Meet the Futures finalists: Naoise Dolan

·8-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Meet the Futures finalists: Together with the Women's Prize for Fiction, we’ve launched Futures to highlight the talent of the next generation of female writers and support them to have the long and illustrious careers we think they deserve.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Naoise Dolan, 29, was born in Dublin and studied English Literature at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford University. Her first novel, Exciting Times, was written while she was living in Hong Kong and finished in just five months. The book has already been shortlisted for several prizes, including Waterstones Book of the Year.

What was the inspiration behind your novel Exciting Times?

To be honest, I never remember how I originally got any of my ideas. I don’t find the having of a thought to be an astonishing event. What’s rarer is a thought I want to pursue for long enough to get a book out of it, but that’s not a decision I make in a single moment – it’s a really gradual feeling out.

Tell us about your journey to publication.

I sort of stumbled into it. I’d just left university and I wanted some sort of creative project to amuse myself with, so I thought I’d try a novel. I wrote it on trains, in coffee shops on my lunch break, that sort of thing. Then I left it for absolutely ages until a friend offered to read it at her Christmas party, and eventually I sent it off to agents and got a few offers. My agent Harriet Moore had the most radical editorial suggestions so I went with her – I think I’ll always prefer to work with people who push me, because I push myself anyway so it’s nice having company. Anyway, Harriet is brilliant and everything about publication from that point was all her. She sent the novel to editors, managed the ensuing auction, and has been with me for every stage since, from final edits on the novel to publicity to publication.

What motivates you as an author?

I’ll often focus on areas of craft that I know I’ve got room to improve on – I find it very satisfying to learn by doing. I think as well that if you've been mulling something in your head, it's really satisfying to map it out and see how all the parts contribute to the whole. I have a terribly disorganised mind so writing feels like decluttering – at the end, ideally, I’m left with only the words I want, arranged in an order that makes sense. That’s how people discuss essay-writing but I think it applies equally to every other form I work in.

What is your favourite book by a woman and why?

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which I’ve read in translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori – since female translators deserve credit, too! It’s such a special book. ‘Favourite’ can mean many different things, but I think for me it’s a more emotive and intuitive category than, say, the books whose structure and pacing I admire most, the wittiest books, the books with the finest descriptive passages or so on. There are formal reasons I think Convenience Store Woman is well-written – Murata knows how to intrigue you, pace the emotional arc, match the narrative voice with what we know of the character – but in terms of ‘favourite’, it’s the book I give people. It’s the book I give people who don’t like books, the book I give people who used to like books but haven’t read anything in ages. Everyone comes back to me asking for more books like it. Only Murata can be Murata, so I hope they translate everything she writes.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Leave gaps between writing something and each round of edits. The distance from the project will help you see what you need to do. Because I am completely neurotic, I once took this advice incredibly literally and made an actual spreadsheet of everything I had been working on in the past few months, scheduling editing and fallow periods for each piece as if I were planning a complex regime of crop rotation. Obviously I followed the plan for about two days and then got bored, but the broader principle is sound.

What do you think you’d be if you weren’t a writer?

There are probably three such jobs in all of London, but I’d love to be a gift-wrapper at a department store. I simply love to wrap. When I was a kid you’d always know which presents were from me at parties because they’d be 20% present and 80% wrapping paper. To this day there’s a kitchen drawer where I hoard tissue paper and bits of ribbon, all bits of ribbon, even if it’s from a hand towel I bought at the supermarket. Strangely, I do not care at all whether someone else wraps something that they give me, or how they wrap it if they do. I think I find wrapping so intrinsically rewarding that it doesn’t occur to me as a proxy for showing affection. I wrap to wrap.

Which female author do you find most inspiring and why?

I love reading interviews with Doris Lessing. She seems to have had such a robust internal sense of who she was and what her writing meant. I found it initially jarring when she disowned the ways some feminists have read her, but thinking about it properly, self-described feminists have often co-opted other women’s work and imposed a meaning on it, and it’s no less stifling than it would be from someone who didn’t call themselves a feminist. I think Lessing has the right idea, that other people will always project stuff onto you and you don’t have to agree with it if you don’t want to. Then again, that’s all me projecting based on how other people wrote her up. Maybe it would be better to say I love the Lessing-themed entertainment that her interviewers have produced.

Do you have any writing routines or ticks?

Not really, apart from going to our local coffee shop when there’s something urgent I need to finish in one sitting. I’m carefully preserving that space for only that purpose. It’s a little bit like sleep hygiene – you know how you’re not meant to do anything in bed but sleep? (On which note, I would be hesitant to sit on a sleep hygienist’s couch.) I worry that if I started doing things that weren’t urgent in the coffee shop, it would lose its Pavlovian association of a place where I really need to just sit down and do it. So that’s the emergency writing space, and for non-emergencies there’s my room.

What’s your favourite Women’s Prize winning book and why?

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. I love it because it’s Zadie Smith, but I love it particularly because her 21st-century riff on E.M. Foster’s Howards End goes to show that the ‘canon’ belongs to everyone. As a teenager I loved all the male authors that some very weird Americans online regard as a ‘red flag’ if you see them on the bookcase of someone you’re about to sleep with – David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Martin Amis and so on. I’m really glad I read On Beauty before I went to university, because as a literary critic I’ve come to see a lot of value in taking apart a book to see what it’s doing ideologically, but I never want to confuse that with aiming as a writer to produce a text that passes some sort of purity test. On Beauty gave me permission to be influenced by anything that inspires me, knowing that I can adapt old forms to include people they’ve historically excluded and ideas they’ve not historically given much credence.

What do you hope to have achieved as a writer in ten years' time?

More novels is the main thing. I won’t jinx myself by saying how many. And I want to write lots of other things, too. I think because I wrote my first novel without any formal training, I have a weird beginners’ confidence in trying other things – it’s not that I think I’m great at everything, but I don’t have a clue about anything, so a screenplay or an essay collection is no more daunting to me than a novel. I’d also truly love to write a musical. Don’t tell my editor, but I’m only writing fiction until someone hires me to write musicals.

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Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

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