Working Out How to Live: On the Up by Alice O’Keefe
When I started to write On The Up, my debut novel, back in 2012, I was driven by an urgent need to make sense of an adulthood that was panning out differently to how I had expected. I was living in east London with my partner, our two-year-old son and a new baby. I had a very respectable job in the civil service, and my partner was a researcher for a charity. As university-educated, kale-consuming book lovers, we seemed – or perhaps we were… were we? – solidly middle class. And yet, I found myself wrestling with some not-so-middle-class problems. Was there any point in my going back to work, when my salary would only just about cover our childcare costs? Could I make it all the way through the wettest winter on record wearing leaky boots? And was the ‘cheese product’ I had bought in the pound shop really cheese?
I realised that we were, in some unsatisfactory but nonetheless fascinating way, pioneers: we were the first generation since the war to be properly downwardly mobile. Both my partner and I had grown up in terraced houses on leafy streets. We’d had gardens to play in, and our families had enjoyed holidays in France. Our children, it seemed, would have to make do with a two-bed flat in a council estate, a few pot plants on a tiny veranda, and holidays in a rusty caravan in Essex. Would they suffer as a result? Was it wrong of me to mourn this change of lifestyle as a loss? How could I reconcile myself to a reality that seemed destined to fall some way short of my aspirations?
Looking around me, talking to other parents in baby singing classes and church-hall playgroups, I knew I was not the only one. Many other people I met seemed to be inhabiting a fantasy world in which they imagined their standard of living to be several notches higher than it actually was. One mum at playgroup told me she had spent hundreds of pounds decorating her family’s tiny one-bed flat with top-of-the-market Farrow and Ball paint (“you just can’t match it for texture”); another was sticking a family summer holiday in Bordeaux straight on her credit card (“we can’t even afford to renew the car insurance, but we’ll worry about that when we get home!”).
The gap between aspiration and reality has been a rich seam for comic fiction, from Cold Comfort Farm to Bridget Jones. Although at times our perennial broke-ness was genuinely worrying and painful, but the beady-eyed writer in me never stopped seeing the humour in our situation. I started noting down all the funny things that happened: our acute moral dilemma when we accidentally stole a very expensive John Lewis duvet (rest assured that, unlike the characters in the book, we did give it back); my bloody-minded determination to keep paying over the odds for an organic veggie box, instead of getting normal carrots from Tesco’s. Perhaps laughing at myself and my worries was a survival mechanism, a way of distancing myself from what was really going on.
I sent some of these short snippets to the New Statesman, where I had worked as a young journalist, and I was delighted when they commissioned a weekly column, ‘Squeezed Middle’. This was something I could do from home, in between baby naps and nappy changes. I dreamed of one day turning these snippets into a book, my first novel. I took a deep breath, quit my civil service job, which I had never liked much anyway, and dedicated myself to becoming a writer.
Little by little, the columns accumulated into a fairly comprehensive record of our first year as a family of four. It was all there: the sleepless nights, the infestation of mice, the relentless, nagging worry of new parenthood. I found that a narrative had begun to form; I had no idea how to write it, but I could feel the shape of my book, hovering somewhere ahead of me. Slowly, doubtingly, I began the process of transforming real lived experience into fiction.
Turning the columns into a book was much, much harder than I ever imagined. I spent nearly three years working on the first chapter – and I was still rewriting it during the final edits, nearly three years after that (I should point out that I was also working as a journalist and looking after two children during this time, writing fiction wasn’t my full-time job). At times I felt acutely lonely, and couldn’t remember why on earth I had chosen to try and climb this mountain all by myself. But increasingly, as time went on, I found myself experiencing precious moments in which something I had been trying and failing to do for months would suddenly “work”. Slowly, agonisingly the book came together, and I discovered the mysterious process by which seemingly random experiences and trains of thought converge into a satisfying story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Writing On The Up was my way of working out how to navigate a changed social landscape. It also required subjecting myself to some deep interrogation: what did money and status actually mean to me? Why did I feel like I was constantly poised on the brink of disaster – was that actually about money at all? Answering those questions meant getting to know myself in a much deeper way than I ever had before. And the process of writing the book was also a process of questioning my priorities and my way of life. My ambition as a writer is to keep working on those questions, to keep probing myself and the world around me. Writing, for me, is ultimately about working out how to live.
(c) Alice O’Keefe
Author photograph (c) Moose Azim
About On the Up by Alice O’Keefe:
By reading Style magazine, I was training myself not to want things. It was going quite well. I had already found that I did not want a pair of Yves Saint Laurent mules, a chandelier made from plastic antlers, or a diamond-encrusted necklace in the shape of a pineapple. I was still working on not wanting a fitted farmhouse kitchen in warm wood.
Sylvia lives in a flat on a council estate with her not-quite-husband Obe and their two young children. She dreams of buying a house on a leafy street like the one she grew up in. If she closes her eyes, she can see it all so clearly: the stripped floorboards, the wisteria growing around the door…
It’s not ideal that she’s about to be made redundant, or that Obe, a playworker, is never going to earn more than the minimum wage. As sleep deprivation sets in, and the RnB downstairs gets ever louder, Sylvia’s life starts to unravel.
But when the estate is earmarked for redevelopment, the threat to her community gives Sylvia a renewed sense of purpose. With a bit of help from her activist sister, and her film-maker friend Frankie, she’s ready to take a stand for what she believes in.
Warm, witty and brilliantly observed, On the Up is about relationships and community, finding a way through the tough times, and figuring out what’s really worth fighting for.
Order your copy online here.