Candace Bushnell: Sex & the Kitty

When Candace Bushnell turned her sharp, feline gaze on New York’s Swish set of toxic bachelors and never-married girls, she created a heady cocktail that intoxicated an entire generation of women.
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Updated on Jan 30, 2011 03:50 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
As she walks briskly into the café, Candace Bushnell appears momentarily out of place. The hot Jaipur sunshine, the swelling crowds and the colourful leheriya canopies billowing in the dusty wind seem an odd setting for the pretty Marc Jacobs dress and precarious Louboutin heels. Wouldn’t she be more at home drinking a pink Cosmopolitan at the Hamptons in New York or taking a Lear Jet to Aspen for a skiing vacation? Just like her fictional creation – and her self-confessed alter ego – Carrie Bradshaw, the high-living lead character in the cult series, Sex and the City, immortalised by actress Sarah Jessica Parker?

But right now, Candace manages to look quite at home as she slides elegantly into a plain wooden chair and asks for a Coke (no, not a Diet Coke). She sits quite still, not fidgeting or playing with her hair, or looking around to see who’s walked in. (Which is just as well because there are a couple of autograph hunters lurking around, trying to catch her eye – and thereby disrupt the interview). Candace says she’s "just so proud" to be here for the Jaipur Literature Festival. "I was invited last year too but I was on deadline for my book. This year too I was on deadline, but I finished my book two days before I had to leave!"

The new book is Summer in the City, a follow-up of The Carrie Diaries (about Carrie’s small-town growing up years in Connecticut, also Candace’s home state), which itself was a prequel to Sex and the City. Summer and the City is about what happens to Carrie Bradshaw when she arrives in New York at the age of 17. Just like Candace, who arrived in New York when she was 19, after attending Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Did both of them have the same early experiences in New York? "Nothing that happens in the book really happened to me," explains Candace. "But I tried to capture what happens when you come from a controlled environment – first your family where you live with your parents and then your college – and are thrown into the world of adults. Carrie is trying to navigate that world when she meets a guy, a 30-year-old famous playwright and he becomes her boyfriend."

Candace laughs, adding, "Of course it’s disastrous. She doesn't end up behaving – um (with a delicate cough, maybe she thinks my Indian sensibilities will be outraged) inappropriately – but you know, always in New York there’s a 30-year-old guy who’s interested in you."

Candace should know. When she moved to New York, her first boyfriend was Gordon Parks, the brilliant black director of the 1971 film, Shaft – and he was all of 60. “I was crazy about him,” she says. His friends were scandalised, her parents were scandalised (“though they never said anything to me”), but Candace was besotted. Of course it couldn’t last. Not that that stopped Candace from having several relationships over the years, invariably with men who were either wealthy or famous or both.

Manhattan Seduction I: Serial Daters, Hot Babes
But it’s her relationship with New York that was – and continues to be – the enduring feature of her life and her books. The city is probably the most important character in all her novels, whether it is the Sex and the City franchise or her other books such as One Fifth Avenue, Lipstick Jungle or Trading Up.

Candace’s New York is the city of toxic bachelors, beautiful divorcees with red-lipsticked mouths sipping Chateau Latour at Harry Cipriani’s, magazine writers and editors in tweed jackets riding around the city on bicycles, art gallery owners throwing cocktail parties in their studio apartments and glamorous supermodels who won’t even look at a man unless he's worth at least 20 million.

But three decades ago, when Candace arrived in New York, the city was also the hub of creativity. “It was a broken city at that time,” remembers Candace. “It was the time when President Ford told the city, ‘Drop dead!’ People didn’t have much money, but everybody was an artist – they were painters, actors, writers. We lived in tiny apartments – I lived in eight different apartments in my first year – but it was very free. There was music and dancing on the streets. No one watched TV because the reception was so poor. And because everyone’s apartments were so small, life took place outside. Restaurants were like theatres were you would go to see people interacting with each other.”

Today, says Candace, the city has become more corporate. But New Yorkers still retain their dark, arch sense of humour and interactive nature (“I don’t think I’ve ever taken a cab and not had a conversation with the cab driver”). It’s also a city where love, sex and money are the driving forces – all constant themes in Candace’s books. “It’s a city of strivers, each one trying to figure out how to make it, spending their time spotting the most important person at a party, taking in who’s talking to whom. I hate that pretentiousness,” says Candace. “But I find it fascinating.”

She herself was part of that world, a feted New York socialite who made appearances at designer store openings in SoHo, partied hard at Studio 54, and dined at Bowery Bar. But things have changed now. “I’ve done that a thousand times. How many more times can I do it?” asks Candace. “At one time I felt very much part of that world, but now I go in and out of it. You know, it’s important to go with where you are in life and not try to hang on to things.” She also puts it down to growing older – she’s 52 and says that her priorities have changed.

Manhattan Seduction II: Married Sex
Much of that has to do with the fact that she’s a married woman now. In 2002, she met a tall (6’ 4” if you must know) ballet dancer, Charles Askegard. When she saw him across the room, the expression on his face was “the expression of a man who is going to marry you.” They wed at a small beach ceremony at the island of Nantucket on the eastern coast. Candace was 43, Charles ten years younger. Both the bride and groom were barefoot and Candace wore a plain white Ralph Lauren dress.

Her New York friends were shocked. Cynics didn’t give the marriage long and probably looked forward to gossiping about the break-up over glasses of Bellini. Candace was called the cougar in the relationship. But all these years later, they’ve proved the cynics wrong. They’re still married.

(An aside here. The single versus married face-off is quite a constant in Candace’s books. There was a time, she says, when women had to have a man. But even then, she points out, “I saw that many women who were single actually loved being single. It was kind of an adventure. Today, a lot of young women want to marry and have children, but they also want to fulfill themselves.” And yet, the constant dating – not all of it as sexy as it sounds – takes its toll).

Candace sounds genuinely happy today. “My husband is very mature,” she says. “He started performing when he was six years old. The sheer physicality of it – it’s hard. You have to be really strong-minded to perform five nights a week in front of hundreds of people. I go to see him at the Lincloln Centre and I think – how does anyone ever do this? He’s very disciplined and we understand each other’s work.”

Now Candace also has a house in the country, where she spends a lot of her time writing. “I have less energy to constantly see people,” she confesses. “I go out less, work more. I buy trees. I cook. I’m always appalled by people who say that they can’t even boil an egg. My husband cooks too. We shop for ingredients, talk about recipes, work in the kitchen together. We do Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.”

You can’t help but wonder if this is the same Candace who writes so knowingly and intimately about her neurotic and brittle women characters. About single women who keep lurching into tough relationships with investment bankers, movie producers or other men of power and money.

Manhattan Seduction III: It’s Going To Be A While
Has she become unfairly typecast as a shallow writer of shallow people? Is she taken less seriously as an author because of her glamorous image (even though some critics do refer to her as ‘Jane Austen with a martini’ and praise her for her ‘forensic gaze on the super-rich’)? Candace demurs: “It’s not a problem. I feel I’m very lucky. But I don’t write everything I want to write. I started a book about a 21-year-old girl who has no job, nothing, but my publishers got uncomfortable. They expect a certain kind of book from me.” She shrugs. “But there’s time. Writing books is like playing an instrument. You have to keep at it.”

So we’ll have to wait for Candace’s ‘real’ book, for the stories she wants to tell even if her publishers don’t want to listen. Till then, the fashionable chronicler of New York’s “sidewalk fantasies” and “bedroom crackups” will have to live with her Carrie Bradshaw alter ego.

But as Candace says goodbye and walks away on her long, pointy heels to her next interview, you can’t help but think she's not done too badly. She’d probably raise a Cosmo to that.

How it all happened
When Candace Bushnell moved to New York at 19, she started freelancing for magazines such as Mademoiselle and Esquire. In 1994, she began writing a fictional column for the New York Observer, called Sex and the City, about “successful, attractive, thirty-something career women living the high life in New York.” It was initially written in the first person, but, worried about how her conservative parents, who had just taken a subscription to the New York Observer, would react, Candace created Carrie Bradshaw – her own voice in the third person. She wrote the column for two years and it became wildly popular. “I found that people were faxing it to friends in LA,” laughs Candace. The column was bought as a book which came out in 1996.

Meanwhile, HBO expressed interest in making it into a TV series. “Sarah Jessica Parker was available,” says Candace. “Her husband had read the columns and loved them. So everything sort of fell into place.”

Soon Candace realised that all the mating-dating rituals addressed in Sex and the City found a resonance in the unlikeliest of places. She recalls a visit to Ireland (after the book came out but before the TV series) where she was surrounded by young women, who told her that they too shared the same experiences of lousy men and lousier dates.

“I never thought Sex and the City would become so big or that Carrie would become such an iconic figure,” says Candace. “There’s no way you can predict these things. It’s the public who decides. There were also lots of lucky circumstances that worked for me.”

Candace’s Mr Big
Mr Big was the big love of Carrie Bradshaw’s life. Like Carrie, Candace too had a Mr Big in her life. “I was crazy about him,” she says. “And just like what happened to Carrie in the book, he dumped me and married someone else. I had to do some soul-searching then. And I realised I wanted to be Mr Big. Then I thought, I’m going to be Mr Big on my own. I’m going to get my life together.” Today, she adds with a grin, "my husband is my Mr Big.” (At 6’4”, he certainly is).

5 New York Hotspots
1 Otto, a pizza and pasta place I go to a lot. I usually go at four in the afternoon, and do lunch and dinner together
2 I like going to Washington Park. They’ve totally re-done it now
3 I love going to the Lincoln Centre to see ballet (husband Charles Askegard is a soloist with the New York City Ballet)
4 I go to a couple of Chinese restaurants like Shun Lee West and another one on Broadway
5 Most of all, I like to be in my apartment and eat Indian food!

-Photos by Ronjoy Gogoi

- From HT Brunch, January 30
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    Poonam Saxena is the national weekend editor of the Hindustan Times. She writes on cinema, television, culture and books

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