to capture that fear and make it abstract. It works, too! Putting your fears and heartbreaks into fiction. It’s the best. The croissant scene with Jenny makes me cringe because it is the most ridiculous thing. I never posted a croissant, but I agonized over similarly trivial things. I still occasionally do, but usually it’s a sign to me to check in with myself and do some meditation or just take a walk without my phone. We all need time away from our phones sometimes. Phones are fickle lovers.

CL: From the coming to terms with her mother to the almost breakup-story way another friendship is going, you write amazing, complex, super real relationships between Jenny and the other women in the book. Is there a relationship in the book you most loved exploring?

EJU: Jenny and Kelly, definitely. Jenny and Carmen was fun, but for me the real meat of the book is in the friendship story. I wanted to write a complex friendship story about two friends who broke up and got back together again. I feel like I’ve seen that story so much with romantic relationships, but never with friendship. In my previous book, Animals, it was more of a straight break-up. But this time the relationship felt more complicated, older, more mature. What if friends got back together? How would that work? How would it feel? How do you win a friend back like you might win back a lover? For me, Jenny repairing her friendship with Kelly is the main way we see how she has grown, and how she has started to learn about boundaries and forgiveness. 

CL: Normally I ask authors to do the Hollywood sell line – It’s ____ meets ____!  - but I think it’s pretty well established in the marketing package for Grown Ups that it’s Fleabag meets Conversations with Friends. So let me ask this – are there any heroes you’d like to say influenced this book? And of course, if you’ve got a second “It’s X meets Y” line, we’d love to hear it! 
EJU: Heroes! Oh so many. For this book: Carrie Fisher, Lorrie Moore, Lena Dunham, Douglas Coupland, Michaela Cole, Jennifer Egan, Martin Amis (sorry – purely for style), Mhairi McFarlane, Hilary Mantel, Long Island Medium, all of the friends I stole jokes from.

Can you believe it? I get a whole hour (okay, 45 minutes when you subtract a little introduction and perhaps even some audience questions, but who's counting?) to chat with this wonderful person this coming Sunday. And what's that I said above about other Boswellians loving this book? They do! Read on:

Madi says: "The anxiety is REAL. This book started out feeling like a phone-crazed Black Mirror episode but quickly turned into a mother-daughter relationship evaluation in the midst of a personal crisis. Jenny’s in her mid-thirties and wants desperately to actually live the life she presents on social media, but instead is spiraling into a mind-numbing, constant anxiety that sinks further when her extroverted, dare I say ridiculous, “psychic” mother decides to live with her. I was worried this book would be just another “the younger generation and those phones!” where our protagonist learns some kind of unplugging lesson, but it is so much deeper. Jenny deals with real problems women face, including the struggles of both motherhood and infertility, largely through her frantic yet comedic e-mails, social media posts, and inner monologues. I especially appreciated how it deals with infertility, as reproduction is so often considered a woman-defining ability, making it a silent struggle not often discussed. I cannot stress enough how well this book handles the stigmas and struggles that women face, including female relationships that are much more than catty bickering. Grown Ups makes you want to hug your best friends and call your mother."
Parker says: "Jenny McLaine's life is perfectly instagrammable. A nice photograph, with the right filter, and a witty caption, with the perfect amount of "!'s" and emojis. Well, most of her life anyways - she still has to deal with her complicated relationship with her ex-boyfriend, her crumbling friendships, her dying job, and worst of all, her mother. Grown Ups is a hilarious and scarily relatable novel that explores the complicated way that social media has begun to influence us and our IRL relationships. These characters and their antics made me laugh-out-loud, cringe, and shudder in horror when I saw myself reflected in them. Jenny and just about everyone else in this book seriously suck. But sometimes, so do we all, and maybe if we try a little harder, and post a little less, that can be okay. Unsworth tosses the falling tree and the forest aside and asks the question, "if I don't post about it did it really matter? And what happens if no one cares?"
Kira says: "Emma Jane Unsworth's Grown Ups is a quirky, she's-already-come-of-age novel with a cast of characters that you can't stand and can't believe you so clearly identify with. Reminiscent of Black Mirror's “Nosedive,” Jenny McClaine's perfectly posh social media feeds would have you believing anything but the truth - that is, her life is an actual bona fide mess, her relationship of nearly a decade just crashed & burned, and her neurotic, new age mama is moving in. Through Jenny's texts, emails, email drafts, and social media messages, Unsworth gifts her readers with a critique of the keep-scrolling-til-the-dopamine-hits culture of the 21st century that has every woman you know feeling like there's no damn way to keep up. Initially, more than a few of Jenny's actions come across as deplorable, but the deeper we dive into her psyche, the more understandable, and frankly, 100% relatable, she becomes. I want to give this book to all of the women I know, and I dare them to read it without checking their phone every couple of pages. #obsessed"
STILL NOT CONVINCED? Well at this point there may just be no hope for you, but here's my recommendation as one last try:

"This book is so good it’s giving me anxiety attacks. Jenny has a lot going – break ups, break downs, digital obsessions, maternal intrusions, maybe even a little growing up, and all of it rudely intruding from outside the edges of her phone’s screen. Told in a whirlwind of texts, unsent emails, Instagram comments, and Jenny’s mumbling, razor-tongued ruminations, which range from deadpan riffing to screaming-in-a-pillow angry crying, this is a sweaty palms, grinding teeth, visceral experience that’ll have you doing that taken-aback-laugh-rage-shaking thing – in a good way, I swear!"
Okay! Register right here for Emma Jane Unsworth's virtual event on Sunday, August 23, 1 pm, in conversation with me! You probably won't regret it. 

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