"I had to do something that doesn’t come naturally to me," says Dolly Alderton, a fish finger sandwich resting in one hand. "I had to take my ego, pack it away in a box, sellotape it up and have a long, stern talk with myself."
We’re in a Covid-quiet restaurant in London, talking about the challenge of writing fiction after years as a journalist and not being held back by the idea readers might conflate her with Nina, the protagonist of her new novel Ghosts.
"I had to accept that, if I’ve spent 10 years writing about myself, everyone has a right to take time to believe that what I’m writing about now isn’t 'me.'"
Debut novels are usually acts of introduction, but Dolly is perhaps the best-known journalist of her generation in Britain – certainly the only one who comes close to passing the ‘Adele test’ of being referrable by first name alone.
From the foaming sea of first person essays that was the internet in the mid 2010s, she emerged as a distinct and unmissable voice at a time when everyone was trying to be a distinct and unmissable voice, observing millenial touchstones – the trials and tribulations of friendship and dating in the prolonged adolescence of post-uni, post-recession life – in a way that was smarter and funnier than anyone else.
While rising through the ranks of traditional print journalism, she was also an early adopter of both newsletters and podcasts (The Dolly Mail and The High-Low, respectively), successful ventures that culminated in her first book, the memoir collection Everything I Know About Love, a bestseller and recipient of the National Book Award for Autobiography of the Year. During the summer of 2019, its yellow paperback cover seemed to sprout like daffodils in people’s hands every time you sat down on the tube. No book had seemed quite so ubiquitous since One Day a decade earlier (David Nicholls, incidentally, is one of the writers Dolly most admires).
One result of all of this is that Dolly is now regularly stopped by strangers looking for advice on their love life. Another is that expectations – and assumptions – are far greater for Ghosts than a typical debut.
"Do you know what?" she says when I ask her about the pressure, "I had such a baptism of fire with that first book because it was so deeply personal, and the analysis of it obviously strayed into very personal territory. But having gone through that, processed it, come out the other side and been completely fine, the idea of my writing being criticised now feels like a relief, because [now] I want to be known for what I do rather than who I am. I would take having a conversation around the quality of the work a million times over one about the specifics of who I am. I feel much less anxious about this book going out to the world than I did the first one."
A good job, then, that Ghosts is brilliant. As perceptive and funny as Dolly’s columns – an early pub scene finds two new parents on a rare night out 'speaking continuously about Glastonbury like they were its founders' – it also delivers the emotional wallop a novel needs, the only way a novel can, with characters which are not merely well observed but fully alive. Nina and her peers – gregarious ‘Only Single Friend’ Lola and Katherine, who is settling down too quickly – arrive on the page fully formed, their deep bonds conjured with joyful, idiosyncratic detail.
Ghosts is ostensibly about dating – the title refers to the act of ending a relationship by 'deleting' the other person online without warning – but is exquisite on the way sturdy, lifelong friendships can splinter down to barely-brushing driftwood as family, careers and other mid-30s demands take over. (For what it’s worth, though Dolly claims to have 'no male readers at all', finishing Ghosts made me pick my phone and call my own Lolas and Katherines, men with whom I once shared the world and now see only on WhatsApp).
In that sense, she says, it is a maturation of the themes in Everything I Know About Love.
"The first book I wrote was about friendship and it was quite optimistic and simplistic, I think, in terms of what my attitude to friendship was in my late 20s – which is that it should take up as much space and importance in your life as any other relationship.
"For this book, I was interested in looking at how that comes under threat as the textures of friendships change, the circumstances of each other’s lives change, how difficult it is to retain the intimacy and a sense of who you are together. I think in your 30s your joint identity can become quite disorientated."
Though Ghosts brims with rage at the bizarre and callous act of ghosting, even Max, the spectre who breaks Nina’s heart, is portrayed with sympathy.
"I didn’t want it to be a misandrist polemic," Dolly says. "I made a decision with Max to try and get into his head more and understand his behaviour, and for Nina to reflect on what her responsibility might have been.
"The other thing that was hard with creating a character like Max is, I really wanted him to be sexy – and writing sexy characters is hard. Writing chemistry that’s believable, and that excites you and titillates you, is difficult. I now have so much more respect for the great masters of romantic comedy."
She mentions rewatching When Harry Met Sally, an old favourite, with renewed awe, and Nina and Max’s early scenes crackle with a Ephronian energy, moments of fist-chewing awkwardness switching to the oddly heightened romance of early dates, the way ‘the sexiest, most exciting, romantic, explosive feeling in the world is a matter of a few centimetres of skin being stroked for the first time in a public place.’
There is another layer to Ghosts, that lend it many of its most affecting moments. Nina’s father, Bill, is a retired English teacher suffering from the onset of dementia. We see how the cruelty of the disease and Nina’s struggle to evolve from the role of daughter to carer impacts all other areas of her life. It is another way of contrasting how, as the personal dramas of our 20s subside, far greater challenges involving the people we love await.
"I think the big fear as you get older is that you’re going to watch your parents fade, and dementia in many ways is the actualisation of that fear," Dolly says.