Bridget Jones is not Helen Fielding. Helen Fielding is not Bridget Jones. And yet, talking to Fielding it's easy to understand how a journalist with only one previous novel could have created the biggest literary sensation of the year. She's funny, she's smart, and she's entirely unconsumed by her sudden fame.
Every so often a book comes along that's just plain fun to read. The kind of book that makes jealous writers cringe, muttering to themselves, "I could have written this." Ah, but they didn't - and there's the rub. Sometimes the best inventions are the most obvious. The best books, quite often, read as if they've been waiting for years for the right author to nudge them into existence. And, hey, Fielding's narrator works for a publishing company so there's lots of talk about books in Bridget Jones's Diary, and she borrowed the plot from Jane Austen (no word yet on when she'll be giving it back), so there's your highbrow literary connection right there.
Dave: Bridget Jones started as a newspaper column, right? How did it evolve into the novel?
Fielding: I'd written a first novel, Cause Celeb. It was a satire set in Africa, and I was working on another, a second which was set in the Caribbean. I was a bit short on cash. English newspapers are really keen about novels about women, you know, and they asked me to write a column about myself. I didn't want to do that. But I had been playing with this character whom I was trying to write a sitcom about, so I thought I'd use that character and mess about with it.
I was kind of embarrassed. The Independent is sort of left-wing, everyone was writing about politics, and I was writing about why you can't find a pair of pantyhose in the morning and losing weight. I thought they'd ditch it after six weeks. Then I started getting all these letters. It became really popular. And it just snowballed from there.
Dave: And at some point someone approached you to make a novel out of it?
Fielding: It wasn't quite like that. It was getting more and more popular, but I was still trying to write this earnest satire about the economic problems of the Caribbean. I'd researched the banana growing situation in St. Vincent! Then I went out with my publisher one night. We were just chatting, and she said, "Why don't you do Bridget Jones?" And that was just it.
No one was too interested. I did it quite unselfconsciously, really. It came out in hardback, it got very good reviews, and it was kind of popular. Then it came out in paperback and it just suddenly went to Number One and stayed there for an unnatural amount of time, like six months. People started saying it was a phenomenon. So it's just the weirdest thing that could happen, really.
Dave: Cause Celeb and the book you're talking about set in the Caribbean - these books are a lot bigger in scope than Bridget Jones. What was it like to write Bridget Jones, to be writing in such an abbreviated form?
Fielding: It was really fun. I sweated over that first novel because it was really hard. It's about starving people, and then I was making jokes at the same time. This one was fun, and I was writing every column really quickly. I'd usually try to give myself five hours before the deadline - two was the closest I got, knocking it off in two hours. I'd just do it really quickly, in a panic. Then I decided to use the plot from Pride and Prejudice to fit it all together in a shell. Not to say I didn't craft it very carefully, but it was more organic, I guess. An idea which just grew and developed.
Dave: Whenever critics say anything bad about it, they say it's too on the surface. But that overlooks a lot of what's going on underneath. Sentence structures and so forth. It's definitely a grown-up, intelligent voice.
Fielding: I've been working for the newspapers for a long time, writing proper pieces. This is me having fun. Writing a book, you wouldn't normally play so much with the words, but I wrote all the Bridget columns to word counts. So it was playing. I'd write it, and it would always be over the word limit, then I'd condense it and condense it until it came out exactly the right number of words. Like I'm at the petrol pump - do you call it petrol? no, gas, right - and I'm trying to get it to stop at twenty pound.
That had something to do with the truncated style. To get it shorter I'd cut out words - like I or the. And then make up words.
Dave: Is "fuckwittage" a word in Britain?
Fielding: fuckwittage [she pronounces it to rhyme with fromage], it's from the French. That was actually my friend that coined that. She was writing about someone, and she said, "It's just emotional fuckwittage!" A lot of the stuff in the book was donated by friends. A lot of the stories.
Dave: None of it from yourself, though.
Fielding: No, certainly not. One must never write about oneself.
Dave: Bridget says it's different being single in her thirties than it was in her twenties, but her exact age is never mentioned.
Fielding: No. And her height. So you never know how much is obsession and paranoia and how much she's really worried about the size of her bottom.
Dave: And now you're working on the screenplay? Have you written a screenplay before?
Fielding: I started to with Cause Celeb. It's different because, in a script, every line has to work. In a book you can get away with murder. You can write around things. And a lot of the dialogue in the book is ridiculous if you actually get them to say it. Like the mother. It's so over the top. And the plot with mum and the Portuguese lover - it's fine in the book, but in the film we're wondering if it will work. If it will just seem like we've gone into sitcom land.
Dave: What makes British humor different?
Fielding: There is a perception in England that our sense of humor is different from America. There was even a letter in The Evening Standard saying, "Don't go there, Bridget. They won't get it because they don't understand irony and self-deprecation." But I don't think that's true. People laugh more here at readings. Maybe they just laugh more, but they definitely get it.
One of my favorite lines in the book is where Bridget says, to Sharon, who's ranting about feminism: "There's nothing so unattractive to a man as strident feminism." And I just love that line. You just know it's going to annoy certain people, but it's ironic because she doesn't really realize what she's saying. But I know what she's saying and I know what she means. I like all the layers in that sort of joke.
Dave: And is there a sequel coming?
Fielding: I'm working on it.
Dave: It's the same form - a diary?
Fielding: Right, it's a follow-up.
Dave: Is it a challenge to make it new?
Fielding: Well, what's really difficult is the last one I wrote so unselfconsciously that this time... if I'd known how many people were going to read the last one I would never have dared to write it! So now...
But I've given it to some of my mates, and they really like it. They say it's more complicated. I didn't want it to turn into a parody of itself. That was the danger.
Dave: Does it pick up from the end of this one?
Fielding: Exactly. It's what happens when you actually have the guy in your flat - and he never does the shopping, ever.
Dave: I have no idea what you're talking about.
Fielding: I'm sure you don't.
Dave: Do you ever get the urge to stop abbreviating words and write in complete sentences?
Fielding: Well, sometimes I write travelogues for Conde Nast, and I wrote a piece for the Telegraph about the tour, which was me instead of Bridget. I did one for Newsweek, my diary on tour, but that wasn't really complete sentences. I'm not sure if I can do the long sentences anymore.
Dave: Are you worried about going back someday?
Fielding: Yeah, well, punctuation I've just lost completely. I just put little commas and things in to help from stumbling around.
Dave: What do you read?
Fielding: I like modern novels if they're readable. Tom Wolfe, William Boyd - I love his stuff - and Nick Hornby. Like Bridget, I've been trying to read The Famished Road by Ben Okri for about six years. And I like Jane Austen. Pat Barker.
Dave: How did you get involved with books originally?
Fielding: I used to read a huge amount when I was a teenager, like four books a week. Then I went to Oxford to study English. But I always did want to write. I got a job at the BBC, and I took it because it seemed too good to miss; then I spent ten years wishing I weren't working in television. Eventually I just started trying to write.
Dave: Is there anything else I absolutely have to ask?
Fielding: You know, I'm being very serious in this interview. I'm talking properly instead of giving you sound bites. Don't you want sound bites?
Dave: Feed me sound bites if you have them. Please! What's your favorite sound bite?
Dave: It doesn't even have to be about you.
Fielding: Well...coining the word singleton to use instead of spinster, which has all those horrible connotations. And then the smug-marrieds, which is what Bridget and her singleton friends call the married people. They constantly make her feel foolish, asking why she isn't married yet and how her love life is, and she always wants to say to them, "How's your marriage going? Are you still having sex?"
Did I get that right?
[Pauses. Thinks. ] Self-improvement: So many women feel that they, umm... [breaks up laughing]. I can't do it. I can't do it now that I've had a proper conversation.
But it's supposed to be like [breathes deeply, gathers herself, and puts on her best BBC voice]: Rushing from the gym to the studio to the board meeting and home to cook dinner for twelve people and the perfect husband and children... 'Course when Bridget tries to do that all that happens is she ends up in her underwear with wrecked hair and one foot in a pan of mashed potato. Women like that because instead of stressing out about our imperfections, we can share a laugh at them.
There it is!
The thing about this interviewing gig: As thrilling as meeting and talking to successful authors can be - and it does thrill me, believe it - you never really know how personable the writer might be. Setting aside the various factors that could set any reluctant traveler into a less than sociable frame of mind (a delayed flight, Portland's rain, a bad night's sleep), the fact remains that few writers have chosen their profession because they're good with people. Just the opposite: writers generally have a lot to say, but they'd prefer to sit alone in a closed room and say it to a keyboard, thank you very much. Which is just one reason why sitting with Fielding was such a pleasure - because none of the standard, socially awkward stereotypes apply. She was a lot of fun, as the fans who came to hear her read will attest. Fielding visited Powell's City of Books on June 3, 1999.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State