The bestselling author talks heartbreak, fiction versus non-fiction, and her latest novel Good Material
Dolly Alderton needs little introduction. She’s a regular columnist for the Sunday Times Style Magazine,where she dishes out wise and compassionate agony aunt advice; the author of the phenomenally successful memoir Everything I Know About Love, which she’s just finished making into a hit BBC TV series; and a bestselling novelist thanks to her barnstorming fiction debut Ghosts. Now she’s taking on the male psyche with her highly-anticipated second novel Good Material, which has already garnered praise from the likes of Claudia Winkleman and Marian Keyes. The book, which follows stand-up comedian Andy as he tries to process his break-up from his girlfriend Jen, is a sharply observed tale of heartbreak and friendships, packed full of Alderton’s trademark wisdom and wit.
We caught up with Alderton to find out more about how she found writing heartbreak from a male perspective, what goes into planning her books, and whether it’s fiction or non-fiction that really inspires her.
How did you find the process of writing Good Material and in what way did it feel different from your other books?
I loved writing this book. I've only written two novels, but they've been my favorite writing experiences, both of them. I think my friend Caroline O'Donoghue, who's written, like, seven novels, said to me that when you read back your first novel, what you realise is [that] no matter how proud you are of it, it's still always someone learning how to write a novel.
I think with this book, the thing that I really learnt was to not lead with themes and ideas, but with character and story, so that was a new approach for me. I made a TV show in between this novel and my last one and everything in TV is about understanding characters, so I think writing that show helped me with the strategy and plotting of this book.
What inspired this book?
I’ve always wanted to write a book about heartbreak. I got the idea from the opening list Andy makes about Jen, of all the reasons why it’s good he’s not with her, which came off the back of having dinner with a friend. We had both been advised by separate therapists to write a list of everything that was incompatible with our exes, everything to hate. It can help differentiate between the reality of what you were when you were together, and that kind of nostalgic fantasy which, for me, immediately takes over in the wake of a break-up.
So my friend and I both read our lists aloud and they were just so funny, but also they offered up missing pieces of information. I’m sure when my friend listened to me read mine, she could understand what might be on my ex’s list about me, based on my own list. It’s just really funny how much it tells you about the person writing the list, what they want, and what they’re angry about. It tells you a lot about what that person's relationship was, and it also hints at the stuff that the person who's complaining isn't aware about, about themselves.
The creative process of writing from different perspectives makes for really interesting subject matter. You write about love, romance, and what we go through during break-ups from the male perspective for this book – how did you find that?
I really loved it! I’ve always wanted to write something from the male perspective, to stretch myself as a novelist. I have written so much about what happens to women and how that affects their friendship groups, and I really wanted to try and delve into what happens on the other side, not just as a writing exercise but as an empathy exercise. As a woman who went to an all-girls school and who has never quite shaken off the feeling that men might be from a different planet, I learned from writing this book that they most certainly are not. I love the challenge of writing characters who have had very different experiences or come from different backgrounds. I spent so much of my twenties writing from life – I mean, all novels are writing from life, but about the events of my own life and the people in it – I feel like I’ve done that to death now. I’m much more interested in the exercise of world-building with my own imagination. I just find it really enjoyable.
How did you find researching this novel? Did you have to lean on a lot of male friends?
Yes, I interviewed about fifteen men. A lot of them were my male friends, some of them were partners of my friends, some of them were men I had worked with who I became close to, and I had a set of lots and lots of questions I went through with them all. I think the journalist in me kicked into action and I ended up with over twenty hours of recorded conversations to go from. I went into all the same areas talking about relationships, break-ups, sex, friendships, sex after break-ups, heartbreak – you know, all that stuff that I know so well. I feel like I’m such an expert in heartbroken women at this point, so it’s just about trying to understand that from the male perspective.
The book is also set in the world of stand-up comedy. How did you find writing the stand-up comedy word?
Well, I've always kind of been comedy-adjacent, I suppose, because I'm friends with lots of comedians and I've also dated comedians. I did three summers at the Edinburgh Festival between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one – it doesn’t make me a comedian but it’s obviously the type of person and world I’m very drawn to. But it’s also a hugely daunting world. There was one minute when I thought I was going to be a comedian and did exactly two gigs that were terrible and never went back again. There’s obviously a part of me that is very intrigued by it, but I’m not quite brave enough to do it myself, and I have immense admiration for the craft and the people who do it. The great thing about fiction is that I don't have to be a comedian, but I did get to feel like a comedian for a year while I wrote this book.
A really important book for me was Frank Skinner’s diaries from when he was back on the road. I read that a couple of times because it just clarified for me the day-to-day of what it is to be performing, some of the characters you meet along the way, and the highs and lows of submitting yourself to acceptance or rejection publicly every night as your job. I also had my friend Ivo Graham as my comedy consultant, so he helped me with the specifics. I would be texting him in the middle of the night saying, “Does Colchester have a comedy club?” and, “Remind me what percentage your agent takes from your gigs?” That was so useful to have.
How planned are your plots? Do you like to let the book take you where it wants to go, or do you know what’s happening from the very beginning?
I have to know what's happening. I have to know, bit by bit, everything that's happening in my books. The main thing that has happened in everything fictional that I've written, both my novels and my TV show, is that I always over-plot and inevitably there are two storylines I have to cut.
Is that quite heartbreaking or do you feel quite used to it by now?
It was heartbreaking with Ghosts, it wasn’t so bad writing Good Material because of the TV show I made. A TV show is so useful for any writer because TV isn’t about acquisition of things, it’s about losing things. When you write a novel, you have a blank page, and you have these big ideas and then every day you accumulate these words and you just layer and layer stories and characters. Then more people come in: the copy editor comes in and they add more to it, then the publishing team comes in and they add this huge, exciting campaign to sell it, and then the designer comes in to design the jacket and it’s all about adding these layers until it builds and builds into this huge thing. TV is the opposite! You begin with this huge idea and, inevitably, because of practicalities and budgetary issues, things have to go. What I realised in making that show is loss can be really creative and enriching. So losing stuff doesn't scare me anymore.
Switching into Jen’s narrative towards the end of the book felt like such a brilliant way of re-examining what we’ve just gone through with Andy. Did you always plan that or did her perspective keep pushing through as you wrote?
No, I always planned to do that. I’m like, the least sexy, least exciting writer. I literally do three months of planning! I’m working on a film at the moment with Caroline O'Donoghue, and I can already tell that she's going to find my obsession with research tedious. It's so at odds with the rest of my character. In real life, I'm like, “No plans, let’s just go with the flow.” But when I write I absolutely cannot write a thing unless there is a Bible, a document that I have worked on for at least three months; everything’s planned. Then you can get lost in it a bit more and have fun without the panic.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
Okay, so I’ve read three non-fiction books that I have loved this year. Good Pop Bad Pop by Jarvis Cocker is such a nostalgic book and I’m a very nostalgic person. It’s about him clearing out his attic, literally, and it’s a beautiful book with beautiful imagery. He’s taking out stuff – which can include a forty-year-old bar of Imperial Leather soap – and he unlocks memories about his own life and cultural memories about Britain, which is a great idea for a memoir.
I loved Alan Rickman’s diaries, which I think may be one of the most important books I’ve ever read and I’m telling anyone who is a creative and an artist to read it because it’s the most helpful thing to [help] understand what a whole career looks like. When you think of Alan Rickman, you think of how beloved and celebrated he is, and how he left behind this incredible body of work, but when you read the day-to-day of his life, that was just not the case. His diaries are a lot of bad reviews, bad faith towards him as an actor. A lot of stuff he’s in, he watches back and it doesn’t work – there are a lot of disappointments for him, and I think it’s important for people who have committed to this life to read that.
The last one I loved was Tales from Colony Room, which is about a very famous club in Soho and its history. It’s such a celebration of Soho drinkers, Soho itself, and also London’s artists. It was such a hedonistic romp of a read and I loved it.
Who is the one author who inspires you the most?
I’ve said this a lot, but Meg Wolitzer really inspires me because she manages to nail both really page-turning plot and a really well-rounded and interesting ensemble of characters. I think doing those things at the same time to an equally high level is a really, really rare skill.
And finally, do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction! I mean, occasionally the mood hits me to write non-fiction, and I need to write it. I'm writing a piece of non-fiction right now. I don't know if I'll ever put it anywhere – I just suddenly needed to write an essay. Every few years I get a sudden urge that I need to process the life experience in an artful way on the page, but very rarely, these days.
Article by Lucy Hall, originally posted on penguin.co.uk; links updated and amended for New Zealand readers.
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