We recently had the chance to talk with Candace Bushnell, a critically acclaimed, international bestselling novelist. She is best known for Sex and the City, her first book, which was the foundation for the super-hit TV series of the same name that aired on HBO. Her other books include Four Blondes, Trading Up, One Fifth Avenue, Lipstick Jungle, The Carrie Diaries, Summer and the City and her newest release, Killing Monica. Today, we’re excited to share a bit of Candace Bushnell with you!
IN THE BEGINNING
For those of us who formed our opinions of New York City through Sex and the City, Manhattan was a metropolis crawling with the hottest restaurants, most lively clubs and, of course, Carrie Bradshaw’s brownstone. For Candace Bushnell, this wasn’t always the case. When she moved to New York at the age of 19, the city was technically broke. It was a dangerous and, often, scary place, characterized by drug-fueled indulgence. Nightlife (think Studio 54) ruled the town, and the streets were littered with illicit activities … prostitution, drug dealers, junkies. But it was also, and perhaps more importantly, characterized by excitement, creativity and intelligence. Bushnell remembers it as the most fun and free place. Everything was over the top, and no one had any money, but it was the time when her creativity was taking off, and she was not alone. Before New York became the gentrified city it is today, the likes of Cynthia Rowley, The Talking Heads and the cast of “Saturday Night Live” were getting their start in tiny apartments.
“The biggest misconception about me and New York City is that there is instant success,” explains Bushnell, “and that is not true. There is a lot of competition, and you have to pay your dues one way or another.” So, although she moved there with nothing and knew no one, she was quick to learn the tricks of survival, and 18 years later, Sex and the City, a culmination of 15 years of work, hit the stands.
FROM SEX TO SUCCESS
Chronicling the excitement, youth, relationships and energy of women in the city, Bushnell’s first book was wildly popular. Sex and the City, the novel, was adapted into a TV series, and following that, two blockbuster movies. HBO introduced us to Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte and Mr. Big, and for six years, we were enthralled with their lives. The show was influential and quickly rose to cultural prominence—enticing women to move to New York and embrace single life as single ladies. While Sex and the City, both book and movie, pull threads of truth from Bushnell’s experiences, there are even more threads of fiction. What did seem authentic to Bushnell? “To me, the romantic relationship with Mr. Big might not play out in real life, but the female friendships feel very real. You kind of make your own family with your female friends. I love women. They are so interesting and fascinating, and I have just had so many adventures with my girlfriends,” she explains. “I love in Killing Monica when Pandy and SondraBeth get together. They are so bad! I have had those friendships, too.” Given the option, Bushnell would choose a girls’ night over a date night. “It is just really fun. I think women can be more interesting than men.”
THE ROLE OF IDENTITY
Through Bushnell’s eight novels and her column in The New York Observer, we have been hit with one common thread: the role of identity. Bushnell acts as a voice for the individual. When asked about the biggest risk she has ever taken, she responds with this: “Oh God, so many risks. Or maybe none at all. The biggest risk that one always takes is in being yourself. In just saying, ‘This is me.’ I think that is true for all of us. We all know how to shave the rough edges of our personalities down in order to fit in. You can get used to agreeing with other people’s opinions and not thinking for yourself and not challenging the status quo. To me, it can be very uncomfortable to be there, but there are times you have to be.”
Killing Monica, released this month, speaks to the role of individuality and identity. The story’s lead character is Pandy “PJ” Wallis, and the plot follows her trials and tribulations with relationships, fame, love and parties. She’s crafted a handful of novels centering around a girl named Monica, who has life experiences not dissimilar to Pandy’s. The books become a movie, and with the success of this character, Pandy is left to discover her own identity. When Pandy is faced with the unraveling of her friendship with SondraBeth (who plays Monica on the big screen), a messy divorce, the failure of her new book and a loss of direction, she takes matters into her own hands and decides it’s time to kill Monica.
Bushnell has received criticism for the way she approached the end of the book. Is she addressing political and social issues to make a statement? To give shock value? Nope, not according to her. She is merely telling a story–crafting an alternate world. And within this story, the character development just “felt very natural.” As good writers always do, Bushnell develops the characters and takes the reader on a journey to see how they evolve and transform. Through 200+ pages (which Bushnell spent about two-and-a-half years writing), she leads readers to understand who the characters are, despite society’s expectations. “I love this idea of a character who had transformed and wanted to just be. You can present yourself however you want, and I will accept it,” she explains. “I think people are entitled to tell whatever stories they want to tell; they are entitled to reveal whatever information they want to reveal. That is up to the individual. The individual deserves respect.”
No, Monica is not Carrie Bradshaw. During our time together, I didn’t even give Bushnell the chance to deny this rumor because for me, it was not a question worth asking. I wanted to know more … the deeper facets of her work, and she indulged me. Bushnell describes the craft of writing as a construction of a world; worlds she creates as an author are so much less about personal experience than about creating something authentic. “Experiences filter into it, but also what you haven’t experienced. You draw on different imaginative facts and inhabit the minds of characters. Always asking the ‘what if?’” Read for yourself, and see how she brings the characters to life and the reader back to the topic of identity. It is a quick and enjoyable read, perfect for a beach vacation.
Bushnell often wakes at 6 a.m., starts writing and just keeps going until she makes herself stop, describing herself as very disciplined. In Killing Monica, Pandy draws inspiration from her ancestor, Lady Wallis, but Bushnell draws inspiration for her writing from within. “You have to find the inspiration inside yourself,” she explains. “It does not get easier. But it is my life; it is my number one thing. If you get backed up against a wall, you just have to break through.”
Bushnell spends more time in Connecticut these days, close to her father and sister, but she’ll soon begin splitting her time evenly between Connecticut and New York City. She enjoys a simple life in which she can really live in the moment. “What do you miss most about the city when you are in Connecticut?” I asked. “Nothing,” she said firmly. “I do not miss anything about New York when I am in Connecticut. And ask me what I miss about Connecticut when I am in New York, and I will say ‘nothing.'”
When she is not writing, Bushnell loves to cook, read classics (favorite authors include Edith Wharton, Joan Didion, Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oats and Jane Green) and sip white wine with ice (not pink champagne like PandaBeth or cosmos like Carrie Bradshaw). Her favorite meal? Chicken wings, tater tots and Brussels sprouts. She’s a big vegetable eater and makes a decadent shrimp and garlic pasta. While she loves to entertain, she doesn’t get to as much as she’d like, but she still surrounds herself with people who exude kindness, and she admires those who express genuine empathy. “There is something so satisfying in seeing genuine human communication,” she says.
Now, at age 56, Bushnell has a different perspective than she did when she was writing Sex and the City. “My friends are my age, and we are going to bed at 10, not going out at 10.” While she is not spending her nights at Studio 54, she continues to advocate for the single woman, believing gentlemen, even Southern gentleman, do exist: “I like manners; they are very charming. I love the idea of a Southern gentleman, as long as he is a gentleman through and through. The authentic Southern gentleman.”
When you do land a gentleman, consider taking her dating advice: “Do not go into a relationship thinking you can change your partner. And listen. Men usually tell you what they want. There is a tendency to put the fantasy before the person—to think you can change him into your ideal man—and that is probably not going to happen; men are what they are.”
Even through monumental moments of success—and smaller, less career-defining failures—Bushnell does not identify any singular defining moments. “In New York, you are just busy trying to get someplace. Literally, you are trying to get uptown or downtown,” she laughs. Everything has just been a continuation of her life, an organic procession of events, and that is why we are thrilled to see what comes next for Candace Bushnell.
On Tuesday, June 30, Candace Bushnell will be at the Nashville Public Library in downtown Nashville for a discussion and signing of Killing Monica hosted by Parnassus Books. This is a free ticketed event with a limited number of auditorium tickets available. Visit [email protected] to buy tickets and to learn more.