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More than 20 years have passed since journalist Candace Bushnell achieved worldwide recognition with Sex and the City, a collection of essays about sex and dating that were originally written for the New York Observer. In the meantime, the adaptation of Sex and the City into a hit HBO series swept the cultural landscape and endeared audiences to the central characters, led by Sarah Jessica Parker’s iconic curly blonde sex columnist, Carrie Bradshaw, and the best friends who join her in strategizing ways to conquer the New York social scene.
Ahead of Bushnell’s latest offering, Is There Still Sex in the City?, set to appear on bookshelves Aug. 6, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the author about imagining a new set of characters who are embarking on dating adventures and grappling with life changes during middle age (Bushnell originally wanted to name the book Middle Aged Madness, she tells THR). The author spoke candidly about throwing herself into this novel — she is literally on the front cover and the main character is named Candace Bushnell — as well as the lack of portrayals of older women’s sexuality onscreen, the forthcoming TV adaptation of the new book and living in the “heyday of #MeToo behavior.”
Given that the central Sex and the City characters remain so important for fans of the series and your previous books, why did you choose to focus on a whole different cast of players this time around?
For me personally, those characters have gone through so many different iterations if you think of the TV series and the movies — many people have different ideas about the characters, and I think it would be impossible, too complicated. For me, being Candace Bushnell and what I do, [there is an] impulse to write about this passage in women’s lives that seems to be a real phase and one that I wasn’t expecting. You kind of think that life is going to go in one direction, and then it gets really fuzzy. I found myself in my mid-50s and living a life that I didn’t expect. I think I didn’t expect it emotionally. At the beginning when I got divorced I didn’t know anybody else who was divorced, and my only single friends were like me: single and without children. So, we really made a bond that we were going to look after each other. You go through a certain point, and then realize, wow, you don’t even fit into the algorithm. And you’re kind of erased in a lot of different ways. That’s true for men and women. It could be another 20 years of your life where you’re going to work and not going to retire, and you have to live your life with the same drive, except that you have to reinvent yourself. “Why am I here?” The answers to that are always: your children and your career. In your mid-50s, those things can slip away.
This book is more personal to you, as you’ve described the shake-up of your life after divorce and other big changes. What’s your process in interpreting real emotions and assigning them to fictional characters and situations?
I really look for patterns; something that happens repeatedly. For instance, the cubbing: that happened again and again and it was curious, because it was something my friends and I were not expecting, that young guys would find you attractive. And then there’s the fictional part where you have to put yourself in the heads of the different characters. It’s fiction, but I feel like I’m trying to do it from an anthropological kind of view. The characters could be any women. I didn’t want them to be too specific because I feel like these same kinds of emotional situations happen to everybody. Though not everybody is so fortunate.
There is a character in the book actually named Candace Bushnell. How did you go about interpreting yourself, and is that you on the front cover?
Yes, it is, and people have said to me, ‘Why did you put somebody younger on the cover?’ And I’m like, ‘It is me, and it’s me three years ago.’ It was taken by a young 20-something photographer who knew all about lighting and how to blow it out. I’m published with Grove Atlantic, and they liked the art. [Regarding the character,] I feel like it’s first-person autofiction and I wasn’t necessarily naming myself, so I feel like that first-person character could have a different name. In fact, in the TV series, that main character will be named … pick a name out of a hat. Anything else. That would make sense, because in a TV show there’s naturally more distance between the person who’s writing it and what the audience is seeing.
Speaking of the forthcoming TV adaptation, was the series difficult to initiate given that shows about women in their 50s are sparse, or are you finding that interest in the “shake-up” of middle age is actually in demand?
It’s a growing demographic; this is the original Sex and the City woman who was in her 30s in the ’90s or early 2000s and probably did get married and have kids and the career success, and then, boom, something happens and something changes. These are women who are used to being out in the world. They have had careers and attempted to have it all. And maybe have succeeded, and now they’re finding themselves in a society that’s like, “Hey, we are not interested in you anymore.” These are women who are used to saying, “We don’t care what you think. We’re going to go out and change things.” It’s a demographic that is growing, literally, because people are living longer and healthier lives. On the other side of this are women who are starting businesses, and they’re kind of saying “Fuck it” and they’re doing what they always wanted to do even though they didn’t have permission to believe in that aspect of themselves. Now they’re saying, “I don’t need permission, there’s no permission.” It’s also a group of women who have grown up with a lot of shame and a lot of shaming, so there’s also a desire to be free of that. It’s now or never. We are sick of all that nonsense.
I know you’ve written the pilot and will executive produce. How involved do you like to be when your work is adapted?
It really depends. On Lipstick Jungle, I feel like I was very involved at the beginning. It’s not easy to get stuff up on network TV. You’re living for it, you’re praying for the light to turn green. It’s really stressful, but it’s also exciting and a real challenge. On The Carrie Diaries, I wasn’t very involved in that, and that was with Amy Harris, who worked on Sex and the City, and she had great ideas about what she wanted to do with it. I loved it and thought it was the cutest show. While I wasn’t very involved, they had a great time and it was adorable and they had a rhythm and a vision for it. This new show is something that I have more of a vision for, so I’m going to be more involved.
What are your thoughts on the way that the sexuality of older women is portrayed — or not portrayed, as is often the case — in our culture?
It’s really not portrayed. I’m probably going to make a generalization, like, it’s harder for older women to find sex, but I think if you’re a sexual person and you’re comfortable with your sexuality, you’ll be able to figure that out. But I do think that’s not portrayed at all. We’ve got to look at Hollywood: [Where are the] women over 40?
How has your experience of the dating scene in New York City changed since you became the go-to author for content that exposes the real complexities of dating?
One of the things that’s maybe changed is that there are so many places where people share their stories, and everybody’s stories are interesting. I think it’s great because when it comes to sex, everybody’s different. So, I don’t think any one person can tell all the stories.
Do you have anything to add about Sarah Jessica Parker’s #MeToo comments from early July where she said that the movement opened her eyes to the way she had been treated by men in the industry in the past?
I have plenty of #MeToo comments… I mean, I wrote Sex and the City. I was in New York in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. It was the heyday of #MeToo behavior. It’s too much to go into, but when friends and I who have been journalists, as well as other women in other businesses, see some of these on TV, it brings back a lot of memories. These kinds of encounters were rampant, to the point where E. Jean Carroll [says she was assaulted by Donald Trump before he was president] — did that really just happen, and what was that? To me, what’s interesting is Sex and the City was really written in that time. 4 Blondes and Trading Up go much further in getting at that kind of male behavior. And when I talk to other journalists, everybody’s got stories as long as Manhattan. I’m exaggerating, but it happened a lot.
You looked into rumors about Jeffrey Epstein in 1994 for the New York Observer. Do you have any comments about the current situation with his allegations?
I did, and it brings me back to the same realty: there was a rogues’ gallery of men who there were shady rumors [about], and he was one of those guys. It wasn’t really that dramatic, but I went to his apartment when a mutual friend got me invited to a cocktail party at his house. It was in a townhouse that felt very bland to me and hotel-ish. I didn’t see anything going on, and he might have been there for two seconds and then he disappeared. I was trying to get something [material] so I went into the kitchen — I never heard that he raped anybody, but there had been something about models and a private plane, that he had parties on the plane, nobody was exactly sure where he got his money, there were all kinds of rumors — so I started talking to someone to try and find out where he kept his private plane because I had nothing. I was getting information, and then the door flies in and a bodyguard-type [person] walks in asking why I want to know about the plane. I left, and the next day I got a call from my friend and he was like, “Oh my god, they found out you were a reporter, you were asking questions” and then I got a phone call from someone on his team saying, “This is his lawyer, there’s nothing to investigate. Don’t investigate him. Don’t look into his activities. Don’t go up to him at parties. Don’t ask questions about him.” They probably called my editor as well, and I then I was like, “You know, I’d like to live… ” It takes a particular kind of reporter to do that kind of story, and it’s just not me.
You mentioned in other media coverage that you have several novels that may never get published because they’re too “out there.” What kind of writing from you are we missing out on?
There are times when I just like to write stuff that is not commercial. One of the things I wrote, I called it The Two Misses Stones — I didn’t ever finish it, [but] I got this idea because of Joyce Carol Oates. She wrote a book called Blonde, about Marilyn Monroe. It’s the most amazing book — I don’t know how she channeled Marilyn the way she did. I think I got bucked off my horse, and was in the hospital, and this book was something that I read when I had to read — so I picked it up and got hooked on it. And then I had the idea to do a book about Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, so I just really tried to get into the heads of two different actresses. I got obsessed with the idea of being that famous, because I always wonder what that would be like. It must be really freaky. That book about Monroe is so freaky, because of what they have to endure. I always find that topic fascinating.
Is there a novel by a female author — beside yourself — that you feel says something different about the experience of a woman today?
I really like Jennifer Weiner’s novel Mrs. Everything, and I love that she didn’t gloss it over. She really told the truth about the kinds of experiences that women had in this country. I think it’s shocking to find how repressive women’s experiences were. In Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, when she talks about her great-grandmother who was bought against her will and shipped over to be the wife of a man who was abusive and had sex with her daughter — as horrible as that sounds, these stories are very common. It’s important to understand that aspect and how powerless women were and the real dangers of allowing ourselves to be powerless. That sounds so serious, sorry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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