The Resumes of Identity We Present to Strangers: A Conversation with Dolly Alderton
Life for Nina, the thirty-three-year-old, London-dwelling food writer at the center of Ghosts, Dolly Alderton’s second book and first novel, feels like a metropolitan haunted house. Her father is slowly disappearing as he falls into the grips of dementia; her mother, in response, is undergoing a strange personality transformation; and her friends are graduating from the hedonism of their twenties and are beginning to create new lives for themselves. But the titular ghost is Max, a broad-shouldered accountant who Nina meets on a fictional dating app called Linx. They begin an intense courtship; over the course of six months they cook each other dinner, text one another all day, he tells her he loves her, and then, quite suddenly, he stops replying to her messages and won’t return her calls. In internet parlance, he ghosts her.
Alderton’s shrewd observations about modern life coupled with her natural warmth and humor, have earned her legions of fans both in her native UK and abroad. Her first collection of essays, Everything I Know About Love, was a best-seller, won the National Book Award in the UK, and is being adapted for television with Alderton writing the script. Her current affairs podcast, The High Low, ran for three years and averaged 300,000 weekly listeners and 1.2 million downloads a month.
Nina’s relationship with Max, and the ensuing fallout, is just one of the ways that Alderton explores the interaction between the internet and reality in modern life. For her, the internet isn’t so much a poison that has pervaded society as it is a funhouse mirror that distorts it into something strange but ultimately recognizable. The world of Ghosts does not take readers to the darkest intersections between the internet and real life, but inside relatively straightforward relationships that are, almost imperceptibly and yet importantly, touched by the pixels that surround us all the time. Alderton’s tone is not detached and cool, but earnest, keenly observed, and often bitingly funny.
I spoke to Dolly over Zoom, not long after the news of the television adaptation of Everything I Know About Love broke. We discussed online dating, novels about the internet, and the construction of digital identities.
The Rumpus: Ghosts is your first novel. What were your experiences writing fiction prior to that? How did the experience differ from your first book?
Dolly Alderton: I hadn’t written fiction before other than in creative writing courses at university, and I had written scripts for years, which is a form of fiction but uses such a different part of your brain writing the pretend world of a television show or a film than writing the pretend world on a page. So, I was very inexperienced going into it.
In terms of how different it was from the nonfiction writing experience, it was technically much harder and emotionally much easier. It took, like, three months of planning—the planning document was enormous—and it took a lot of research for one storyline in particular. It was a lot of thinking about character, and story, and themes, and funny set pieces, and trying to kind of weigh it all so it cohesively comes together as a believable story that’s also compelling.
Rumpus: What prompted you to take that kind of planning approach?
Alderton: I used my experience from working in constructed reality television, which I’ve ended up doing a lot when I’m writing scripts. It’s a very classic formula. I worked out what the five stories were in terms of importance and relevance, and which threads of the story involved which characters. I literally worked out, after I’d written the story, I put it all on boards and I had color-coded those stories so I knew that if the D story was yellow, if there was a cluster of yellow in one part of the story then that means I’ve written way too much on that story because it should be the color that’s A or B. I was quite mathematical about it all, and I don’t know if that’s the right way to go; I think that’s just the only way I know how to do things.
I think there are a lot of people who would argue that planning can kind of inhibit you from your own instincts and not allow the story to grow on its own as you write it, but for me, it’s the only way I know how to write. I’m doing it at the moment with my scripts; I have to have an extremely rigid and structured, and very detailed, planning document and then kind of let myself improvise within that structure when I start writing.
Rumpus: I see this book as something that has a lot of interesting and definite themes. How did you go about developing them? Did you have an idea of what you want the story to be and then figured out the plot? Or did you have the idea of someone being ghosted and we see what happens from there?
Alderton: I was quite lucky in that I had wanted to write about two things for quite a long time, and they ended up being, thematically, very interlinked. I wanted to write about ghosting—I had wanted to write about ghosting for a long time—and I have always been fascinated by dementia. So, ghosting came first as a story and then I was thinking a lot about ghosting and aging and how being ghosted feels like a different experience when you’re a woman in your thirties, and you want to have a family, and you’re aware of the potential time limits of that. I was thinking about age and obviously, someone in their thirties would have older parents, and that’s how I wove the dementia storyline in.
I’m really glad Ghosts is what it is and I’m happy with it, but moving forward I think I would be more cautious of being too led by themes. You want to write a book of ideas, that’s what I always want to do, but if writing ideas becomes more important than real relationships and real people then I think that’s bad because I also think that you should never write anything in a book defensively; you shouldn’t form characters to prove a point, or to surprise the audience, or to subvert a stereotype, or make a point that the story isn’t autobiographical, or whatever. I think that sometimes if a writer is too hung up on ideas or themes they’re really hung up on everyone thinking they’re clever because they themselves don’t think they’re clever enough, and that’s definitely something I’m guilty of. Moving forward, I think your relationship with how you write, if you’re in it for the long haul, just changes so much from project to project and you learn things as you go.
Rumpus: I see this book as being part of an emerging literary canon of “books about the internet.” What separates it from other books I’ve read so far in this genre is that its tone is positive; it’s funny and these characters are ultimately, nice people leading nice lives—it’s a pleasant environment to think about some of these bigger, bleaker questions. How did you arrive at that tone?
Alderton: I think the way that I wrote Ghosts is very at odds with what’s popular now in younger brilliant writers, and that’s not in any way because I’m avant-garde. I’m probably the least avant-garde writer around. I’m not actively rejecting the current trends for young writers; I think it’s just how I am.
I really do like first-person narration and that probably is, in part, laziness because I’m so used to writing from inside my head as a journalist and a nonfiction writer, and it’s an easy way of feeling you’re close with a person and you’re close with their thoughts. Also, it’s a much easier way of being funny; it means that I can just channel my humor through the consciousness of my protagonist. But I do really like the intimacy that’s created with first-person narration, especially when a character finds themselves at such a junction of such enormous change. Being in Nina’s head for that year felt really important.
Rumpus: Please go on.
Alderton: The other thing is that even though this book is quite cynical, I suppose I am quite a sincere writer. I think I’m very emotion-led, and I think emotions can be quite cheap if used wrongly or used to manipulate the reader, and then the other thing is that I overwrite and that is very not cool at the moment. In all the books I love reading now from young writers, the prose is very sparse, there’s not a huge amount of dialogue, there’s not a lot of description, there’s an economic use of simile and metaphor, there aren’t big set pieces. I’m just writing in an unfashionable way at the moment, because I like sumptuous sentences. I like them to feel sensory and packed.
I did feel slightly nervous when I was writing Ghosts because I knew it was going to be a much more cynical book [than Everything I Know About Love], and Nina, its protagonist, is a very caustic person. I wrote Everything I Know About Love when I was twenty-eight. I’d just done therapy for the first time and I felt very optimistic about things. I was aware when I was writing Ghosts that I was in a very different space in my life, and in my philosophy of life. I was feeling much more interested in examining how life will disappoint you, and how unsatisfying life can be. So, I was very aware that I could potentially lose people on the journey from Everything I Know About Love to Ghosts. I have to not care about that because a writer will be in flux forever about what their worldview is, and what their perspective on humanity and sexuality is, as they age. I’m sure there’s another book in me where there’s a big, uplifting, cheesy ending but it just wasn’t for this one.
Rumpus: I wanted to talk about Nora Ephron, who I love and who I know you also love. In the book, Nina recalls the Nora Ephron quote: “love is homesickness.” What does that quote mean to you?
Alderton: Home is a big theme of Ghosts. As I get older, the thing I am more and more convinced of is that the first ten years of your life are so important and they are the years that you will be thinking about forever. When I was doing my dementia research, that theory was reinforced because there are so many stories about dementia sufferers who lose so many memories of young adulthood, middle age, of having family, being married, being elderly, but the thing that seemed to be almost indestructible was the memories of the first ten years of their life. It’s very common that someone with dementia will not know where their current home is, not know where the home of their mid-life is, not even know their twenty-something home but they will go back to their childhood home and think that’s the home they live in. That’s why I had a storyline about a person who is far away from home, who Nina is living in close quarters with, and I think I was interested in the idea of how much of who we are and the decisions we make in adulthood is still somehow formed by those very early years of our childhood: what we look for in a partner, where we end up living, how we chose to live our lives—how much is that formed by our childhoods and how we were parented and our first little worlds, our first homes that we live in. That’s why I chose to include that quote and I love it, I really love it.
Rumpus: There are people in this book whose identities are so bound up in their online lives, as is the case for so many young people, and then there are people like Nina’s parents whose identities are completely disconnected from online life. I was wondering what you think about the relationship between the internet and identity?
Alderton: That ended up being a weird accidental tie-in between those two storylines. It’s a part of the book that I feel really pleased with, that exploration of identity tied together between that “A story” and “B story.” The A story being, what do we fall in love with? What are the reasons why we fall in love with someone? What indicators of identity are the things that we feel attracted to and that we latch onto? What is it about a person that we feel drawn to, that we connect to?
Obviously, online dating is a very interesting place to examine these questions, the nature of attraction and the nature of love, because when you look at an online dating profile it’s an assembling of these indicators of self that we think are most telling of who we are: our soul, our lifestyle, our identity, our politics, our ethics, and what we think is most attractive about us. We present these resumes of identity to strangers and ask them to love us, and that’s very interesting to me in terms of how our imaginations can fill in the gaps in those identity signifiers.
The reason that ties into the storyline of Nina losing her father to dementia in slow motion, is that everything that we’ve been told in Western culture that makes us lovable—all of those things we see on dating apps, all those indicators of identity—what happens when slowly all those things are taken away from someone? What happens when they don’t know what their taste is? They don’t know what their politics are? When they don’t have any stories to tell? What is left to love of them? What does that teach us about love? What is the difference between the self and the soul? The reason that this is sounding so jumbled is that I don’t have any answers; I just found that those questions about what makes us lovable and what makes a unique soul lovable, could be explored in lots of different ways between those two storylines.
Rumpus: I read somewhere that you finished some of this book in isolation?
Alderton: Yeah, the last three chapters, I wrote in isolation.
Alderton: Did that experience affect the way you were thinking about it at all?
Rumpus: I already had a very strict plan of how that story was going to end but, like most people, I was very, very isolated when I was in that first lockdown and I was very, very lonely and very, very not in a good place. I never want to fetishize the artist’s pain—we know how boring and unoriginal that is—but for where I was in the story, feeling immense dislocation from everyone probably was not a bad thing in terms of channeling that into those final chapters and finessing the emotions of that journey for that protagonist. I’m glad it wasn’t at the beginning of the book that I was in isolation, where I was writing about someone falling in love. That would have been very hard to conjure!
Photograph of Dolly Alderton by Alexandra Cameron.