Exciting Times ahead: Naoise Dolan on her renowned debut

Naoise Dolan talks relationships, LGBTQ+ representation, class distinctions and Marxism.

“Sometimes I love you and sometimes I think it would be best if a plane flew into your office and you were on the plane or in your building”. While this isn’t a message any of us would like to be receiving from our significant other, or perhaps see inscribed on Valentine’s Day card, this is how Ava, the protagonist of Exciting Times, feels about a certain banker in her life. And while this statement may be rash and graphic, my guess is that a fine number of us can completely relate.

The highly-acclaimed debut novel tells the story of a young Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) teacher in Hong Kong who finds herself in a peculiar love triangle with two conflicting individuals: Julian, a rich banker, and Edith, an elegant lawyer. Dolan is an expert in conveying people’s innermost thoughts, from the dark and deep to the blunt and absurd. She’s an explorer of both the individual mind and the mindset of society as a whole; always quick to spot and underline the perplexing attributes of the world around us and the people within it. The novel amplifies the fact that relationships can be sticky and distorted. And why? Because people are sticky and distorted.

“I’d rather show people in all their hairiness.”

The Exciting Times author was once a Trinity student like the rest of us, studying English before going on to obtain a master’s in Victorian Literature from Oxford. Dolan is best known for Exciting Times, which came out earlier this year and is to be made into a television series in the United States by Black Bear Pictures. The author, similar to Ava, is from Dublin and went to Hong Kong for a year after she’d graduated from Trinity to teach TEFL. Despite this resemblance, Dolan consciously distanced herself from the protagonist which helped her portray her character more honestly. “If I were writing a novel about myself I’d inevitably be trying to make myself look good, and I don’t think that makes interesting fiction,” she says. “I’d rather show people in all their hairiness.”

Unlike her protagonist, the Irish author spent a large portion of her childhood in Hong Kong. When speaking about why she chose this particular setting, she explains how she initially chose Hong Kong as the setting as it was where she lived at the time and so it was tangible to her, yet the setting ended up having an important role in the story. “The first few pages of what I’m writing tends to have huge implications for the rest,” she remarks. “I do think the year turned out to be very important, because the story is very much set in 2016-2017 Hong Kong at the time I wrote it, a few years after the Umbrella Movement and before the current pro-democracy movement.” She discusses how the setting serves to highlight Ava’s indifference: “I think the setting illustrates how blinkered she is about the lives of everyone around her. There are points in the novel where even Julian knows more than Ava about Hong Kong, and I included that material with the intention of showing her self-absorption and the limitations of her own perspective.” Dolan mentions that it would be impossible “for people to exist in as insular a white ex-pat bubble as Ava and Julian’s anymore in 2020 Hong Kong. The sheer level of police brutality would force them to take more of an interest in the political situation now.”

Ava’s ignorance may be linked to her tendency to predominantly live within her own mind. She undoubtedly manifests a sense of insecurity, constantly underlining her faults in character throughout the novel. Dolan and I talked about how this is a common trait in young Irish women. “I think everyone self-criticises to some extent, but the way society treats them will interact voice and shape their relationship to it,” she explains. “But there’s definitely an internal assumption of fault that I think draws philosophically on Catholicism and that’s been misused to shape Irish misogyny.” However, she goes on to say that self-deprecation is an integral aspect of Irish humour: “I also think, though, that non-Irish people miss our dark humour,” she remarks, “to them an internal narrative like Ava’s might seem bleak or self- flagellating where it was intended as at least partly comical”. Ava smoothly articulates this sense of self-loathing, giving it an almost humorous effect. After all, as Dolan clarifies, “Ripping the piss out of ourselves is a source of humour as much as anything else”.

“If Ava were sat in front of me, I’d tell her just to just do whatever makes her happy and join a union.”

This insecurity may also fester due to the expectations put on women in relation to feminism. The protagonist certainly doesn’t correlate with the archetypical “good feminist”; she sleeps with a richer older man who lets her stay in his apartment for free and often buys her things. It’s not very often we see female characters like Ava as protagonists, as they usually feature as the antagonists or as the ‘other woman’. Speaking on the topic of feminism, Dolan concluded that the ideologies surrounding “correct” feminism are quite parochial: “That microscopic ‘Am I personally a good feminist?’ level of focus often comes from commentators who think society is basically fine except that there aren’t enough female billionaires, so I think Ava is right to be flippant about it in the novel.” She believes that any “politics that obsess over how you’re perceived as an individual is blinkered … If Ava were sat in front of me, I’d tell her just to just do whatever makes her happy and join a union”.

Looking at Ava and Julian’s relationship from the outside, one could be led to believe that they have a typical ‘gold digger and sugar daddy’ kind of relationship. However, once you observe how the pair interact, it becomes clear that their relationship is far more complicated. It’s impossible to detect who has the upper hand in their relationship; the two are constantly battling for it. To that effect, Dolan discusses how all human relationships contain some kind of power dynamic, but that it’s important to distinguish between power dynamics and power disparities. “A power dynamic is just how power interacts,” she says, “and I think the moment any two people invest in each other, they must be giving each other power of some sort”. The Irish author feels that some power disparities are perfectly normal and healthy: “We all have people we admire more than they admire us. There would be an immense power disparity at play if I met Lorde but I don’t suppose it would hurt me.” While of course power disparities can be quite harmful, Dolan tries to “remain curious about the relationships [she’s] writing rather than deciding from the outset what they are or aren’t”. The author addresses the ambiguous nature of the characters in her novel and their inability to be defined as either good or bad. “People often think I wanted Julian to be a villain or Edith to be a saint,” she remarks, “they’re entitled to their own reading of course, but personally I dislike moralism and try to avoid it”.

The complexity of the characters is likely the source of the complicated relationships that form between them. I ask Dolan if the relationships in the novel mirror the unstable nature of modern relationships: “I do think that lifelong heterosexual monogamy has come to seem inaccessible or undesirable to more people, but I don’t know how much genuine comfort that idea ever offered anyone,” she states. She discusses how relationships have been precarious for a lot of people in the past, but especially for gay people: “In Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, set in the 1980s,” when the author was around the age of the characters, “there’s a lot of self-protection and inability to fully commit that doesn’t feel hugely different to how young people write about relationships in 2020”.

“I think about what I want to see more of and create it, rather than complaining about whatever’s currently available.”

While discussing the representation of LGBT people in Irish literature, she observes that “several of the most famous living Irish writers are cis gays, but trans writers still don’t receive the same opportunities or recognition”. She underlines the “certain squeamishness” surrounding how young LGBTQ+ women are depicted in literature: “We’re hardly ever shown having sex with each other in fiction, so it was important to me to include that in the novel.” When it comes to representation, Dolan explains that she likes to think about it positively as opposed to highlighting the negative: ‘I think about what I want to see more of and create it, rather than complaining about whatever’s currently available,” she remarks. She goes on to say, however, that “no fictional character will ever represent anyone’s full humanity, let alone an entire community’s, and the expectation that they could is essentialising to begin with.”

Exciting Times could be considered in many ways a social commentary, but the difficulties that LGBTQ+ women are faced with are not the only social issues dealt with in the novel. Throughout the novel, Ava is perpetually noting the differences that exist between English and Irish people. The main difference is in how one speaks, with “Irish-English”, as Ava puts it, containing a lot more colloquial phrases. This, along with the subliminal awareness of British colonialism, has led to an association between “Britishness” and the upper class. When I ask Dolan about this subtle, fabricated class distinction between the British and the Irish, she affirms that while the US is a more dominant power at present, “legacies of Anglo-hegemony remain”. She comments on how Irish accents that are perceived as posh mimic Anglicised speech to a certain extent. “Upper-class Irish accents have become their own thing in recent decades,” she remarks, “but it’s telling that they draw on received pronunciation and general American English; the way to sound posher is to sound less Irish”. 

The protagonist Ava is also quick to comment on the issues surrounding capitalism and doesn’t shy away from voicing her opinion around the people in her life, like Julian, who benefit from this dominant economic system. Dolan herself is anti-capitalist in her commitments, but believes that “while transnational identity solidarity matters, struggle is locally based first and foremost; you can’t just be a brain in a jar, you have to connect with however your community is organising, and that will vary from place to place”. The Irish author doesn’t necessarily see Marxism as a “pious code of conduct”, but more as something that is based solely on personal beliefs and principles: “It’s a set of theories about the world that will hopefully inform your actions if you subscribe to them, but it’s not about personal purity.”

 “Cultural reception isn’t something that I can or should have much influence over; I believe very much in the death of the author.”

Looking to the future for Ava and the other characters, Dolan expressed her excitement to see her novel brought to the screen. “It’s still early days, but it’s a really fun prospect,” she says, “I think a lot of the characterisation happens in the dialogue so I’m interested in how that might be brought to life.” Reflecting on the recognition her debut has received and her comparison to Sally Rooney, she explains: “I try not to have strong feelings about recognition or which traditions I’m situated in, because I don’t see it as being with my remit to shape or weigh in on things.” Dolan believes that interpretations of literature shouldn’t always involve the author or overly focus on the author as an individual: “Cultural reception isn’t something that I can or should have much influence over; I believe very much in the death of the author.”

Her debut is getting a lot of recognition, and for good reason. Through writing this book, Dolan has given us the brutally honest story we’ve all been craving: if anyone can turn reality into something incredibly addictive, it’s Dolan; the quick-wit and razor-sharp commentary is simply splendid, so good in fact that, who knows, maybe even Lorde might be impressed.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is published in Trade Paperback  by W&N, €13.99.