Interview with Candace Bushnell

Posted by Goodreads on July 7, 2015
Candace Bushnell An emblem for working women of the '90s, Sex and the City spoke to all who strove to balance their careers, love lives, and being fabulous. Originally a collection of essays published in The New York Observer by journalist Candace Bushnell, the concept became an award-winning TV series and a duo of movies. Along the way, actress Sarah Jessica Parker and her character, Carrie Bradshaw, became household names, and Carrie's originator became a legend. Bushnell was spotted at glamorous parties, married a New York City Ballet dancer, and continued to write hits about the plight of urban women in Lipstick Jungle, Trading Up, Four Blondes, One Fifth Avenue, and her young adult series, The Carrie Diaries, which follows a young Carrie Bradshaw through high school as she meets her future best friends: Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte.

Today Bushnell (now divorced) writes from her country house in Connecticut and has a new book out that is a bit of a departure from her previous novels. Killing Monica chronicles a writer who is tired of her larger-than-creation, Monica, the subject of a successful TV series. Desperate to have her latest book be taken seriously by the literary community and not be about Monica, the protagonist finds herself in various sticky situations with her gambler husband, her always-loyal agent, Henry, and her ex-best friend, the actress who plays Monica. Despite the easy assumption that the book may have roots in the author's own relationship with Sex and the City, Bushnell insists otherwise. She chats with Goodreads about how women are labeled, what she wishes she had done differently when she was in her twenties, and which part of her books she rewrites the most.


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Goodreads: Why did you decide to write this book, and why now?

Candace Bushnell: Sometimes these books are demanding to be written. Killing Monica always had a ton of energy around it. I put a lot of energy into it, and it demanded a lot of energy. These characters wanted to be born: PJ Wallis, Henry, and Sondra Beth Schnowzer. Sometimes when I was writing this book, I would feel like I was wrestling an alligator. It took me on so many twists and turns, and it became very surreal. I've done a little bit of screenplay writing; this is the kind of plot that one tries to achieve in screenwriting—the madcap '40s, the black-and-white screwball comedy. If you watch those movies, you'll see that the female protagonists are really strong. The women always have speeches. That is something we never see today—almost never in movies and not in books. A woman gets up and gives a speech in Killing Monica. I really wanted to give the women speeches and write a comic novel.

GR: Did you watch a lot of '40s movies as research?

CB: I have a pretty big reservoir of all different kinds of cultural touchstones that I like to turn over. It might be 1940s movies, classic novels. Killing Monica has a slightly surreal feel to it, a direction that I will probably take more in my writing, a little more surreal, a little more futuristic. It's much more experimental. I feel like I take a lot more risks in Killing Monica. Writing farce is not something that we see, especially not from women, especially not female novelists. It's a little bit uncomfortable if you don't get the humor. But farce has always been a part of classic literature. Think about Molière!

GR: Goodreads member Ashley asks, "Did you take a lot of inspiration from your success with Sex and the City for your protagonist? Are there any parallels between her and yourself?"

CB: There are a lot of people trying to circle around this Sex and the City idea. It's not about my relationship with Sex and the City. My relationship with Sex and the City: It's wonderful, there is no drama. I love them all; they are fabulous. I love every single person. I've done three TV shows, and I've had a lot of actresses working on my projects. Everyone is a professional.


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The reality is that this idea of having a novelist be the character and the premise came from Philip Roth's Zuckerman Unbound, where he writes about a novelist who has written this book and everyone hates him, and an old woman attacks him on the bus. That was really inspiring.

I feel like my life is so simple that I think I made Pandy [the protagonist] exaggerated. She is way more successful, and she goes out way more than I do. Everything is a bit exaggerated for comic effect. But I think it's really important to have books about successful women. I talked about this a lot in Lipstick Jungle. I think it's still a little bit of an uncomfortable idea: a woman who is truly equal in power to a man or perhaps has more power because she is more successful and has more control of her life. But as we move into the future, it's a place that more and more women have to be. Women have to take their place at the table, and we should encourage the women who are brave enough to sit at the table, and brave enough to speak, to do so.

GR: So much of Killing Monica is about someone who wants to be taken seriously as a writer. This character is also smart and funny and pretty. Do you think it's difficult for a woman to be taken seriously, especially one who is attractive?

CB: We put labels on people, but we seem to put a lot of labels on women—or maybe too few labels on women! You can be the smart one or the pretty one. In the book it's such a male's world: Society is always making these "either-or" rules for women. If you really look at it, it's only men who are truly allowed to have everything. Women, although we say they can have everything, most of the time we ask the question, the answer we get back is no. Mother, married, career...can you get happily married, mother, career? These things are entrenched in our thinking.

GR: The novel is also very much about someone moving on with their life after a major success. Did you find the success of Sex and the City challenging in any ways?

CB: Sex and the City, for me, it was a huge success the day I'd got the column, when I was 34. I had been paying my dues for 15 years. As a writer it was my big break. The rest happened very, very slowly. There was a lot of interest in Hollywood, and then people were chasing me in the Hamptons. At that time, nobody was thinking about turning books into TV shows. And honestly, everyone I knew in publishing thought it was like a joke. Nobody took it seriously, and then over time Darren Star wrote the pilot and we shot the pilot. We never knew from season to season if it was going to be picked up. After three years, it was everywhere, and everyone knew about it. For me it didn't cause a big change in my life. I still get up every day to go to my writing.

On the other hand, my father had a huge success when he was 32: He was one of the people who has the patent for the fuel cell in the Apollo space rocket. I grew up in an environment where these things were talked about. My father felt it was really important to make a contribution to mankind. Most kids grew up with parents who want them to go to an Ivy League school. My father wanted me to change the world, because my father had changed the world, and so there was a lot of discussion in our family about success and how it might alter you.

I got the message from him that one should always strive for the big success, but it's your work ethic and it's your continuing on that is much more important than any outside approval. Your strength comes from the inside, and the answers to your questions will be found through applying the "old gray cells," as Poirot would say.

The pressures of success, such as one single success, can really psychologically throw someone off. That's really normal. Once you get used to public approval, it also can be a trap. I truly know that I have to do me, and I have to follow my instincts; however, what comes out on the outside doesn't matter. You have to be true to yourself.

GR: Goodreads member Lulu asks what are some things that keep you motivated to write?

CB: It's who I am. I knew I would be a novelist since I was eight. For me it's the driving force in my life. I feel very lucky to have such a strong sense of self and purpose. And I would encourage all women to find a sense of self and strength and purpose that is about your self-actualization, instead of doing everything in relation to other people. I think it's a desire for mastery, and it's a desire to challenge myself and a desire to excel.


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GR: Many of your books have been adapted to TV shows: Sex and the City, Lipstick Jungle, The Carrie Diaries. Killing Monica also displays a deep knowledge of the entertainment industry. What is it about that world that you find compelling?

CB: I find a lot things compelling about it. I find the business aspects of it interesting. I find the byzantine politics of it interesting. Because people believe there is a lot of money to be made in that business, it attracts a lot of different types of people. Interestingly, where the true money is to be made, like in banking—those are very closed businesses—like private clubs. The billionaires decide which multimillionaires they will anoint to become the next billionaires. It's a very closed world.

The movie and TV industries are much more open and accessible. There is entry for people who are talented and determined. It's one of the places that still exists where you can be a regular person and have this great talent and become successful and make money. It's like a dream.


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GR: Carrie in The Carrie Diaries gets into all sorts of scrapes with boys. What advice would you like to give young women?

CB: I always answer young women who ask me, "What do you wish you had done different in your twenties?" with "I wish I had told myself to not worry so much about boys."

Men can really, really mess with women's minds in a way that is not good. One of the things we never talk about is the subtle verbal disrespect that so many women experience in relationships. Men act like boys on kind of a regular basis. There is a tendency to call guys on it, and the result is that they say, "Fuck you" and leave. There is reluctance for young women to call them on their shit.

It's also confusing when you are young because nobody ever says, if you buy into the whole man thing, it can be bad for you. The idea that you need a boyfriend, that you need to be with a guy, that you need a man's approval.

GR: Goodreads member David Harris would like to know if you have any future plans for The Carrie Diaries, and Suzanne is "dying to know if/when the last book in The Carrie Diaries series will be published."

CB: I don't think so. I might...I have two more YA books with publisher Harper Collins. Actually, when I'm finished with my book tour for Killing Monica, I'm starting another YA book for Harper Collins about a girl whose mom is a reality-TV star, and her father is maybe a rock star. It's very funny. I always wonder about these kids. You see the kids sometimes whose mothers are on these shows. For some reason she's going to Ibiza. She's on a private plane with all these kids, they are kind of miserable, but it's funny. And then something really bad happens.

GR: Goodreads member Nicole asks, "How is your writing process? Do you begin with the story line or with a character? Do you have an ending in mind while writing, or do you see where the story goes and come up with an ending for it when it comes to it?"

CB: I come up with an idea or premise. I usually will just start writing, and it's a little bit excruciating. When I was younger, one of the things I learned is that anyone can write 50 pages of a novel, but not that many people can write 150. The 50-page mark says you have a great idea and a great style, but if you don't have your plot and your premise, you'll run out of steam.

I'll just write and look at it. Usually I start with one character and just put them in a scene. I really work with the idea of a time, place, and scene: What it looks like, where the character is, why are they there, and what are the political and economic circumstances swirling around outside them that influence their behavior. I'll start writing, and then I will throw it all out, then I'll think about it again. I put a lot of stuff on paper. It's easier to work with something on the page versus something in your brain. I always call it "laying down tracks." For me, when I'm first writing a book, I'll say I'm just laying down tracks, none of this is going to stick, and I'll see how it all fits together.

The hardest part is getting through one full first draft, which always takes a real amount of discipline, and you have to kick yourself in the butt. Then I keep going back to the beginning, and usually if there is something wrong with the end, the problem is in the beginning. You have to go back to the beginning and tinker, tinker, tinker and refine many times.


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The beginning of the book has probably been rewritten about 1,000 times, and the end of the book has probably been rewritten 100 times. I usually use the five-act structure, which Edith Wharton uses. That's very good for a book of 125,000 to 150,000 words. If you are going to write something under 100,000 words, the three-act structure probably works.

GR: What books have influenced you as a writer and a person?

CB: Evelyn Waugh. I first read him when I was 12. When I was a kid, we didn't have a movie theater; we had the public library. My mother, after she graduated from Mount Holyoke, was a librarian. That's where she met my father. A big favorite family outing was to go to the library. And I loved it. I loved the smell of the library carpet! It was like going to the movies for other people—C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl. I was very enamored by English writers. The life that they depicted was so glamorous. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was go to boarding school. I said to my parents, "Please send me to boarding school!" They were like, "What is wrong with you?"

My mother would see what I was reading, and she would say, "Try this, you'll like this." I remember reading Evelyn Waugh and having chills. I really used to think, If I could be Evelyn Waugh, I would be the happiest person on earth. That had a big effect on me. In the '70s, it was also Kurt Vonnegut and Catch-22. The adults were talking about [it], so all we wanted was to read it.


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GR: What are you reading now?

CB: I recently read Outline by Rachel Cusk. I think she's a fabulous writer. A book I really want to read again, which I have not read in eight years, is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. It's really in the genre of Vanity Fair and Madame Bovary. He's a German writer, and it's about a German family. It's so poignant and so odd, I could almost draw a line from the characters in Buddenbrooks and the people today. When I was on a book tour years ago, someone suggested it to me. It's amazing.


Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Great interview. I like your refreshing advice about women in their 20's and dating. It's something we all have to experience, I guess. It's neat you and your family used to do trips to the library and make it a big deal - certainy made some good memories I'm sure.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

If you actually read the book, it is ridiculous to say that it doesn't reflect CB's own experience, albeit in exaggeratedly negative form. Perhaps she didn't intend it that way, but please....this is disingenuous.
IMO there is a huge gap between what this novel actually is and what CB says in the interview. It is no Buddenbrooks, believe you me.


message 3: by Man (new)

Man Down There is no way to say if it's a good book


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