Fielding Calls

A reporter’s first interview—with Helen Fielding

Lizzie Skurnick
Oct 18, 2013 · 12 min read

I discovered the joys of Helen Fielding in the late 1990s in my first job, as an editorial assistant at the Book-of-the-Month Club. There, along with much of the editorial staff, I wrote reader’s reports — mini-reviews advising editors whether or not to buy the books — on the side for $50 a pop. I had just settled into writing a baroque treatise detailing why it was not necessary for us to acquire a 750-page thriller about trapped gas under ice in the Arctic when the ARC of Bridget Jones Diary was placed in my hands.

My reader’s report on it was like Ron Popeil offering up his fourth round of Ginsu knives. The book was tight. It was funny. It was Austen homage. There may have been analogies to Welsh butter after a lifetime of margarine.

We bought the book just as it exploded in the U.S., at which point a kind higher-up arranged for me to do an interview with Fielding for our just-launched website. A reporter herself, Fielding extended me a professional courtesy I’ve never forgotten (and certainly hadn’t earned). Though it was ten o’clock after a full day of a multi-city book tour, she gave me excellent quote to go along with her excellent book.

In those fifteen-plus years, I’ve lost most of the hard copy from that pre-internet age. But not my interview with Helen Fielding, and not the ARC of the first book I ever told my boss to buy.


Cigarettes 1 (counts as 1/2 as cadged off co-worker), cups of coffee 1 (excellent; will conquer insomnia as read in Self), turkey burgers successfully eaten for l-tryptophan to reverse spell of jitters set on by Coke sipped to make up for appallingly low amount of caffeine absorbed in morning 1, number of times checked AOL to see if boyfriend is online 8 (poor; must free self from “Buddy List”), Number of IM fights with boyfriend 3 (v. poor, must fight in “safe space,” not “cyberspace”), number of minutes spent reading Camille Paglia in Salon while ostensibly preparing for interview with Helen Fielding appx. 47.

Decide, as research for interview, to trot downtown to see Helen Fielding’s first reading in the U.S., at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble. Muscle through oddly blonde crowd and try to spot author, who is hiding behind CNN cameraman. Find pen for official note-taking journalist stance. Realize official journalistic stance is undermined by fact that, as have forgotten notepad, am writing on the back of employee phone-number sheet from work. Observe HF take to podium—immediately make note to revise theory that all British women dress like Tina Brown/Diana, Princess of Wales/Hyacinth Bucket. Covet HF’s subtly iridescent brown suit, sling-back heels, and tiny gold earrings. Understand must buy shoes like/model life after/triumphantly publish novel at age forty like new guru HF. Completely taken, with rest of packed, sweltering room, with HF’s charm and frequent witticisms. Decide, as first act of homage, to style interview preface like Diary. Suddenly realize all reporters will utilize Bridget-style for articles. V. irritated.

LS: For our members, could you tell us a little about your early career in journalism, and what led you to channel Bridget Jones?

HF: I started out working as a producer for the BBC on a light current affairs program. Over the years I did lots of other things, ranging from documentaries in Africa to a program for two-year-olds. I worked at the BBC for ten years. Then I started doing quite a lot of things in Africa for Comic Relief. I was making documentaries in Sudan and Ethiopia for a fundraising program. And I also worked on a documentary about the war in South Sudan.

Then I decided to leave television because I wanted to write. I’d always wanted to write. With writing, in sharp contrast to television, there’s nothing much between you and what comes out the other end.

I took the plot from ‘Pride and Prejudice’—stole it, as it has been very well market-researched over a number of centuries.

So I started trying to get into newspapers. I remember ringing up the Guardian every week for six weeks asking them if they’d read my article on car burglary alarms; it was always no. Finally I got a contract with the Sunday Times, and started doing big features that were funny observational things.

I left that and wrote my first novel which is set in Africa, Cause Celeb. Then I started writing for the Independent, writing a newspaper column and general features. And they asked me to write a column about myself. Of course I said no, because that’s rather exposing. And they said, “Why don’t you make someone up?”

I’d already been thinking about this sitcom idea with a character like Bridget, who’s got all these big plans and never sticks to them. I was writing my second novel and I needed a bit of cash to help me along, so I said, I’ll do that, it won’t last very long. I didn’t sign it as me, and I didn’t tell anyone it was me.

LS: Did you find that writing the novel in column form had any effect on the arc of the final novel? Were you following current events as you went along?

HF: Yes, and also I think what helps is that normally when you’re writing a novel, you don’t concentrate quite as hard on each thousand words as you do when you’re writing a column. So I ended up with a year’s worth of thousand-word bits that were very intensely written and chewed over. But then of course I wanted it to be a proper story, so I took the plot from Pride and Prejudice—stole it, as it has been very well market-researched over a number of centuries.

If we women can’t laugh at ourselves, and have comic characters without having a panic attack, then we haven’t got very far.

LS: As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Bridget’s dropped-pronoun style is very catchy. I wanted to know if this form of Bridget-speak was deliberate, and if you had any ideas about why it was such an effective style.

HF: Oh, we started talking like that for fun at the Sunday Times. There’s a column in Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, where they pick out self-obsessed column writers by counting up the number of times they say “I” in their pieces. I tried never to say it so that I would never get into there.

And also, my column was supposed to be exactly a thousand words. It’s like filling up the petrol in the car—you always try to get it exactly to land at 20 pounds. Instead of taking out chunks, I just take out words. Unnecessary words. It’s really pushed up the self into the divine.

LS: Now—it’s fuckwittage . . .?

HF: Oh no! It’s the French—fuckwittage, fuckwittage.

HF: Bridget’s certainly haunted. She has a sort of perpetual twenty-four-hour mascara advert running in the back of her head—you know, the idea of whizzing from the gym to the boardroom to the immaculate dinner party for twelve that she’s cooked to wild, simultaneous orgasm with the perfect man.

LS: Oh, good—like sabotage. Now, what is the derivation of fuckwittage?

HF: A friend of mine, whose boyfriend stood her up for relationship counseling, came up with it.

LS: I know in the U.S., at least, there’s been some backlash against her: reviewers have felt that Bridget was not together enough, that the character was almost anachronistic. I was wondering what your view was of all of this.

HF: Well, before I came to America, there was an open letter to Bridget in the Evening Standard saying, “Don’t go [to America], they won’t like it. Americans don’t understand irony.” It’s important to understand that Bridget’s a comic character, an exaggerated, comic character.

If we women can’t laugh at ourselves, and have comic characters without having a panic attack, then we haven’t got very far.

LS: Do you have a favorite view of Bridget-as-media sensation?

HF: I think my favorite would be the Italian reviewer who called it “a transcendental study of existential despair.” I was very excited by my newfound profundity.

My first book was about the Third World [Cause Celeb]; it was set in a refugee camp. But nobody bought that one.

LS: How much of an effect do you think the media has in giving women schizophrenic psyches?

HF: Bridget’s certainly haunted. She has a sort of perpetual twenty-four hour mascara advert running in the back of her head—you know, the idea of whizzing from the gym to the boardroom to the immaculate dinner party for twelve that she’s cooked to wild, simultaneous orgasm with the perfect man.

A British journalist recently said that before Bridget, women everywhere had been getting on with their work and thinking about the Third World, but since the book came out they’ve all begun to smoke and think about men. So I felt a total sense of responsibility, and I was going to write people a warning telling them not to be led astray by this irresponsible book. Also pointing out that my first book was about the Third World [Cause Celeb]; it was set in a refugee camp. But nobody bought that one.

But in fact there’s really good reasons why women would be single in their thirties. They’ve got economic power now, which they didn’t have a hundred years ago, or whenever the expression spinster was coined. They’re not going to compromise if they’ve got a job and their own financial independence and a really great bunch of friends.

LS: Lately, from Ally McBeal to Bridget Jones, it seems that the single woman has become the new “It Girl” . . . why do you think people are seizing on this figure now?

HF: With any of these zeitgeist-y things, there’s always a very good reason. I think a quarter of all households in Britain are single—and yet there was a lack of proper identity for it.

The perception was of the old-fashioned spinster, that if you were single in your thirties, there had to have been some appalling mistakes somewhere along the line. Bridget suffers from the whole why-aren’t-you-married question, to which she always wants to reply, “Because under my clothes, my entire skin is actually covered in scales.”

But in fact there’s really good reasons why women would be single in their thirties. They’ve got economic power now, which they didn’t have a hundred years ago, or whenever the expression spinster was coined. They’re not going to compromise if they’ve got a job and their own financial independence and a really great bunch of friends. I mean, Bridget’s so about the urban family that you create.

LS: Where would you place yourself in the British canon? HF: What cannon? I thought we’d stopped using those with nuclear war.

LS: Let’s talk a little bit more about how the urban family figures in your novel.

HF: Well, a very great inspiration was Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. I was trying to create a generic urban family for Bridget, so she’s got her single friends, her gay friends, her smug married friends, which together form a very strong emotional setup. It’s almost like a tribe. It’s all done over the phone, or email, but they’re still proper, good, lasting relationships that perform a lot of the functions of the family.

That goes back to the question of single women, that they’re not pitiable creatures with barren emotional lives, but quite the opposite.

I have this vision that keeps on popping up, of me in these huge gold spectacles and lip-liner, living in one of those sorts of low-style condominiums, with deep white shag pile carpets, bulbous coffee tables, sort of rustily shouting, “Where’s my stretch limo?”

LS: Do you think young women today feel exhilarated or paralyzed from their increased independence and options?

HF: Well, I think it’s not so much the swinging singles as it is the mood-swinging singles. Going to some wildly elated, Hurrah and everything’s marvelous! state to, I’m going to die alone and be found half-eaten by a dog. But I think that’s not just true for single people—I think for most people it’s a mixture of up and down.

LS: Where would you place yourself in the British canon?

HF: What cannon? I thought we’d stopped using those with nuclear war.

There was a very formal letter to the Independent saying, “Dear Sirs: I would quite like to shag Bridget Jones. Could you let me have her phone number, please? ”

LS: How have you dealt with sudden fame?

HF: And I have this vision that keeps on popping up, of me in these huge gold spectacles and lip-liner, living in one of those sorts of low-style condominiums, with deep white shag pile carpets, bulbous coffee tables, sort of rustily shouting, “Where’s my stretch limo?”

Which is sort of a horrifying thought.

But everything that happened with this book happened in less than a year, and I’ve been very very busy just doing stuff with it, like promotions and all that. And I loved being on tour in America, just because people in America have been so generous with Bridget. I think it’s much easier being on tour when you get on the bestseller list and people laugh at you rather than sit in appalled silence. It’s just fantastic to go to San Francisco and stay in a lovely hotel and have tea with Armistead Maupin. It’s heady and glamorous, and I think anyone who’s been a journalist for years and years—as we all know it’s quite a slog, though not as much of a slog as other people’s lives—would be mad not to think this is a great time and just enjoy it, even if I can’t always find the hotel light-switch.

If I knew so many people were going to read it, I probably wouldn’t have written it—or been quite so cheeky.

LS: What’s your favorite response so far?

HF: Well, there was a very formal letter to the Independent saying, “Dear Sirs: I would quite like to shag Bridget Jones. Could you let me have her phone number, please? Yours faithfully, etc.”

It was so formal, and it was the ‘quite’ I liked—that was really nice.

LS: Have you had any really strange responses to Bridget?

HF: I did get some quite odd letters from elderly British colonels, with a few perfunctory paragraphs about the freshness of the prose, and then four pages about the way Bridget’s blouse brushes against her breasts.

But what I find most strange is the over-analysis of the book—it’s just quite strange when you wrote something lightly. I mean, OK, I thought about the structure; I thought about the urban family; but that’s kind of as far as it went.

If I knew so many people were going to read it, I probably wouldn’t have written it—or been quite so cheeky.

There is some of her in me, otherwise I couldn’t write it. But there’s also probably a lot of her in other people. The other thing I sometimes say is that I don’t drink or smoke and I’m a virgin, which is true.

LS: So about how many times would you say you’ve been asked if you’re Bridget?

HF: Let’s see…five times a day, times three-hundred and sixty-five…two thousand. About two thousand. [Laughs.] A lot of times.

LS: Have you settled on a stock response, or do you just make up a new one each time?

HF: I have two. I have two bullet points. It depends on whom I’m talking to, really; it depends on the situation. If a person says, “Are you Bridget Jones?” at the point when I’m about to leave for America and half of my clothes are in my suitcase and half of them are on the floor and I have to ring up the suitcase help-line to find out how to open the suitcase, I think I’d have a hard time saying no with a straight face.

But the truth is, there is some of her in me, otherwise I couldn’t write it. But there’s also probably a lot of her in other people. The other thing I sometimes say is that I don’t drink or smoke and I’m a virgin, which is true.

LS: I know you’re working on a sequel; could you tell us a little bit about that?

HF: Well, you know, I’ve done two years of the column since I finished the book, so in some ways it’s almost done, but I’m still not quite sure how the book is going to go. One of the things is that Bridget goes on a holiday to Thailand with Shazzer, where she meets this really great guy when all their luggage and money get stolen. He’s really sweet to them, and gives them money, tickets and a bag to take in. Then of course when Bridget goes through Customs, the bag is full of cocaine, and she has to go to a Bangkok jail until Mark Darcy comes to get her out.

LS: Did you steal another plot?

HF: I’m still crafting the plot. But I’m thinking of Persuasion.

LS: This is my one gossipy question, but everyone always wants to know. Are you currently involved?

HF: Well, again, I have a stock response. The thing that drives Bridget nuts is people asking, “How’s your love life?”

Lizzie Skurnick was some age she can’t even remember. She thanks you for your patience.

Open Ticket

Essays. Fiction. Memoir. Sundries. Driving across the country. Meeting Truman Capote. Late-night radio, without the static.

Thanks to Kate Lee

    Lizzie Skurnick

    Written by

    Lizzie Skurnick is the author of "Shelf Discovery" and "That Should Be a Word." She writes for Times, NPR, Elle, the Daily Beast and many other outlets.

    Open Ticket

    Essays. Fiction. Memoir. Sundries. Driving across the country. Meeting Truman Capote. Late-night radio, without the static.

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