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Author Naoise Dolan Discusses Her Debut Novel


Let's meet Naoise Dolan. She is one of Ireland's most acclaimed young authors. The 28-year-old's new novel is called "Exciting Times." I am not sure these are the most exciting times to release a book, given the pandemic, but Dolan is taking it all in stride. This is her first book after all. Doing everything remotely, it's really all she knows.

NAOISE DOLAN: I'm sure I would have been completely floored and not know how to react at all if I saw it in a bookshop because I've never known that feeling.

GREENE: So her novel is set in Hong Kong. It is about Ava, a young expat English teacher from Ireland who's navigating two romantic relationships.

DOLAN: She's a somewhat repressed but fairly wry young woman who I think uses a lot of dark humor as a coping device and maybe is better at thinking about things analytically than she is at understanding herself or those around her on more emotional levels. So a lot of her narration comes from that disjuncture between, on one level, getting it and, on another level, not getting anything at all.

GREENE: There's so much emotion. And I would say, you know, I mean, is self-hate a fair way to describe Ava at some points? And just in the process of being an author, like, I wonder if that's - like, how much of that is creation? How much of that comes with personal experience? Because it feels so, so personal, the experience reading it.

DOLAN: Yeah, I think, definitely, it's something that I and most other people I know in their 20s have indulged at one point or another, where you want to analyze yourself - not least to gain a better understanding of your place in the world - but for whatever reason, you aren't culturally permitted to do that through a neutral or positive gaze. So in order to feel allowed to think about yourself at length, you come to it through self-loathing. I don't know if that's what I'd describe as a uniquely me thing; I think it's a thing a lot of people do. But if people don't always relate to that and they can instead read it and learn about what it's like for people who do do that, then that's good, too.

GREENE: There were moments that seem so mundane in life today, like looking for a text message and whether someone is writing back to you and you see those three little bubbles, you know, thinking so seriously about whether we should look at someone's Instagram story or not. You gave these very sort of mundane moments literary significance in some way, and that felt like some of the magic of your writing.

DOLAN: Thank you. Yeah. I think with novels, there's always going to be that slight time lag between when something comes into our culture and when we see it in fiction because, aside from anything else, books just take so long to write and get published. So I think it was in 2016, '17 that the story's future was first developed. So, like, I think this is probably the absolute earliest that we could expect that to appear in a novel.

So then there's always that slight thing of, like, when something's in a novel for the first time, it feels weird seeing it there. But then, obviously, novels (laughter) do slowly adapt. We're not still reading Dickens - well, we are (laughter), but we're not still reading it expecting to see ourselves reflected completely.

GREENE: Yeah, that's so true. Well, I wonder - I mean, since we are all going through this pandemic together as a world, as a planet, have you thought about how Ava, your character in this book, would deal with the pandemic if that's the place that she found herself in?

DOLAN: Yeah (laughter). I mean, I think she has a little bit of a self-imposed quarantine life a lot of the time, anyway, so a woman well-practiced in not leaving the house at plenty of points. So maybe she'd have a bit more of a toolkit than a lot of us. But yeah, I have in my head, broadly, where they're all going to end up, but I don't think I'd ever feel tempted to write a sequel because I already have so many microdecisions that I try to manage when I'm writing that I think the additional one of, how do I make this interesting both to people who haven't read the first one and to people who have, would just drive me mad. So (laughter) not for me.

GREENE: One thing you've talked about is that being autistic gives you kind of an interesting perspective on what we're living through right now, feeling like that everyone needs accommodations right now that are things that people who are autistic always need and ask for. I wonder if you could reflect on that. I'm so curious what you're thinking about.

DOLAN: Yeah, sure. So a lot of things, like remote working - I think the thing that's difficult to explain about social masking is it's not that any individual interaction is hugely draining; it's the accumulation of all of it that makes it exhausting. But then it's so difficult to get that across.

So then when something like remote working just happens for other reasons, you're like, oh, wow, I have so much more energy now. What makes, especially social experiences, distinctly autistic to me is the sense that your instincts won't be understood or appreciated. So when we all started Zooming each other at the start, we all faced uncertainty of, how do I say hello correctly? How do I end this when I can't use the old excuses I used to?

But I think for neurotypicals - even shy, socially anxious neurotypicals - there isn't that underlying feeling that they might do what they intuitively feel to be intelligent and correct and have it misunderstood in a way that happens to you when you're autistic. And that's why many of us learn to mask in the first place because our experience is that if we rely on our instincts instead of telling ourselves how to do everything, it just won't work.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, you - I did want to ask you. I mean, you wrote in The Irish Times that you - your dream reader is one who doesn't know or care who you are. Why do you prefer readers like that?

DOLAN: First of all, I want people to enjoy novels above all, and I think you're likelier to enjoy a novel if you approach it on its own terms than if you come into it with particular assumptions or curiosities about the author because books are best at being books, and (laughter) anything else that they do is going to be secondary entirely. Like, a novel that I write is never going to as successfully tell you about my life as an autobiographical thing, which - it's like judging a car by how well it imitates a bicycle. So there's that, the enjoyment aspect.

But I think as well it's just that, for me, that's how I feel I get the most out of books. I've never enjoyed them as much when I've come to them from any place of prurience or of feeling obliged to learn about someone. My favorite reading experiences are always the ones where I just open it up. So I guess I want that for other people.

GREENE: That was Naoise Dolan. She's the author of "Exciting Times."

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "ADRIATIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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