Author Q&A: Dolly Alderton
Thirty-something Nina Dean is a successful food writer and has just bought her first home in London so when she meets the perfect man life seems too good to be true. But things soon begin to unravel. Nina’s mum is having a mid-life crisis and her dad is forgetting things, her new downstairs neighbour is showing all the hallmarks of a psychopath, and Max hasn’t texted back in a while. The writer of Everything I Know About Love and Sunday Times agony aunt, Dolly Alderton’s debut novel is a rom-com with all the classic hallmarks, observed with a contemporary eye for detail.
Was it a difficult transition from a journalist and author of a non-fiction book – Everything I Know About Love – to writing fiction?
In terms of the work, it wasn’t difficult, because I loved writing the book and I enjoyed every stage of the process, from pitching to final edits. I’m sure it will be tricky to transition in people’s minds from a non-fiction writer to a fiction author, but that’s completely understandable and doesn’t bother me. I’m only one novel in. I hope I’ll get to write lots over my lifetime, and hopefully at some point it will be something I’m known for as much as I’m known for my non-fiction and journalism. I feel very happy and lucky that writing is my profession at all.
What is ghosting and how is it unique to modern dating?
Ghosting is what happens when someone you’ve been seeing phases you out of contact with no explanation or just stops speaking to you entirely. There are different stages of severity and culpability. Personally, I think everyone’s allowed to quietly cool off in the first few dates. I think complete disappearance is unacceptable. And I think you certainly owe someone an exit conversation after a few months of dating. Ghosting has always existed in some form, but I think online dating has exacerbated it. Perhaps we feel a lesser sense of responsibility to each other when we initially meet as 2D dating profiles.
So many of the nuances of Nina’s dating life, from flirtatiously sharing a cigarette to intimate encounters, seem so alien now in a way you couldn’t have predicted when writing. How do you think the world of dating will adapt to Covid-19?
The book is set in 2018 and the opening sequence is a birthday party in a busy pub. Lockdown happened when I was writing the last two chapters of the book, and I did wonder about going back and amending some segments to “comply” more with a post-Covid world, but I decided not to. I think people want to remember what normality was. I can’t think of anything worse than getting into bed at night this winter and reading a story about a pandemic.
In terms of how dating will adapt to Covid, I truly have no idea. It will certainly impinge on spontaneity and romance, but hopefully it will also encourage a culture of openness and accountability, which is no bad thing.
Nina decries patriarchal systems but admits “a sprinkling of the patriarchy” is a good thing while dating, and ultimately longs for the nuclear family. Were you aiming to strike a delicate balance between the two, or is it something we do reflexively as modern women?
I had no interest in using Nina as a bastion for feminism or a depiction of what the “correct” belief system of gender politics should be. She’s someone who is logical, independent, ambitious and forthright, switched onto gender disparities in dating and domesticity and partnership. But she’s also someone who wants a fairly traditional set-up – a long-term relationship, a child and a home. The tensions and hypocrisies between those arguably opposing things – ideology and desire – are what interested me.
Nina is pretty scathing in her judgement of just about everybody and the way they live their lives, apart from her dad. Was it fun to write such cutting assessments?
Yes, very. Nina is very different to me – the only thing we share is a sense of humour. I loved exploring a character who truly believed and often said aloud the things I only let my mind gingerly circle around.
What did the dementia storyline allow you to explore about personal histories, time and memory and why did you find Picasso a fitting motif for it?
One of the overarching themes of the book is looking at the nature of love – why we love someone, why we’re drawn to them, what we imagine them to be and what about them feels familiar to us. Dementia’s effect on love is such an interesting examination of those questions: of what happens to a relationship when only one person within it can recall a thousand shared memories. The simplistic answer is that the further the sufferer descends into illness, the less able they are to recognise the people they love. While that is seemingly common, when I spoke to family members of dementia sufferers, they often spoke about an enduring understanding and recognition that remained. They could see the essence of who the person was before the illness took hold, and the sufferer could recall fundamental pieces of their loved ones – it was just scrambled in logic or on a different timeline to reality.
A few years ago I was in the Picasso museum in Paris and was moved to tears as I stood in front of a painting of one of his lovers. It struck me as the greatest tribute to loving someone in their entirety – to be able to rearrange and reimagine their features to capture who they are and the multitudes you see in them. I’ve thought about it often and it felt like a fitting metaphor to use in this particular story about dementia.
There is a long literary tradition of writing about food. Is it a challenge to write about something so sensory and what are your favourite books in this genre?
It is a challenge to describe taste and texture in a way that isn’t tired and clichéd. I learnt this when I was given the immense honour of writing a couple of restaurant reviews for The Sunday Times – doing justice to the food with description was so, so difficult. I relied on a lot of overwrought metaphors and similes.
There are so many books I love about food that are evocative and tantalising in their descriptions. Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin, Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh, Heartburn by Nora Ephron, How To Eat by Nigella Lawson, both of Sophie Dahl’s cookbooks and A Half-Baked Idea by Olivia Potts.