BEST known for Sex and the City, Candace Bushnell just wants you to know there was life before Carrie Bradshaw. And life after her too
Let’s get one thing clear. Candace Bushnell’s new book, Killing Monica, is a work of fiction. A novel. There has been no sneaky pilfering from real life. No masquerading of fact as fiction. Yes, there are themes as familiar as that crackle of static before the HBO logo flashes on to the screen announcing the start of yet another episode of Bushnell’s most famous creation, Sex and the City. But Killing Monica is no stealth autobiography.
No one is going to tell me what I can and cannot write”Candace Bushnell
Why the need for the disclaimer? Only because the plot revolves around a writer, Pandemonia (Pandy or PJ) Wallis, who is eclipsed by her fictional creation, the titular Monica, who starts off in a book and ends up on TV, and huge billboards, played by the spectacularly named actress SondraBeth Schnowzer. Noticing anything? Anything? Of course, it is utterly impossible not to think of the parallels between Bushnell and PJ, Monica and Carrie Bradshaw, and SondraBeth Schnowzer, the actress handpicked by Pandy to play her fictional creation, and Sarah Jessica Parker who will never not now be Carrie.
I’m not going to lie, there is a ripple of trepidation at the thought of asking Bushnell about these blurred lines, partly because I know she’s going to assure me that the book is fiction and there’s no feud between her and Sarah Jessica Parker, never was and never will be. And partly because when she says this, although I hope it will be with a laugh, it will also be in her New York drawl that sounds, no matter how quietly she speaks, as though it can’t emerge into being without veins ever so slightly popping. But there’s no avoiding it, so why? There is a pause, then a laugh. Finally, Bushnell says, “because honestly, I think that’s what a writer should do.” The idea came from Philip Roth’s novel, Zuckerberg Unbound, she says. Roth’s 1981 novel parallels the sudden rise to fame that Roth experienced after the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. “It’s a comic device,” she says. “Something unusual has happened to me that doesn’t happen to everyone, I wrote a character who went on to become Carrie Bradshaw. So, of course, one is going to see the parallels there. It’s inevitable, although I made the situation much bigger and more exaggerated for comic effect.”
In a way, it’s just like the good old days when things began for Bushnell. The column was called Sex and the City and it ran for two years, from 1994 to 1996, in the New York Observer. Half the fun was playing guess the person. Could that be the writer Bret Easton Ellis? Is that the millionaire publisher of Vogue, Ron Gallotti (the model for Mr Big)? It’s just that this time it’s about Bushnell and SJP as played by Pandy and SondraBeth.
Bushnell and Parker were never friends. They knew each other, of course. But writers and actors “move in different circles”. Still for Pandy and the woman who inhabits her creation, Bushnell wanted a close friendship with all its complexity.
“I loved the idea that SondraBeth and Pandy would watch the billboard of Monica going up for the first time and they’d be so excited. They’re like, ‘it’s you!’, ‘no, it’s you!, ‘no it’s both of us!’.” (OK, apart from the identity hoopla, is it just me or are you thinking of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte standing in a bus shelter on a Manhattan sidewalk, waiting for Carrie’s first bus advert to go past?) “The whole time I knew Sarah Jessica Parker she was married to Matthew Broderick,” Bushnell says, by way of an alibi. “She’s always been part of a couple and they’re really family oriented, so nothing like that ever happened.”
But it’s worth remembering that Bushnell has form for this kind of thing, although she might not approve of me mentioning it. Carrie and Candace were for a very long time, very easily confused. When the writer appeared at the Jaipur Literary Festival a few years ago, the hapless chair actually referred to the writer as ‘Carrie’. “Honestly,” says Bushnell, “a lot of the novel comes from my relationship with my sister. We were both really creative. I took writing and singing and she took art and music. We were really creative kids. We created this character called Marigold. We used to write about her. And we used to fight about who would get to play her.” She laughs. “Marigold was like Monica. Sometimes we’d kill her off – it was like, ‘OK, nobody is going to be Marigold’.”
The Bushnell girls wrote radio plays and short stories, acted and sang. Watching TV was not encouraged by their rocket scientist father. The girls were encouraged to develop their imaginations. “We spent all our time telling stories,” she says, “and we had names for different people and my sister would draw little cartoons of the kids in her class, caricatures. We had an active, creative, imaginative life.”
It makes me realise that Bushnell’s life of sharp observation began long before the newspaper column which became a book and then a TV series and then two (lamentable) movies. It’s been a lifelong preoccupation. “A lot of people think Sex and the City just suddenly appeared, but that’s not true,” she says. “When I was a teenager I wrote short stories. The truth of the matter is that I was writing the same kind of stuff then that I’m writing now. It was all about observation, crazy New York people – I was gobsmacked by how many crazy, fascinating characters there were in that city.”
Sex and the City was a continuation of what she’d seen in the 1980s. Women, like Bushnell, were flocking to NYC to find careers. For some it was about finding better jobs and better men than they’d find in their small towns and it meant that suddenly, all of the dating rules no longer applied. Bushnell was, she says, “always writing about the commitment crisis”. In Killing Monica the crises have moved on but they aren’t that different and the literary voice is absolutely, unmistakably Bushnell. Pushed to describe it, she plumps for, “absurdist, funny, hopefully a bit ironic”. The themes explored are what we know too: relations between men and women, sex, unfaithful men, divorce, the pressure to be in a couple.
Bushnell is 56. She got divorced a few years ago from Charles Askegard, a former principal dancer of New York Ballet. They’d been married for a little over a decade. She moved out of New York to live in Connecticut where she’s had a house since 1998 (not the Hamptons because “I couldn’t stand the traffic”). She still finds New York exciting, full of characters, always something happening. But likes where she’s at too. “I need to be able to hear my own voice,” she says. “That’s what taking a break from New York has really been about.”
Sex and the City may have become saccharine and soppy, but Bushnell has retained her acerbic wit and world-weariness. “I think marriage is great if it works,” she says. “But I think it’s probably a bad idea for women to put all of their eggs in the marriage basket. I just think it’s not practical.
“Of course there are times, I mean if you’ve got little kids, you have to. But in the long term it’s probably not a good idea to think in 30 years you’re going to be married.”
She laughs. “It’s a nice idea. But it doesn’t seem to happen that often. I don’t know, it’s maybe because I know so many people who are getting divorced after 15 or 20 years of marriage. It’s like, what?”
The questions Bushnell is asking about relationships aren’t that different to the ones that were typed out on Carrie Bradshaw’s laptop, always beginning with the phrase, ‘I couldn’t help but wonder…”. It’s about can being together really work out? What will we have to compromise? Can we still be ourselves with someone else? Will we be OK alone?
“I don’t have the answers,” she says. “All I know is that we have to move through life and wherever we are we have to make the best of it. It’s about being happy with what you have and not looking at what we don’t have. I think it was Iggy Azalea, or one of these little pop singers, who said she didn’t want to be defined by who she was dating, she is who she is. I think that’s great. That’s what I really want to say to women – be you. You’ve got to be you as an individual first.”
There have already been complaints that Killing Monica contains too much tub-thumping, too much criticism – or maybe it’s blame – of men. But Bushnell isn’t having any of it. “It makes me laugh,” she says. “The book is meant to be funny. Some people just don’t have a sense of humour. I think the thing that bothers me most is that I’m 56. I got divorced when I was 53. All that people keep asking me about is dating. It’s so odd. Why do we always have to be dating or in a relationship?
“I just don’t think the answer’s a man. I don’t. My father always said you can’t rely on other people for your happiness. I believe that. It’s just asking too much: make me happy. Sounds like a tall order.” She laughs, but the sound is closer to resignation than mirth.
As well as railing against her own creation, Pandy loathes the publishers who see her as a one trick pony. She wants to escape the shackles of Monica, but really she wants to be taken seriously as a writer. I wonder if Bushnell, who references Tolstoy, Thackeray and F Scott Fitzgerald as we speak, is perceived as she wants to be?
“Here’s the thing,” Bushnell says, “it’s a business. Putting aside the Monica part of it, publishing is a business and it always been. They want to know when the books will come out and what kind of book it is so they can sell it. So for writers who write a certain kind of book they always want that same book.”
She has always written what she’s wanted to, she says, except maybe for the Carrie Diaries, a prequel aimed squarely at the YA market. But she liked the absurdity of a writer who always has to write “Monica books”. There is a pause. “Now, of course, after this, I want to write another Monica book.” She laughs and gives me a potted plot outline. Honestly, I don’t know if she’s joking or not. What I do know is that there will be no softening, no toning things down.
“A woman with a sharp point of view has always been uncomfortable,” she says. “But it’s just not me to write softer characters. I want to make people think a bit, I want to challenge their assumptions and their point of view. Otherwise why be a writer? And do you know, at this age, sometimes when I read those scolding reviews, the ones that say ‘you shouldn’t have written that’, I just think, no one is going to tell me what I can and cannot write.”
She laughs but she’s not joking.
• Killing Monica is out now published by Little, Brown, priced £14.99