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Candace Bushnell: The New Yorker

Candace Bushnell’s work explores the rituals of living and loving in the Big Apple.

The four women walk abreast, stilettos clicking, along a New York pavement. Each has a distinctive look and sports high-end labels from Manolo Blahnik sandals to Fendi bags. This is the trend-setting line-up from “Sex and the City,” seen in the hit TV series and two movies.
Based on the novel by Candace Bushnell, the four characters are fashion icons for millions of fans. They inhabit a glamorous world where people party as well as mourn break-ups in designer outfits. But beneath the gloss is a witty and sensitive voice. “Sex and the City,” the book, was Bushnell’s incisive look at the rituals of living and loving in New York.

Besides the fashion and social whirls, Bushnell’s work also introduced audiences worldwide to New York City’s Manhattan Island locations such as Fifth Avenue, Magnolia Bakery, Pastis, the bistro and Greenwich Village. In an episode of  “Sex and the City,” lead character Carrie Bradshaw says, “They say life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. But sometimes in New York, life is what happens when you’re waiting for a table.”

In late January, Bushnell attended the Jaipur Literary Festival. Saying that her novels were not intended to preach, Bushnell had a word of advice for the Indian audience, The Times of India reported. “I’d tell the women here to be identified as persons first, and by their gender, second. It’s important to be willing to experience whatever you can in life; get a job, earn money and be independent,” she said. 

Bushnell, who grew up in Glastonbury, Connecticut, began reading and telling stories at a very early age and knew at 8 she wanted to be a novelist. She moved to New York City at 19 and began selling her work—little stories and pieces—to underground newspapers. In her 20s, she freelanced for magazines while writing fiction on the side. “I had the proverbial five unfinished novels in the drawer,” she says in an e-mail interview with SPAN.

At the time, Bushnell was always trying to figure out how to get paid for writing fiction, so she “developed a particular style of ‘journalism’ for the women’s magazines: The humorous short story about a sociological aspect of young women’s lives in the ’80s. 

“I’d interview ‘real’ women and change their names,” she says. “In the early ’90s, I wrote a column called, ‘The Human Cartoon’ for Hamptons magazine which was a precursor to ‘Sex and the City’….”

Bushnell got a big break when she started writing for the New York Observer and was given her own column in November 1994. She called it “Sex and the City.” It chronicled the life, people and stories Bushnell, herself a fixture on the New York social scene, had come to know in the city. The column became a book in 1995 and was sold to HBO as a series in 1996. Sarah Jessica Parker played Carrie Bradshaw, who remains Bushnell’s most famous creation. The book has also been made into two movies, with the same actresses who played the four friends in the TV series.

“In the book, one sees a devastatingly accurate portrayal of mating and dating rituals in New York in the mid-90s,” says Bushnell. “Carrie Bradshaw was my alter ego; when the book became a television series, Sarah Jessica Parker and I spent time together, and the producer, Darren Star, had me take her to my hair salon, so they could color her hair to match mine. I worked with the writers on the first two seasons, so I’d have to admit there’s quite a bit in those 26 episodes that happened to me.”

In her subsequent books—“Four Blondes,” “Trading Up,” “Lipstick Jungle” and “One Fifth Avenue”—Bushnell explores the world of Manhattan’s elite, the social aspirants, old and new money, and assumptions about gender roles in career and family. “The Carrie Diaries,” released last year, goes back in time to Bradshaw’s senior year of high school in a small, New England town.

Bushnell names “Trading Up” and “One Fifth Avenue” as her favorites, along with her newest book, “Summer and the City,” which is the second in a series of prequels about Bradshaw.

“Although ‘Lipstick Jungle’ was made into a television series on NBC, the book always felt half-cooked to me,” she says. “It was one of the few times when I gave into an editor’s suggestion to cut out one of the main characters, a mistake I won’t make again.”

Bushnell has hosted a radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio, called “Sex, Success, and Sensibility,” which aired from 2006 to 2008. She wrote a Web series, “The Broadroom.”

Bradshaw, however, remains the Bushnell creation with instant recall. She is “clearly one of the great, iconic characters that have been created in recent history,” Entertainment Weekly’s senior editor Meeta Agrawal told CNN.com.

What is it about Bradshaw that women of all ages, all over the world, are able to identify with her? “My usual answer,” says Bushnell, “is to say that she’s an ‘every girl,’ but since I’ve written the two prequels, my instinct now is that she’s an original.”

Bushnell, who has a writing degree from New York University, wanted to become a writer “for all the usual reasons anyone wants to become an artist.

“There’s an early love and appreciation for the form, be it music, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry or fiction, followed by an intense desire to create in that form. At some point, there’s a realization of ‘Hey, maybe I can actually do this.’ Which is then followed by years of insecurity and doubt,” Bushnell explains.

Asked to describe her body of work, she says, “Good or bad, it’s very much me. I have a particular voice that I had as a child and I’ve never been able to alter it much. When I read stories I wrote at 19, it’s there. I just found a novel I started when I was 25, and it’s there, too. I try to change it, but it always creeps back. It’s cynical and comic and has a love of slapstick and the absurd.”

The success of Bushnell’s work created a huge demand for a new genre. In recent years, there have been a vast number of novels about the issues faced by modern women with their tones ranging from light and humorous to pithy or unsentimental.

But how seriously are novels by women taken by critics? “Women tend to be taken less seriously than men in every profession and pursuit, save parenting,” says Bushnell.

“The reality is that support from critics doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s a highly political aspect to getting your books taken seriously, and I suspect that for some women, who are already juggling writing, parenting, marriage, pets and children…it’s simply too much.”

Bushnell, who has been called “the patron saint of high-end girl power” by The New York Times, says the one thing every woman needs in her life, is “her own money. The Greeks believed in the ideal of the philosopher-king. Today, my ideal is the artist-businesswoman.”

As a best-selling author, what are the thoughts that cross her mind when she starts a new book? “I’m usually excited,” says Bushnell. “There are always good and bad days when one’s writing, but what I enjoy most is losing myself in the day-to-day work.”