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Jo Hamya on Virginia Woolf, The Worst Bits of Twitter, and The Smell of Library Hand Soap

by Brendan Dowling on September 1, 2021

Jo Hamya’s perceptive and acidic Three Rooms springs from Virginia Woolf’s observation, “A woman must have money and a room of her own,” chronicling the year in the life of an unnamed British scholar as she shuttles among three rooms while attempting to launch her career. From the room in Oxford where she finishes up her academic career, to renting space on a couch while she ekes out a precarious existence as a copywriter at a society magazine, to a room in her childhood home, Hamya charts her protagonist’s attempt at financial independence with wit, compassion, and uncompromising insight. The result is a rich exploration of a character’s inner life as well as a sharp social critique of early twenty-first century Britain. Critics have met Hamya’s debut novel with universal acclaim, with The New York Times Book Review saying it “invokes the reality of living in a world where a reasonable demand is resolutely categorized as unreasonable” and The Boston Globe calling it “an excellent evisceration of contemporary life.” She spoke to us about Woolf’s influence, treating the internet as a physical space, and how poetry helped shape her narrator’s voice.

Reviewers have made comparisons to Virginia Woolf and Three Rooms begins with several quotes from A Room of One’s Own. Can you talk about what influence Virginia Woolf has had on your writing?

Very broadly, I think To the Lighthouse is probably my idea of a perfect novel. I think Woolf in general has also been a really useful tool for me to think critically through, and certainly a kind of figure who came up a lot while I was doing my undergraduate degree and my MA. [She was] a way to be able to think dialectically about an author who I adore, but who has some very problematic, flawed views as well. I think that’s how it comes out in Three Rooms, where a room works both as a kind of crutch to think with—a kind of core idea, a very egalitarian idea that everyone should have a room and money—but then also peeking into some of the odder aspects of that argument. So Woolf’s inheritance, which she seems to be entirely blind to, how that nullifies some of her argument. The way she treats domestic servants, the way she addresses the women who choose to do domestic work: the work of mothers, or of cooks or cleaners. On the sentence level, I adore Woolf, and then on the critical level, I also adore her, because she’s so very often as incredibly wrong as she is incredibly right. I think it’s great to have someone like that who you can think with as you read.

The narrator’s voice is such a hugely enjoyable component of the book—she’s intelligent, thoughtful, observant, and really funny. Can you talk about how you arrived at the specific voice?

Basically just through reading, it’s really a boring answer. (laughs) I read a lot of poetry a year before writing and then while I was writing as well. I keep mentioning in all my interviews Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which I owe a lot to stylistically and formally. Anne Carson, Andrew Motion, all these figures kind of fed into the [voice]. I think of it as a push and shove, the way her voice comes across. In terms of her mode of thinking, that’s entirely informed by the worst bits of Twitter that I could find, or that I remembered reading, from 2018 and 2019. When I say the worst bits of Twitter, I mean the worst kinds of Twitter logic and the worst kinds of ways that Twitter shapes thought, in the sense that it’s really impossible to form your most coherent arguments on it. You’re immediately contravened because everything is coming at you all the time. It’s very easy to have actually quite a solid, normal thought and then to immediately find three thousand people who are telling you the exact opposite. You begin to think you’re crazy. That’s what happens to the narrator, she continually questions every thought that comes into her mind. I also think it’s impossible to structure thought properly on Twitter. Even if you do by way of a thread, it’s broken up into so many pieces. If someone comes across one bit randomly and takes that as the whole, then that’s what you’re stuck with. Because of the sheer amount of time the narrator spends scrolling through social media, by the end of the book, even though she’s a very well educated person who should be able to think for herself, she ends up in that numb grey space that at least I do, if I scroll for more than fifteen minutes. (laughs)

The narrator at one point observes how the internet is one of the rooms she exists in. What appealed to you as a writer exploring a character dealing with the internet as a physical space?

When I first started using social media there were loads of arguments for why not, coming from all directions. You still see them even on your own timeline, someone that you’ve been following says, “I’m logging off. I’ve had enough. Goodbye!” My argument for it was to imagine it like a physical space, like a gallery, like something that you can walk through, look at and interact with by your choice, and then when you need to, you can walk out. At least in my head, that analogy makes it easier to put my phone down. So I’ve always thought of Instagram and Twitter as being either really fantastic galleries that I’m finding loads of things in. They’re a resource and they have the capacity to enrich thought—not necessarily to instruct thought in an enriching way, but if you so choose to take certain things out of it then they have the capacity to enrich thought. Or it’s a really terrible gallery and you’re having a rubbish time and you should just leave.

In another way I’d always thought of digital technology as being quite a physical thing, just because of the sheer amount of bodily data you have to give it: fingerprints and heart rates and step counts and all these things. Of course you can choose not to use all that data, but by using it your experience is enhanced, so that it becomes a more useful or real tool in your life. Social media and my phonehave always struck me as being physically present, real things. As far as thinking of it as a room for thought, I don’t know. Maybe since 2016, when everybody started arguing much more loudly on the internet. Because all of those arguments were related to faith and nationalism and patriotism, it seemed that those arguments happening on the internet were just as vivid, if not more horrible, as what was happening in front of me. It’s kind of strange to say out loud now, because I don’t think I’ve ever consciously realized it. I don’t think I’ve ever, not in recent memory,  thought of those spaces as existing theoretically or conceptually.

The narrator’s classmate, Ghislaine, who’s the daughter of British rock royalty and was made famous by her father’s song about her, is fascinating to see in contrast to the narrator. While the narrator pervasively lurks social media but rarely participates in it, Ghislaine seems to be a savant in terms of constructing an online persona. How did Ghislaine come into the novel?

She was meant to come across as the personification of meme culture, meme-driven culture. This idea of Ghislaine being a song, that also came from “Roxanne,” that song by The Police, as just having such an instantaneously recognizable name. Whenever someone says “Roxanne” you start singing The Police song, there is an entire web of associations around that, which is what happens with Ghislaine in the book. There are very few instances where she appears in person. It’s usually either through reading on the phone or the magazine page. I guess in the narrator’s eyes, she’s an example of a person who’s managed to hack living digitally. She’s managed to not so much create the image of a perfect life—which is always the criticism of the influence of social media on people my age—but it’s that to the narrator, Ghislaine has managed to create both a cogent person online which other people can assimilate, understand, and then recognize, and then Ghislaine also manages to claim space through her online behavior. She’ll take photos of herself around Oxford and geotag location and then, through that, she somehow is at home. She’s attached this location to a profile where her entire personality is lodged, and so this place is now assimilated to her. I don’t know if this is a spoiler or not—it’s a book with no plot—but when she appears in the magazine in the end, in this high society magazine that is kind of emblematic of those higher echelons of Britain, that’s kind of the mark where the narrator thinks, “Oh God, this is it.” She’s now gone nationwide. She’s managed to ingrain herself into this part of the country, all through this idea of transposing her image across media.

I found writing the scenes in which Ghislaine quite obviously doesn’t remember the narrator quite funny, because it sounds a bit cruel. It’s just a moment in which I don’t think either party’s right, but you really see the contrast between Ghislaine having managed to create a functioning recognizable persona and ingrain herself to various social echelons, and the narrator—who, as you say, has no social media presence let alone any kind of physical presence—kind of become a ghost really through her indecisiveness. Not that you need to be on the internet to be a person, but just the kind of prevaricating and indecisiveness that she shows through scrolling and scrolling and scrolling and regurgitating [content] every so often.

One of the things I loved about reading Three Rooms was how so many of the characters don’t have names, and that forced me to reckon with how having a name or identity affects my perception of a character. What appealed to you about writing a novel where we don’t know most of the characters’ names?

And characters that don’t have names or descriptions! I wish I could say there was a really clever conceit behind it, but it’s very simply that in my eyes, it adds absolutely nothing to plot or argument. I think the ontological questions in the book were more concerned with the relationship that beings had with space. So it was more a question, of—if we’re taking the narrator to use as an example—how does she unpack boxes in a room? When she walks into a room, how does she interact with the people and objects in it? Even the smallest things, like if it’s really hot in this room, how does that change her relationship to it and how comfortable she feels in it? Those things seemed much more worthwhile than describing her hair color or what she was wearing. I often think that when I read these things in other novels, I’m never quite sure what they add, really. It’s nice to know, but I often find my eyes glazing over when I read about “she had brown hair and skin the color of whatever and her name was” and that kind of thing. It’s very rare that those aren’t arbitrary details in a book. They often serve the author more than a reader, so the author has a more personal cogent idea of what they’re writing about. It seems more real to them and then they can write with conviction. I think I did name her at some point, but I kept forgetting what I had named her. (laughs) I can’t even remember now. So I stopped.

The only person that really it felt important to have named in that book was Maria, who’s the cleaner who appears in the first part. Partially because she was a response to Woolf’s Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmicheal argument in A Room of One’s Own. I wanted to extend that tradition through Maria, or even just rebut a lot of what Woolf was saying through Maria. Also I felt very strongly that the scene in which Maria and the narrator clean her room together and hoover the floor was a lot of the novel’s moral center point. It’s one of the very few instances in which things go right and that sense is spoken. It was just very important that she had a name, but not so much anyone else.

Even though the book deals with such weighty topics like financial insecurity and the rise of nationalism, it’s also extremely funny. In particular, the scene where the narrator attends an author talk is so close to the bone and hilarious. How did you arrive at the tone of the novel?

I really never thought I was being funny, which is maybe why it works. I remember getting my first bits of feedback, [and people said], “Oh, it was great! I laughed quite a lot.” I really thought I had written this quietly devastating book. (laughs) I think it’s nice that people are finding it wry. It might lift some of the more generally depressing aspects of it. I now know which bits are funny. For that author talk, for example, the person who goes to the magazine and gives this talk about how she can fix your life for 12 pound 99 if you buy her book, that was just again, an amalgam. These women exist. I don’t think I particularly need to name them. It was just reading a lot of their interviews, or listening to podcast episodes with them. I kind of speak out loud when I write and found myself doing this West Coast accent, saying “like” a lot. That’s kind of how that came about. I guess because it’s a book with no character descriptions, no names, no nothing, those small exaggerations in voice are really necessary.

And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

Huge, massive. [Growing up], I read far too many books to have friends for those in middle school. This is a really pathetic story to be telling. (laughs) Instead of going to school lunch, I would go to my school library. That was the first work experience that I did. Most of my life is kind of academic driven, so libraries are just integral to my work. I now work for The Booker Prize Foundation as an archivist. I spend all my time talking to librarians. They’re indispensable to my life professionally. In a sentimental way, one of the things I really missed in lockdown was the British Library here in London. Going back and having a free space to think and be and sit, I really missed it. I missed having access to every book published in the country, but more than that, there were the little things I missed. [When I finally was able to return], I found myself crying at the smell of the hand soap because it felt like I’d come back home. They’re everything.