Dolly Alderton never expected her bestselling memoir, Everything I Know About Love , to be a hit. “A month before my book came out I remember ringing my mum in a panic, in floods of tears, because I was so convinced that the only people who would buy it would be my extended friends and family,” the author and journalist tells me. “I remember crying to my mum on the phone saying ‘I’m worried people at Penguin are going to lose their jobs’.”
Of course, they didn’t. Everything I Know About Love went on to win Autobiography of the Year at the National Book Awards in 2018, and was nominated for Waterstones Book Of The Year and a British Book Award, too.
Alderton has made a career out of talking about her love life. After story producing reality show Made in Chelsea for four seasons, she made the switch to journalism and found her feet as the dating columnist for The Sunday Times Style pages. Not one to stick to a singular medium, the 32-year-old is also the co-host of the perennially popular podcast, The High Low, where she and fellow journalist Pandora Sykes share their takes on the week’s biggest stories.
When we speak, Alderton is on her way to the Penguin offices for a meeting about her first fiction novel: Ghosts . Out this week, Ghosts is a whip-smart ode to the love we have for family and friends, and it has already drawn Nora Ephron comparisons. “I’ve always wanted to write fiction,” Alderton says. “The first book that I wrote, which never saw the light of day, was a terrible guide book for how to survive your 20s.
“I think, even in my journalism, in every part of my life where I’ve been writing, really what I’ve always wanted to do is tell stories. Everything I Know About Love is a novelistic version of the journalism I’ve been writing and the next step was trying to crack fiction.”
After writing (and talking) about her personal life for so long, Alderton says writing fiction was “like being at a cerebral spa every day for a year, I loved it. I don’t know how I wrote about my personal life for 10 years, because the other way is so much nicer.”
Ghosts, at its core, is about love. About finding love, losing love and the love we have for those closest to us. It’s about online dating in our modern times and touches on the dating phenomenon of ghosting (the term for when you’re dating someone and suddenly they go quiet, never to be heard from again). “I remember thinking ghosting is a really exciting narrative tool, it’s like a thriller,” Alderton laughs. “Anyone who’s been ghosted will know what it’s like to have three weeks where you become like a detective, trying to figure out if the man you’ve been dating is dead or alive.
“It felt like an interesting phenomenon that had been exacerbated due to the birth of the online dating culture. I was interested in the sort of gender disparities between the online dating experience and why ghosting has been perpetuated more by men, particularly men in their 30s.”
Nina, Ghosts’ protagonist, also has to deal with an ailing father, suffering from dementia. “I wanted to look into this idea of mortality that starts to underpin existence as you start to get into your 30s,” Alderton adds.
“For most people I know, you’re suddenly in the life cycle; people you know are having children, people you know are trying to have children, people you know have parents who have died or are ill. It just feels like you’re presented with life and death which, most people who are lucky in their 20s, are not. The fear I think with getting older is that your parents are going to fade, and there’s nothing more of an actualisation of that metaphor than dementia.”
Alderton notes that while her and Nina are completely different temperamentally, she does share something in common with her protagonist: the want for a nuclear family. “We both think that we want to meet a partner and have a child. That is a very interesting tension for a lot of people I know. This fervent cynicism and disappointment in heterosexuality and the rituals of heteronormalcy. This resentful hope for something, for the nuclear family.” Alderton continues. “And I think I found that really interesting, that set of contradictions, and I wanted to look at what that does to a single woman in her 30s, how that shifts the power dynamics of dating in your 30s between men and women rather than in your 20s. I wanted to look at the sort of existential crisis that can put you in.”
Compared to her memoir, which Alderton says came from ‘a place of truth’, she doesn’t think readers will take away any clear-cut message from Ghosts. “[With Everything I Know About Love] I was getting to the end of my 20s, I was getting to the end of quite a chaotic time of my life. I read back the final chapters of that book and I’m like ‘wow, this woman is very sure of what she wants. She really does think she knows the world, she thinks she knows relationships and friendships and she’s pretty prescriptive about how it should all be done’, and actually that does capture the exact feeling of my life at that time and that captures the mood of so many 28 year olds I think.
“I wasn’t in that mood when I was writing this book [Ghosts]. I was very confused and I was feeling disappointed and hopeful and anxious and sad. I was in a much more complicated place. Not personally but in terms of how I looked at the world and how I looked at men and women and relationships and starting a family, so I really wanted to reflect that in the book.”
Alderton adds that Nina is like so many western, millennial women who have been brought up to believe that she can have, and control, anything and everything. “There’s one great thing that you cannot control which is your relationships and whether you have a family. You can’t control either of those things. A lot of the lessons Nina is learning throughout this book is that life is full of light and shade, and there’s very little you can do about that, and life is going to disappoint you and that’s okay because that’s all part of the experience.”
Like most people, 2020 has been a mixed bag of feelings for Alderton. While she’s ‘desperate’ for things to get back to normal, she knows normal is ‘not something we’re ready for yet’. During lockdown, Alderton says she did not hop on the banana bread baking train. “All I did was sit on WhatsApp. That’s the new skill that I picked up during lockdown. How to spend six hours on WhatsApp in the evening. I actually think I got worse at things, my guitar playing got worse and my reading got worse. I stopped cooking, I got bored of the cooking and washing up cycles and started eating things out of packets,” Alderton laughs. Her reading has picked up, however, and Alderton is currently nose-deep in Raven Leilani’s striking debut, Luster. “It’s one of those books that I’ll get it out when I go to bed and suddenly it’s 1am and I’m cancelling my spin class the next morning.”
Alderton has also returned to The Sunday Times Style as an agony aunt, something she says she’s wanted to do since she was eight years old. “Think of how you persuade your parents that you’re old enough to get your ears pierced, I’m so grateful that I’ve persuaded my editor that I’m old enough to be an agony aunt, I’m loving it so much, it’s my favourite journalism gig I’ve had.”
Yet, Alderton doesn’t see herself as a sage of any sort. “I don’t think people look to me for advice, I think they look to me for truths and they look to me for a sense of reassurance because I’m someone who’s been so transparent about making a lot of bad decisions and reflecting on them. I think the minute I position myself in my head as some sort of sage, not only are they f*cked, but I’m f*cked,” she laughs.
While Alderton is currently working on other projects, she says she’ll be pitching another novel as soon as she can, as long as people will ‘allow her to’. I have a good feeling they will.
Ghosts by Dolly Alderton (Fig Tree, £14.99), buy it here.