Author Q&A: Naoise Dolan

Exciting Times
(W&N, £14.99) 

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In the lead-up to the anti-abortion referendum in 2008, 22-year-old Irish graduate Ava throws caution to the wind and spends her abortion fund on a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, where she attempts to navigate language and love. Naoise Dolan is a debut author who’s been tipped as the hottest of a new set of Young Irish Authors and drawn inevitable comparisons with Sally Rooney for her smart, wry and politically charged prose. 

Your protagonist Ava is an Irish-English teacher in Hong Kong. What did her circumstances allow you to explore about language? 
Most overtly, Ava’s job provided the opportunity to discuss grammar in an explicit way while keeping it relevant to the plot. I find it fun to think about the nitty-gritty features of language, so I’ll take any excuse. More broadly, I was interested in snobbery around language and how it interacts with class and colonisation. The narrator is a white anglophone who’s paid to disseminate a form of “standard English” that she doesn’t even speak herself. Because it’s a novel, not a thesis, I didn’t want to hammer anyone on the head with a definitive argument about linguistic imperialism, but it was interesting to test out the implications.

Are there parallels between Hong Kong and Ireland that compelled you to set your book there?
Yes and no, I think. Both countries were colonised by the British, but race and 21st-century position make the experience and impact very different. I do find it very interesting how both countries speak a particular local form of English that’s regarded largely with pride, although again, I wouldn’t want to make too much of a sweeping comparison. Even calling those countries’ English “local” feels strange to me because “standard English” is just as local, only it’s local to places and people that we think of as neutral.

Ava reflects that Julian, as a rich, white, English man, has never experienced anything but permission. Has the emergence of a group of other Young Irish Authors given you permission you didn’t previously have?
Not really, because I think it’s far too early in my career to consider myself as belonging in any particular group of writers. I only have one book out! I’d find it reductive, and therefore limiting, to think of myself in terms of age or nationality – I think you need to keep your head down and write the books you want to write, and that’s what I’ve always done and hope to continue doing. I don’t think anyone who gets going in their twenties can really complain of having been waiting for “permission”!

Edith says that her opinions on the nexus between monogamy and patriarchy are many and varied but doesn’t voice them. What are yours?
Like Edith, I have lots of takes on that, and most of them contradict one another. Most obviously, I think the logic of monogamy is about tying sex to property. We can see that from the real historical application of monogamy, which has never actually compelled everyone to only have sex with one other person. In terms of modern emotional dynamics, I find monogamy really sinister because the idea of wanting to control whom my partners sleep with just seems so alien to me. I can’t disentangle that logic from the belief that you “own” your partner, which to me is too bound up in misogynistic accounts of love to have any redeeming qualities. At the same time, I (and pretty much any young leftist) can think of plenty of men in my social circles who use the idea of polyamory to treat people horribly, so I think my actual practical take on relationships is that people should be honest and kind and arrive at arrangements they’re happy with. That sounds blandly apolitical, but I think if you’re attentive to the power aspect of those navigations then you end up thinking a lot about capitalism anyway.

Ava says she couldn’t fully believe in her relationship until it was committed to paper. Is this a condition of writers, or of the social media age?
I wonder a lot about how much writing people did before social media! I ask people like my parents about that sometimes, but it’s hard to frame the question in a way that gives me a real idea of whether they “wrote” to each other as much as I “write” to my friends now. No novel, including mine, captures the daily amount of writing we all produce; I don’t think that’s a fault, because no novel captures how much tea we drink or how often we wash our hands. You selectively take the interesting bits, not your ongoing contributions to the group chat. (I’m terrible in group chats, probably because I’m terrible in real-life group conversations.) So I think what I’m saying is that a lot of people’s experience of the world right now is intensely epistolary, and maybe it always has been – I’d need to remember a time before the internet to speak to that. In terms of Ava specifically, I don’t think she’s especially literary in her sensibilities. I mean, she’s the narrator of a novel so on that level she has to be, but she doesn’t make literary references or read fiction, let alone write any. So in her case, I think it’s likelier that the commit-it-to-paper feeling comes more from her reliance on written communication than on any particular creative streak.

Ava acknowledges that she’s drawn to rich men because of the underlying fear of needing them to pay for an abortion. The book is set prior to the 2018 referendum to repeal anti-abortion laws in Ireland. Would its result have changed her attitude towards relationships or is she too damaged by coming of age in the shadow of reproductive control?
Yeah, I think she’s damaged regardless. Often, I think we form sensibilities that seem tethered to a particular event, but because you only live one life in a given time and place it’s impossible to say what would have happened if history had been different. I’d probably have to write a whole different novel to know how Ava would approach relationships in a different social context, but then she wouldn’t be Ava – she’d be a different character with the same name.

What are you working on at the moment and how has the current pandemic impacted your work?
I’m writing either my second or my third novel. Basically I have a draft of the second one but I haven’t worked on it in ages because it’s too depressing, so I’m sustaining myself with the third one instead. I can’t really say how the pandemic has impacted my work because for me it’s bound up with a lot of other weird changes in my life, most obviously the book stuff. I can never really analyse myself or my emotions in the moment! I don’t know if that’s particular to me or if other people have that, but I feel like I’m always wildly improvising when I claim anything is currently having an effect on my work.

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