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Naoise Dolan on How Books Made Her Feel Less Alone, Then and Now

Posted on 28th February 2021 by Mark Skinner

Naoise Dolan's debut novel Exciting Times has won rave reviews and popular acclaim since its publication last year and, to celebrate the book's status as our March Fiction Book of the Month in paperback, Naoise Dolan has penned an exclusive piece about how books have proved a lifeline for her both in the past and in these days of pandemic - and how that has affected the way she hersefl has written character. 

In lockdown I’ve found no shortage of finger-pointing. The last thing we've lacked is people telling others how to live. What I’ve missed is vicarious experience. I want to get a taste of others’ lives, and to find that out I need to suspend my judgement. I’ve always been a quiet person. Before coronavirus, I often happily went days without saying a substantial sentence aloud. What I did love, though, was silently moving through the world. I was so curious about everyone around me — how they dressed, how they expressed themselves, who they were with. Maybe that’s not a paradox: maybe I was happy being solitary because it left me more room to observe. But I’ve had to change my ways. I can’t go out people-watching, and tumbleweed-watching doesn’t quite hold the same appeal. I need books.

It’s not the first time I’ve needed them. I had a difficult adolescence, missing months on end of school due to mental illness and an unsupported disability. Also, I was a teenager and thus hated everything. I turned to novels not expecting a lesson, not wanting to be told what to think or how to be, but just craving something different. I needed to see someone else, someone made-up, so that I could react to them exactly as I wanted without consequence.

In the real world, we can harm others and ourselves by responding to them in unfiltered ways. But in literature, the worst that can happen is you form a strong opinion about words on a page.

That’s why I wrote my character, Ava, the way I did. You won’t find a clear narratorial voice telling you what I think of her. I wanted Ava to feel immediate, not for me to come between you and her. Many of the things Ava says and does are chilling, manipulative, rash and wrong. She also has zero chill. But I want readers to make up their own minds: they don’t need my values when I’m sure they have their own. There are gaps between what Ava says and what she’ll never admit. I tried to let readers peer into those gaps, not promptly and boringly fill them. A good character is always allowed a little mystery, I think. No-one owes Ava anything. She does nothing that forces you to like or pity her. You can just follow her along and see how she fares. I love that freedom in other people’s books, when I don’t feel I’m being manipulated into caring about someone’s fate. That’s why I wanted to offer that same freedom in my own novel.

I first wrote Ava quite a while before the pandemic — in early 2017, four years ago now — but I was responding to the same impulses I feel now. There’s enough piety out there and I didn’t feel like adding to it. I aimed to make something, someone, that felt real. You might not bond with Ava, or find her similar to anyone you know, but I hope she seems specific and flawed enough to exist.

Sometimes it’s enough to soak experience in. It was enough for me when I people-watched before the pandemic, it’s enough for me when I read, and it’s enough for me when I write. My love of fiction comes from that glorious ability to learn nothing, that lack of moralism, that willingness just to simulate life – not even the author's, but whatever world they've conjured.

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