We sat down with author Dolly Alderton to talk love, female friendship and why writing Ghosts was the greatest professional pleasure of her life...
Dolly Alderton’s bestselling memoir Everything I Know About Love hits our screens this week in an incredible BBC adaptation, written by Alderton herself.
Her name has since become synonymous with love, and from her podcast series to her journalistic career, it is undoubtedly the backbone of everything she does.
Her debut novel Ghosts is no exception.
Covering love in all its forms, Ghosts tells a story of modern dating, friendship shifts, mother-daughter relationships, loss and more – all tied together with Dolly’s signature wit and unrivalled references.
In short, it’s a must-read for all millennial women.
‘The message of Ghosts is one of hope and one of warning,’ Dolly explained in our sit-down. ‘Life will surprise you in all sorts of wonderful ways, life will disappoint you and break your heart. And the likelihood is that you’re not going to be able to anticipate any of it.’
Real, raw and overwhelmingly reassuring, Ghosts serves as an important reminder that life is hard and in many ways beyond our control. If you’re struggling to keep your head above water in a sea of obligations and anxieties, this book is the reassurance and comfort that you need.
Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with the wonderful Dolly to talk Ghosts, writing female friendship and why love is the only subject for her…
Talk me through your experience writing Ghosts…
Writing this book was the greatest professional pleasure of my life. I miss the months that I was writing Ghosts so much – I think about that time like I was in a relationship I have now lost. Truly, I know that sounds mad. I look back on that period when I completely shut myself off from everything that wasn’t this book and I just spent every day with these characters. I’ve never done that before in my life – it was so wonderful. And I had a 9 to 5 for the first time ever – I could go out and hear my friends’ disastrous dating stories and then the next day I would feed it all into my writing. It just felt like the life of a writer I had always dreamed of. I was out living and participating in the world in a really committed present way that wasn’t knackered or frantic or constantly on my phone. I was in the world, observing the world, loving people, dating, having relationships and then sitting at my desk in silence every day just writing stories about it. I do think I romanticise it as well though – I handed in the book in April 2020 so really my last ever memory of the world before COVID was me writing this book. There’s something about that time that felt like the last gift for me of what the old world was.
Was it a more enjoyable writing experience not having to recount your personal life?
It was an absolute joy. I found writing Everything I Know About Love really difficult – I did not enjoy that experience at all. You don’t know the process of selling and publishing a book until you’ve done it, and I hadn’t anticipated that I would basically be talking about my most personal experiences for nearly two years. All of that was my own doing and decision-making and frankly I’m very lucky that I had any sort of opportunity where people wanted to hear about my book. I’m very aware of the privilege of that, but it was only when I got to writing Ghosts that I was like, ‘wow, that was pretty exhausting’ because it was just so much nicer to not have to channel myself and my own experiences in every conversation about my work.
Was it a daunting move from non-fiction to fiction?
Yes and no. In the framework of ‘I need to write a book that is sold and received exactly as my first book was’, then yes it was daunting. I was aware that I had more people reading me, watching me, expecting things from me and having ideas about my work and what it represents. You just can’t create like that. So, to lose that self-consciousness, I just had to make a decision and think, ‘do you know what, that was then, this is now’. I had to compassionately, lovingly and respectfully put that book and those readers out of my mind. I had to start again really and it not be a craft of comparison or replication because that would just stunt me so much as a writer. I have had a lot of experience with writing non-fiction but I have no experience with fictional prose, so I have to just learn it, hone it, experience it, absorb as much of it as possible and just see where it takes me.
Will love always be connected to your writing in some form?
I think it’s the thing I’m always going to be the most interested in – I can’t write about anything else to be totally honest. I’m really interested in how people’s relationships form who they are. How chatter with friends forms your sense of humour, how heartbreak hardens you, how your relationship with your parents teaches you how to love romantically, how long term friendships strengthen and sustain you, and how they change as you get older. This is just the thing that interests me the most. With any new person I meet, all I want to know is about the people who love them, the people who they love and the people that they have loved who have left their life. I just find it the most fascinating thing about humanity as a collective. I just can’t write about anything other than love. That will be the thing I’m always drawn to – I don’t think I’m very good at writing about anything else.
You write female friendship and that shift we’re all experiencing like no one else. Was it important for you to reflect that so accurately?
It was really important for me to write about that shift in friendships because I had been so black and white about it in my first book – it ended so earnestly. It basically just said, ‘elevate your platonic relationships to the same place you elevate your romantic relationships’, and I think that’s quite a naïve thing to say. Even though I was 28 when I wrote it and now only 32, I think I now have a different understanding of how much more difficult it is as you get older. Your lives change, diverge and more people come in, and it’s difficult to sustain those kind of close-knit relationships with people.
And in Ghosts, we see it from both sides…
There has been some criticism of the book that Nina is so unforgiving and judgmental, and the problem is yes she is because you’re in her head. You’re not seeing a 360 perspective of all the other people in her life who she is feeling disappointed by. In that friendship break up with her old school friend, I really wanted by the end to offer up Katherine’s side of the story – of how her apparent abandonment of her long-term friendship with Nina is not about self-importance. It’s not about her thinking that having children is more important than anything else or that she’s subscribing to these very traditional heteronormative values. It’s to do with her being in crisis and facing the pressures of being a woman, mother, worker, friend and partner, with a pretty useless husband – which is I’m sorry to say most co-parenting situations that I’ve seen (even the good ones). So, Katherine is in her own unique hell and the way that it’s communicated to Nina is ‘I don’t care about you anymore’. It was really important for me to allow Katherine to have space near the end of the book to communicate that despair which is obviously personal and domestic but also societal.
Your writing brings women together and opens conversations – was that always intentional or did it happen organically?
I think it happened organically. I have mainly just hung out with women in the 20 years since I started school and I’ve probably spent 90% of my life just chattering with them. This is my one place of expertise – it has been an enormous pleasure in my life and the main love of my life. I have expertise in no other area, but I have a huge understanding of how women speak, communicate, make each other laugh, show their love for each other and disappoint each other. So, I’m just really interested in reflecting that truthfully in my writing, whether that’s fiction or non-fiction. I’m interested in the conversations that are happening in pubs and in living rooms that are for some reason hushed or yet to be mouth-pieced. That’s the thing I find really exciting – when I realise that I’ve been going from party to party, dinner to dinner or coffee to coffee with lots of different women and we’re all suddenly talking about the same thing, and I’m not seeing any of that in print or television. That’s what really excites me. It’s not about being provocative and it’s not about desperately trying to find something new. It’s about trying to find something true.
Does that add a pressure to be a voice for a lot of women?
Truthfully, I feel an awareness to make sure that I am not offending in a way that is distracting from my work and that I am being sensitive in my language and the worlds that I create. I feel an awareness to ensure that my work is not alienating and that it invites a lot of people in. And I am so aware of how the women who have bought my books have positively changed my life in every single way. But I don’t feel a responsibility to be any sort of role model and I don’t feel a responsibility to represent every single woman’s experience because that’s not my job as a writer.
Did you have to disengage your Dolly Alderton-ness to separate yourself from Nina’s character?
I had to not do that too much because I think when you’re creating characters from a place of defensiveness, they’re not going to be real. It’s disrespectful to create a character to prove a point. You need to service them and really understand them – their sense of humour, psychology, family history, sexuality – all that stuff. And to do that fully you need to not be fretting about whether people are going to draw conclusions over crossovers in your characteristics. I did make Nina quite different to me but obviously because it was first person narration we did share a sense of humour – that is always going to make us similar. I’m not crotchety about people conflating me with that protagonist because I have been the protagonist of my work for 10 years. So, I think it would be mad for me to expect everyone to suddenly acknowledge me as a novelist and completely divorce me and my voice from my work. I think I will be allowed to complain about that when I have written 10 novels but for now I totally understand it. I’m just going to patiently keep writing and then at one point I think that gap will get larger and larger.
What role does reading play in your life?
I love talking about books but I’ve got to be totally honest. Since I’ve started doing my TV show, I haven’t read a single one. The last book I read was in November – it’s the longest I think I’ve ever gone without one and I’m really missing it. But to be totally honest there is a part of me that is quite enjoying not always walking around with a book in my bag. My reading has been quite compulsive over the last five years and I definitely have a consumption panic – making sure that I’m reading enough of the classics and all the new stuff. So I have actually found it really enriching to not immediately put my nose in pages when there’s a free moment, and to give that time to my schedule and brain. That all said, books obviously are so important to me as a writer.
Does your writing inform what you read?
I’m a huge believer in that idea that you become the five people you spend the most time with – I believe that with culture. I think it’s really important what you’re putting into your brain. I believe they become your friends and bedfellows, and I think you become those pieces of work. So, if I want to write more like Bill Bryson, the only way that’s going to happen is by spending loads and loads of time in Bill Bryson’s language. I think something magic happens when a writer really commits to not emulating but understanding the things that they love, and I think it really does enrich a writer’s writing style. I have always been a bit of a mimic in terms of picking up the characteristics of people I love and I think that the same can be said for me of authors, films and TV, so it’s really important for me. Whenever I am writing a book, I will only read books in that wheelhouse. So, when I was writing Everything I Know About Love, all I did was read memoirs – Diana Athill, Nora Ephron etc. and then with Ghosts, I only read books about relationships.
Was it always your intention not to give Nina a perfectly tied-up ending?
I always knew that I never wanted her to end up with someone. I still think about Nina sometimes and I wonder whether she’s with anyone now in 2021, and honestly I really don’t know. I’m not sure if she’ll ever find someone, in the same way I’m not sure I’ll ever find someone. I just think sometimes there’s a freedom in sitting in the discomfort of that and understanding that thinking about it and analysing it is not really going to change the outcome. So yeah, that sense of the unknown, of ambiguity, of a total lack of a moral take-home – that was my intention with the ending.
It’s so interesting to remind us how much is actually beyond our control…
Something that I’m interested in is that we’re the first generation of women who have had the internet as this tool for convenience and control. There’s a line in Ghosts at some point about Nina realising that every woman she knows is obsessed with the Cycle app – for tracking menstrual cycles. That was there as this small atmospheric detail. It reminds us that there are these type A ambitious women in their early thirties who have done everything they can to achieve everything they want, and there is one place where you cannot do that – and that is romance and family. If you want to fall in love with someone and it be mutual, and if you want to have babies, I’m afraid it is beyond your control. It doesn’t work in the same way that you can order an uber or sync your cycle up to your phone. Nina tries when she downloads that dating app but it’s not going to work in the same way. Accepting that lack of control is part of Nina’s journey and will be for the rest of her life.
Is there a message that you hope people will take from Ghosts?
The message of Ghosts is one of hope and one of warning. Life will surprise you in all sorts of wonderful ways and life will disappoint you and break your heart. Your life will be temporarily ruined in lots of unexpected ways, and the likelihood is that you’re not going to be able to anticipate any of it.
Ghosts by Dolly Alderton is published in Penguin paperback on 22 July