Isy Suttie just returned from what she likens to “a tired, middle-class hen do”. A few days in Southend with two female friends felt thrillingly exotic after being locked down in Camberwell, south London for the past 15 months. “It was my first trip anywhere since last year,” she grins.“We shared a bottle of prosecco and watched Billie Piper’s film Rare Beasts, then fell asleep because we’ve all got young kids. Whoop. Wild times.”
Isobel “Isy” Suttie, 42, was born in Hull and raised in Matlock, Derbyshire. After training at Guildford School of Acting, she became a musical standup comedian. She’s also an actor and writer, best known for playing IT geek Dobby in sitcom Peep Show. Other TV acting credits include Shameless, Damned and Man Down. Suttie has two children – six-year-old Beti and two-year-old Steffan – with her fiance, Welsh comedian Elis James. Now she’s about to publish her debut novel, Jane Is Trying, about an anxiety sufferer’s struggles to get pregnant.
How did the idea for Jane Is Trying germinate?
The starting point was her working in a bookshop. The first part I wrote was Jane with her boss, gossiping about the types of customers who come in. Quite innocuous, but it evolved from there. Initially, she’d already had a child, but when I tried to write that, the kid was so annoying, I couldn’t bear it [laughs]. It felt completely wrong, so I cruelly cut the child and had her trying for a baby instead.
How much of it is autobiographical?
I’ve had two children, so I know what it’s like trying for a baby. I was keen to show the lighter side. It’s a funny process, waiting every month for the ovulation stick to say it’s time, then leaping into action. We were lucky and it didn’t take that long, but I was still shocked by how obsessed I became with getting pregnant and how disappointed I was every time my period came. It made me realise I’d never truly been out of control. So much of my career has been about diligence and grit. I’ve applied myself and got results. Yet here I was doing all the right things, having sex when I was told, but it wasn’t happening. I was confused and devastated.
Do you suffer from health anxiety and OCD like Jane?
Not so much any more. I’ve chilled out a lot but I used to push myself too hard and burn the candle at both ends. If I was stressed, I’d start to worry about my health. I’d Google symptoms and convince myself I had serious conditions. The digital age is so good in so many ways, but the fact that you can get a headache, look it up online and immediately see cancer among the search results isn’t great – especially if you’re a worrier with a tendency to catastrophise. In the 80s, did people look things up in medical encyclopaedias? Probably not. They’d go to the family doctor who’d say: “Don’t be silly, dear.” As for OCD, I’ve never had it to the same incapacitating extent as Jane but yes, that’s another indicator that my head is too full. I’ll find myself checking the front door is closed. Health anxiety and OCD come from the same place, I think, which is a need for control and certainty.
She also has a chronic fear of hospitals. Do you?
I actually like hospitals. Partly because if I really am suffering these terrible things, I’m in the right place. My dad died 10 years ago in hospital and even that didn’t make me dislike them because he received amazing care. But fear of hospitals is quite common, so I researched what that’s like when you’re pregnant. With a home birth, you might have tough decisions to make. I didn’t set out to write so much about Jane’s mental state but it felt natural. Everyone’s so honest about mental health nowadays. In the 90s, people were walking around with the same problems but I don’t recall anyone talking about it. We were too busy talking about Britpop and Pat Sharp’s Fun House.
Didn’t several fellow comedians lend their expertise in certain areas?
Yeah, I was very grateful for that. John Robins knows more about vaping than anyone I’ve ever met. He also got back to my texts about vaping exceedingly quickly. Josie Long read bits of the book as it progressed and advised me on protests and marches. Mark Steel lives down the road and told me amazing stories about living in squats during the 80s that had me crying with laughter.
There’s a scene where Jane confronts a predatory male author. Was that your sly way of addressing the #MeToo movement?
I didn’t plan it, but it’s so much in the air at the moment. I think I absorbed it and did it subconsciously. I don’t think I’d have written that 10 years ago, so it must be influenced by #MeToo. I’m glad it’s in there.
Is there a reckoning still to come in comedy?
Maybe. I haven’t gigged for so long, it’s hard to gauge the standup circuit. This behaviour hasn’t suddenly increased, it’s always been there. It’s just being called out now, and that’s great.
Jane is oddly obsessed with Sharon Osbourne’s autobiography. Is that based on you, by any chance?
Ha. Well, as you probably know, Sharon Osbourne has written three. My friend Anne gave me the first one as a gift; I thought it was quite cool in a kitsch way. I wanted Jane to be reading a celebrity memoir and tried loads of options – Lulu and Gary Barlow came close – but kept returning to Sharon’s. Then I read her latest memoir and found out she quite liked Trump when she was on The Celebrity Apprentice, but it was too late.
What’s your writing routine?
I used to romanticise the life of a writer – banging away at a typewriter, fuelled by cigarettes, coffee and booze. But in lockdown, it was a case of writing when I could. I’d get a 27-minute window, run up to bed because it was the quietest place in the house and get down as many words as I could. It was hard but what I produced was probably no better or worse than if I’d rented a remote cottage or been shrouded in Gauloises smoke.
Fowles’s The Magus gets mentioned in your novel…
That’s a tribute to my friend who once genuinely convinced me that it was pronounced “The Ma-goose”.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I loved Enid Blyton and the Narnia books, but the exciting time was my teens. I read Catch-22 when I was 16 and doing Manchester Youth Theatre. That and Adrian Mole were the first books to really make me laugh. It was exhilarating to discover that books could be that funny. Then I didn’t read much between 17 and 19, apart from Heat magazine, because I was busy drinking Diamond White in the park.
Was Peep Show a game-changer for your career?
Definitely. I was only ever contracted for one series at a time but ended up staying for five. Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong are amazing writers. It’s brilliant to see them doing so well.
Maybe Jesse Armstrong could write Dobby into Succession…
Oh my God, Dobby moved to New York anyway, so she could suddenly appear, all high-powered and rich. Power-Dobby. I’d be so up for that.
Is there ever talk of a Peep Show reunion episode, like the Friends one?
Everyone could analyse the way we’ve aged too. Maybe in another 10 years, so it’s the same gap as Friends. Wait until we’ve spent all our money on Botox and really need the fee.
Do you fear for the comedy industry after the past year?
I’m especially sad about Edinburgh festival being scaled right down for the second year running. For me, that’s where everything started. As for the circuit, my worry is that up-and-coming comics from a less-privileged background have been forced to give up and they might not start again. It’s awful to think we’ve lost those diverse voices.
What projects are in the pipeline?
I’m currently filming a new HBO and Sky series called The Baby. I can’t say much but Michelle de Swarte is the lead, the script is fantastic and I’m really enjoying it.
Will there be another novel?
We’ll see how this one goes. Maybe in the sequel, Jane Is Really Trying, she could be reading the next Sharon Osbourne book. I’ve also been thinking about writing a young adult novel or a new standup show. I’ll get summer out of the way, go to Center Parcs and we’ll see. After I remortgage the house, so we can afford Center Parcs.
You’re engaged to Elis James. Did you propose to him?
Yes, at a pub in Crystal Palace. I’d had a tequila. Before my dad died, Elis had asked his permission to marry me, which was amazing, but then never produced a ring or officially proposed. So it was less of a bolt from the blue and more of a kick up the bum. We still haven’t got married, though. We’re about to spend the wedding money on two nights at Center Parcs.
How heartbroken was your household by Wales’s exit from the Euros?
I was not displeased, as it meant Elis had to travel to Cardiff less. Elis was more displeased.
Are you learning Welsh?
Slowly. I did a course at City Lit, but then kids got in the way. We speak some Welsh at home – always say cegin instead of kitchen and bara instead of bread. I’d love my Welsh to be better. Perhaps that’s a project for the next pandemic. You know, in six months’ time.
• Jane Is Trying by Isy Suttie is published on 22 July (W&N, £16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply