By David Hennessy
With her credentials as a television presenter and a journalist already firmly cemented, Dawn O’Porter will establish herself just as impressively as a fiction writer with the release of her debut novel, Paper Aeroplanes on May 2.
Dawn is familiar from her presenting of BBC documentaries such as Super Slim Me, Undercover Princes as well as the Dawn.. series that took a look at attitudes to attitudes to nudity, lesbianism, dating and pregnancy. She has also appeared on Channel 4’s How to Look Good Naked, Channel 5’s Seriously Dirty Dancing and fronted My Breasts Could Kill Me for Sky, which explored breast cancer. While she published Diaries of an Internet Lover, a journal of her experiences of meeting people online, in 2006, Paper Aeroplanes sees her enter the world of fiction writing at a very high level with several reviewers commenting on her ability that belies the fact it is her first novel.
Last year, Dawn married the Roscommon actor and creator of Moone Boy, Chris O’Dowd. Like her husband’s Moone Boy, Paper Aeroplanes takes us back to its writer’s youth. Set in Guernsey and the mid 1990s, Paper Aeroplanes is loosely based on Dawn’s own childhood and it tells the story of two teenage girls as they experience the ups and downs of teenage life in a small community. Renée is ambitious and outgoing while Flo is introverted and studious. While nobody would put the girls together, least of all themselves, they realise they come from similarly chaotic home lives and form a strong bond. Renée has lost her mother and now lives with her grandparents while Flo’s father has walked out. Both girls shoulder too much responsibility at a young age for parenting their younger siblings.
Dawn succeeds in capturing the confusion, excitement and chaos of a fifteen year old’s life and writes from a teenager’s perspective so well. She told The Irish World what helped in her preparation was having old diaries of her own to look back through: “I had diaries from that year which was amazing, literally that year of being 15, but I did think when I started writing it, it was going to be a lot more biographical than it ended up being. I thought I was going to literally lift bits from my diary but my diary just reminded me of how it felt to be 15 rather than being what the book was about.
“I’d say probably after working on it for two weeks, it was like this switch flicked in my head and it just turned into two very new people. I thought it was going to be really me and it actually wasn’t, it just turned into total fiction which was an amazing moment because when you start writing a fictional version of your own life, it gets really complicated because you don’t want to let yourself down or expose too much about yourself, so as soon as you’ve made that switch into being completely fictional, it’s amazing: You can just write whatever you want.”
What was it like for Dawn, at 34, to rediscover her 15 year old self in such a way? “You just can’t believe it’s you that wrote it. That’s the main thing when you look over your diaries, you remember the people and remember the scenarios but you realise how innocent the teenage mind is even though at the time, you don’t think you’re innocent at all: How every boy that you kiss is the one because you’ve got nothing to compare it to and you think ‘I’m only going to feel like this once in my life time’ and then six months later (you’re in love again). When you look back, you’re like: ‘God, I remember genuinely really feeling like I knew it all and I read these back and I realise I hadn’t a clue about anything’, and it was quite amazing. It’s quite nice when you’re grown up to look back on that and you see the journey that you’ve been on through your life and how much you’ve changed and grown.”
A regret Dawn has now is ceasing to keep a diary at the age of 16 but finds modern, technological life keeps a diary for you: “I just regret it so much. It’s all kind of logged these days anyway: Life. Sometimes I go right back to the beginning of my gmail that I started five years ago or whatever it was. It’s quite interesting reading emails that you’ve sent: The life that you were living, the people you were seeing, the friends that you had, who you were working with and it’s nice to look back at yourself a bit. Some people don’t like it, I quite like it.”
Can we assume there are parts of Dawn in both her books main characters? “Massively, Renée’s family set up is very much like mine. I gave her the same experience of losing her mum, I lived with my grandparents but only until I was ten. Obviously she lived with her grandparents until she was 15. Nana and Pop are kind of similar to what mine were like so I could kind of take my own experience and project to what it would have been like if I had been still living with them as a teenager. Flo is kind of all of my insecurities and Renée is all of my confidence, I think that is probably the best way to explain it.”
Paper Aeroplanes will definitely transport you back to your schooldays and a day before mobile phones, facebook and Twitter as hard as that is to believe now: “I can’t imagine being a teenager now with the pressure of what people say about you online. Back in the day a teenager would have had a couple of best friends and now they’ve got 200 friends on facebook and I just can’t imagine the pressure of that and how also, communication is so much different.
“You couldn’t just send someone a text if you wanted to get something across, you had to call them or actually meet them. You had notes in school but that could only get you so far so you had to really communicate with people properly and I think even as adults now we don’t do that now. I argue with Chris on text and by the time we’ve finished texting, we’ve resolved the argument. I’m like: ‘God, we didn’t even have a conversation’. People just communicate so differently now and actually it’s just nice to go back where you really had to think about other people’s feelings and deal with them a lot better.”
Speaking of Chris, Dawn had great support from her husband at every step of the way: “He was writing Moone Boy at the same time so he was in the dining room and I was in the bedroom and we would just meet for lunch in the living room. It’s nice because he’s away a lot but when he’s home, it just kind of works because he’s working as well and we just really appreciate what we’re going through. Sometimes it is the best job in the world but it can be really hard and when ideas aren’t coming, it’s really frightening, you just think: ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this’ and it’s really amazing living with someone who just totally understands that. I can’t imagine being with someone who didn’t understand what that feeling is like and he’s just so clever. If I’m really struggling with an idea: ‘Renée’s got a problem with this, it’s not making sense, I don’t know how to get it across’, Chris will just go: ‘What about..? What about..? What about..?’ and he will just clear my head and it’s really helpful to have somebody in the house that you can just talk the problems out with.”
For the full interview, see the April 27 edition of The Irish World