Candace Bushnell sits sideways, her legs over the arm of her chair, bouncing her feet and kicking at the air.
We are discussing her new novel, Killing Monica, about a writer who creates a beloved female character: a fortysomething paragon of proud singledom who looms large over Manhattan, her face on every billboard.
The beloved character is Monica, the star of four bestselling books that are optioned for a hit TV series. The writer, Pandy “PJ” Wallace, becomes best pals with the actress who plays Monica, SondraBeth Schnowzer, despite feeling overshadowed by her own creation and SondraBeth’s superstardom. Pandy wants to write something more “literary,” but her fans and publisher want more Monica. She’s also going through a nasty divorce with a two-timing, mercurial husband. As Monica and SondraBeth become more famous, Pandy vows to kill off the character that is both her success and a burdensome monstrosity, pigeon-holing her as a novelist.
Where oh where did Bushnell come up with that idea?
She has always mined familiar territory for her novels, but this time she says her inspiration was Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound. Indeed, she’s baffled that so many critics have assumed her latest novel is autobiographical.
One would think she’d expect this response, what with the very obvious parallels between Pandy and Bushnell (known as “Candy” to friends), who has never fully managed to shake off her alter-ego Carrie Bradshaw, the heroine of the original Sex and the City series that she created in her 30s.
“There are some parallels, but I just used my life as a jumping off point to write a comic novel,” she tells me. “It’s a farce. It’s not about my life.”
Nevermind that Bushnell, like Pandy, went through her own very public divorce in 2012 from ballet dancer Charles Askegard after nine years of marriage.
“There’s nothing in the book that happened to me,” she says definitively.
We are sitting in what appears to be the dining room in Bushnell’s Village apartment, which looks like it exists purely for occasions like this: interviews with journalists who want to meet Bushnell in person. They expect to walk into a gussied-up version of Carrie Bradshaw’s cozy home, only to find an empty apartment save for several tufted yellow couches in the living room and a round, black table in a small room off the kitchen. A rug is rolled up behind it. The walls and bookshelves are bare.
Bushnell, 56, looks like she just emerged from a siphoned-off bedroom or office, having typed away all morning. She wears a navy blue chiffon blouse with short, puffed sleeves over a white tank, and paisley-printed navy lounge pants. She is petite and raspy-voiced, with blond hair, blue eyes, and a hilariously expressive face.
“I’m a novelist. I know it’s so haaaaard to understand,” she drawls, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “but it’s more like being an actor or an artist or a musician than it is like being a journalist. Journalists write about ‘what is’ and novelists write about ‘what if.’ I knew when I was 8 that I was going to be a novelist.”
When I register surprise at this early self-realization, Bushnell is suddenly wide-eyed behind her tortoiseshell glasses, like a ruler-wielding schoolmarm.
“Why is that so shocking?” she shouts. “I’m always flummoxed! Why do I get this shit? It’s not like I was living on the Upper East Side and suddenly decided to write a novel,” she says, presumably referring to the many professional and amateur writers who do suddenly declare themselves novelists. “I’ve been writing fiction my whole life!”
“I’m a novelist. I know it’s so haaaaard to understand.”
She insists the only part of Killing Monica that really parallels her life is Pandy and her sister creating Monica when they were young girls.
“My sister and I invented this character called Marigold. We wrote about her and took turns playing her,” she says, putting on a whiny, obnoxious voice. “Marigold was like the perfect girlll. And sometimes she’d have to dieee and then sometimes she’d have to come back to life.”
She says Killing Monica is about reinvention.
“We all have a persona in our 20s and 30s that works for us. But when you get to be in your mid-40s, it just doesn’t work anymore. That’s where Monica is. And it’s something most people don’t talk about.”
Bushnell built a career on the hot-girl-about-town persona she developed in her 20s and 30s.
She moved to New York City from her home in suburban Connecticut when she was 19, dropping out of Rice University to try to make it as a young writer. She tried selling short stories, then went into journalism to make a buck, writing for women’s magazines like Self, where she was on staff (she recalls penning “a little piece about why microwaves are amazing”), and later, Vogue.
Bushnell was a fixture at Studio 54 in her 20s and wrote about the disco scene. She partied with and dated the well-heeled, including Vogue publisher Ron Galotti—supposedly the real-life Mr. Big—and Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, along with several prominent venture capitalists and hedge fund managers. You’d be hard pressed to find a photo of her on the arm of a freelance writer or starving artist. Who would finance her taste for the finer things?
She didn’t make livable money as a writer until she was in her mid-30s, when, between 1994 and 1996, she wrote her Sex and the City column for the Observer. It was such a hit that, after four columns, Bushnell got a book deal and a wildly popular spinoff TV series that ran from 1998 to 2004 and spawned two blockbuster films.
“What’s important to you in your 20s and 30s becomes less important in your 40s and 50s,” Bushnell continues, sounding like a self-help book for the first time. “You let go of the trappings of youth, whether it’s your lifestyle or keeping up with the Joneses. There’s more focus on you as an individual. I think for a lot of people it’s a deepening, mentally and spiritually and psychically. It’s about mastery.”
Bushnell has certainly mastered the art of writing bestsellers, including a number of non-Carrie books like Four Blondes (2001), Trading Up (2003), Lipstick Jungle (2005), and One Fifth Avenue (2008). Lipstick Jungle and The Carrie Diaries (2010), a young-adult prequel to Sex and the City, were both optioned for television series. And Hollywood producers are already knocking on her door for Monica.
“I think the book’s a riot, I think it’s hysterical!” Bushnell bellows. “We don’t often see this kind of farcical writing from women, and there are people who don’t like that kind of humor, but I’m going to write what I write.”
Apparently some aren’t fond of Pandy’s shrieking, shallow, pink champagne-guzzling girlfriends in Killing Monica.
“At the beginning people were like, ‘Oh, all of her friends are awful!’” she says, again in the whiny, annoying-girl voice.
“I don’t think they’re awful. I think they’re Real Housewives-types and they’re ballsy and they say outrageous things.”
The only character Bushnell intended to be unlikeable was bad-boy restaurateur Jonny Beluga, Pandy’s once-besotted lover turned unfaithful husband.
“These are pretty standard comic tropes. Maybe if I was Amy Schumer or something—I’m probably more like Amy Schumer in my mind than anyone else. Slapstick-y. Farcical. That’s the kind of humor that I love. And that’s in all of my books, though maybe not to this degree.”
While the humor in Killing Monica is meant to be madcap, it occasionally resembles the lowest of lowbrow slapstick in the Sex and the City films. (Bushnell, for the record, “loved” the movies and “would be very happy” if the rumors about a third SATC film were true.)
But there’s plenty of witty dialogue and hilarity in Killing Monica to keep readers entertained.
In keeping with the theme of reinvention, Bushnell, moonlighting as a musician, has written a theme song for Killing Monica. She mumbles something about having a “little garage band”—she’s “trying to write songs and get them to a professional level, which is impossible”—then scurries to the living room to retrieve her phone. “I’ve made a Killing Monica companion video!”
It’s a very rough cut and not the latest version, she warns, before pressing play: Several young women in “sexy” outfits dance around her sparse living room when Bushnell swoops in and darts around them in another pair of lounge pants, looking every bit the raving madwoman. I laugh and tell her it’s hilarious (she agrees).
Given how much the book champions strong-willed, hear-me-roar women, a companion music video made sense to Bushnell.
“Pop music seems to be one place where women are really allowed to talk about their empowerment without everyone getting all upset about it,” she explains.
Killing Monica features several rousing speeches about how women should never be beholden to men or The Man.
“I think women know that in theory, but it’s hard to be single,” Bushnell says. “Still I see more young pop stars saying they’ve had enough of this bullshit of everyone wanting to pair them off and telling them how to act.”
She’s less inspired by what she sees in Hollywood.
“I’ve sat in a lot of meetings where there’s this insistence on making female characters ‘likeable,’” she groans. “It’s not enough for women to be airbrushed on the outside, so let’s airbrush their personalities as well!”
I tell her a rumor I heard about Candace Bushnell, courtesy of my editor: She wrote this brilliant sex column, but in reality she wasn’t a very sexual person.
Bushnell throws her head back in silent hysterics before bowing her forehead to the table.
“That’s so funny!” she hisses, then bolts upright.
“I’ve had a looooot of great sex in my life, let me put it that way,” Bushnell reassures me, suddenly sounding like Carrie Bradshaw. “Thaaaaat you don’t have to worry about.”
She adds that she’s currently single and “isn’t going to get involved in a sexual relationship that I feel is inappropriate with someone who’s younger or—” She pauses to rephrase that thought, lest she be mistaken for a cougar or a shriveled-up prude. “I’m very careful about who I let into my life.”
Does she regret that she never had kids?
“Nah. Even when I was little I didn’t want them. I just knew I was going to be a novelist.”
She leans back in her chair, glancing up at the ceiling as though mulling the idea over again.
“Maybe your editor knows someone who’s had sex with me and they said it was bad!” she screams, slapping her cheeks in feigned horror. “If it was bad I’m soooorrryyyyy!”
Does she obsess about aging?
“My Botox is running out,” she sighs, frowning and crinkling her forehead to show where she needs a few touch-ups. She contorts her face and rolls her eyes in spot-on Lucille Ball schtick.
When Bushnell confesses she’s more worried about falling ill than she is about her looks, I mention the cliché that all great novelists are preoccupied with death.
“That’s because half the time you want to kill yourself,” she says with an eye roll.
Something else that’s come with age: Bushnell no longer smokes and drinks with reckless abandon, though she allows herself a cigarette “every now and then” and drinks a glass of wine or two with dinner.
“That whole thing when you’re younger and you’re like, Heeeyyyyyyy! Yaaaahhhhh!” she roars, flailing around in her seat as if suffering an epileptic fit.
“That’s less fun when you’re 56.”
Her professional habits have changed as well. Thankfully, she no longer has to stay up all night writing to meet newspaper deadlines.
“I can’t tell you how many all-nighters I pulled when I was writing Sex and the City. I’d be up Sunday nights at 4 or 5 in the morning having a complete meltdown. I would just be like, Fuuuuck! There’s something wrong! Aaaaarrrgh!”
Naturally, she acts out this meltdown, growling and boo-hooing and scratching at her face. She looks, once again, completely mad.
Now, she retreats to Connecticut whenever she needs to write. She has plenty of room to pace inside and outside her house there when cooking up plot twists like the one at the end of Killing Monica. And three book contracts will keep her busy after the Monica promotional tour ends.
“This book is me,” Bushnell declares, her voice echoing throughout the empty apartment. “This is my sense of humor, this is what I think is funny and poignant, and there’s some great writing in this book! That scene in Palm Beach [with Pandy and Jonny playing tennis] is fucking brilliant!”
“This is Candace Bushnell,” she says, stretching her arms out as one would before taking a bow. “If you don’t like it, move on.” ♦