Naoise Dolan: ‘I feel very lucky that a career in writing happened to come about for me’
Sarah Finnan sat down with ‘Exciting Times’ author Naoise Dolan ahead of her talk at the International Literature Festival in Dublin this weekend.
Did you always want to be a writer/author? Were you one of those kids who always had a notepad and pen to hand?
It depends what you mean by a writer, if you mean did I always want to do it as my job; no. But I’ve always enjoyed the hobby. It’s only really after I got my book deal that I started thinking of it as a career, because I know it’s so rare for people to be able to do it full time so I didn’t really have that as an aspiration. But I feel very lucky that that happened to come about for me.
I read an interview where you said that “writing feels like decluttering your mind”… would you describe it as a cathartic experience? Or is it kind of uncomfortable at times?
It’s definitely not cathartic or uncomfortable, because by decluttering I don’t mean that I’m dealing with my own experiences or emotions or what have you. It’s more that I don’t think in incredibly clear sentences and so the generally quite sensory and overwhelming way in which I think is quite relaxing to set out in a more disciplined way, even though I’m thinking about fake people in their fake lives. I can work on things in my head, but it’s an abstract way of writing. I think I would be completely lost if I had to transcribe books to someone else, they wouldn’t be the same at all.
What comes first for you, the plot or the characters?
Definitely the characters because if I try to make them do things without knowing who they are, those things are completely unconvincing, so there’s no point. I have to get to know the people first.
Do you usually base characters on things you’ve seen in real life or where do you find inspiration?
I suppose I synthesise everything that I’m exposed to. And obviously, there are a million different sources, but I might only pick one tiny element from any given thing. I don’t do it consciously. Like I don’t go ‘I’m going to copy the shape of this person’s nose and combine it with the accents that I’ve heard on a podcast recently’, and so on. But subconsciously, I think that’s what happens. I’m exposed to all these ways that people can be and somehow, it gets put together.
Tell us about your writing process, do you have any quirky habits?
Um, I honestly couldn’t say because I don’t know how most people write. Like, I can just tell you how I do it, and you can alert me if any quirks seem to be present!?
I spoke to Monica Heisey earlier today and she told me that she writes from bed, so that’s her quirky habit. She was asking for advice on ergonomic chairs if you have any!
I actually do! I’m quite short so I find normal chairs a nightmare because if it’s high enough to get me up to the desk, there isn’t room for my knees. So my chair is kind of at an angle – instead of your knees being flat from your hips, they kind of angle down if that makes sense. I think it’s called like a kneeling chair or something like that. I’ve also seen yoga chairs, I haven’t tried that yet though. It sounds like marketing nonsense to be honest. I think you can do butterfly pose on it but that seems to go against the idea of yoga – where you’re meant to focus on the yoga itself. Seems like a good way to injure yourself.
Should books be judged by their covers? How did you pick yours?
They definitely should not be judged by their covers especially because 90% of the time, no normally 99.999% of the time, a marketing team has collaborated with the artistic department to make a cover and you get to say if you hate it, but otherwise, that will be your cover. I’m very lucky to have liked all of my covers so far.
Is that quite a collaborative process, coming up with the cover? Or is it a case of being shown three options and you have to pick one?
It’s not even giving you three options, and this isn’t just from my experience. Basically all authors just get shown one cover and they get to say if they don’t want that one.
That must be so difficult when you probably have a very clear idea of what you want in your own head?
Yes and no, because I think I’ve done enough art that if I were given a say in it, it would be unhelpful because I have no idea about book marketing. I’ve no idea about why marketers decide to place some books next to others on a bookshelf. So I feel like I’d much rather leave that to the people who have the data rather than having to both disappear into this private world of my characters, but then also have to think about the potential audience. I absolutely don’t have a target group in mind or anything. So I’d prefer to leave it to the people who do like to think about those things.
What does it feel like seeing your book in shops?
Embarrassing! Stupidly so, because nobody knows what I look like or would recognise me, especially in Berlin where I am now. Nonetheless, for me, bookshops are a place to disappear into other people’s worlds. And so if I’m suddenly reminded that I have a human self with physical interactions with the world, it’s just not the mood. I’m there to escape.
I can understand that! Your new book The Happy Couple is about that elusive “happily ever after” we’ve all heard so much about. What’s your take on it? Do you think it exists? Do we make our own happiness?
Um, I don’t know if I’ve quite made up my mind on if I’m a nihilist or an existentialist. I certainly think there’s no inherent meaning in life, but I can’t quite decide whether the appropriate response to that is to sit in the meaninglessness and reckon with it, or to make your own meaning. That as I understand will be the difference. So I’m still figuring that one out, but I’m somewhere in between nothing means anything and you shouldn’t try to make it mean things or nothing means anything, but you can choose the meaning so that you can have a life with meaning, worth living off the basis of that meaning. All of that being a long way of saying, if things make people happy, then that’s good. If it doesn’t make them happy, that’s bad. Being aware that we can opt out of things that aren’t making us happy is probably good.
That’s probably something that it takes your whole life to really settle on!
Yeah, like that’s the kicker… by the time you’ve figured out how to live a decent and fulfilling life, it’s too late for you to act on that advice and no one else would take it, obviously, because you have to find out things for yourself. I don’t think anything that I’ve worked out through experience, isn’t something that people haven’t been telling me since I was very small. Until I’ve experienced consequences, I pay very little attention to theoretical advice.
The Irish literary scene is thriving at the minute, do you have any favourite writers in particular?
Oh god, that’s like asking me, ‘Which of your friends do you like most!?
Well, I’ll change it to international authors then to give you some breathing space!
I could say I recently read both of Susannah Dickey’s books, and I think she’s a fantastic voice. But internationally? I always get so weird about this question because it’s got the social dynamic as well. If you asked me for my favourite authors from 200 years ago, I could answer…
Because you’re not going to run into them in the street!? I’ll move on to the next question… What’s one book you always return to? And why?
Um, I don’t know if I’m much of a book returner. I might return to my favourite books every four years, so probably Jane Austen the most because I find her a really useful author to learn other languages with as well. I recently read a couple of her books in German translation, and she translates really well because her use of language is so precise, that you’re not really dependent on the particular nuances of a given word to get what she’s saying. I know the plots inside out too so even if I’m not great at the language, I can follow along.
That’s such an interesting point. Is that something that has informed your own writing?
Probably not. I think writing with a view to how it would translate… Yeah, no, I don’t think I could do that. I think it’s having a completely different lens on top of the one for how it sounds in the original.
What’s the best writing advice, or general life advice, you’ve ever gotten?
I don’t think any writing-specific advice has ever stuck with me, because I’m not very good at listening to advice right away. But I guess probably the approach that I’ve personally landed on that I definitely didn’t come up with myself and therefore someone must have advised me on at some point, is that there are very few things that you have to do and so either find a way to enjoy doing the thing or find a way to get out of doing it. There are some things that that doesn’t apply to, like I have to navigate exhausting German bureaucracy and that is neither enjoyable nor something that I can avoid, but I would say for the majority of things in life, you can either find a way to enjoy them or get out of doing them. That’s what I’ve found.
Do you ever struggle with writer’s block?
Depends on what you mean by it. I think my only problem is when I don’t know what I want to write about, but I think that might be because writing and thinking for me are so correlated so to not know what I want to write about is effectively to not be able to put words down on paper. Because if I know, then it kind of comes to me through words, if that makes sense.
Social media has become such a huge part of a modern author’s journey. How do you use social media?
I think I very consciously limit my online time in general, but I don’t think it’s specific to the book corner of social media, I think it’s more that I feel a lot calmer and more able to focus on the things that I really care about if I’m not constantly getting these cheap dopamine hits. I try to really narrow the window I’m on Instagram and things like that. Sometimes I can do that more successfully than others. There is an element of difficulty in balancing that professionally because if my team are asking me to share things and stuff, then you know, is it work or Is it personal? You can’t always draw the line between the two but I try at least to contain it within a window and just like blast through everything in that window, so at least it’s efficient.
You’ve already mentioned your ergonomic chair, but what’s the rest of your workspace like? Is it very tidy or is it cluttered? How do you work best?
I think I’m naturally a clutterbug, but I don’t really use many physical things when I’m writing so that kind of limits things as well. You know, I write on my laptop or scribble on one notebook at a time. I think it’s because I’m quite mobile, like I hate being in my apartment all day so I usually go to at least one café per day and you know, libraries and stuff like that. Being able to pack everything into my bag keeps me compact.
Do you find it easy to work with noise happening around you?
I’m very specific about this! So I would say if I were ranking working environments out of three, the worst is complete silence. Three is complete silence, two is there’s noise but one person’s voice is particularly pronounced within that. But then ideal is where there’s noise, but it’s like white noise, when there’s generally people talking but I can’t make any one person’s voice out.
That’s so interesting, I’m the opposite… I think for me, total silence is necessary!
Interesting. I think maybe it’s because it’s so hard to achieve total silence so I find that distracting in itself. Like if I can hear my boiler making noise…
There’s always something to focus on! Tell us about your event at the International Literature Festival this weekend. You’re going to be in Dublin?
Yeah, that’s actually the event that I was reading Susannah Dickey’s work in preparation for as it will be the two of us in conversation. So, yeah, I’m just really excited to address an Irish crowd because I don’t get to do that too much. And there are so many nuances of the characters that I think you need some exposure to the Irish mindset to fully grasp, so that will be really fun.
Do you feel that maybe sometimes for an international audience context is needed around certain Irish situations?
Yes, but I think I try to trust the reader to investigate that context for themselves. For me anyway, I will very happily read a book with loads of footnotes and just skip the footnotes I think maybe because I have long since resigned myself to the fact that there are a million different degrees to which you can consider yourself to have read a book. And nobody will ever know a book fully inside out. Like sometimes my translators will ask me questions about my books, and I’ll need to go back and find the sentence because I have no idea what they’re on about it! So if the person who wrote the book doesn’t remember every line off by heart, then the knowability of any novel is always going to be pretty incomplete unless you dedicate your life to knowing it, which nobody is realistically going to do. So I’m happy to have stuff that not everyone’s goning to get.There’s still probably something in there that they will get.
And just before we go, I should ask where did the idea for this particular book come from? What was the inspiration?
Um, I sort of threw a dice and just said, ‘Ok, fine wedding. Let’s go.’ But then obviously, as I went, I suppose I, through interrogating my choice of wedding as just the default thing to make a book about, I started asking why it was such a default for the characters. I think you always have to pick something for it to be about and I’m not really the sort of person to romanticise my experience post hoc. I think probably if I were, I would come up with some story about “the spark of inspiration that drew me to weddings”, but that’s not the case.
There are still limited tickets available for Naoise Dolan’s International Literature Festival event in Dublin this Saturday. You can find out more information and book yours here.