I end up going back three times to listen to the recording of my interview with novelist Naoise Dolan. It wasn’t only because the phone connection was a little glitchy; it’s mostly because Dolan speaks in beautifully intricate long sentences. Miss one word when transcribing and the architecture of the sense of the sentence tumbles down.
Dubliner Dolan is talking to me from her home in London, where she has been living, off and on, for the past three years. Her first novel, Exciting Times, was published last year to critical acclaim. Out now in paperback, it was longlisted this week for the Women's Prize for Fiction. Set in Hong Kong, it’s the story of Ava, a young Irish woman teaching English, who is certain she is uncertain about many things in her life, including why she has moved in with a British banker, Julian, who is absent in London for part of the novel.
Once he departs, Edith arrives on Ava’s scene; she’s a smart lawyer from a wealthy Hong Kong family, and they begin a relationship. Neither Julian nor Edith are aware of each other’s existence for quite some time. And then he returns.
There are just so many moments in my life where I was perceived as being too blunt
What elevates the narrative is the sharpness of Ava’s observations and her complex, wholly convincing interior voice; a voice that exhaustively analyses everything she does and says. Ava is smart, brittle and funny, and constantly evolving throughout the novel; like watching the time-lapse sequence of a flower opening.
It will be fascinating to see how television handles a character whose voice is so interior in nature: Exciting Times was optioned by Black Bear Pictures soon after publication last spring as a US television series.
“I’m not really able to share anything at the moment about it, but it is really nice to have it optioned,” is all Dolan will cautiously say about any timeline for production.
She could just as easily have been an academic as a novelist. Dolan studied English in Trinity and did her master’s in Oxford. She talks me through some of the work she did for her thesis; the dauntingly fine-comb analysis of very specific pieces of English literature.
“I specialised in Dickens, so for one of my essays I did a comparative analysis of different abbreviated versions of David Copperfield,” she says. “It’s enormously popular for that purpose because it’s a coming-of-age story about a boy finding his way in the world, so it’s suitable for younger audiences. There are a lot of shortened versions out there, adapted for different audiences. I went through data on hundreds of these things, compared them, and made some suggestions as to why different publishers decided to cut different things.”
Did she ever consider a career in academia?
“Yeah, I was very close to considering it, because I love that sort of thing; I love going down a rabbit hole and just living there. But I think the reality of what it is actually like to work there now just seemed too harsh: the crippling career uncertainty and just how competitive it is, and how poor the conditions are. If it was a few decades ago, I might have tried to be a Dickensian.”
Dolan started writing Exciting Times in 2017, when she was living in Hong Kong. It took her just five months. “I didn’t really have a lot to do with myself, so I thought I would attempt a novel” is how she puts it. “I was just out of college; it wasn’t any long-germinated project. It was really just having a go at something.”
She mentions in passing that, as a teenager, she was “very much into reading plays”, which is an atypical interest of most teenagers. “The way I write I think is informed by the fact I was very much into reading plays as a teenager, so it’s [the novel] focused on imagining a couple of talking heads in a room; it was very centred on those set pieces around the characters.”
Not long after the publication of her novel last year, Dolan was diagnosed as autistic. She has been open and vocal on social media and in interviews since about the diagnosis. She’s clear that the proper way to describe this is being “autistic”, rather than someone “with autism”. The inference of the latter term, she explains, “is of having some kind of illness or negative condition. Whereas, ‘autistic’ gets across that it is just a feature of my brain, in the same way that one can be neurotypical rather than having neurotypicality.”
Neurotypical is not a word I’m familiar with. Later, I look it up. It’s a newer term now commonly used by people who are on the autism spectrum to describe people who are not affected by a developmental disorder, specifically an autistic one.
“Sometimes I feel a pressure to tell people that I am autistic, just in case I am too blunt for their liking. So that they know that I am not trying to be offensive: I am just trying to tell the truth, but then I think hang on; why is it until I say I’m autistic, people will project so much on to each other’s words? We should cut more slack in general; it shouldn’t be the case that only some people get compassion.”
Is life less confusing for her now, with the diagnosis?
“Yeah, there is so much shame gone,” she says. “It has been such a reflective year for everyone obviously, and one of the things I have been reflecting on are the many times when I could have been kinder to myself, because I didn’t have this external cause and so often malice is read into the behaviour of autistic people. There are just so many moments in my life where I was perceived as being too blunt, or I didn’t get something, and people thought I was just pretending.”
I ask Dolan what advice she can offer to people like me, who know very little about what it is to be autistic, and who want to know more, but without unwittingly causing offence.
“Given the lack of public knowledge of autism, first of all, it’s best to listen to autistic people themselves, and second of all, you really don’t have to think or assume or express opinions on something until you have more information. I think so much hurt is caused in the autism community by people just bringing us in where we don’t belong, where they truly do not need to comment on autism,” she says.
Dolan gives as an example former Fine Gael politician Catherine Noone, who last year casually described then taoiseach Leo Varadkar as “autistic”; a comment that she later apologised for.
What does she think is most misunderstood about being autistic?
“I think probably it is that there is such a division between high functioning and low functioning. There are several reasons why that is not true. The first is that there are many poles of functionality, so it might be that I am good at social communication but relatively poor at tolerating different kinds of sensory input,” she says. “So there is no high or low levels of autism, because there are different levels of skills.
“The second thing is, functionality also varies from day to day; so some days I might be able to cope quite well, and then other days, for whatever reason, internal or external, my needs might be quite different so a functionality label is not helpful.
“The third thing is, it prioritises the needs of neurotypical people, not the needs of autistic people. I spent a lot of my life intensely masking my autism. And I am therefore perceived as ‘high functioning’ because it creates fewer problems for those around me. But for me, it creates lots of problems if I am constantly acting like someone that I’m not, that I wouldn’t have if I were more able to be myself. So that’s why I dislike those labels, because they sum up autistic people in a really reductive way that doesn’t care about how we feel inside.”
Can Dolan look back and identify now how being autistic has informed her work as a writer?
“One way – this is broad strokes, obviously – that autistic brains have been described is as extreme pattern seeking, and I think that makes a lot of sense. I think often when your early interactions with the world are perhaps a bit unreliable compared to those around you, just to take a couple of examples, if you find rooms hotter than other people, or if you can’t understand slang but everyone else can, you then become a pattern seeker, not to intuit it or copy it, but because you need to get the reasoning behind the world to understand how it operates.
“And I think that goes over into the analytical stance of how I approach life, which then comes through in my work and how I discuss it. Dissections of social interactions, and of the emotional underpinnings are the sort of thing I engage in day to day so therefore it doesn’t feel like overkill for me to have a character do it in a novel.”
Which is exactly how Ava keeps drilling down into, and dissecting, the various elements of her day in Exciting Times.
She has been writing a lot during lockdown. There are “a lot” of short stories, and some nonfiction pieces “in the works, or in the works according to the deadline, if not according to my actual working patterns. So I am juggling a fair bit.”
Dolan is also currently doing edits on her second novel, which as yet doesn’t have a publication date. What is this novel about?
“Let me think. I am terrible at describing things that I write because you just stare at the trees so long, and then you need to come up with a wood all of a sudden. I suppose it is in the same comedic vein as the first one. And quite dark, which is what I like.”
The first time Dolan had “a go” at writing a novel, the results were excellent. Now a second, much anticipated novel is pending. Exciting times, indeed.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson