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Author of One Fifth Avenue, Candace Bushnell

Readersvoice.com aims to collect a few good reading tips. Recently I went along to see Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City. She mentioned some of her favorite books, talked about her new novel One Fifth Avenue and talked about writing the HBO tv series Sex and the City…

There were about four or five men in an audience of about two hundred, in a ballroom at the Sebel and Citigate Motel, King George Square, Brisbane. I sat at a table with about ten women, had a glass of wine, and waited for Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City and other novels, including her latest One Fifth Avenue. Ms Bushnell was running a bit late, so they went ahead and served lunch: a nice chicken dish.

Ms Bushnell turned out to be an interesting speaker, talking about the writing of the Sex and the City tv episodes and working as an executive producer on the Lipstick Jungle tv series. She also gave some interesting reading tips.

Ms Bushnell liked tabloid celebrity magazines, and magazines like The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. And not surprisingly, she read a lot of novels. She said she’d read Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, four times. Buddenbrooks was Thomas Mann’s first novel, published in 1901, when he was 26.

She also said that Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (published 1869, and considered one of the most influential books of the 19th century) was one of her favorite books.

She said she read a lot of the classics. “These books were the entertainment of their day.” She said she was always reading, and that you could read a 1000-page book in two months if you read before you slept.

She spoke about the address in the title of her latest and fifth book. One Fifth Avenue is a 27-floor skyscraper, built in 1927, with 184 apartments: “one of the first art-deco towers in Manhattan dominating Lower Manhattan, Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village”, one real estate site said.

“That was the centre of New York society about 100 years ago,” Ms Bushnell said, an area written about by Edith Wharton and Henry James. She decided to fictionalise the building. “I love the idea of exploring small-town New York, where you see them in the streets, but don’t really know what goes on behind closed doors.”
She said the novel was about how New York was always replenished by young people coming to the city, and how they contrast with establishment characters: those who have their dreams — on the outside — but aren’t really sure how they feel about it on the inside.
Characters include Lola, a young woman who wants to live in One Fifth Avenue. Ms Bushnell had a 19-year-old assistant when she was writing the book. The assistant told Ms Bushnell about things like her Facebook profile. “That’s what the 20-somethings tell me; that they all know a Lola.”

Other characters include Mindy Gooch, a family breadwinner whose life has gone stale at One Fifth Avenue. This was Ms Bushnell’s favorite character, Ms Bushnell said. Mindy seems to have it all but realises she isn’t happy and decides to stop pretending she is. So she starts a blog about the comings and goings of the building and the scandals that go on there. “She’s a comic character to me. She’s a bit over the top, really, and fun to write.”

There’s also Schiffer Diamond, a middle-aged actress; Annalisa, a socialite who gave up a law career to be a wife; and Enid, an elderly grand lady who has lived at One Fifth Avenue penthouse for decades. One audience member at the lunch said Enid was her favorite character, because Enid was someone who didn’t need a husband or family to be happy.

Of Sex and the City, Ms Bushnell said the characters were autobiographical. She quoted real people and their stories. As to whether she was Carrie Bradshaw, the narrator of Sex and the City, she said there were things in the series that happened to her but they were changed a lot from real life. “Carrie certainly was my alter- ego at the beginning,” she said.

“As a novelist the characters have to be fictional because you have to know everything about your characters.” There were things you wouldn’t know about real people, Ms Bushnell said. “But the characters feel real to me when I’m writing and I think that comes across to the reader.”
She said that in a tv series more so than in novels, the structure strongly dictates the story.

In the series Lipstick Jungle, on which she was an executive producer, there was a 22 to 27 minute story. She said there might be a commercial teaser and five acts, “so six acts”, and the end product must be 50 minutes. The producers could say they were one second over, or take out or put in one second.
She said she decided to be a writer when she was eight years old. “Then it was just a question of doing it and that took about 25 years. You just have to pay your dues.”
She said at 16 or 17 she would go to the library and write stories. She had a copy of Writer’s Market, made copies of her stories and sent them out. She sold a childrens book for $1000. She started writing her column Sex and the City when she was 34 and single, for the New York Observer, she said. “I’ve lived in New York since 1979.” She and her friends “went out, talked about their experiences and laughed about them, and that was the inspiration for Sex and the City”.
She said she knew her column was her big break. “It was pretty much an instant hit in New York.” People would fax it to friends and she received calls from movie companies wanting to make it into a movie. “For me I was really trying to make the column a success in the paper,” she said. “Then HBO ended up buying it and made the pilot.”
Of its success she said, “It wasn’t instant”. “HBO bought it in 1996 and I think we made the pilot in the summer of ’97, then months went by and HBO decided to make the series, and I think started shooting it March of ’98.” She said it was only the second show that HBO bought, followed by The Sopranos. “It was kind of new territory for everybody.”

She said the tv series and movie were extremely collaborative efforts. “For me I just felt very lucky,” she said.

She said that in New York you needed your own 30-second story. “You need a schtick. It’s a place where people go and they make their own stories with their lives and some people’s stories turn out better than others.” They’ll make X decision, she said, or an easy decision, then pay later. “I find that endlessly fascinating.”