Everything Dolly Alderton Knows About Life

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Alexandra Cameron

Dolly Alderton has spent her career writing about her life — particularly her 20s and the great loves she experienced in that messy decade. I first read her memoir, Everything I Know About Love, while procrastinating on studying for final exams in college (to which the author kindly told me: “I hope that I didn’t fuck up your exams”). Ever since, I have thought about Alderton’s then-developing outlook on love, and her beautiful, sometimes-heartbreaking descriptions of her friends. Now, that same warm feeling I got from reading her book has been adapted into my new comfort show.

Before there was Everything I Know About Love (the memoir and its adaptation for BBC and Peacock), Alderton’s novel Ghosts, or her advice column for the Sunday Times (which spawned her upcoming book, Dear Dolly), there were hundreds of Post-it notes scattered across the writer’s apartment. When Alderton sat down to talk about the perspective that comes from finally entering your 30s, she shared that the most wonderful and exciting bits all emerged from doing something mundane, like decorating her apartment with neon-colored squares adorned with her thoughts. Alderton then told me about fictionalizing her real life to make her TV show more interesting; talked about how one of the show’s stars, Bel Powley, very closely resembles her childhood best friend, Farley; and, of course, gave some much-needed (for me, anyway) life advice.

You wrote so honestly and accurately about navigating your 20s as a millennial. Gen-Z people are entering their 20s now, so I’d like to know what advice do you have for us about the decade that lies ahead? And how do we maintain perspective about it?

I was so much more certain with the advice that I gave in my 20s while I was still in the middle of them. Whenever I read Everything I Know About Love, I’m so in awe of the young woman who seems so certain on the lessons of life and how you should live your life. I feel much less sure about that now. What I definitely know is there is no right way to live your 20s.

If you spend all of your twenties traveling and kicking about on people’s sofas, taking every narcotic under the sun, backpacking, staying in hostels and really having a wild and nomadic time, you will accrue, I imagine, incredible memories, but you might get behind on your career. And equally, if you are hugely career-focused in your 20s, you might get to your 30s and realize you missed out on a lot of fun. You might spend all of your 20s being single and dating as much as possible, and then get to your 30s and feel kind of sad that you didn’t have the experience of growing up with someone. You might also end up with your college boyfriend or girlfriend, and then look back on your 30s and think, Oh, I should have slept with a bunch of people.

I wish someone had said to me when I was entering my 20s that basically, you’re not gonna be able to win at everything in this decade, whatever you choose to do. Consequences are an unavoidable part of life.

There are a lot of questions around career aspirations in the show and in the book. How does someone figure out what the right career path is for them?

This is a really simple piece of advice that I wish someone had told me: Everything takes longer than you think it’s going to take. If you’ve decided you are going to be a CEO by the time you are 35, you’ll probably be a CEO by the time you’re 45. If you decide that you want to go freelance by the time you are 28, you’ll probably be freelance at 32. Things taking longer than you thought they were going to take does not mean that they’re not going to happen. There’s not any sort of failure on your part. Don’t set yourself age expectations, I suppose, is what I’m trying to say, because so much of it is out of your control. That would’ve brought me a bit more comfort.

When I turned 20, I was so excited to have a whole decade ahead of me, but now that I’ve graduated college and I’m starting my career, I feel like I have a million decisions to make. 

This will sound very cheesy, but everything enormous that you want in life, everything that is magical and the stuff of dreams and will take your breath away and go, “Oh my God, I cannot believe I got here,” all of that starts with something really boring and laborious and probably not very well paid. The day that my book was published, I was 29. I’d started that book when I was 25, and I’d saved to take a month off work as unpaid leave. In that month, I had to be very frugal with how I was living. I was living on my own by the time the book came out, but my former housemates said, I cannot believe all of this began with Post-its on the carpet in our shitty apartment.

There is no fast-track way to get to any enormous ambition. If you are starting at the beginning of a dream and actualizing something, and it feels boring and relentless, and not worth your time, then that’s a good sign you should keep doing it.

You write a lot about friend conflicts and breakups. What have you learned about going through friend breakups? And what would you tell someone going through one right now?

There are huge moments that test your friendship and put distance between even the strongest friendships. The first test probably is what happens after school, whether you choose to go to college or not, or if you have a brand-new identity after high school. That’s the first page of about 300 pages of tests for the rest of your life, like when one friend falls in love and gets into a serious relationship for the first time, and what happens when everyone starts having babies. This doesn’t mean the end of a friendship. These are the unavoidable stages of life that test whether you can come back to each other.

I write in the book, I think that we should all let every close friend abandon us once in our lives for babies or a job or a boy or whatever — and the good ones always come back, so be forgiving and be patient. Some friendships are not meant to last forever. But they’re not a failure, and you don’t have to erase them from your past if they only last a few years or even a decade.

My parents are in their 70s, and when you hang out with people that age, they will tell stories about people they knew or couples they were friends with, or families that we grew up with who were so important to them for such a long time. And then I’ll say, “How are they now?” And they’ll go, “I dunno, I haven’t spoken to them in 15 years.” Life is long. There are some friendships that will last for forever and some won’t. And that doesn’t mean that they can’t be really enriching things.

You have the memoir, a novel, and an advice column, and you adapted your book for television. How do you approach these different styles of writing?

I love doing lots of different types of writing. I see my brain as little rooms, and a different room is lit up every time with a disco ball every time I’m doing a different thing. Each of them have challenges and each of them have easy bits.

The bit that’s really fun about screenwriting is you do it with a hundred people, a co-writer, script editor, producers, director, music supervisor. It’s misleading to call myself a showrunner or screenwriter, because I just think of it as a chorus of creative people. When you’re writing a novel, which I’m doing now, you really are a cavewoman, like growing a beard, not showering, not going out to the pub. You are alone with this pretend world of people for months and months and months on end. When you are writing a script, you are just speaking all day to your collaborators to get the script as brilliant as possible.

How did your relationship to Everything I Know About Love change when you adapted it for TV?

My feelings change about the memoir much more than they do with my novel. That first book was based on my real life. I’m less objective to it than I am with any other piece of writing. I can now look at it in a dispassionate way with a healthy distance because when I was adapting it for the screen, it was more important to make a compelling TV show that’s full of comedy and drama and lovable characters and good dialogue and memorable scenes. I had to cut a lot from the book and I added fiction too, which meant it felt less of a piece of my own life, this sacred part of my own history, and it felt more like the jumping-off point to a much bigger project.

What did it feel like to have an actress, Emma Appleton, play Maggie, who is a version of you? And Bel Powley portraying your real childhood friend, Farley?

Maggie is a heightened, fictional version of me. There are things that we have in common, and there are things that Emma Appleton and I have in common, like we both have googly eyes. We both dance like wet pieces of spaghetti moving around. We both overdress. She was portraying someone that maybe once, many years ago, if you squint your eyes, might have been based on me.

I haven’t said this yet in interviews, but is definitely true: All my friends noticed is that Bel Powley — by total coincidence — is so similar to Farley. It is bizarre, and they didn’t meet until the night of the premiere, so I don’t know what wizardry was going on there, but Bel Powley somehow knew exactly what the mannerisms of the real-life girl were.

Photo: Matt Squire/Peacock/Universal International Studios Limited

The show depicts the advent of dating apps, and this summer marks ten years since Tinder was created. In honor of that anniversary, how has your relationship to the app has changed over time?

Well, I’m not on the apps. I haven’t been for a while. My relationship to the apps has been in flux depending on the loser I’m dating at the time. On a micro level, when I was on them, I was not having the best time overall. On the macro level, I think that dating apps can be pretty rubbish for women who want to have children, who are single in their 30s, who are looking for someone to be serious with. I think men have a much better time on apps at that point in life, which is obviously not fair or fun.

There are lots of positives. I found it very difficult to meet people when I first got to London. I felt like I was constantly going to bars and looking for cool parties, and hanging out on any street corner where there might be single people congregating. I’d grown up watching Sex and the City, so I thought that I would be in an art gallery and a man would come up to me and ask to take me for martinis somewhere. Dating apps were really fun and exciting and freeing for me. When I first joined them, I was 25 and it felt like I had this city of people just living in my handbag. Every Thursday night could feel like a great adventure where you don’t know where you could end up. Loads and loads of people have met their partner, the father of their children, the mother of their children, their spouse, on these apps, and how can anyone be down on that? Like anything that ushers more love and connection into the world, I think it is a beautiful thing.

As an astrology lover, I noticed there’s a lot of astrology in this show. 


So do you know your sun, moon, and rising signs? And why do you think women in their 20s are obsessed with their Zodiac signs? 

Yeah. Virgo sun, Gemini rising, Taurus moon. What’s yours?

I’m a Sagittarius sun and a Capricorn moon and rising.

Oh, really? That’s interesting. Capricorns are so fucking stubborn.

Okay, so you are into astrology

One of my best friends is a Capricorn and she was my writing partner for a while. She would not back down on things. Capricorns are also gorgeous. All signs are gorgeous, other than Gemini men. I think it’s a really interesting thing, this move toward astrology. I remember with my mother growing up, there was definitely a curiosity. There was a sense of, “Oh, this is like a fun whimsical way to spend five minutes. We’re gonna look at the back of the newspaper and just read out everyone’s signs.” Whereas it feels pathological for my generation. And I imagine for your generation as well.

Everything Dolly Alderton Knows About Life