If we were to play a game of word association, and I said, "Candace Bushnell," you'd likely think of Sex and the City; or more specifically, you'd think of Carrie Bradshaw, the love-seeking, fashionplate heroine of SATC, long considered Bushnell's alter-ego.
Bushnell would tell you that in the early days -- before Carrie Bradshaw made Manolo Blahnik a household name -- she never would have imagined all of this: the iconic six-season television series, a movie based on her work.
But that was then, and this is now. These days, Bushnell has become a cultural empire: her fourth novel, One Fifth Avenue, will be released next week, and she's just signed a deal to pen The Carrie Diaries, a two-book young adult series about Carrie Bradshaw's teenage years.
If stellar success has gone to her head, she does a good job of hiding it. When I meet with her to discuss these projects, at a private arts club in New York City called Norwood, Bushnell is a mensch, not a diva. She is punctual to the minute. Carrie Bradshaw was last seen swathed in Vivienne Westwood; Bushnell arrives in jeans, flipflops, and glasses. No cosmopolitan or champagne is ordered; rather, she asks for a hamburger and a coke. A real coke, mind you, not a diet coke.
And here is the biggest surprise. While many of Bushnell's characters spend their lives in pursuit of men and their money, Bushnell herself is dead-serious about encouraging women to make their own money.
Then again, she's not giving advice that she hasn't followed herself.
Below, Candace Bushnell talks about the economics of marriage, what Sarah Palin has taught us, and whether Carrie and Mr. Big will find happiness in wedlock.
Lesley Blume: Tell us about your new book.
Candace Bushnell: [One Fifth Avenue] is a snapshot of New York just before this financial crisis. It's literally a snapshot of a month ago, two months ago. I suppose in my next book, maybe it should start with a banker who's lost his job and people are downscaling.
LMMB: Your works often showcase worlds defined by material consumption. Are people going to have less appetite for this, given today's economic climate?
CB: Historically that doesn't seem to be true. Everyone says that in harder times people seem to want slightly escapist entertainment. Maybe people will stay home more and read books.
In the financial world - they're always coming up with pyramid schemes, these instruments to make money. And it's not real money. It's disturbing. But it's not new. If you read Vanity Fair with Becky Sharp, people were always overextending themselves and having the creditors come to the house and take away the furniture. We've been living above and outside our means for hundreds and hundreds of years. But, you know, it's all cyclical. It just all seems to happen so quickly now.
LMMB: A character in One Fifth Avenue says: "New York never changes. The characters are different, but the play remains the same." Do you ever get tired of the world you document? And how do you re-invent the wheel, so the 'play' still feels fresh each time you write about it?
CB: I don't weary of New York. It is always interesting and full of characters. New York is a city where people are ambitious. They want things. That's really the stuff of drama. You need characters who want things. They want love, they want recognition, they want happiness. You can't get away from the fact that there are people here who are very wealthy and people who have nothing. So you see it all. I'm not condoning it; I just think it's interesting. I'm just recording it. Some of the satire in the book is about the materialism and the dangers of that, and the emptiness as well.
LMMB: What did you think about Sex and the City the movie?
CB: Loved it.
LMMB: Would you have changed anything about it?
CB: No. Women really had a good time with that movie, and I think it's fantastic.
LMMB: I was particularly fascinated by the depiction of Miranda in the movie. The character had become incredibly brittle, frustrated, and even volatile as she struggled to balance her career, her marriage, and motherhood. In your eyes, is it possible for a woman today to have it all?
CB: Well, first of all, I hate that question, because I don't even know what it means. What does it mean specifically: is it possible to be married, have children, and have a high powered career? Absolutely. And women do it all the time. And they just get on with it.
The key to life is your attitude. Whether you're single or married or have kids or don't have kids, it's how you look at your life, what you make it of it. It's about making the best of your life wherever you are in life.
The women I know who have children and have careers, they seem to be very happy. They love their children and they love their jobs. But happiness comes out of being willing to do your work in your twenties to find out who you are, what you love. There are lots of studies out there about women who leave their work and it turns out that they didn't like their jobs. We need to encourage young women to find what they love to do. That is a very valuable pursuit -- more so than the pursuit of a boyfriend. When you have that core, you bring that core to every aspect of your life.
So I think that having it all is about being open and willing to experience of full range of human emotions. Having it all is about being willing to take chances, being willing to fail, and having courage to set your own path. For some women that is staying home with their kids and that's fantastic. For other women, it's doing both, and for other women it's having their career. One thing doesn't work for everybody.
Also, this whole idea that you can pick and chose is an idea that has been sold to women. The reality is most women don't have a choice. Most women have to work. I think seventy or eighty percent of married women with children work. We need to get over this big idea that there's a choice out there. You only have the choice not to work if you marry a man who's wealthy. We don't live in those economic times. Most people need two incomes.
And I think it's very, very important for women to have their own income. The reality about being economically dependent on someone else usually doesn't work out for women in the end. It's about being an adult and being responsible for your life. Most women have to work, so let's just get on with it.
LMMB: You've often said that the idea for Sex and the City began with a question: 'Can a woman go out there and have sex like man?' Have you answered your own question yet?
CB: Well, I actually think the question was 'why are there so many great single women in their 30s and no men to marry them?' That was really the question. That was a reality in the 1990s. Women were flooding the workforce and having careers, and then all of the sudden, there was a phenomenon of a group of women who had delayed marriage or couldn't find partners, and found themselves still single in their thirties. And now we live in a time when 51% of women are single.
LMMB: Is that a bad thing?
CB: I don't think so. A hundred years ago, a woman couldn't even have a passport, because she only had an identity in terms of her husband. Of course there were single women, but they were spinsters. Or a woman who stayed home and took care of her parents. It was very difficult for a woman to live her living without being married. And now, because women can earn a living, they can survive being single. Everything is about economics.
LMMB: Several years ago, you told Naomi Wolf that "this is [still] a world in which women feel at a disadvantage." Do you still believe this?
CB: I think there's a lot of sexism. Have you been reading any of the reviews of a book called Guyland? [Author Michael Kimmel] studied young white male college boys, and there's a huge amount of sexism and homophobia. We are doing something in our society now where we are training young boys and men who are very sexist. They see women as second-class citizens; they have the idea that the worst thing you can be is a woman or have feminine qualities. This is the atmosphere that we live in today. On the other side, women are doing better than we ever have. There are more female than male college graduates. More women graduating from medical school.
LMMB: Are women at a disadvantage politically? Did Hillary help advancement, or Sarah Palin?
CB: I was disturbed by what I read about Hillary before she lost the nomination. There were editorials about, 'yes, we want a woman, but she has to be the right woman.' The standards that we are trying to impose on someone who's just a person are enormous. I think we have to let go of the idea that we have to have a woman who's perfect to every woman. She just has to be good at what she does. When we talk about male politicians, we don't hold them to mystical standards of perfection.
I certainly do not agree with Sarah Palin's politics, but at the same time, as an American citizen, she is entitled to her beliefs, just as all women are entitled to their beliefs. We don't all have to agree. One of the things that's interesting about these campaigns is that - guess what - women are as different from each other as men. We allow for all different kinds of male types. We need to allow for all different kinds of female types as well.
LMMB: You're about to write a series of young adult books called The Carrie Diaries, documenting Carrie Bradshaw's teenage years. During the reign of Sex and the City, a generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings defined themselves by the brand of sexual liberation promoted in the book and TV series. What will The Carrie Diaries say to the next generation of women?
CB: Have the courage to be independent. Have the courage to develop a personality and be an independent thinker. And in terms of audience, I think for me, the goal is just to write the best book that I can write.
LMMB: Will you modify the messages of Sex and the City for this audience? Rumor has it that you were surprised by the amount of sex depicted in Gossip Girl and its ilk.
CB: There was a lot of sex. I was surprised. But I had a guest on my radio show, a sex counselor for teenage girls, and she said that teenage girls are very savvy and knowledgeable about sex. And it's a little bit disturbing because she's found that a lot of teenage girls perform oral sex, so that boys will like them. This goes back to the question of what kinds of values are we putting out there to young women? We should be telling them that self esteem comes from accomplishment.
LMMB: In Sex and the City the movie, Carrie gets a perfect happy ending reminiscent of the Eisenhower era: a marriage to her beloved Mr. Big. Yet another Eisenhower-era-portraying series, Mad Men, portrays the Day After The Wedding, a window into marriages laced with misery and deception. What do you think of films and books that market marriage as the key to ultimate happiness?
CB: First of all, most people do want to have relationships. It's human nature. The wedding industry is huge. I love the movie ending where Carrie got married in a little suit and kept it really simple.
I think that Carrie and Big became such an iconic couple that people wanted to see them together. Have you ever seen Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet marries? Everyone loves that. Same with Carrie and Mr. Big.
LMMB: Will they be happy together?
CB: I don't know. I'm not privy to that information.
LMMB: How do you like being married?
CB: I love being married. I got married when I was 43. My husband and I just have a good time. We always have a laugh. And that's what it's about, really.
This is an edited transcript of a conversation between Candace Bushnell and Lesley M. M. Blume.