Dolly Alderton: 'I didn't expect to sell so many copies - I wouldn’t have been so revealing'
Emma Cox talks to Dolly Alderton ahead of Everything I Know About Love's debut on the BBC.
Author and columnist Dolly Alderton was 29 when her memoir, Everything I Know about Love, was published. In it she chronicled her dating life – warts and all – as well as her relationships with her family and best friends.
Now she’s four years older and admits to feeling embarrassed at how much she shared, not just in the book but in the blogs and newspaper dating columns that predated it. Yet, as Everything I Know about Love is transformed into a seven-part BBC drama, she says she has no regrets, even if she has become meticulously private now.
“Naturally, people become more private as they get older,” she says. “I share very little about my life and I feel much happier and safer doing that. With my 33-year-old head on, it’s mortifying, the thought of sharing that much about personal relationships. I had such a baptism of fire with that book. I really never expected to sell so many copies, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been so revealing.
“But if I could come back as the Ghost of Christmas Future and say to my former self, ‘Look, if you share all this stuff, you’re going to connect with lots of people, and sell lots of books, and you’re going to semi-fictionalise it and put it on the BBC, but it’s also super-embarrassing and it will affect your dating life and mean you feel overexposed,’ I know what my former self would say: ‘My dream has come true!’ So that’s what I always try to remember. I don’t feel shame for that younger self.”
Always a meticulous journal-keeper growing up in north-west London, Alderton started a blog when she was 15, which she now calls “the most embarrassing thing that any human has ever written”. From there she gained a solid Twitter following, plus a newsletter, podcast and dating column in The Sunday Times.
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Her book was a huge success, selling millions and winning awards including Waterstones Paperback of the Year. “I was an exhibitionist,” she says now. “I wanted to be in the great canon of memoirists like Nora Ephron or Dorothy Parker. I wanted to be a woman who documented her real life, shaped it into a story and shared it with people. It didn’t feel like a huge sacrifice for me at the time at all.”
She was approached by TV production company Working Title after writing just three chapters of the memoir, as the company’s co-chairman Eric Fellner was a fan of her Sunday Times column. He had previously turned Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary into three hit films, and has spent the past three years working with Alderton and the BBC to develop a scripted version of her book.
“It’s a journey Eric’s done before with Helen,” explains Alderton. “She was writing columns as well, so he was interested in new young female voices. Helen was a huge influence on me. I took her book from my mum’s shelves. I remember so clearly that front cover with the woman smoking a fag and thinking it was the most impossibly glamorous thing in the world.”
While the book of Everything I Know about Love is written in the first person, the TV series had to be given a firmer narrative structure, so tells the story of four female friends sharing a flat in London.
The series turns Dolly into Maggie, played by Emma Appleton, and her best friend Farly into Birdy (Bel Powley). And while many of the stories in the series remain true to the book, there are additions to the narrative, too.
The conversion was a challenge for Alderton, whose only TV experience was working as a story producer for reality show Made in Chelsea between 2011 and 2013. “Lots of details in the book changed, particularly about the men, because I didn’t want to get sued! But everything in there about my friends is word for word and the events from the book happened in my real life,” she explains.
“In the TV version there are factual details and set pieces that come straight from the book and are taken directly from my experience. Yes, I lived in a house in Camden that looked very, very similar to that house. Like Maggie, I was working in structured-reality TV. I dated some horrible musicians. But then I have expanded the world to invite in lots of other stories and other characters and moments of comedy and moments of drama.”
One of the key components of the TV series’ narrative is Maggie’s jealousy when ingénue Birdy finds love and doesn’t have as much time for her best friend any more. It’s a story very much based on Dolly and Farly’s real-life friendship. One has to wonder how Farly and her other friends feel about Dolly’s sometimes painful honesty about their life, especially as a primetime BBC show will bring those stories to a whole new audience.
“I think Farly probably feels daunted by that,” Alderton admits. “She’s been very good at not saying anything to me. She’s incredibly generous about what she lets me take and rework as a story. I’m so lucky that they all just feel very happy that these friendships have been celebrated and dramatised and immortalised. What an incredible thing for all of us to show our grandchildren one day – the magic of our friendships is preserved.”
As a millennial, Alderton was part of the first generation who used the internet to open up about their insecurities, sex lives, anxieties, drug-taking and heartbreaks. Now Alderton has taken down her previous blogs, and is much more discreet about her personal life – she says recent boyfriends have been paranoid about featuring in her writing, and will venture only that she is now in a relationship but that it is “early days”.
The experience of becoming so famous for her private life has made her examine her generation’s confessional styles compared to younger writers. “I think now I’m understanding how defined my generation was by sharing,” she says. “We were the internet pioneers.
“For a teenager who feels misunderstood, and that is most teenagers, imagine being presented with this place that you can go and completely reinvent yourself. You can take pictures with a filter, the most flattering pictures you’ve ever seen. You can put on mad make-up and look like a different person. How exciting is that? I think we need to forgive ourselves for that.
“Gen Z are much more abstract in the way they share things online and I sense they have learnt from the mistakes of my generation: what it is to very earnestly document every part of who you are as a means of making people like you, and how vulnerable that can make you, or how regretful you might feel about that once you’re in your mid-30s.
“Most healthy millennials have shut it all down now – deleted Twitter, come off Facebook, and very rarely post on Instagram. We’ve been on a journey, and it’s been an interesting one.”
Not that Alderton is anti-internet. She still believes it is a great place to connect with people, exhibit work, discover other people’s work – and a useful arena for making political change. But, she adds, “It’s also incredibly dangerous. It can feel very frightening. Particularly as a woman, it can feel very polarised and can really destabilise a person’s sense of self.
“So I think it will be like any other delicious thing in life, like drinking or cigarettes, or sex, or driving, and it will be taught safely in schools and monitored and marshalled in the same way that all those other things are.
“I think we will look back and be like, God, it was funny that there was that time when humans just had free rein on the internet, and kids weren’t taught about it. I think it’s been a wonderful thing for the world, and we just need to work out how to use it safely.”
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Instead of writing about her own life so directly in future, Alderton now plans to continue pursuing fiction writing – and she has already had one novel published, Ghosts. The next will be about heartbreak, but after that she’s planning something different: inspired, perhaps, by her new relationship?
“I will always write about relationships and I can write about my own life. But it will be in fiction, where I can hide in plain sight. And I really want to make a romantic comedy,” she adds. “I’ve never written a happy ending. I have this real tendency towards hetero-pessimism, which basically means feeling rubbish around sexuality, so I’d love to write a love story with a warm ending.
“When Nora Ephron made Julie & Julia, she said it was important for her to show a man in a romantic story who was fully celebratory and supportive, and in awe of the woman he loved. It was important to remind women that that man exists, because he does. I know that man exists, you just have to take a bit of time finding him.”
Everything I Know About Love starts on BBC One on 7th June. Check out our Drama hub for all the latest news. If you’re looking for something to watch tonight, check out our TV Guide. Buy the book now.