Bestselling author, journalist and podcaster Dolly Alderton, once described as a ‘Nora Ephron for the millennial generation’, knows more than most about dating dilemmas. The former dating columnist wrote candidly about her ‘roaring 20s’ when she immersed herself in booze, sex and complicated relationships with men, in her hit memoir Everything I Know About Love, and has just taken on a Dear Dolly agony column in the Sunday Times at the age of 32, which she describes as her dream job.
All I’ve ever really wanted to do is an agony aunt column,” she enthuses. “I’m very interested in other people’s lives, I’m quite nosy. I’ve made lots of questionable decisions which has armed me, not to be an expert but definitely to share things that I’ve learned.”
Women write to the agony aunt predominantly about love and loneliness, she explains.
“The themes are always the same – ‘I’m worried I’m going to be alone forever, I’m desperately lonely’.”
Alderton, a former story producer for Made In Chelsea, doesn’t fear loneliness herself, she says.
“I’m very lucky. I’ve got a wonderful group of friends and I love the city that I live in and the main thing is that I’ve been in a relationship with my work for 15 years. So far, it’s really loved me back. It’s been a very fulfilling thing in my life.”
She’s now penned her first novel, Ghosts, a brilliantly written story about millennials in the modern world as they navigate the paths of online dating, diverging friendships and ageing parents.
It centres on Nina, a 32-year-old food writer who is blissfully happy with new boyfriend Max, who she met on a dating site but who then ghosts her (stops responding to any texts or communications).
“I wanted to write about modern heterosexuality and I thought, what’s the most haunting, confusing and intriguing of modern day things – and it’s ghosting. It’s happened to every woman I know. Within an hour I had the entire plot mapped out.”
Alderton herself has been a victim of ghosting, she reveals. “It wasn’t a recent thing, but I’ve been single for most of my life so it is something I’m familiar with. It felt like it was something that people are very fearful of when they date.
“Ghosting takes over your whole life and brain, it occupies your friendship group for a while, as you think, ‘What happened? Where did he go? Has he died?’ It’s an obvious narrative device for a storyteller because it’s mysterious.”
There are clear similarities between the author and her heroin, Nina. They are both writers, they both live in north London, they are both the same age.
“But Nina is very different to me. She’s very unsentimental, she’s very logical, she’s very cynical and black and white.
“Her life is different to mine. She spent all her 20s in a long-term relationship, I haven’t had a long-term relationship since my early 20s.
“She’s a straight-edged person, I’m a bit chaotic. But we do share a sense of humour and find the same things funny.”
The story is interwoven with the female friendships that Nina sustains, as she finds herself distanced from her best friend who is completely absorbed by motherhood and marriage, reflects on her relationship with her ex-boyfriend who is now a friend and, most poignantly, sees her beloved father descend into dementia.
But there is much light too, including the sanctity of friendship with her pal Lola, still single and hopeful.
“Nina and Lola are still looking for love. They are yin and yang. Lola is big-hearted, romantic and hopeful, and believes against all odds that she is going to have her great love story.
“Nina is someone who has an innate craving to have a family unit like the one she grew up in, but she’s also aware of how it limits women and how unfair those domestic and romantic structures can be on the woman,” she muses.
Is that how Alderton views life?
“You can’t grow up watching the things that I’ve been exposed to without feeling complicated about longing to be in a relationship, maybe a marriage, having children and loving men.
“It doesn’t mean that I have any contempt towards men but being a heterosexual woman is a complex thing.”
While she is done with online dating, at least for now, Alderton readily admits she would like to meet someone.
“I’m a great romantic, so I’m very open to it in my future, but it’s not something that’s occupying the top of my list at the moment.
“We are fed by our 1980s mothers that we can have everything we want,” she continues. “There’s this fallacy that you can control your romantic and familial destiny. The fact is, not everyone in life gets everything, and that’s okay. The more comfortable you can get with that truth, the better.
“I would love to have a family and be in a long-term relationship, but what I want even more is to write novels and make a career out of my writing for the rest of my life. The rest of it, you just have to be hopeful and open-minded and see what happens.”
Her 30s are very different from her 20s, she agrees.
“They are emotionally easier in that I feel like I want to minimise drama and conflict and unnecessary stress and upset as much as possible. I have a greater sense of peace in who I am and what matters and what I believe and who my friends are and how I want to conduct myself. But practically it is way, way harder when dramatic life stuff starts to happen in your 30s. It’s a life cycle, it’s life shoved in your face. People’s parents are dying or getting ill, people of our age are having health scares, are struggling to have babies or falling apart when they’ve had babies. It’s big, serious stuff.”
She’s been single for a long time and, like her fictional heroine, she does think about the biological clock, she admits. “It’s not something most women need to be reminded of. The world has been built very strategically to make sure women don’t forget that fact. From the age of about 30 onwards, whether it’s advertising or nagging conversations with your mother, it’s not something that’s ever going to slip your mind.
“Of course it’s a background noise that is ever present and the volume increases and decreases. But it’s not something that preoccupies me in any all-encompassing way.”
That’s not surprising considering Alderton’s hectic work schedule. She hosts the hugely successful podcast The High Low with her writer pal Pandora Sykes, which has been running for nearly four years, in which they talk about the week’s headlines, gossip and zeitgeist topics with millennial aplomb. It gets more than a million downloads a month.
It was inspired by Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, who coined the term ‘high low journalism’ in the 80s to denote an amalgamation of water-cooler gossip and hard-hitting cultural happenings.
Piers Morgan deemed the pair “braying posh girls talking gibberish” – they both went to private school, Alderton to Rugby, after which she read English and drama at Exeter. But they are having the last laugh.
“It’s like a big business now, which we never anticipated,” Alderton reflects.
She has several scripts in development including the adaptation of Everything I Know About Love, but she says she won’t be writing any more autobiographies.
“The desire has gone. The place where I feel most enjoyment and fulfilment is in fiction now,” she says.
Ghosts by Dolly Alderton is published by Fig Tree, £14.99