Candace Bushnell: The inspiration behind Sex and the City

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Just when you thought Sex and the City had taken its last gasp, the creator of the iconic characters releases two novels for younger readers. Rebecca Barry Hill talks to the original Carrie Bradshaw, Candace Bushnell.

Candace Bushnell has released two new novels, The Carrie Diaries and Summer and the City. Photo / Martin Sykes
Candace Bushnell has released two new novels, The Carrie Diaries and Summer and the City. Photo / Martin Sykes

It's easy to picture Candace Bushnell sitting cross-legged on her bed, tapping away at her laptop, in between bouts of shoe-shopping and bonking. The New York writer who created the basis for the TV series Sex and the City, exudes the youthful spirit we're used to identifying with her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw.

"I'm, like, a big note-taker," says the 52-year-old in her school-girlish New York drawl. "Ugghh! I'm always, like, writing down ideas for themes. And then they just pile up and I never look at them again. But I can't throw them out in case I need them."

It's certainly how you'd imagine the younger Carrie, portrayed in Bushnell's two latest novels, The Carrie Diaries (about her high school years) and Summer in the City (about her arrival in New York). Just replace the bonking with fretting. Carrie hasn't yet lost her virginity in the latest book but she has met a Mr Big-type who calls her "kid". She hasn't yet penned a newspaper column but she has written a terrible play.

She can't afford Manolo Blahniks but she has developed a love of vintage - which unfortunately extends to wearing medical scrubs.

As for Bushnell, she's more likely to be dressing like the young Carrie. A few weeks ago, she was bucked off a horse, cracking her pelvis.

"I can't go and stand at a cocktail party or a dinner party, I can't do it," she sighs. Today's interview, when the phone finally reaches her pad in Greenwich Village, was meant to be tomorrow. But it's okay, she's happy to talk today.

This is a relief. Fans of the TV series would likely baulk at the prospect of the original Carrie being anything other than the friend they never had. Yet the early impression was that Bushnell would be hard work. Her agent had demanded there be no personal questions - a difficult task given how easily the parallels can be drawn between Bushnell and Bradshaw, both of whom upped sticks from Connecticut and moved to New York in their teens to pursue a career in writing.

Those who have met Bushnell describe her as having a steely focus. She is, of course, a publishing powerhouse whose "Sex and the City" columns, which she wrote for the New York Times, were eventually turned into a hit TV series. It lasted for six seasons and was so popular it spawned two movies. Then there are her other best-sellers: Lipstick Jungle (she also executive produced the Brooke Shields-helmed TV show), One Fifth Avenue, Trading Up and Four Blondes. In a canny move, Bushnell has returned to her best-known characters.

Critics may have panned the Sex and the City 2 film, in which the spoilt foursome whooped it up in Abu Dhabi at a time when the rest of the world was paring back on luxuries. But as 2010's highest-grossing romantic comedy, fans obviously hadn't tired of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. Sex and the City fatigue doesn't factor in the United States either, where the show, says Bushnell proudly, still screens several times a day.

The timing of these two novels, pitched at young adults, could be seen as a cynical effort to squeeze the last drop of cash out of the Sex and the City franchise. Or a way for the author to reclaim a sense of ownership from a phenomenon that has taken on a life of its own - talks are already underway as to who could play the teenaged Carrie in the movie. But Bushnell says she'd always meant to write about Carrie's younger years.

"I can't tell you how many young women who are in college still come up to me and just love the show and are discovering it at 18 or 19 on the E! channel. So I think for them it's really fresh and because of the subject matter, it's something women are interested in. Women will always be interested in relationships. Even if you tell them 'don't be interested, it's not worth it'."

It's tempting to yell that at the teenaged Carrie in Summer in the City. Particularly during her relationship with the pre-Mr Big character, Bernard Singer, who is 13 years older than Miss Bradshaw.

"Oh my God, Carrie. Thirty?" says a high school friend. "That's disgusting!"

Carrie is not exactly a Lolita but she is itching to lose her virginity and experience life. She's headstrong, determined and embarrassingly desperate.

One day she sits on a park bench outside Bernard's Upper East side apartment, and waits two hours for him to come home. It's something the older Carrie would never do. Bushnell allows her protagonist to act her age, just as she did.

"I would always say the character is an every-girl but I don't know that is true ... I went to New York at 19 but I absolutely knew what I wanted to do, I was very determined, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. And there were some great things that happened and some really bad things that happened ...

"I got held up a couple times at gunpoint, stuff like that. These things happen. These young girls go to clubs and they don't come home. Unless you really know how to look after yourself, to be out in the world on your own at 18 or 19 is hard. But Carrie Bradshaw is an exception."

It's impossible to read the books without hearing Sarah Jessica Parker's voice. "She's just so Carrie, isn't she?" says Bushnell.

Meanwhile, the younger versions of Miranda and Samantha are less predictable. Miranda's sarcasm is borne of an angry, feminist streak, a device Bushnell uses to touch on what it means to be, as Carrie puts it, "in charge of your sexuality". Samantha isn't yet the nymphette she's destined to become and instead seeks power by aspiring to be an Upper East-side housewife in a Chanel suit. Only the bridal-magazine-reading Charlotte, introduced in the novel's closing pages, feels like a cartoon character, too sweet and naive to be true. (Mind you, she did in the TV series too.) It's a light coming-of-age tale in which not a lot happens, but to the mind of 17-year-old Carrie so much happens.

"One scratches one's head and thinks, 'I wonder if I remember it this way because I was a teenager'," says Bushnell. Everybody else my age is asking the same question - 'did New York seem so different 30 or 40 years ago because we were younger or was it really different?"'

Carrie, Samantha and Miranda talk about sex but with Carrie a virgin, we're charting different territory here to the brunch-time fellatio discussions we're used to from the show. The books are tame, says Bushnell, compared to some of the young adult literature out there.

"Gosh, you know in the early 80s people were not as frank about sex, they didn't even know as much about sex. Teenagers know waaaay more about sex today."

Bushnell can't take all the credit for breaking taboos around sex - her version of Sex and the City was always less graphic than the show.

For her, SATC started in 1979 when she moved to New York to become a writer. It wasn't until she was 34 that she started writing her now-famous column about the dating and mating rituals of New York society. Despite the subject matter, the column became popular due to its satirical, Dorothy Parker-style insights. The rude stuff was couched in euphemism. Then Darren Star, the producer of Beverly Hills 90210, decided to turn it into a TV series. Screening it on HBO allowed him to get away with the kind of sexual content - more verbal than explicit - that hadn't traditionally been heard on TV before.

The series was not without its flaws. How Carrie managed to afford her New York apartment and designer shoe addiction based on a single weekly column was never explained. How she fitted in time to write the damn column, what with her flitting around fancy parties and bonking, is another.

"That's one of the things that's hard when you're young," says Bushnell. "That kind of concentration. I mean, I really struggled with that. Because there's so much you want to do besides sitting at your desk. You've got go out and see the world to have something to write about. There's that old joke: 'when you're really young and the phone goes you think, 'God, I hope it's for me'. When you get older, like my age, you think 'God, I hope it's not for me'."

Life is much quieter for Bushnell these days. Just like Carrie in the first film, Bushnell got married in her early 40s, shocking her friends who'd come to know her as the dating rather than the marrying kind. Instead of a Mr Big, she wed Charles Askegard, a principal dancer with the New York Ballet, who is 10 years her junior. They were married after just eight weeks together. She hoots with laughter when recalling a trip to New Zealand seven years ago, when Askegard, who is 1.93m, rode around Waiheke Island on a scooter and almost missed the last ferry back to Auckland. "Oh my God, we had so much fun."

Bushnell may be young at heart but not invincible. She rode horses competitively in her childhood. The horse-riding accident, in which she cracked her pelvis, happened on a day when, perhaps in a bout of nostalgia for her youth, she test-rode a dressage horse in view of buying it. But this horse wanted her off, lurching all four legs into the air, and twisting until she fell. "I do plan to ride again but I'm going to get an older horse," she says, a hint of resignation in her voice.

She is now working on another two books, the first of which is called the The Two Mrs Stones, she says in a voice that sounds mock-exasperated, as though she'd hate for anyone to think she takes herself too seriously.

"It's about a tri-an-gle." Her voice now takes on a whiney, child's tone. "It's about how a relationship can still wound you and how you have to get over that."

Don't be interested in relationships? It's not worth it? Somehow it's seems unlikely Bushnell will be taking her own advice.

The Carrie Diaries, (HarperCollins paperback, $19.99) and Summer and the City (hardback, $29.99) are out now.

- NZ Herald

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