Monday, January 21, 2013

Candace Bushnell and Her Poodles

Candace Bushnell, who has produced six novels since “Sex and the City,” at her home in Connecticut.
The first time I met Candace Bushnell was at a party she hosted in the Time Warner Center for her husband, the dancer Charles Askegard, who was retiring from the New York City Ballet. Bushnell looked beautiful in a sleeveless Versace cocktail dress that showed off her collarbones, toned arms and radiant, faintly tan skin. She was drinking rosé through a straw.

The next time I met Bushnell was at her airy boho-chic Greenwich Village apartment, where she sat on a thronelike chair, and we talked over tea about her literary legacy. But it wasn’t until the next time that I met Bushnell, at her Roxbury, Conn., home — a short drive from where she trains in dressage — that I realized that spending time with Bushnell is like following a grown woman through a series of disconnected but equally manicured dollhouse rooms into each of which she fits perfectly. Or more simply, a Candace Bushnell fantasy world in which Candace Bushnell is both author and star. 

Bushnell, 54, has produced six novels since “Sex and the City,” few of which have deviated from the formula of “beautiful women navigating love, status and money in New York City,” or the sort of life Bushnell lived in her 20s and 30s. The CW Network recently began airing “The Carrie Diaries,” which is adapted from Bushnell’s novel about a young Carrie Bradshaw, her famous protagonist, growing up in Connecticut and defecting to New York, which Bushnell also happened to do. 

Meanwhile, Bushnell is currently at work on a more serious novel starring a new character — or maybe just an older version of the same character. “It’s about a middle-aged woman,” she said in a vaguely British accent, in a tone that sounded as if she were doing the voice-over for a trailer. “No, it’s about a woman who leaves New York and, I guess, her adventures in the country.” 

A couple of weeks ago, Bushnell greeted me in her Roxbury vacation home with her poodles Pepper and Prancer in a crisp white-and-navy Nordic-style ski sweater. After saying hello, she showed me a spread in Equestrian Quarterly in which she recently appeared, leaning against the white wooden gate to her pool house, so I could get an idea of how the place looked in summer. Her close friend and P.R. manager, Jeanine Pepler, offered me a glass of wine, and the three of us sat by the fire with chardonnay on ice, petting the dogs and cracking unshelled almonds and walnuts. 

If the scene weren’t so genuinely comfortable, it would have been unsettling how perfectly it embodied a certain kind of adolescent girl’s literary fantasies — “Baby-Sitters Club” meets “Sweet Valley High” meets “Sex and the City” meets all those young-adult books about horseback riding and pluck. We talked a little bit about the level of dressage she has advanced to (at one point she acted out a move she’s trying to get her horse to do, and pranced in place in circles). Mainly, though, we talked about her writing. For better or worse, Bushnell and her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw, are figures that young female writers of a certain stripe must in some way confront when considering their literary — and commercial — ambitions. At the very least, there must be some sort of secret to selling millions of books. 

“I know I’m not a wordsmith,” Bushnell said, the afternoon sun shining on her face through a wall of glass doors. “And I don’t write poetry. Sometimes I think I should, because it’s really helpful. But I always wanted to write novels. I think when I was 12, I started reading Evelyn Waugh, and I loved Evelyn Waugh so much, and I thought: This is how the world really is. If I could be Evelyn Waugh, then I would be happy.’ ” 

Bushnell writes at the computer for six hours every day, and she jots notes or bits of dialogue on scrap paper too. “I have these pieces of paper all over the place,” she said, picking up a loose scrap on the coffee table and reading from it. “ ‘I’ve come to extract my revenge, sir,’ ” she said in the vaguely English accent. “ ‘Your revenge? Why, you’re — um — surely a lad — what revenge?’ ‘Silence!’ ‘Speak, boy. Speak of what you speak!’ ” She laughed. “And then — I don’t know. Just notes.” 

In the year or so that passed between our meetings, and in something of a bad “Sex and the City” plot twist, Bushnell and her husband divorced. (He had an affair with a younger ballerina, court papers contend.) The depth to which it bothered her was hard to tell, but what was obvious, amid the continually ringing landline, the dogs sleeping on the bed and the two friends eating a lunch of smoked salmon and chardonnay and telling funny stories about mistakes they’d made, was that she wasn’t going to let it. “There’s so many things that mattered so much in my 20s and 30s that don’t matter now,” Bushnell said. “You don’t have to do everything by the time you’re 30. Or 40. All you need is a work ethic.” Then she paused. “It’s what allows you to push through moments of disappointment and self-doubt and fear.”