Dolly Alderton is known for many things: her best- selling memoir, Everything I Know About Love, which recalls the friendships and depleted bank accounts of her twenties; the hugely popular TV adaptation of the same name, on which she was executive producer and scriptwriter; her first novel, Ghosts; her newspaper columns and hers and friend Pandora Sykes’ podcast, The High Low, which has ended but had a cult-like following.
But most of all, Alderton’s known for being fluent in the female, Millennial experience. Her work is packed with wry observations that capture the smartphone generation of women between the ages of 25 and 45. So it may come as a surprise that she has decided to write her new novel from the perspective of a man.
Good Material follows mediocre comedian Andy as he navigates heartbreak after Jen leaves him. It’s a sharp examination of what it’s like to be newly single at 35. In reverse, it’s heartland Alderton territory – and in general a break-up narrative we often see, but what made the prophetess of womanhood want to tell this story the other way round?
‘I’ve already written about heartbroken women so much, and the thought of spending so much time with a character who was a heartbroken woman was just too depressing for me,’ she says.
Her familiar North London voice is slightly hoarse when we speak over the phone ‘I hope I don’t have covid’ she croaks through coughs. It could just be the jam-packed weekend she’s had going to see Self-Esteem in Cabaret with Emma Appleton (who played the character based on Dolly in her memoir’s TV adaptation), or her turn on Kathy Burke’s podcast just before we speak.
On her book, to avoid falling into stereotypes when writing Andy’s character she spoke to a cross section of men. While she’s careful to point out that it would be reductive to define men or women by their gender – and that men are, of course, not a homogenous group – she did notice some patterns.
Across the board, every man she spoke to told her they didn’t have the emotional support they needed when they went through a terrible break-up. ‘They said they didn’t feel like they had
a place to process their feelings,’ she says.
‘Every man said when they did confide in their friends they were aware of how much time they were taking up... With my female friends, when one of us has a break-up we talk about it until we get to the end of the feeling – and sometimes that’s years.’
The fact is, Alderton can write about romance and heartache whatever the viewpoint. Good Material is droll, familiar and perceptive on whatever it is that pulls people together. But choosing to write from a perspective you have no lived experience of has caused controversy in recent years. What does Alderton think of that debate?
‘It’s appropriate that novelists and screenwriters should tell stories other than their own,’ she says. However, ‘It’s important that the people who have lived those experiences are given sufficient and fair platforms, so it’s not just one type of person who is continually assuming the voice of marginalised [groups].’ Sensitivity readers, research and accrediting and paying people appropriately is also important, she says.
Did spending six months trying to get into the psyche of a man make her feel they get a bad press?
‘The patriarchy, misogyny and gender inequality doesn’t get a bad press, it urgently needs more bad press. In terms of men as individuals, mankind and male culture, in terms of what men grow up with, how they’re socialised, the pressures that are on them, that’s a very difficult, human thing. I don’t feel like men have problem- free existences at all.’
Despite her years in the spotlight, Alderton still worries about getting things wrong, but less so than she used to.
‘I’m not a huge fan of the phrase “cancel culture” because it’s so rare that someone’s career is actually cancelled to a point that they can’t come back from it. And when that does happen, it’s normally because they’ve done really quite atrocious things. Most of the time, I suppose what we’re talking about is public reprimanding, which can be very extreme. All of us are understanding better now... [There] was perhaps an overcorrection in culture and now we’re finding a way that people can learn from their mistakes without it ruining their lives.’
Alderton was still in her twenties when her memoir and The High Low really took off in 2018 – the height of that era. ‘That was a huge amount of pressure on me,’ she says.
'The weekly feedback loop of what we were saying and how it was being received was relentless. And even though it felt exhausting at times, I’m grateful for it, because what that podcast really taught me is the importance of choosing your words thoughtfully,’ she says.
‘The velocity of my career for a while frightened me and I felt a bit out of control of it. I felt like I didn’t understand it, but I feel really in control of it now.’
As Millennials (those born between ’81 and ’96) edge further away from adolescence and closer to midlife, many will be looking to Alderton as a guide to the next decade.
Dealing with growing up and your friends’ lives moving on is one of the main themes underpinning her memoir. Now, at 35, she’s happy and says, ‘I’m just so much more accepting of things going wrong as a part of life. I feel like it’s taken me five years to learn how to be in my thirties.’
Now, she’s working on a film script, then a couple of TV scripts, before going straight into another novel. She’s wanted to write about families for some time, she says.
But when it comes to friendships, for which she’s the poster girl, she doesn’t think women need to worry, even if they feel friendships in their thirties have become harder to maintain.
‘If you’re friends with someone in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood, you get to keep this girlhood forever. I’m not sure if men get that with each other,’ she says.
‘When I go on holiday with my best female friends now, it doesn’t matter how many children they have, mortgages, or how high-powered their job is, we will still do what we did when we were 12 or 15, or 21... That doesn’t ever change.’
D O L L Y Q U I C K F I R E
What do men need? Friends they can talk to. Failing that, a girlfriend.
Why do men ghost women? People ghost people because it’s easier than having a conversation.
Why do men think about the Roman Empire so much? Because men love war. It’s so strange!
‘Good Material’ by Dolly Alderton is out now