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Dolly Alderton on Her Debut Novel and the Gendered Politics of Modern Love

"Romantic culture has been set up to just treat women as passive as possible."
Image: Alexandra Cameron

It’s a story that’ll elicit a shudder of recognition for many single women. Nina is a successful food writer, publishing her second book, when, on her 32nd birthday and after four years of being a content bachelorette, she decides to download a dating app for the first time. It’s not long before she discovers that the world of modern dating is a haunted house where ghosts are not merely figments of the imagination…or are they? 

It’s a familiar story. But it’s also the subject of The High Low co-host, Sunday Times columnist and award-winning author of Everything I Know About Love Dolly Alderton’s first foray into fiction, Ghosts.

Here, marie claire chats with the inimitable writer about how the book came to be, the gender politics of ghosting, fighting for sex scenes and what she hopes people take away from her debut novel.

marie claire: Where did you start with Ghosts? What was the inspiration?

Dolly Alderton: It came to me really, really fast. I just started thinking about ghosting, and how prevalent it is. And I wanted to look at the gender politics and the psychology within that. I also thought it lends itself to a really neat and exciting narrative structure. You’re always looking for suspense in a book and anyone who’s been ghosted knows there’s nothing more compelling, horrifying, confusing and enigmatic. It’s like a mystery that traumatises and terrorises you; one that you’re desperate to solve. That felt like a very rich ground for a story. I was interested in the psychology of ghosting and how that played out differently when you’re in your 30s, as opposed to in your 20s. That was the initial idea.

Source: Alexandra Cameron
Dolly Alderton (Credit: Image: Alexandra Cameron)

mc: You mention the difference between experiencing ghosting in your 20s and 30s. Can you elaborate?

DA: Yeah. I mean, of course, this doesn’t apply to all women, there are loads of other ways to have children and a family. But if you’re a woman who’s looking for a very traditional set-up of how to have children – i.e with a man, who is a living co-parent and romantic partner – there is an uncomfortable truth about entering your 30s and beyond which is that whether you like it or not, if that’s what you know you want, dating becomes a tool in which to find it within a finite window. Which then makes dating an entirely different activity, sociologically. As much as you try and discount that, as much as you don’t want to look at romance in that way, that’s a fact of what it is.

Then, also, there’s this sense of the gender politics of ghosting. I know that women do it, but much less. When I did research, I found it gets done to women much more than they perpetuate it. Ghosting is all about making someone feel like you’re heading a certain way, making someone feel like you have a closeness, making someone feel like you have a certain quality of relationship and then disappearing, either without a trace, or withdrawing with zero sense of accountability.

I was interested in how the culture of dating has been set up for men to have a lot of fun with no responsibility. And for most men, no sense of certain time pressures. And how women, when they want that very traditional family set-up – which I think more and more is moronic that we want that and include myself in it, but it’s also completely understandable why we would want it –  I was interested in how ghosting plays into that disparity and that unfairness as you move into this decade.

mc: It’s almost more devastating, I suppose. Especially if, as you say, there is that kind of imperative to meet someone and create a life together; when that escalation happens, and then they just disappear, it’s disorienting. One of my favourite quotes in the book is: “He knows I would hate to seem mad. I’m strong-armed into silence by the fear of being called mad. So instead I just have to go actually mad with no answers.” That’s a very neat distillation of the psychological effects of ghosting and what makes it so traumatic. You’re forced into madness-inducing silence because you don’t want to feed into those stereotypes of being ‘the crazy woman’ – which are undoubtedly sexist, but still there’s this sense of not being able to follow-up and find out what happened because to do that might be seen as, well, crazy.

DA: I agree with you so much, and actually the ‘crazy intense girlfriend’ stereotype that we fear has its roots in such macabre history, which has basically dictated that any feeling a woman has, or any thought a woman has that isn’t in line with a male version of events, it’s hysteria, it’s madness. That’s essentially what ghosting is when it’s done to a woman; it’s telling her that anything that she believed the relationship to be, she invented. And in my experience, that is so rarely the truth. A relationship – the feelings that you make, the love that you make, and the communication you have – it’s collaborative. You do it together, you create it together. If you think someone is your boyfriend, if you think that someone isn’t going to disappear, if you think you have a future with someone, if you think that you’re going to be spending more time with someone, if you think you’re gonna hear from someone when they say, ‘I’ll call you tomorrow’, 90% of time – probably even higher – that isn’t in your head. That hasn’t been invented. That is a treaty created together.

And that is what’s really scary to me about ghosting; the particular type of ghosting that I’ve seen over and over and over again, against women, relies on this idea of women making things up. Because women are intense and women want commitment more than men do. And that, at all times, will be a valid excuse card for ghosting. And actually, normally when a man ghosts, it’s either done out of boredom or fear. And the sad fact is, and this is where it gets more complicated, when you take that into account with what I just said at the beginning of the conversation, they do have evidence to justify that fear. If you want to have kids in your 30s and you’re dating, a man will always have a way of saying to you, ‘you’re too intense’.

mc: “You’re in your 30s, you want this, ergo, I have a reason to freak out.”

DA: Yes. And there is a kernel of truth in that. I’m so careful, though. I want to be clear that I’m talking about a woman who wants a certain type of life, which is not all women. But if you do want that, there is a power imbalance.

mc: Yeah. As you said, it’s a very specific context, but in this context, ghosting also seems to me to be a way in which to wield power over another person. And I guess, if it is fear that they’re feeling, it’s also maybe a way of taking back control, which is scary.

DA: It is and also, romantic culture traditionally has been set up to just treat women as passive as possible; whether it’s waiting for an answer, ‘I love you’, waiting to be proposed to, waiting for his calls, all these games that have been created from historic rituals of courtship, right to all those self-help books and sloganism of the 20th century about how to keep a man interested in you. The key message over and over again is: be as quiet and small as possible. Don’t ask for anything. Don’t express yourself. And that is worth examining.

mc: Do you believe closure is ever possible?

DA: Yeah, I do. Someone explaining the truth of their actions. I really do believe that most people are good and most men are good. You know, the complications of dating, and all relationships, really, is that sometimes, our intention doesn’t match up with the way we behave. Sometimes, something gets rewired in between what we wanted someone to be and what we wanted to be to someone and what we end up doing to them and how we end up hurting them. I think someone being able to explain that muddle to you, and just apologise for it and acknowledge that it must have been difficult [would provide closure]. I mean, it’s so rare that people get that kind of closure in dating. In relationships it’s different, but in dating it’s so rare to get closure, but I do believe it’s possible.

mc: One of my favourite things about you as someone who writes about love, is that you don’t necessarily centre romantic love in your writing. With Ghosts, it felt like a bit of a Trojan horse to me. Yes, it’s about ghosting and dating, but the relationships I was most compelled by and that felt most complex were those that Nina had with Lola and with Katherine and with her parents. I wondered, in writing the book, was that intentional? Did you go into it knowing that you wanted to keep those platonic relationships as central?

DA: I knew that I wanted to write a book about men and women and I knew that I wanted to write about romance and dating – because I’ve never really written about it in huge depth and I’ve been talking about friendships a lot over the past two-and-a-half years. The last time I’d been talking about dating was in this very flippant, incidental way when I was 26, and mostly in my column. So I had never really written about the nature of love and how we fall in love and why we fall in love. And I’m fascinated by that. I really did want to write men and women. But I think friendship worked its way in as being almost as important as the love between her and the leading man because the work you do, it doesn’t reflect the events of your real life, but it does reflect the conversations that you have and the thoughts that you have. And my relationships with women form the majority of my conversations and the thoughts going around in my head. So that’s probably why it will always be present in every book that I write.

mc: Do you have a favourite writer or philosopher on love? Or a philosophy of love that you’re most drawn to?

DA: It changes so much, depending on what I’m feeling about it all. When I was writing Ghosts, I was feeling highly cynical about heterosexuality, about dating, about relationships, about love and about starting a family. Marriage was something that I felt very cynical about when I first started writing the book. Then certain events in your life or certain people you meet, or certain things you opened up to, or certain things you bear witness to change that. It’s constantly in a state of flux – I was about to say when you’re a single person, but I actually think it happens when you’re in a relationship, as well.

The people that I look to as philosophers on love at any given moment really do shift. I was reading quite a lot of Diana Athill when I first started writing the book. She was a memoirist, and she wrote a book called Instead of a Letter, which is a memoir and it’s the biggest tale of the ultimate ghosting. A lot of her thoughts on love were cynical; the idea that romantic love and romantic escapades, like those initial first dates, are fun, exciting and sexy and they serve as great escapism from life, but they aren’t real life. Romance is a sort of hallucination and it’s not something to be invested in. And instead, you have to look at romantic love as a way of finding, basically, a good friend who you can live a well-matched life with, because romance and passion is an entirely ephemeral, and perhaps even false, idea.

And look, get me in the right mood, get me in the right year, and that’s something I entirely subscribe to. Find me at another time in my life, and you know, I’m John Lennon, proclaiming “Love conquers all” and I’m ready to fall in love with an artist and we’ll be connected forever. Really, the truth of it is that I think I’ll always be fighting those tensions and all the hinterlands in between.

mc: I want to pivot a bit and talk about sex scenes. The only really graphic sex scene in the book is the one between Nina and Angelo, as opposed to Nina and Max. What was behind that choice?

DA: I had to really fight for that sex scene with Angelo. It’s already lightly divided people in early reading. But it was really important to me, because Angelo’s character represents something that is very real for Nina. He lives right underneath her, she is privy to all his strange habits, and he couldn’t be more human to her. That is in complete opposition with the man who she has been falling in love with through the majority of the book, who is like a symbol of a man in many ways. And his behaviour has led her to believe that she perhaps invented who he was, or they invented who he was together. He became everything she needed; at that moment in her life she needed excitement, she needed passion, she needed a very old fashioned sense of masculinity. And he was the disappearing man. Every time she proved that she got close to him or she managed to get hold of him, he disappeared.

What people can’t understand until they’ve been ghosted is, what you long for is reality. You get ghosted, and you go to a friend’s house who lives with someone and you can’t believe that they’re in the kitchen. You can’t believe that every day your friend wakes up and the person that she’s in love with is just lying next to her, and then gets up and has a shower, and she comes home. And he’s still drinking a beer and watching TV every night. The idea of someone being constant, reliable and real becomes the most extraordinarily unattainable and unfathomable thing when you’ve been ghosted.

For Nina, there’s nothing more real than Angelo. There’s nothing more grotesquely real to her. He’s so real, it’s almost unbearable. So I wanted them to have sex that wasn’t emotional. And it wasn’t about a certain dynamic; it wasn’t about the fantasy of who she wanted to be when she was being sexually intimate with him. Who he was to her was an escapism. And it was domestic, it was dirty, it was awkward. I wanted that to be a very different experience to the rest of the romantic and sexual experiences that she had in the book.

mc: What do you hope people take away from Ghosts?

DA: The type of fiction I want to write is meant to be reflecting the reality of human experience. And the reality of human experience is there’s often very little to take away from it. I know that sounds very sad, and cynical, but that’s really something I’m believing in more and more as I get older. Sometimes there isn’t a great lesson. Sometimes there isn’t a great wisdom. Sometimes life is a series of confusing, contradictory and upsetting experiences. You can try as hard as you like to push it through the slogan machine to deliver yourself and others a one-line lesson, but sometimes, the experience is just an experience and it informs the decisions you make in the future, and it gives you things and it takes things from you.

With non-fiction, I don’t think you can take up 300 pages of someone’s time talking about your life, and not deliver some sort of conclusion on how the dots are joined together. I felt like I didn’t need to do that so much in this book, and I thought to do so would be disingenuous and patronising. A lot of the book is about love and the nature of love, how much of love is in our minds, and how much of it is reflective of what’s in front of us. And being able to live with that tension and be aware of that duality. A lot of the book is about how sad aging is; you’re getting older, your parents getting older and your friends getting older and you’re just…dwindling. Again, there’s no great lesson to be had from that. It happens and it’s interesting to observe how things change and how they get better but also just the reality that it’s challenging, it’s tough to get older.

A lot of it as well is going back to the idea of love being about how much we look for home in things, how much we look for the familiar and how much we look for the patterns of our childhood in all areas of our life. That’s not a lesson or necessarily something to take away. It’s just an observation. But with all observations, really, what they provide is catharsis and vindication in community; ‘I’m not the only one who’s experienced this’. We’re all experiencing these difficult things together.

Ghosts (Penguin, $32.99) by Dolly Alderton is out now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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