Shall We Dance? by Maggie Alderson

by |October 28, 2010

Loulou Landers, London’s undisputed Queen of Vintage Fashion, meets a man on the eve of her dreaded forty-ninth birthday.  He’s kind, he’s sensitive, he’s divinely handsome and he carries a designer suit like George Clooney.  Unfortunately, he’s barely half her age, and Loulou’s just not ready to ‘go cougar’.

Then there is Loulou’s 21-year-old daughter, Theo, who won’t get a job, won’t move out, wears chainstore fashion, and hasn’t said a civil word to her mother for years.  And she is on the verge of her own spectacularly unsuitable affair.

So how will Loulou cope with a daughter who’s off the rails, a man who won’t take no for an answer, an ageing process that won’t slow down – not to mention a birthday party in a camping ground?  Like she always has – with wit, grit and an exemplary sense of style.

From the Penguin Website – Carol George: An Interview with Maggie Alderson, author of Shall We Dance?

Tell us a bit about your new book, Shall We Dance?

Set in London, in Primrose Hill where I used to live, it’s about a baby-boomer mother and generation ‘Z’ daughter, who don’t get on. And it’s about love, all different kinds of love.

Significance of the title, Shall We Dance?

I find titles difficult, ended up having a title ‘committee’ with this one. I often come up with a title I’m happy with but quite often I’m the only one in the world that understands it.

This one worked because dancing is a theme of the book and of course, dancing is a metaphor for love. And the play on words, shall we dance . . . shall we get it on?

It’s also the title of a track by Malcolm McLaren who died recently and he was important in my life.

When was that?

I was a punk rocker from 1976 when it all began and I used to go to ‘Seditionaries’ to buy clothes that he and Vivienne Westwood were selling. I’ve still got some of them. And he was a friend of my ex-husband and I had enormous respect for him.

In your new book, you capture the conflict between the mother, LouLou and the daughter Theo, brilliantly – firsthand experience or observation?

I had a pretty good relationship with my mother. It’s more observed than experienced in this case.

My own daughter’s only 8 so and because I’m terrified of my relationship with her becoming troubled – we’re so close at the moment – I was trying to imagine what i would be like. I do sometimes get the horrors: What will it be like when she’s 15 and tells me she hates me? I think I was slightly working that through in advance to try to strengthen myself to go through it.

Also remembering that confusing time when you still totally loved and secretly hero-worshipped your mother but you have to kick against her in order to leave her.

I have to say there were moments when Theo seemed so spoiled, I wanted to slap her?

Yes (laughing) but at the same time she was very deprived given she didn’t have a Dad around. Or a male figure or step-father she could look up to. So she was spoiled in some ways and deprived in others. I hope she’s angry rather than spoiled. Her mother indulged her outbursts too much, definitely.

Was your father around when you were growing up?

My father was very much around when I was growing up. We ate every meal sitting at a table as a family and I still think that is the bedrock of civilisation. He was a little emotionally distant because of his public school education (he boarded from the age of seven . . . ), the war and his generation, but he was very much there.

Fashion has played a big role in your life, personally and professionally and it plays a big role in Shall We Dance?

Yes, I just can’t help myself.

Loulou runs a vintage fashion shop and you write so beautifully about the clothes she sells – what about vintage fashion do you love so much?

I’ve always loved it since I was a little girl because we had an amazing dressing up box. I used to spend most of my time playing with it. Always had a very strong feeling for the touch, the texture of old fabric. My grandmother was a high-end dressmaker and we had this dresser in the hall upstairs that was full of her stuff – bolts of old fabric and drawers full of trimmings, button boxes and patterns. So I grew up steeped in old clothes. On a rainy afternoon I would get all the patterns out and look at them and try to put them in order.

So it’s absolutely in my own warp and weft. And I started buying vintage clothes very, very young. At jumble sales at 11 I was already buying 1920s kid opera gloves . . . so it was an appreciation of beautiful old clothes was just born in me and then instilled by being in a house full of it.

Your favourite piece of vintage fashion now?

An amazing 1920s wedding dress in white crushed velvet. An old velvet opera cloak in a sort of rhubarb colour. I’ve an amazing fake leopard skin coat, fabulous, like something Christine Keeler would have worn but I never have a good time in it. I’ve got this primrose yellow marabou hat from the early 60s I got recently for a wedding and it’s so insane, I had the best time at the wedding and everybody loved it.

Milestone birthdays – and the dread of them – are pivotal to the plot?

I can remember being in apoplexy of anxiety turning 30. Seemed like an absolute tragedy at the time. The ‘0’ birthdays are a big deal. But I’ve always said the ‘9’ is much worse. I remember being 39 and it was just horrendous, you just know that 40 is coming, the clock is ticking. And everybody thinks you’re lying about your age, that you’re really 42.

Have you mellowed?

No. Some of my friends have had 50th and 60th birthday parties and I say ‘you absolutely have to be joking!’ There is NO way . . .

Age difference is another theme central to your book – do you think it really matters?

In nearly all my books I have people of very different ages, which reflects my life. One of my very best friends is nearly 80, another is 23. I’ve always loved having friends of different ages, it’s so enriching for everybody. In friendship I think it’s incredibly positive.

In romantic relationships I do know people who make it work with someone much older or younger, but for me, I’ve found it better to have a relationship with someone nearer my age. My first husband was 10 years older than me. When I was 23 and he was 33, that was fine but when I was 33 and he was 43 it began to be a problem.

Do you think people still generally disapprove of an older woman with a younger man but wouldn’t think twice about an older man with a younger woman?

Definitely it’s still a taboo. It’s getting better and we do all have to thank Vivienne Westwood and Demi Moore and all those trailblazers for that. It’s becoming less of an issue because one of the things that’s inspired me to write about that subject is that I have become friends (just friends, I am very happily married) over the past five years with several men who are now in their mid 20s. They are different, that generation is different. They have a completely different relationship with women because they were brought up by powerful, working feminist mothers and they are totally cool about strong women. And they respect women and they like women.  They are comfortable with women in a different way. I could understand that guys like them could totally have a relationship with an older woman. And there’s nothing creepy, no ‘mummy issue’ about it at all.

It really is changing and in 20 years time the taboo will be gone.

A very personal question . . . have you ever, outside of marriage, enjoyed a fling with a much younger guy?

Before I was married, yes. And it was a very, very wonderful and positive experience and I’m still friends with the guy. Definitely just friends. It was great, between my first marriage ending and meeting my husband I was single for three years. That younger man, he was what got me through it, got me over it. It was one of the most positive experiences of my life. He was 12 years younger than me.

Theo’s opinion mattered to Loulou – she knew she wouldn’t like the idea of her being with a younger guy – in general, do you think having a family approve of the man you love is important?

Yes, certainly. But also, he was her best friend’s brother. If he was a random guy I don’t think Loulou would have felt anywhere near so inhibited.

Your novel also explores the idea of friendship between heterosexual men and heterosexual woman?

I’m interested in whether there’s always underlying sexual attraction. Whether that matters. I have got straight male friends but over the years there have been complications. One guy I was really good friends with, we were both in relationships when we met and then we left those relationships and we had a near fling. We didn’t do the deed. The friendship hasn’t been the same. It was such a shame. I so regret it. Because I really, really love that guy.

Your book also explores the idea that a quiet, long term love can be richer and more meaningful than a dramatic, falling head over heels kind of love?

I said to a good friend the other day, don’t confuse passion with love. Some people put less value on the romantic relationship that doesn’t involve passion ie. angst. Like it’s less of a love. It’s a much greater love in my opinion. A steady, sure, reliable love based on respect and kindness is the greatest kind. But partly through our culture, we’ve confused angst and passion and have elevated that to be the highest form of romantic love – it’s a waste of time.

There’s been very little angst in my marriage.

What kind of advice will you be giving your daughter about getting mixed up with older, married men?

DON’T DO IT! I never ever have. I don’t know why but from a very young age I could just see that that was a complete road to nowhere. I have never ever understood a woman who would want a man who would do that! Why would you? You know he’s a love rat! I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my love life but that is one I am proud to say I’ve never made. I just would not want a man who would be unfaithful.

This is your . . . .sixth book? Are they getting any easier to write?

Yes and no. My life changed so much having a family. So the first one I just wrote from seven in the morning till eleven at night wearing my nightie and eating toast and drinking tea. Sometimes I didn’t leave the house for several days. Whereas now I have to have the dinner ready. So it was harder in that way. Towards the end of writing this one I changed my working pattern after reading Stephen King’s book on writing which is so interesting. And his working day inspired me to change mine, to write a certain number of words a day. I was staying in my office 9-5 and wouldn’t allow myself to leave before then and it was making me a bit insane. I was on my own too much.

So many people have recommended that book on writing . . .

I HATE his novels, but that book on writing was life changing for me. Like me, he doesn’t know the plot when he starts. He says if I don’t know the ending, the reader won’t know the ending. Until I read that I thought it was my guilty secret.

So if I remember rightly you had your daughter fairly late in life?


So it must have brought a lot of joy but been a bit of a shock as well?

Oh massively, yes. The joy does outweigh the shock but I’m much more limited about travelling and my husband doesn’t cook. He does many other things, unload the dishwasher for one. So I have to make the dinner. Toast won’t do for a growing girl. And things such as help her with her homework. But it has put me in touch with a new generation.

On your blog you give a lot of book recommendations?

That was another Stephen King inspired ‘thing.’ He’s evangelical about reading and he made me realise that I wasn’t reading enough. When he finishes writing his 2000 words a day, he reads. I thought by doing that blog it would make me read consciously again. And he keeps a list of every book that he reads. Thought if I a blog I will have the list and it will make me read and think about what I’m going to read next.

Your star sign?


Describe yourself in three words?

Obsessed with people. I’m fascinated by what makes people the way they are.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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