An interview with Helen Fielding by Ashton Applewhite
Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Viking Books.
Did anything in particular strike you about the reaction of American readers?
I was very surprised that the book took off in America. Before I left, there was an open letter in the paper saying "Don't go there, they won't get it, Americans don't understand irony and self-deprecation." There's a strong culture of self-improvement in America, which is both good and bad. The idea of getting up at five and whizzing from the gym to the board meeting, of getting your bottom down to size and suddenly deciding your soul needs work. I think it's rather a joyless way of being for women, but it seems to have infected us on a global scale. I think that's what people latched on to most.
Why did you write Bridget as a diary?
The best advice I ever had about writing was to do it as if you were writing for a friend. The diary form's very good for that, very direct and intimate. Because it's an imaginary character, you can hide behind a persona. It also allows you to write the sort of shameful thoughts that everyone has but no one wants to admit to, since you're not trying to make anyone like you. A diary is an outlet for your most private thoughts, a very personal way of writing. And that feeling of peeping behind a curtain at someone's else's life is good for a reader.
Will the sequel also be in diary form?
What percentage of your readership do you think is male?
I have no idea, but I do know that there seem to more male readers now. I think lots of people have been given it by their girlfriends, who say, "If you want to understand how women's minds work, read this." When I was writing the column, many men wrote in who thought Bridget was real. One wrote a letter to the editor which read: "Dear Sir, I would quite like to shag Bridget Jones. Could you please let me have her phone number? Many thanks. Yours faithfully." It was quite formal.
Have men actually learned from it?
Smug Marrieds have, because nobody asks me whether I'm married any more. And no more patronizing comments from my married friends; their attitudes really have changed. It sounds rude to go to a Smug Married and say, "How's your marriage going, still having sex?", but not to go up to a Singleton and say, "How's your love life?" It's great if people realize that there isn't just one way to live. That's an old-fashioned concept, and I think it's losing its grip on us. Life in cities is very similar all over the world, and people do tend to live in urban families as much as in nuclear ones. They're not worse off or better off; the point is that it's no longer abnormal to be single.
One of the pleasures of reading Bridget is the vocabulary you invented. Do you have a favorite word or phrase?
I'm very pleased about the word "singleton," which of course wasn't my word. A friend made it up for a party: "singletons in one hotel, marrieds in another!" "Spinster" is horrible, with connotations of spinning wheels failure. "Singletons" a good word, and it applies to both men and women
Any new coinages?
Yes, "mentionitis." It's that thing where you can tell someone has a crush on someone because their name keeps coming up in the conversation, completely irrelevantly.
In the event that Bridget joins the ranks of the Marrieds, what aspects of matrimony would you like to tackle?
I'm not sure whether she'll do that, but it's an interesting area. I'm going to look at the reason why men and women do find it difficult to be together, as roles change. Jane Austen was also writing about dating, but in her day the rules were very clear, whereas now it's a quagmire of bluff and counterbluff. Everyone's so busy playing it cool, discussing the next maneuver with their friends, it a miracle that people manage to get together at all.
Is smugness an inevitable component of married life?
No, not at all. I just think that it's very easy for one group of people to decide that their way of living is the right way, and it's always a mistake for people to do that. No one ever knows what's around the corner.
A review in Entertainment Weekly described the book as "subversive." Was that your intent?
I'd use ironic rather than subversive. You can't really explain irony, either. Either you think it's funny or you don't. One of may favorite parts of the book is when Bridget declares, "There's nothing quite so unattractive to a man as a strident feminist."
Would you call Bridget a heroine or an anti-heroine?
I think Bridget's an ironic heroine.
How strong is the link is between economic self-sufficiency and emotional well-being for women?
Austen did say the only thing that renders a single women pitiable is poverty, in Emma, I think. Now it's no longer necessary to be married in order to be well off. I think it has to do with others' perceptions. People who feel sorry for single women tend to feel less so if the women are wealthy, but of course that doesn't mean the women are happier. I just think it's a good idea not to be bigoted.
Do you think women's aspirations have changed substantially in the last few decades?
Yes, things have changed hugely. Roles have shifted enormously, in terms of economic power for one thing. In relation to Bridget, the book is really about trying too hard, trying to be too perfect, and sort of missing the point that what makes Bridget appealing is that she's fun, she's nice, she's a good friend. She's just normal and that's fine. We sometimes lose sight of that alongside the qualities of having it all: a job, a briefcase, a bottom like two snooker balls.
How do you feel about the reviews which felt the book was an "insult to feminism"?
I can quite see that if you're not keen on irony as a form of expression, the book might get on your nerves. It was initially written to make people laugh. If it raises some issues that strike a nerve, so much the better. Novels are there to reflect the truth in what they see, as well as to entertain.
Can feminism encompass comic heroines?
There are so many male comic heroes. Take Bertie Wooster, from P. G. Wodehouse -- we don't take him as a symbol as a state of manhood. We've got to be able to have comic heroines without being so terribly anxious about what it says. We're not equal if we're not allowed to laugh at ourselves.. Maybe it's to do with confidence, since being able to laugh at yourself is a mark of it.
The book is dedicated to your mum, "for not being like Bridget's." What piece of advice might you give to mothers around the world?
I think when your daughter says, "I have to go now, Mum," not to bring up seventeen irrelevant things. The only thing I sometimes pinch off my mum is her turn of phrase. She did say to the [condescending] tax man, "Listen can you make good brioche?"
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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