Zibby Owens: I am so excited to be interviewing Dolly Alderton who’s the author of The Sunday Times best-selling memoir Everything I Know About Love which is just now coming out in the US. It won a National Book Award. It was nominated for Waterstones Book of the Year and a British Book Award. It’s been translated into twenty languages. Dolly has been a freelance journalist for The Sunday Times, Marie Claire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Elle, GQ, and many other publications. She wrote a dating column in The Sunday Times Style section. She’s the cohost and cocreator of “The High Low,” a current affairs and pop culture discussion show and Britain’s leading women’s podcast with one million downloads per month. She also created and hosts a podcast miniseries called “Love Stories.” In 2019 to 2020, she went on a twenty-two-date book tour called Everything I Know About Love Live. She has two scripts in development, including the TV adaptation of this book. Dolly has been featured in Forbes’ 2018 “30 Under 30,” The Elle List, and many more. She currently lives in London.

Welcome, Dolly. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dolly Alderton: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be talking to you.

Zibby: You too. Would you mind please telling listeners what this amazing book, Everything I Know About Love — for anybody who doesn’t have it front of them, it’s a cover. It says, everything I know about parties, crossed out; dates, crossed out; friends, crossed out; jobs, crossed out; life, crossed out; and all that you’re left with is love. I hope that made sense. The title is Everything I Know About Love. Tell me about what this book is about for everybody listening.

Dolly: Yes, of course. While we’re talking about that book jacket, I’ve had lots of mothers of young children say that their children are absolutely fascinated by the book jacket because they can’t believe that someone was allowed to scribble all over it.

Zibby: That’s awesome.

Dolly: Obviously, that’s the first thing you’re taught as a kid, is you don’t scribble on books.

Zibby: Very true.

Dolly: It’s so weird, Zibby, clicking my head back into talking about the book and what it was because I wrote it when I was twenty-eight. I’m now the grand old age of thirty-one, as we all know. That is like the dog years thing from one’s late twenties to early thirties. Sometimes when I pick up the book now and I read from it when I have to do a reading or write about it, I’m just like, who is this maniac in these pages who I do not recognize at all and definitely wouldn’t go for a drink at the pub with? What the memoir is, I wrote it when I was twenty-eight. It is kind of chronicling my twenties. It’s a coming-of-age story, I suppose. It begins with me talking about my teenage life, a bit about being a student at university, and then the very scary, turbulent, exciting, glamorous, disgusting time of flatsharing when you move to a city — my city was London with my friends from university — and carving out who I wanted to be, and what my job was going to be, and that kind of collective experience of sailing into the beginning of womanhood with my mates. Then it talks about the various dysfunctions and disasters, mainly manifested through my love life, through my mid to late twenties.

By the end, because I wrote another chapter for the paperback which is about turning thirty, which I have a very Rachel Green meltdown about, I kind of charted that strange — it’s weird because I think our parents’ generation, being in your twenties really was the arrival of adulthood. Certainly where I am, in England in London, there definitely is a sense now that millennials, their adolescence sort of goes on until they’re about thirty. That really did feel like a big moment of change. To be honest, when I was writing it, I didn’t really know what the big themes or what the big overarching story of it was. I just wrote about things that had been important or formative or funny or moving in my short life thus far. Then it was only when I went to reflect at the final chapter on what the book had been about, I realized it was a love story, not a romantic one. I always thought that my memoir would end with me falling in love with, I don’t know, a Colin Farrell lookalike. Ultimately, it was more of a story about the love that we develop with ourselves as we get to know and accept ourselves as we age and also for me particularly, the love that I’ve had with the women that I’ve shared my life with, with my female friends. That is an incredibly protracted and waffle-y answer to your very succinct question.

Zibby: That’s okay. I loved it. I loved hearing your point of view about it. The great thing about this book is you include scenes like taking a taxi in the middle of the night to try to find some guy you were having a hankering for at that particular time and ending up with no money stranded across London or wherever you were, to really poignant scenes where you talk about losing a friend, to eating issues that you had, to dinner dates where you, out of some philosophical vendetta, have to go into the bathroom and get money wired to you so you don’t allow a man to pay for you. It’s all over, and it’s perfect because that is exactly what life is like, especially in your twenties which for me was a lot longer ago than it was for you. I wish I had chronicled life in my twenties the way you did. I think that’s the brilliance of this all. Does anyone remember? Who can write about it so well and in such a relatable, funny way? Anyway, I thought it was fantastic.

Dolly: Here’s the key, Zibby. You have to be a really self-obsessed, theatrical person to write everything down that happens to them in pathetic little diaries for their entire life. That’s the key.

Zibby: That’s the secret. Okay, now I know.

Dolly: You were too busy actually living life and being engaged with your glorious life as opposed to obsessing and analyzing it.

Zibby: I don’t know about that. Why is this only now coming out in the US?

Dolly: Because America just didn’t want me, Zibby.

Zibby: What? I can’t believe it.

Dolly: No, they didn’t. Do you know what? It’s not something that I took offense to. There’s a bit of a disconnect with the translation between American and English culture. With me growing up, all I wanted to be as a teenager was American. It was all I dreamed of. All my friends were the same. All we did was watch American shows. All we did was watch MTV and Nickelodeon and fall in love with American bands, other than the Spice Girls. That’s the one great export that we gave to your culture when I was growing up.

Zibby: Thank you for that.

Dolly: It’s quite a common thing, I think, in England that Americanism is synonymous with modernity and excitement and coolness and something really exciting. For me, it’s very normal to watch something American or read something American which is littered with Americanisms or is very much embedded in American culture and just to google what something is. I’ve never lived in America, but I know what an ATM is. I know what alimony is. I know what candy is. I know that jelly is not the same wobbly stuff that we eat here. I know that pants are definitely respectable items that you wear on your bottoms rather than what we call knickers, which are undergarments. I think that for some reason, English people are — maybe it’s just because there’s so much more American culture that we consume. It’s very easy to do that kind of — we have like an embedded Google Translator. Whereas I think doing it the other way around, English to America, it’s much more esoteric. Culturally, America and England — I have lots of friends who lived in America. There are lots of kind of exiled Brits who’ve moved over to America. The transatlantic thing, particularly when you’re talking about youth culture, it is a very, very different experience. I think that there was just a nervousness, understandably. I totally understand it when American publishers were reading my book, that it was just too specific, the Englishness of it. It was just too Anglo-.

Zibby: I totally disagreed. I’m glad that finally that this is coming out here. I feel like we have so much fascination here with things there, the royal family and Downton Abbey and The Crown. I don’t know. I feel like there’s such a focus right now on all things UK related, but what do I know?

Dolly: I think that I am going to be very, very, very lucky to be riding off the totally beautiful and breathtaking coattails of Fleabag‘s success in America. I’m hoping that because America welcomed in this gorgeous hot mess of a character, that maybe they will be more acclimatized to a twenty-something woman running around London having completely ridiculous sex and drinking, every pub, out of every bottle of wine possible. I could only dream of being one percent as talented as Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I do think that maybe I’m going to be lucky that that’s something that at the moment, that kind of British transgression in young females is something that they’re more familiar with. She’s whetted their appetite really well, obviously, because it’s such an incredible, incredible piece of work.

Zibby: Yes, so thank you to Phoebe for paving the way for more amazing British shows like yours.

Dolly: Thanks to Phoebe so much for that.

Zibby: I found it interesting, all the things you have done to raise awareness of you, your brand, everything. You have things like The Dolly Mail. You took your book on the road and made it a live show. You now have two podcasts. Tell me about your brain and how you’re coming up with these ideas and the whole process. Do you just come up with ideas all the time and then debate which ones to pursue? How does it all happen for you?

Dolly: You’re speaking to me now at an interesting time that I’ve never ever been in in my career before because I’ve always been one of those multihyphenate people. I’ve always had lots of different things on the go in my early twenties. In my twenties, I had a actual grown-up office job where I was a TV producer. Then I was a freelancer writer in the evening and at weekends. Then I went solely over to freelance writing when I was twenty-six. Beyond that, I started a podcast four years ago. Then I did a newsletter for a while. Then I also was writing scripts. First of all, the reason why, I’ve always wanted to straddle lots of different types of writing and conversations and interviewing formats. One wasn’t really enough to keep me stimulated initially. I’m just quite a greedy person. I wanted to try it all. I’m like that across every aspect of my life. I’ve always been someone who really just wanted to do it all intensely and feel a lot, a lot of the time. I really channeled a lot of that ravenousness into pursuing lots of different avenues with work. To be totally honest, when I started to freelance as a journalist, I couldn’t make a living just from doing journalism. I had to think on my feet about how I could make money because I did want to make money. I really didn’t want to be scraping by month by month. Last year was sort of the peak of it. It was crazy. I also must caveat this because I know busy bragging is really fucking annoying.

Zibby: No, stop. Not at all.

Dolly: I know that lots of people have to juggle lots of different things as well as incredibly difficult family and financial situations. This is very much my choice, but it gets a lot. You get to a breaking point. Last year where I was doing — I did a twenty-two-day tour, which is like a live version of my book, to promote the book. It was published in lots of different languages, thankfully, so I was having a few press in lots of different countries. Then I had two scripts in development, one of which was the TV adaptation of the book. I was writing a weekly column. I had a weekly podcast. Then I launched the new podcast called “Love Stories” that was in conjunction with the publication of the book. I was trying to put together a proposal for my novel. I reached such a breaking point. I just couldn’t. The other thing is as well, I can’t write anything and I’m no use to anyone if I’m not living life because you can’t write about things in a vacuum. The only novel I would have been able to write last year is what it’s like to be interviewed by lots of people. What’s it like to have lots of meetings? What is like to go to sleep in lots of regional British hotels and eat basically every Pret sandwich available?

It’s quite a romantic notion, but all my favorite writers endorse this. Zadie Smith says this. AA Gill, he’s a British writer, he’s very important because he says the thing that you have to do if you want to write truthfully and movingly and in an entertaining way and in a poignant way, is you have to go live. You have to go love and feel and lose and observe and taste and enjoy it all and feel the pain of things and observe. Observing’s a really important thing. You need space in your life to do that. All the other stuff is fun, but if I’m not writing then I’m sort of miserable and useless. I decided this year to just do a writing year. Literally Zibby, all I do now since September is I’m writing a novel. I get up, go for a walk, get a coffee, look at the sky, come back, sit in front of the laptop, write, go out, see my friends, drink a bit too much wine, share a gossip, have some off their husbands and boyfriends to me, write it all down in my notebook, come back, and go to bed and start again the next day. I’ve never had the luxury of this much space before just focusing on one project. And I do “The High Low” every week, my podcast every week, but that’s only one day. I’ve got to say, it’s nice, this way of living. I really, really do see the appeal of building a big relationship with just one project or just one pursuit. I’m really enjoying it.

Zibby: I love that. I know. I feel like I can be a bit all over the place myself. Hearing this advice from you, I’m very much taking this to heart. I try to do a lot of different things because I get very excited.

Dolly: Do you know what? I thought I’d be panicked. I’m not panicked. I’m still waiting for that FOMO of, not enough people are knowing what I’m doing. My work’s not reaching enough channels. I’m not being inventive enough. I should be being more . I just feel pure joy every day. It’s like a love affair. It’s like I’ve just decided to marry someone and being monogamous for a year having been flitting from person, to person, to person, to person. I’m just enjoying the monogamy.

Zibby: Tell me about this new relationship you’re in. What is this book about?

Dolly: It’s called Ghost. The predominant story is it’s about a woman in her early thirties who decides to try dating for the first time. She spent all of her twenties in a very comfy relationship, so she’s never really dated before. She decides to date in her early thirties. She becomes the victim of ghosting. Do you know what ghosting is?

Zibby: Yes. Do you know the book Ghosted by Rosie Walsh? She’s also British.

Dolly: Oh, no. Don’t tell me this. It’s already been written.

Zibby: No, she was on my podcast too about a year and a half ago, maybe. Her name’s Rosie Walsh. It’s a novel called Ghosted. I should stop talking, but it’s about a man. The woman’s been ghosted, but there’s a whole backstory. It’s sort of like a mystery that you learn about as it goes on.

Dolly: Cool. It is very dramatic. I was when I was cooking it up. I was like, I feel like this hasn’t been written about that much. As someone who has been the victim of ghosting more than one time, it’s the only time in my life where I felt like I was engaged in a thriller. I remember my friends being like, it’s like a murder mystery. Where’s he gone? Where’s he disappeared to? How could he have had all this pleasantness and all this intimacy? You think you know each other so well, and this person has vanished. It is a very dramatic premise and very haunting, as the word accurately suggests. It can really haunt you for a long time if you don’t get your answers. That’s the main thrust narrative. There’s a second story that runs through which is about her father who is suffering from dementia. It’s her dealing with a vanishing man in her love life and potentially a kind of metaphorically and physically vanishing man in her family.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds great.

Dolly: Thank you. The first half was bliss. I loved every minute of it. Then I took three weeks off over Christmas and just ate so many roast potatoes and drank so much red wine. Now I’ve come back. I’m like, ooh, second half, this is a little bit tougher, isn’t it?

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. Talk to me a little about your podcast, “The High Low,” and how you’ve grown that to be — I’m so jealous. You have like a bazillion downloads per episode. No, I’m kidding. But how did you grow that to be such a huge success? What are your tips? What do you think people respond to the most?

Dolly: Can I ask how long your podcast has been going for?

Zibby: About two years.

Dolly: Do you know what? I reckon it was about two years since went a bit bananas with “The High Low.” Apparently, this is a pattern that you see over and over again with podcasts. They’re still kind of examining how podcast sales — it’s such a new method of entertainment. We need to think differently about everything with podcasts, how we make revenue from it, how we build listenership, how we build trust. It’s such a different medium to anything we’ve seen before. Someone said to me once, a podcast expert — it’s such a boring answer, but it’s so true. The key for building a massive audience with podcasts is longevity, and the larger your back catalog, and the more that you’re putting it out week on week on week. It’s just as simple as that’s what makes it the most successful across the board. I think that’s a boring answer. We started it. We had a prototype podcast that we did for about six months. That was like four years ago. Then “The High Low” has been going for three years. We’ve been at it for a while.

I think with such a smaller place here, the UK obviously — I suppose that’s an obvious thing to say. On our tiny, teeny island, there weren’t that many women doing two-handed podcasts. Whereas the American podcast market, I think there are much more women doing what we do. We’re quite lucky we were one of the first pairings to do it. We still sort of are one of the first pairings to do it strictly talking about the news. To be totally honest with you — I shouldn’t say this. It will sound like I’m just being self-deprecating. I’m quite amazed at how well it’s done. I still can’t believe the figures of the downloads we get. I back us. I think we do a good show, but I’m still sort of flummoxed that of anything I’ve done in my career, this is the thing that’s really, really taken off in quite a massive, quite a mind-bending way. Sometimes, Pandora and I, who’s my cohost — we now get 300,000 listens a week. We were reading something about circulation of British newspapers and the circulation of British magazines. Then we were talking about what seemed like big numbers and what seemed like not-so-big numbers. We were like, Voguestill gets — I can’t remember the exact number. It was like a hundred-and-something thousand a month. We’re like, that’s massive. Then we were like, oh, we’re triple that. It’s not people’s eyes. It’s people’s ears, but it’s kind of mad when you think of that because it just suddenly feels like the conversation I have with this woman in her living room with two microphones every week — it’s important to remind yourself of that listenership because that’s a huge responsibility in terms of what you’re saying to people. Not only that, it also can make you very vulnerable. It just requires a lot of thought now when we talk. Whereas at the beginning, we had like eight thousand people listening, mainly our parents, friends. The other — I think this reason where people may be — this is how perplexed I am by how well it’s done. I actually find it quite difficult to work out exactly what the formula’s been that’s made it work. I think the fact, as I said, that it wasn’t a saturated market.

Then I also think we’re in a culture now online of supreme, self-assured expertise on everything, is the currency. That’s what people want. People want to not be corrected. They want to not contradict themselves. They want to not be humiliated and shamed. They want to be perfectly politically correct. They want to seem like a good person who’s entirely fair and ethical all the time across every single subject and every single group, every single oppressed group. It doesn’t matter if they’re trying and learning. They have to have gold-star behavior at all costs, at all times. I think people are really scared of their own fallibility in terms of their knowledge and curiosity and empathy. What “The High Low” has always tried to do is provide a space where you can ask the stupid questions while always being thoughtful and empathetic and curious. You shouldn’t be scared of gaps in your knowledge. Being called ignorant or contradictory should not silence you. A fear of being called that should not silence you in learning more about the big, varied, fantastically interesting world that we live in.

Zibby: That was excellent advice. Thank you for that pep talk, especially with the US election around the corner. I’m always afraid to say anything. Thank you for that. I appreciate it.

Dolly: I know. I know.

Zibby: I was actually in the UK. I was in London very recently. I was dragging my daughters to a bunch of bookstores. I was like, wait a minute, Dolly, who I’m interviewing, wrote the UK introduction to I Feel Bad About My Neck. I have to go find this book. It’s one of my favorite books, Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, collection of essays and everything. I got the new copy so I could read your introduction, which was so fantastic. I read it on the plane. I was like, I wish I had time because I’m now dying to reread this book that I haven’t read in, I don’t know. It was fantastic. How did that come about, that you wrote the introduction?

Dolly: That’s so lovely of you. Thank you so much. I was so nervous about writing that because obviously it’s a book that means so much to so many women. You want to be able to really showcase and represent why it means so much to so many women. The fact is, it is one of those books you can really read and reread and reread because it takes on a different meaning at every age of womanhood. It was a totally different book when I read it now as when I first read it in my early twenties. The opportunity came about to introduce it because I’ve just been harping on about Nora Ephron for years. I’m a deeply obsessive person. When someone is formative or inspiring to me, I basically will tweet and write and reference and talk about them from now until eternity. I think people have just heard me so often. I quote her a lot. I quote her a lot in my writing, so I think people would’ve heard me. I write about films and all that. I just blithered and blithered and blithered and blithered until someone got the message that I absolutely love Nora Ephron. I accidently, sort of not accidently, really pushed an agenda.

Zibby: You willed it to happen. You just put it out there.

Dolly: Exactly.

Zibby: Back to your book for a minute, you documented your previous eating disorder very openly and candidly and said it was just due to a stroke of luck that you met Leo, your former boyfriend, otherwise you would’ve kept on getting thin and that there was no secret sauce to your recovery. It was just sort of an accident that you recovered. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about that time in your life.

Dolly: It’s so funny. Now I’m really glad I wrote that when I did because I think that conversations around bodies are being really, really marshalled at the moment. I think there’s probably a time not far away — in fact, people probably already think this — where writing about that chapter in my life could be seen as problematic for some people because I am very honest about the fact that I had never really thought about my weight that much. I was quite a big kid. I was quite a big girl as a teenager. It didn’t bother me that much. It didn’t really preoccupy me. Then I had a big heartbreak. The only way that I could gain any sort of control, a sense of lovability, was getting incredibly small incredibly fast. The thing that I think people maybe might find difficult about it — this is something that lots of women have spoken since about it and said it’s something that resonated with them. It was really fun being that ill and being that thin, even though it was torture and really battered up my body in a way that I feel I am still recovering from ten years later.

The fact is, I can’t ignore the world that we operate in as women and what we’re told makes you worthy of love and what makes you feel important and powerful and seen. It did make me feel very powerful. I can’t remember exactly how I worded it in the book. It was something like, my health was plummeting, but my stocks were up. That was the thing that was really difficult, is that everyone — I was treated differently. I moved through the world differently when I was that thin. That was a very addictive false sense of control in a world that had kind of been turned upside down for me. To be honest, I’ve spoken to friends — writing that chapter and people reading it, I had lots of people close to me say that — you know, I was very young. I was twenty-one. My mom dealt with it as best as she could while knowing that there was nothing, really, she could’ve done while I was in that headspace. She just tried to keep me as safe as possible. I think lots of friends didn’t know how to handle it. There’s an awful thing that happens when disaster strikes when you’re in your early twenties. No one’s equipped, really, to deal with it. Lots of friends said that they read that chapter and they regret that they weren’t more forthcoming with their concern for me or that they weren’t more interventional. If I had carried on that way, there probably would’ve come a time where intervention would’ve had to come from my friends and my family in a bigger way than it already had.

As I mentioned, I fell in love with someone who cared for me very deeply very early on, which I hadn’t ever had before. He became aware that this was an issue in my life. I was open with him about it in a way that I hadn’t been with anyone, and then managed to get to a place of recovery. Then again, the other thing I think people sometimes find unsavory or uncomfortable to read about is because I’m very honest about the fact that since I was in my early twenties, I have lived a lifestyle that is healthy and sustainable and sensibly content. Once you’ve put yourself through that kind of regime of punishment and self-control and — sorry, self-control is the wrong word. It’s not self-control. It’s self-deprivation and self-sabotage. It’s very, very difficult to unwire yourself completely from those thoughts. Those thoughts do stick around a long time. I hope they won’t stick around forever. They still do stick around now, to be totally honest. I don’t regret writing it because I think to pretend that we live in a world where thinness isn’t fetishized and being honest about how disastrous and what the long-term effects can be if someone isn’t in recovery, I don’t think not being truthful about that is helpful or a feminist issue. I think it’s much more helpful to talk about the gnarliness of that. Again, an incredibly long answer.

Zibby: No, no, that was one of my favorite parts of the book. I’m glad you kept it in. You wrote about it from a different perspective. I loved it. It was one of the most memorable parts for me, so I’m glad you kept it in.

Dolly: Oh, thank you so much.

Zibby: I know we’re kind of running out of time. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors other than moving to London and getting up and going for a walk and spending your day writing and then gossiping with friends at night? which sounds like heaven. Heaven, heaven, heaven.

Dolly: I must say, it took me ten years to get to a point where I could do that. I’m very aware that this is a moment of freedom and luxury in my life where because of the success of my last book, I can do that. It might just be one hot moment and then I won’t be able to do that again. I still managed to write books and write screenplays and juggle lots of things and be very, very happy while doing it during a time where I have lots of things on the go. I would long to just sit in front of the laptop all day, but I couldn’t. What’s the main advice? Here’s the main advice I have. I did an Instagram post about this the other day. I did a picture of a notebook that I bought when I went to New York when I was like twenty-four. I was there to see a friend. I had an idea to write the book, like a nonfiction book. I had no money. everyone’s twenties, I was so skint when I was out there for a week seeing her. I had to really plan meticulously what I was going to do today so I wouldn’t just completely run out of cash. I gave myself five dollars to buy one thing for myself while I was in New York to remember the trip. I was in Greenwich Village in a stationary shop. I found this beautiful little notebook exercise book that I bought. Then I went and sat in a café opposite The Plaza. I sipped coffee incredibly slowly all afternoon so I could stay at the table. I wrote loads and loads of ideas for a nonfiction book about my twenties and everything I was experiencing. It fills the whole book, just all thoughts.

When I came to sit down and write the book after I got my book deal four years later, I used lots of little bits of it, lots away. There were lots of beginning of sorts there, and stories, that I ended up using. Then just before New Year’s this year, The Sunday Times did a list — they’re a big paper here on a Sunday — did a piece that was about the ten best-selling nonfiction books of the last year. My book was number nine. It felt so trippy to me that that weekend I’d found that exercise book with my mad scribbles in and literally coffee splattered from that café — it just reminded me that anything life changing, any creative projects that will be life changing, situation changing, will take you to new places, will connect to lots of people, will somehow define who you are, will be a really important stamp that you leave on the world. Whatever that creative project is, it will always begin in an exercise book. It will always begin on a tiny, tiny page, whether it’s a Post-it or an iPhone note or a dollar exercise book. That’s the genesis. That’s the source of everything. You can’t skip that bit and get straight to the exciting part. However small your piece of paper that you’re currently scribbling on, that is the seed that you’re planting in the ground now for the most glorious thing that can grow.

Zibby: Wow. Love that. Great visual to end on. Thank you so much, Dolly. Thanks for coming on the show and sharing all of your amazing experience with me. I hope to meet you in person sometime soon.

Dolly: Me too. It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

Zibby: You too. Enjoy the writing.

Dolly: Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.