Angela Barnett talks with Sex in the City author Candace Bushnell about divorce, sex and dating at 60.
"So you would prefer to meet people in IRL?" asked Emma, simultaneously raising her eyebrows and sipping champagne in Candace Bushnell's Manhattan apartment. 'Irl' Bushnell had recently learned was 'in real life'.
The doyenne of New York society and celebrated author was doing what she's always done - tapping into the zeitgeist. She had invited over a group of "Tinderellas", young women ranging between 22 and 33, who dated on Tinder and their subsequent conversation, played out in Bushnell's latest book, Is There Still Sex In The City?, is illuminating.
"Cosmo asked me to do a piece about Tinder and I said yes," she say, down the line from her home in Long Island (although I had back up numbers for her Manhattan pad in case she had to "pop into the city".) "And then I was nervous as I hadn't been on that beat for so long." Hearing the 60-year-old scribe, who has written nine books, three of which have been made into TV shows: Sex In The City, Lipstick Jungle and Carrie Diaries, confess to being nervous about a piece for Cosmo — not the pinnacle of literary publications — throws me. But she's not being coy. Her head had been in novels, not cursory subjects like dating apps. "I had been writing fiction [set] in the 1770s, I wasn't thinking about dating."
Meeting the Tinderellas sparked her curiosity again, and then, when a bunch of her friends got divorced, a bonfire was lit. "All of a sudden they were interested in dating again. You really would think, after you do the whole relationship cycle and get married and it doesn't work out...'Hey, maybe there is a different way to live my life'. But no. People still want that pattern."
Having also been through her own divorce she was left with the burning question – why? Followed by what – what about the sex? In true Bushnell style, she based the book on her own experience. "It seemed like the right way to present the material. In an auto-fiction way."
Just like the original Sex In The City – the book, seminal television show and wildly popular column of the same name in the Observer (excluding the disappointing movies, which Bushnell did not write) – the latest book is full of candid, darkly humorous dating and life anecdotes of the privileged set in New York. Except now they all live in a seaside borough known as "The Village" and are over 50. "I wrote it for women in their middle years like myself," she says.
Bushnell injected catch-phrases and catchy acronyms into the vernacular of two generations in the 90s and 00s, like "Bicycle Guys", "Psycho Moms" and "International Crazy Girls" and she's got a string of new ones: Hot Drops, Spouse Child, SAPs, Cubs, Super Middles and MAM.
Plus there is more of the real Bushnell in there than before. She has always said the character, Carrie Bradshaw, was her alter ego (created so she could talk about sex in her Observer column without her parents thinking she was talking about her sex), but in Is There Still Sex In The City? she is entirely herself. For someone in their 40s, it's fascinating to read about what's coming up in the 50s and beyond - if we end up attending millionaire parties in the Hamptons with MNBs (My New Boyfriend), that is. "Everyone assumed once you're over 50 you just disappear. But that's not women of today. Their lives are still going to be vibrant and they're still going to be doing things," she says.
There are different female characters in the book based on real life-long friends and they all live within a few miles of each other. "That was something that we always said, we will live together in the same house, or the same place. So many women talk about that for their future and I don't think men do."
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However, in this story, it's not the tidy foursome. Carrie aside, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte, were never based on specific women, says Bushnell. "The truth is, they are bits and pieces from a lot of different women. They are meant to be any woman; any of us could take any of these paths and end up where the characters end up," she says.
The 50-something friends in The Village experience similar things like MAM (Middle Aged Madness) which sounds like a euphemism for menopause but that's just part of the madness. "On the surface," she explains in the book, "MAM resembles what people used to call a midlife crisis. Something that happened to men in their 40s, meanwhile women weren't allowed to have one and instead had nervous breakdowns, which today we call undiagnosed depression. But because today's reproductive cycle is so busy and exhaustive and fraught, it actually acts as a deterrent to a midlife crisis. There is simply no time to query the meaning of life. But it doesn't mean it goes away. It only means it happens later in life. Usually, at a time when a crisis couldn't be more inconvenient because a whole bunch of other major life — changing events-like divorce, death, moving, menopause, children leaving the nest and the loss of a job — are happening as well."
But it's not all mad, this middle time. The cougars are gone and instead, the cubs (young men) are pouncing on older women in her world. "Cub pounce" sounds far more pleasing than "cougar" I tell her. "Exactly," she says. "It [cougar] said these women were predators out to get these unsuspecting young men and really, the reality is the opposite. The women were very surprised to find these young guys – it seems to be a phase." Not an unwelcome phase for the freshly divorced either.
Her own divorce features in the book and she handles it with class, sparing the details – which, she says she's been criticised for. "I've seen a couple of things where they've said, 'she didn't even talk about her divorce' – but the book is about learning how to accept loss, let go of anger and bitterness and move on. One has to learn how not to let things hurt you four or five times, churning it over, or blame people. Stuff happens."
A Google search will reveal what the tabloids say about Bushnell's marriage break-up but it won't reveal her magnanimous attitude. "I don't think many people start off trying to do harm to other people," she says, "but people pursue their own things and other people can get hurt. It's not necessary to talk about it and, in a weird way, all divorces are the same – they're all kind of awful."
Out of respect I don't ask about children because any child-free person will tell you the only answer to "how does it feel to not have children?" is, "How it feels!" She does touch on mothering in the book when an ex-boyfriend and his boy come to stay for a few days and she finds herself doing what every parent does - videoing everything.
Dating, she admits, is just as thorny when you're older. "Well, everybody has to adjust — there's a feeling that it's not as pressing as when one was younger so it can be easy to go, 'Ahhhhh forget it.' You know what you don't want. Looks don't count anywhere near as much, as everyone kind of looks the same. Somebody who wasn't the best looking in their 20 or 30s, if they get in shape they can look better than somebody who was the hot guy. And then the women who were so beautiful when they were younger — looks do fade ..."
She explains further in the book, "Middle-aged dating and beyond, people aren't partnering up to get a life. They already have a life — children and exes and parents and works — so this time around, a relationship is about enhancing your life."
That said, she fears for the 20-somethings using dating apps. "The way people meet has really changed, for everybody. One of the Tinderellas said to me, 'Guys just say hit me up if you're around' — what does that even mean — and then they have sex like they're in a porn movie, just really fast. Younger people seem to have the worst stories. "
Middle-aged dating worked out for Bushnell and the book introduces her MNB, who is not so new anymore. "But," she says, "He's just going to have to stay that way [new] and be in boyfriend mode. One of the things that's interesting about getting older is that when you're not looking to reproduce you don't have to live in the rigid pattern of coupledom. We don't live together so nobody has that annoyance of having somebody else's habits and laundry so everybody is responsible for themselves. You have a life, so we go on dates and dress up and go places and it's really fun."
Her observation of "Super Middles" is classic Bushnell mischief. "Supers" are so obsessed with ageing and staying youthful they are annoying – they paddle anything that floats, they take a trunk load of vitamins, they exercise fastidiously, they preen and Botox and look much younger than their 50, 60 or 70 years. "I saw a couple jogging down the road the other day, in their 70s, and they look, I'm not kidding, like they're 55. I drove by in my dirty BMW and wanted to say, 'Damn Super Middles!'"
Looking at the photo of Bushnell on the cover, I question whether she's secretly a Super herself. She laughs. "In some ways I am. One of the realities of this passage is one has to start looking after yourself in a way that you didn't when you were younger. I didn't go to the gym or do sit-ups until I was 52. Know what I'm saying?" I confess to being in my 40s and she says conspiratorially, "It's just no matter what you do, your middle gets bigger – all of sudden your weight shifts." It's a different kind of super middle.
Not only does she look fit in the photo, Bushnell - who recently told a journalist she doesn't eat until 4pm every day - looks far younger than her age. "People have asked, 'Why didn't you put yourself on the cover?' I'm like, that is me, a couple of years ago. It was a 20-something guy who took the photo, he grew up on Instagram and he knew to blast light at the face and you will look a lot younger. This is my feeling - it doesn't matter what you look like in real life as long as you look good in pictures." (Suddenly I imagine Samantha on the other end of the line.)
The writing is courageously honest and feels woke, to use a Tinderella term. The book begins and ends with loss, a reality of any stage of life, but particularly during the middle years. "Like in the book, I did turn 60 and once I did things really started to fall into place. Going through my 50s it was a bit of a kaleidoscope where the pieces all felt disjointed and I wasn't sure what my life would look like or even what it should look like because nobody discusses it. It's a very vague and amorphous time."
It's an entertaining read to swot up on what's coming like mad MAM, but she paints middle age with some rock 'n' roll. At one point she goes to a party at a tech millionaire's place and they're stopped in the driveway to have the trunk inspected. "We're middle-aged!" she barks at the security guard, "Do we look like we'd hide people in our cars?" To which the guard replies, "You'd be surprised what I've seen middle-aged people do."
Is There Still Sex In The City, by Candace Bushnell (Hachette, $38)