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In the Limelight: A Dialogue with Jem Calder and His Debut “Reward System”

Amidst a candid conversation with author Jem Calder, I mention my aspirations to write, to which he offered an insightful nugget of guidance: “You’ll be surrounded by distractions and doubts, but you must single-mindedly chase your goal, even if it seems absurd. That’s the path to making it,” he shared.

The power of tenacity underpins the creation of Calder’s first literary work, Reward System, a collection of six stories interwoven by the theme of how digital interactions influence our connections with others. Calder confides that the mundane reality of a dull job fueled his determination to write, presenting a challenge worth overcoming. Humor among retail staff and party-induced worries are some of the relatable snippets drawn from his personal experiences, crafting an ambience that is neither strictly autobiographical nor entirely fictitious. The central characters, Nick and Julia, navigate their shared anxieties in an undefined metropolis—a place suspended in a peculiar, almost vacuous space.

Our discussion with Calder spans a range of topics from the anatomy of his new anthology, the nuances of social dynamics, and seizing every fleeting moment for literary creation.

Your debut anthology is now published. What’s the experience like?

Surreal! It’s strange how life’s milestones feel once attained — contrary to our expectations. The comforting distraction of working on the project vanishes, leaving us with a familiar mind in a whirlwind of new experiences. Publishing with Faber and Farrar, Straus and Giroux is a fulfillment beyond my wildest dreams. Looking forward now, the next step is crafting something grander.

The person behind the first book and the one writing subsequent works appears to be different. Could you elaborate?

Revisiting the stories, I sense a stark divide between past and present selves. The underlying insecurities that fueled my initial drive to write persist, yet my focus has shifted, leading to narratives penned by what seems like a different entity—regardless, the pride in my accomplishment remains.

With intertwined characters, why choose short stories over a novel?

That’s an interesting dilemma. Early on, I wrestled with whether this should be called a novel. Ultimately, I desired it to stay true to its short story essence. Written amid juggling jobs, each piece offered a narrative playground for stylistic growth and thematic consistency. Repetitive characters serve not as writer’s folly but as an organic evolution of my storytelling—revealing their struggles as singular tales united by life’s relentless pace.

Zooming in on human connections and scenarios in ‘Reward System’—does this reflect lived reality or is it mostly imaginative?

Penning these stories did not strictly involve chronicling real-time observations; it took a blend of note-taking and reminiscence. Anecdotes from my service industry stint meld with fabrications, undergoing a transformation in the mind before embedding themselves in the tales, maintaining that fine line between fiction and autobiography.

The longest story ‘A Restaurant Somewhere Else’ is positioned first. Why is that?

Initially resistant to placing such a complex piece at the forefront, I was persuaded by my editor’s assurance that readers could navigate it. Chronologically and thematically, it lays a rich tasting plate for the reader, hinting at the stylistic variety that follows – likens the restaurant’s elusive location to the intangible essence of modern urban life.

Within the book, the mundane turns pivotal, notably the birthday party’s bathroom retreat. What genesis did this narrative have?

The character’s retreat into the bathroom at a party mirrors my own tendency to seek solitude in social settings. Nick’s story, marked by procrastination and disillusionment amplified in the era of boundless digital consumption, draws parallels to my own journey and societal echoes alike.

In ‘Reward System,’ the COVID-19 pandemic subtly weaves its way in. Did its impact on communication inspire this treatment?

Though the pandemic is a well-worn topic, it undeniably fast-forwarded existing societal transformations. Lockdown life laid bare previously understated intersections of technology and personal interaction. Writing during this period, I chose to encapsulate pandemic life through the microcosm of two characters’ evolving dialogue.

Lastly, can you share your current projects? Another short story collection, perhaps, or a novel?

A novel is certainly on the horizon, though I anticipate its slow brew. While Reward System taught me patience with my work, I am keen to delve into a new narrative, embracing it with playfulness and curiosity.

Reward System is available now here.

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