Zibby is joined by Naoise Dolan to discuss her debut novel, Exciting Times, and all of the success that has come with it. Naoise shares why she wanted to create characters who piqued her own curiosity, how she learned to cope with her overnight popularity, and what her experience has been like so far working on the book’s TV adaptation with Zibby’s brother’s production company. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’ book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here:


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Naoise. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Exciting Times.

Naoise Dolan: Thanks for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: I was reading your book during a very not-exciting moment of kid life with everybody strewn around me playing. I was like, this is so ironic. This is not an exciting time, necessarily, but here I am surrounded. Anyway, it was funny for me. Would you mind telling listeners who aren’t familiar yet with your book — although, they should be because it’s already come out a long time ago — what it’s about?

Naoise: Probably, the protagonist of the book would agree with you that it’s not necessarily an exciting time for her either. It’s about a young Irish woman named Ava who comes to Hong Kong from Ireland to teaching English. Then once she’s there, she gets involved in two slightly off-kilter love affairs, the first with a male British banker named Julian and the second with a Hongkonger named Edith who’s a lawyer. For a time, she’s able to balance them, play them off against each other. Eventually, she needs to choose. That’s the book.

Zibby: I thought it was so funny with Julian, by the way, when he couldn’t believe that she had never been to London. He was like, “The flight is very short. How could you never have come from Dublin to London?” She’s like, “I didn’t want to point out that the flight was just as short to come from London to Dublin, but he had never done that.”

Naoise: However, I now live in London, so I find myself being that guy. I’ll just say to people who are out there, “Oh, let me know when you’re in London. We can hang,” the weird assumption that they will be even though I have no intention of ever being where they are. London just does that to everyone. I think New York probably does too, to an extent, the two cities in the world that just think they’re the center the universe.

Zibby: Yes, sort of a hubris to them. Although, post-COVID, I feel like — somebody recently said to me, when I said I lived in New York, they were like, “Why did you stay there?” I was like, “What do you mean? I live here.” They said, “What keeps you in New York?” I was like, what a random question. I don’t know. My life.

Naoise: Did you grow up in New York?

Zibby: I did.

Naoise: I think that makes such a difference. I didn’t grow up in London. I grew up in Dublin. I feel like if you grew up in the city, you view cities as places to start a family, places you can put down roots. Whereas I feel like London, certainly, and I think New York has this too, there’s this layer of people who come there out of college. They see it as a place to be young. Then they go back out to the suburbs or the countryside or whatever. For them, it’s permanently the young people place. For me, I can’t imagine living outside a city. I can’t drive. I literally can’t drive. I’ve got London. I’ve got New York. I’ve kind of got Dublin. That’s it.

Zibby: I know, it’s so funny. I feel like sometimes, though, and I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of person, I think if I had been born in a small town somewhere, I would probably still be there too. I feel like I really like being where I’m from, where I feel like a part of the community, where I open my door and I always run into someone I know from when I was two. A lot of people, around my neighborhood at least, stay. We’ve all gone to preschool two blocks away. Now our kids go there. There’s something very comforting about that.

Naoise: Yeah. Although, Irish people are like cockroaches. We’re just everywhere. Wherever I go, I’ll be able to tap into some degree of family removal. Here, I have this whole layer of Irish just all around me. You can very easily arrange your life in London so that you have absolutely minimal contact with English people. Some days, I’m tempted to.

Zibby: That’s so funny, oh, my gosh. I read that when you were in Hong Kong yourself, you started writing this book about a girl in Hong Kong and this relationship, which was such a funny — the fact that they spent so much time together for a while and never got together until later and then they were kind of like, I don’t know, I just didn’t know if you would want — the whole thing, it had such a nice pacing and humor to it. The two people together were just so funny. Then she, of course, bails on her roommates and just starts living there, basically. Was this modeled in any way over your own life? Are you tired of answering that question? How much of your life was similar to this character’s?

Naoise: Not really much. I think it was more that I wanted to create the kind of characters that I was curious about. I’m not very curious about myself because I kind of know it all already on some layer. Sometimes I need a bit of excavating to access what’s really going on there. Fundamentally, I am pretty knowable to me because I have pretty intense exposure. It was more, I wanted there to be something slightly mysterious about them to me as much as anyone else. I was like, where the hell is this going? What are they up to? I think I came away at the end of writing it with answers in my head to some of those questions. The way I see it, Julian’s probably just an awkward guy that I was projecting a whole lot onto because he happens to have a nice suit. It’s the classic Mr. Darcy syndrome. I feel like if you put an awkward guy in a nice suit, then he will be read as reserved and arrogant. Stuff like that, I kind of wound up with an answer just from exploring the characters. I hope, as well, there’s some stuff that I still can’t answer myself and that the reader can’t answer because that’s what makes people interesting in real life, a tad of mystique.

Zibby: That’s interesting. I’m so excited that Black Bear Pictures optioned your book, which is my brother’s company. That’s so cool. That’s so fun. I have no inside information. I probably should’ve asked him about it before this. That’s exciting news, nonetheless. It looked like, online, it was going to be for TV. Is that right?

Naoise: Yeah. I’ll tell you something, it’s so fun working with people who have creative input in a team-based kind of way. That’s really what you miss, normally, as an author. You’ll get edits back sometimes, but it doesn’t really have that interpersonal air to it. It’s just someone’s notes on Microsoft Word. Sometimes you just want to see other human faces and talk to them about what’s going on. I think as well, because I’m the kind of person who likes explicit instructions and clear feedback and bluntness, I love Americans. They’re so much more likely to just say what they’re thinking, which to me working in England most of the time is just a godsend. This is the land of, that might be difficult. Meaning, I would sooner go to hell and back than do that. I’m like, why don’t you just say it? Of course, they can’t. They’re just nationally incapable of that. I love Black Bear. Knowing where we’re at with everything, it’s so fun.

Zibby: Wow. If you need anybody to be less blunt, if it becomes offensive, you can always reach out to me. Not that I have any control. I have zero control, although so much respect for my brother and what he’s built and everything. It’s just so neat, super exciting and neat.

Naoise: Definitely.

Zibby: I talked to somebody recently, a woman who’s looking for a job. She’s like, “You know, I just want to be in a place with lots of people. I’m tired of being a writer and being at home,” or whatever. “I just need the people.” Especially after this year, I think a lot of people are feeling that way, that it’s just so nice to be part of a group or part of in-real-life stuff.

Naoise: Yeah, for sure. I still really miss writing in cafés. I could theoretically do it now. London’s kind of opened up again. I’d feel so self-conscious. The whole point of writing in cafés is you want people to forget that you’re there so that you can observe them, and in my poor student days, so that I could get away with making a coffee last five hours. like I’m on the record. I’ve been there for one coffee at five hours. There’s a meter of space all around me. It’s not the same.

Zibby: What was it like with all the success of your book as a debut novelist? How did it feel having it come out and all the attention and everything else?

Naoise: Quite odd because I think you need a bunch of strategies and coping mechanisms that you don’t necessarily expect to develop from something so solitary as writing. Probably, one of the biggest things for me to grapple with was the idea that there’d be all these people who have never met me who would still have opinions on me based on what they’ve read or based on looking at my social media or what have you. That’s a really weird thing to realize about yourself, especially if you’re a little bit of a control freak like me. That’s part of why I write, because it’s the space where I can be a control freak. No one’s going to judge me for it from moment to moment. Then to accept the idea I’ll be some kind of vaguely public figure and there will just be these perceptions of me out there and I won’t be able to control it, that was a journey, a bumpy one. I’m okay now. I have a degree of distance from it. When you’ve been doing something for a year, you either learn to cope or you just completely fall off the wagon. I don’t want to fall off the wagon, so I’m coping. It took some time to get there, for sure. In terms of the actual writing, it helped that I wrote the book quite a while before it was published. I wrote the first draft in early 2017. Publishing is such a slow industry, but it’s actually quite quick for it to have come out in 2020 given that. I think because of that, I was able to distance what happened when people read it from my own writing. When I sit down to write new things now, I’m not really thinking about it so much because it just seems so far away. I’m able to not let it affect my process too much, I hope.

Zibby: Excellent. Does it affect how you would approach another book?

Naoise: I don’t think so. I’ve tried to keep in mind, the private relationship that I had with myself and my work that led me to write the first one throughout the process of publicizing it because I want to be as honest as possible and say things that feel close to when I wrote it. I think I’m trying to preserve that space of just, what do I want to make? Do I think it’s good on my terms? That’s obviously not to say that I’m not responsive to feedback, but I think you need to be kind of discerning on which feedback you take. Consider, what does this person think of as a good book? If the books that they admire are not the books that I admire, then why would I listen to their case? It’s like taking fashion advice from someone who wears something that you never would. I’m not going to look at someone wearing a yellow, hairy coat on the street and go, I’m going to ask her what she thinks of my beige trench.

Zibby: Such a good point. I love that. I know, I feel like there’s this instinct to want to be all things to all people. You want to make everybody happy, want everybody to like something. Most times, people don’t all like the same things. It’s so true. Friends of mine who I do really respect a lot of their opinions, but some friends just have totally different taste in books. I’m trying to figure out, why is that? Why is that that the books that she likes I rarely like and vice versa? I don’t know, but it doesn’t make the book any less good or bad, right?

Naoise: Yeah. I think it’s like shoes. I can tell so much more easily what kind of dress someone will like than what kind of shoes will work on them. You just literally have to put the thing on. That’s the only way to know.

Zibby: It’s so true. I love that. What are you working on now?

Naoise: I’m about to start edits on the next novel, so that’ll be fun. I recently started writing a Sunday column for the Sunday Independent, which is one of the big Irish newspapers. I’m really enjoying that. That’s sort of what I was just describing of making something in a complete vacuum and then twenty years later, getting reactions. Truly, I file it, and then a couple of days later, I see if people liked it or not. That’s really new and fun.

Zibby: That’s excellent. What’s your next column going to be about?

Naoise: Oh, gosh, that’s a reminder, actually. I need to email my editor and tell them. I won’t give away the surprise. Oh, no, wait, actually, I can because presumably, it’ll be out by the time this comes out.

Zibby: It’ll be out, yeah.

Naoise: Okay, inside info time capsule. It will be about arts funding in Ireland and why it’s a good idea to give artists a universal basic grant instead of picking and choosing who gets funding.

Zibby: Interesting. So every artist would get the same one, get the same amount?

Naoise: Yeah, I think it’s the only way to make art really interesting and equitable. For as long as the government are picking who they think is worthy, that’s always going to reflect whatever kind of institutional biases are bound up in that government. You just need to look at the composition of art to know that that’s going to be bad representation of pretty much every conceivable access. I think it’s better to spread the love.

Zibby: Wow, I love it. Very cool. All right, I will definitely not release this episode until I see that article out in the world.

Naoise: It won’t be long. God bless the short news cycle.

Zibby: Yes. Can you say what your second book is about?

Naoise: Not yet, but stay posted.

Zibby: When you’re not writing, what’s your favorite thing to do? What are you going to do after we get off this podcast?

Naoise: Apparently, I’ll email my editor. I might go for a walk and look in some charity shops if they haven’t closed yet. I’m addicted to secondhand shopping. I’ve gotten better at not actually buying things so it’s not a financial problem, but it still takes up so much of my time. London is great for people giving stuff away. I think there’s just a satisfaction to finding something in a really unlikely place and then that being the origin story for — I am unbearable when I find something good secondhand. A couple of years ago, I got a Prada coat in a London charity shop. It’s not that I volunteered this information, but if someone asked, I would make sure they knew the provenance, say. I’ll probably go do that or just go for a walk. We’re in a heat wave right now. I’m sure people in countries that are actually hot would laugh, but it’s twenty-four degrees, which for us is virtual tropical. I’ll go enjoy that.

Zibby: I love secondhand shops only — not only because. I love secondhand shops because I’m always so curious about the story behind the object. My wedding ring that I got with my second husband, or my husband, but he happens to be second husband, we found in this random antique-type store in Charleston, South Carolina, while we were just roaming about for the day. I was with some girlfriends. It was there with all these old pieces of silverware and brooches and all these things. I was like, who wore this ring before me? Where did it come from? Who was the woman? What was her life like? If I were a better writer, maybe I would do a whole historical novel about the woman who had the ring before me, and now here I am in New York City, and the whole thing. Although, when I got the ring, it turned out it had a giant crack in it, so I returned it. Then I had a jeweler up here make the exact same thing that wasn’t broken. That’s my origin story of that.

Naoise: That’s cool. I love that history too. Probably, one of my favorite things in my wardrobe that I’ll just keep forever is this very plain black cotton cardigan, but it’s got the coolest buttons. I think it’s from the seventies. I got it in France. It has this French name sewn in the back. I thought it was the label at first, but then I found the actual label. Whoever the French person is, I’m just wearing their name on my back forever.

Zibby: That’s so cool. I guess you can find stories wherever you look. Everything can be material. Naoise, thank you. Thank you for chatting about Exciting Times and for making this — I don’t even know what it is — Tuesday afternoon an exciting time for me to be chatting with you. I can’t wait to see the screen adaptation with Black Bear. I’m so excited for that. Congratulations. I hope to see you in person someday.

Naoise: I’d love that too. Have a lovely afternoon.

Zibby: You too. Have fun shopping. Don’t buy too much. Buh-bye.

Naoise: Bye.


EXCITING TIMES by Naoise Dolan

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