Emma Clifton attempts – and fails – to remain professional while interviewing everyone’s fantasy best friend, Dolly Alderton, about her new book Ghosts and why writing sex scenes was the hardest – but most important – part.
Check out our 2022 chat with Dolly Alderton on her new advice book, Dear Dolly, why the ‘plight of comparison’ feels so visceral in your 20s and 30s, and how being in a relationship has only heightened her love for the importance of female friendship
Readers familiar with the romantic comedy classic Notting Hill will remember the key scene where Hugh Grant’s sister, Honey, accosts movie star Julia Roberts by saying “I absolutely and totally and utterly adore you and I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world and more importantly I genuinely believe and have believed for some time now that we can be best friends.”
When I tell you that was very much the energy I was trying to keep hidden during my half-hour phone chat with British author Dolly Alderton, I hope you understand. Billed as ‘the modern day Nora Ephron’, Dolly was already hugely popular in the UK due to the podcast The High Low, which she co-hosts with fellow journalist Pandora Sykes, with an average of 1.2 million downloads a month. Then in 2018 she released her memoir Everything I Know About Love and it became an instant bestseller, making Dolly something of a poster girl for millennial dating culture. However, the real love letter in the book was less about relationships and more about friendships, which is part of the reason that so many readers feel like they know Dolly.
Despite being an internationally praised author, despite looking like a leggy 1960s supermodel, she still feels like ‘one of us’. Hence why, when I told friends I was interviewing her, I got the kind of breathless response normally reserved for rock stars. “Ask her how she’s finding dating during Covid-19!” asked one friend. “Is she still single? Who’s in her bubble, I wonder?” asked another, in what can only be described as a truly 2020 question.
The blending of Dolly’s personal and professional life is a somewhat double-edged sword she’s learned to live with and it’s perhaps one of the reasons she no longer writes about her own life. Her second book, Ghosts, is her fiction debut, about a 32-year-old protagonist called Nina, a cookbook author who joins the world of online dating after the end of a long-term relationship, while also dealing with her beloved father’s slow descent into dementia. It’s a wonderful book – funny, smart and thoughtful in a way that accurately sums up how wonderful and how lonely that time of life can be, if you’re not someone who’s already got the typical trio of house/husband/child snapped up by 30. Nina watches as slowly she is ghosted by many of the people in her life – her parents, dealing with dementia; her best friend, totally overwhelmed by her family life and finally her new love, Max, who promises everything but comes with his own baggage.
“I wanted Nina to be a character who didn’t ever stress out about who she was; I wanted her to have a rock solid sense of self, I wanted her to really like herself,” Dolly says on the phone from her flat in London. “When bad things happened to her in love, I wanted her to do the opposite of what I would do… and that’s because I wanted a break from my own brain,” she laughs. “I’m quite a neurotic person and I’m very anxious about how people perceive me… [For Nina], even though she makes mistakes in the book, I never wanted those mistakes to be founded on low self-esteem.”
Our phone call takes place late Friday night, NZ time, and early Friday morning, UK Time, the morning after Dolly’s book has come out and also as the UK prepares for yet another lockdown. She immediately apologises for being half asleep – “I woke up 10 minutes ago, I’m making coffee as we speak to make sure I’m not talking… shite” – and then tells me how keen she is to come to New Zealand. “You guys have completely nailed it, we’re the ones who have totally f—ked it,” she says of Covid-19. “I hope you know how jealous we are of your Prime Minister.”
I sheepishly admit a very New Zealand story, that just an hour prior to our interview, I’d run into our PM Jacinda Ardern at the local pub and she shrieks down the phone. “NO! Get out! She’s just the best.”
Covid-19 played quite an interesting role in the publication of Ghosts – back in March, Dolly had booked herself into a cottage by the sea in Devon for a couple of weeks, to finish the book. Very charming, very much the kind of thing you would imagine a writer doing in a romantic comedy. Then the very non-charming reality of Covid-19 hit and Dolly found herself stuck in that isolated cottage by the sea, by herself, for three straight months, unable to leave because of lockdown.
“It was truly in the arse end of nowhere – I didn’t have a car and the nearest shop was an hour’s walk away,” she recalls. “It meant suddenly have to live very simply – I could only carry a certain amount of food back from the shop, so it was about being very sparing.” She’d packed two pairs of leggings and one jumper, she laughs. “Creatively, it was good because it was so quiet and I had no distractions. Also, everyone being so occupied with this extraordinary pain and tragedy and disaster and panic, it really put everything into perspective. I didn’t freak out about finishing the novel like maybe I would have done otherwise.”
It was also very, very lonely, which she says was quite helpful when it came to writing some of the sadder parts of the book. “I’ve never felt more alone in my life, for lots of different reasons – not just because of physically where I was – and it really coincided with where my protagonist was in her story.”
As much as the book deals with some very heavy content – on two different occasions I had to put the book down to have a little cry, so viscerally does it sum up the pain and heartbreak of dating – it also covers the sexy side of it as well. Literally – the book has a fair few sex scenes and they are, err, very well done. There’s no way of asking this without sounding pervy, but how did she get the writing of something so tricky, so spot on?
Turns out, she studied a lot (not in THAT way). “I went back to all the books that I’d read, that I’d loved, which had sex scenes. And I discovered two things. Firstly, I was amazed at how many novelists wimped out of it, and I was very resentful of that,” she laughs. “I mainly read novels about relationships and novels are meant to be a reflection of real emotions, real human interactions. Sex is a predominant part of life, it’s such an important part of relationships and the dynamics within those relationships.”
“It’s icky, it’s embarrassing, writing a sex scene. It’s hard to come up with something that feels new, that feels realistic. It’s hard to turn people on… it’s hard to write sex scenes and not think about people you know reading it and thinking they’re reading about you. It’s hard to write sex scenes where it doesn’t feel like you’re composing a sext to someone. But!” – she pauses and lets out a big laugh, – “I’m now like, ‘I’m sorry, but you must do it.’ You cannot write about relationships and not write about sex scenes, and just wimp out.”
Dolly says the key that made things easier was a quote from Sally Rooney, author of the very horny Normal People – “she writes f—king good sex scenes” – who described that genre of writing as like writing any other scene between two people: it’s just another kind of conversation. “The minute I read that, it really set me free. I was focusing too much on sensation and mechanics” – she stifles a giggle – “and actually, that’s not what excited people about sex scenes; it’s what the dynamic is, what the power shift is. What the unsaid is. That’s the stuff that’s really hot and that’s what you remember from sex.”
“The thing that I will never stop finding extraordinary about sex – it’s what I found the most interesting when I was a kid and first found about it, and as a 32-year-old woman, it still fascinates me, is that when two people have sex, they are inviting each other to a private part of who they are no-one else gets to see. It’s language that no one else gets to hear, it’s a physical act no one gets to see, it’s a personality nobody gets to see. It’s almost the most sacred part of you. As an author, why would you not want to show that? It’s coveted. God, I’ve been desperate for someone to ask me that question,” she laughs. “I could talk about it for hours.”
As well as Ghosts, and the much beloved The High Low Podcast, another job that Dolly has taken on this year is as an advice columnist for The Sunday Times. A lot of the questions refer to the bread and butter of Dolly’s career – dating, love, the single life, etc. But one column struck a chord with females around the world, where a woman wrote in about the fact that she had gained weight during lockdown and was suffering from terrible body image as a result. Dolly’s answer went viral – describing very gently how the diet industry has attached morals to eating and how hard this year has been for people, that comfort eating is, indeed, a way of finding solace in extraordinary circumstances.
“Every time you go to feed yourself, imagine you are feeding one of your children,” she wrote. “Every time you finish a meal and you want to berate yourself for the decisions you made: imagine you are speaking to one of your children. If they came to you — tired, anxious or ill — would you give them a calorie-counted meal, or would you give them what they were craving? If they ate something that brought them joy, would you remind them afterwards that they could have eaten something that was less pleasurable but lower in fat? Would you tell them to take notice of the letter on the label in their clothes and attach a sense of self-worth to it? Would you let them believe that the letter on that label was an indicator of whether someone will fall in love with them?”
It feels with so much of her writing, I venture, that she’s writing the words she herself needed to hear at various points of her life – whether it’s an ode to female friendship, or a supportive defence of not letting your weight define you.
“Totally, there’s no one that needed to read that advice column more than me,” Dolly agrees. “I think some of the best writing and the best advice comes from the idea of collective learning. I learned about the concept of intuitive eating and it’s really helped me during this time of global stress. By showing compassion to that woman, who was writing in with her fears, I was trying to show compassion to myself as well. That’s what I always hope for in that column, rather than this idea that I’m some wizened old dame, who’s lived a long life, handing out all this pithy advice,” she laughs. “That’s not me at all. So much of my writing is often me thinking allowed.”
With half an hour up, I garble some sort of gush of compliments (professional, as always) down the phone to Dolly before ending the chat. “If you ever see Jacinda Ardern in the pub again, can you please give her a hug from me, on behalf of all of England?” Dolly replies.
Ghosts by Dolly Alderton is available now from all good bookstores. For more information on The High Low, please visit here.