Jun 3 - 9, 2004 
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Feature

Helen Fielding and the Overactive Imagination

Bridget Jones' Creator Takes a Stab at the Thriller Genre

By Samantha Scott

Jillian Tamaki

Helen Fielding, the best-selling author of Bridget Jones' Diary, has borne a new literary work. Chardonnay swilling working gal Bridget has stepped aside to allow Olivia Joules passage into the annals of her story.

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination introduces us to its namesake, Olivia Joules: style journalist-turned-international spy. Armed with moxie, a suitcase crammed with maquillage and spook impedimenta, and an overactive imagination that translates into an excellent gut, Olivia follows suspected al Qaeda terrorist/ producer/love interest Pierre Feramo from the white heat of Miami to the bright lights of Hollywood; from the glittering waters of the Central American coast to the deserts of the Sudan. And that's just the beginning of Fielding's new thriller.

Fielding herself will be traveling on a book tour that will bring her to three American cities: New York, Los Angeles and, believe it or not, Albuquerque to promote Oliva Joules and the Overactive Imagination, which will hit American bookstores the day of the Albuquerque event, Monday, June 7. A reading and performance will be given at the KiMo Theatre (423 Central NW) at 6 p.m. The event is being coordinated by Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW, 344-8139) and is cosponsored by Comcast, Relish, Chez d'Or, and It's Just Lunch. Café Voila will provide swanky appetizers. Local performance gurus Tricklock Company will perform selected readings from Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, accompanied by the Reptilian Lounge Late Night Cabaret house band, the Melizmatix. Entrance to the event can be obtained by pre-purchasing the book from Bookworks (bookorders@bkwrks.com or 344-8139).

Purchasing Olivia Joules in advance from Bookworks ensures the owner a spot in the autograph line. Entrance to the event can also be obtained at the door by paying a $5 cover, $4 of which is redeemable towards the cost of purchasing a copy of the novel on the night of the event.

The Alibi recently spoke with Fielding about Olivia Joules, "chick lit" and Fielding's own overactive imagination.

How was your experience as an author different penning this novel in a more structured, narrative thriller style as opposed to the diary format of your previous two novels?

Well, I'm quite serious about learning to do the job of a novelist. I think I've realized that the most important thing that a novel does is that simple thing of making the reader want to know what happens next. The thriller is the purest form of that. That's what a thriller is. I thought that if I taught myself how to write a thriller, then I wouldn't need to steal any more plots from Jane Austen.

While there is a huge departure between the new novel's heroine, Olivia Joules, and Bridget Jones, there also seems to be a lot of common ground between the two characters. What traits would you say the two share?

I think that Olivia and Bridget have certain things in common. I think Bridget was the side of me that I didn't want to admit to and Olivia is more the kind of girl I'd like to be. They're both coming from the same place. They're both very human and flawed but Olivia has decided not to worry about what other people think, which isn't to say that she doesn't get bothered by insecurity. She's made herself a list of Rules for Living.

I think my favorite Rules for Living were, “If you start regretting something and thinking ’I should have done ...' always add, ’but then I might have been run over by a lorry or blown up by a Japanese-manned torpedo,'”and “Never panic. Stop, breathe, think."

I'm glad you liked those. I thought it was good to put things in that I've found useful myself.

An underlying moral theme?

Yes. [Olivia] is the same as Bridget in that she's always trying to improve. She's always reaching out for things to help her to do things right. Also, she observes things in the same way that Bridget does. Olivia will go to a party and stand back and watch.

She's very analytical.

Yet, she's also quite kind.

That was one of her rules, wasn't it? Be honest and kind.

Also, I think Bridget was quite kind through all her foibles. She does get into a mess every now and then but she doesn't blame anyone other than herself and I think Olivia is like that.

I read that you felt your mother influenced and inspired your renowned turn-of-phrase. You've recently taken on the role of mother, right?

Yes, he's 13 weeks old. It's wonderful. He's the most perfect, beautiful child that the world has ever seen. He's lovely.

Well, congratulations. Do you think your art and the choices you'll make in choosing projects will shift in relation to your new role as a mother?

Yes, I do. I mean, I'm very lucky in that I can work at home, but even if I have someone to help me look after him in the next room, it's very difficult. But, at least it means that even if I am working I can sort of pop in there. I used to always go pop in to the fridge. Now, I can pop in on my son instead.

Your aforementioned turn-of-phrase seems to be paralleled by your witty coinages. Bridget Jones introduced the terms "singleton" and "smug-marrieds" to the masses. As I understand it, those terms have been accepted as part of the British vernacular. My favorite two coinages in Olivia Joules were "autowitter" and "be-portholed." I'm wondering if there are any recent semiotic creations you could grace us with?

Oh, the other one that's in the book is "Undercover Bitch." You know, those are the women who sort of pretend to be nice but they're not really. "Mentionitis" is another one.

What is "mentionitis?"

Mentionitis is when—actually, I've got mentionitis with the baby at the moment—it's when you've got a crush on somebody or when you know that someone's got a crush on somebody and everything they say relates to that person. What Kevin [Curran] and I call it is "baby-centric." Everything refers back to the baby.

While I know "chick lit," which you're considered by many to be the modern prime mover of ...

Barbara Walters called me the "grandmother of chick lit."

I'd say neo-mother.

I didn't want to be the grandmother.

How would you respond to feminist critics who criticize the "chick lit" genre or your characterizations of women?

I think the thing that happens with me is that I don't intend to be controversial but writing is such a private thing that I start by writing what I'm thinking or imagining but wouldn't necessarily admit to other people. And then, when it comes out, people do get indignant—especially those who haven't got much of a sense of humor. The thing about irony is that it's layers of things that you're laughing at. You're sort of laughing at yourself thinking that that wouldn't be appropriate. In fact, I put in Bridget Jones "There's nothing so unattractive to a man than a strident feminist." It was all part of what you think but wouldn't really admit to. It was about the complication of being a postfeminist woman if being a feminist is what you want to be and you think you're not very good at it. I think Olivia is controversial because it's an ordinary girl's take on the world we live in and something that's preoccupying all of our thoughts is terrorism and al Qaeda and Bin Laden so it's kind of like opening up that can and taking out that fear out into the air and starting to laugh at our own fear. To me, it's a way of putting it in perspective if we're able to laugh at ourselves. I suppose that comes partly from British history and backs to the wall and the Blitz and all the rest of it. It was very much part of the British psyche, so I'm sure that some people will find that not to their taste. It just happens to be the way I look at things and Olivia herself has one of her rules for living is that when you're in a tight spot, look on the bright side. Or if you can't look on the bright side, at least look on the funny side.

Right. Or if "neither of the above works then maybe it is a disaster so turn to items one and four?"

Hopefully, it hasn't got to that point yet. Hopefully, we can still look on the bright side, on the funny side. I do think it's important. I think it gives people a sense of confidence. If you've still got a sense of humor, then it means you're still in control.

Within the book, there seems to be a theme of the exploration of the cultural differences that have created, in part, the conflicts between the Arab states and America.

I suppose what I was trying to do was to humanize the conflict. I mean, I'm not a political writer but on the other hand, my first novel (Cause Celeb) was set at a refugee camp and when I worked for the BBC, I spent a lot of time in the Sudan during the famine in the mid-'80s. I spent a lot of time in the Muslim Arab countries and have a knowledge of and affection for the people there and how they live. I guess what I was trying to do in the book is not make the characters one-dimensional. So, the character who Olivia suspects of being al Queda, [Pierre Feramo], I humanized him and actually read up a lot about the Arab countries.

Didn't you also research for the book by meeting with former spies?

Yes. And so, I guess Olivia, too, had spent time in the Sudan and she doesn't see the Arab people as an enemy and understands the way they're thinking. I think she's saying that that's what's needed, a bit more tact. In the character Pierre Feramo, I tried to show what it is that offends an Arab man and the qualities he is attracted to in Olivia. He respects tradition. He respects history and he finds it difficult to understand why America looks forward and is always looking for the newest thing. When he comes to Los Angeles, he is horrified by overt sexuality and the pursuit of money and fame. These all go very contrary to his beliefs. He's a very charming man. He does have some very serious flaws—as Olivia says, falling for a man like that is the sort of thing that could happen to anyone—apart from him being a terrorist. So, yes, I'm glad you noticed that because I was definitely trying to not be superficial about this.

I definitely feel like you achieved that and you achieved that within a book that you want to read in one sitting.

That's exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted it to be the kind of book you want to read on the beach and the kind of book I want to read on the beach. I wanted to whip through it, but I also wanted it to be about something in modern life.

Something that's really on everyone's mind?

Yes but then it's a delicate balancing act because I think the thing for me is that humor tends to come from things that are dark, serious and painful. In a way, that's what humor is. It comes out of that. So, (Cause Celeb), was a comedy set in a refugee camp. The next book (Bridget Jones' Diary), was really about a disenfranchised group of women, single women in their 30s at that point didn't have an identity and were subjected to very cruel comments and pigeonholing. So, that is quite painful and struggling with the biological clock and ...

Expectations?

Yes. I think that was very hard for that group of women at that time. I think [terrorism] is a difficult and painful subject, but I think the thing that led me to writing it was that late in the '90s, it was easy to be quite inward-looking. ... Now, after 9-11, I find myself making a sort of disaster kit for the back of the car with things like axes and ropes in it. You think, how would I cope if there were an attack? Would I be brave? Would I go to pieces? Would I make good decisions? I think that's what all of us are thinking now. I mean the last time we got a lot of spy fiction was in the Cold War, you know, the Bond characters. When you've got an enemy in a dangerous time, you've got this fantasy hero or heroine. Why not heroine? Why should it always be a hero? You sort of think if they could do it, maybe so could I. It's a comforting thing to have a person who's just using their human resources to take on the enemy. I think when you write novels, you tend to reflect the times. If you're feeling a certain way, the chances are so is everyone else. So, I guess that's how I ended up doing this book.

Is there anything that I haven't touched on that you'd like to share with our readers?

I suppose one of the things that I liked was that thing about CNN, the news. Richard Cole, who's a very funny friend of mine in England, who came out to see me and he just thought it was so funny the way the news is always presented in the form of a riddle. They're small, they're fiercely powerful and they're all over your house ... batteries! I enjoyed doing that sort of thing which I suppose is sort of the same as Bridget, observation.

It's definitely a novel and a thriller and a spy spoof, yet it's also like a satire, don't you think?

Yes, I think it was a little bit looking at modern life in America and England.

So, the film version of the Bridget Jones' Diary has had tremendous success. At box offices alone, the film grossed an estimated $280 million and the film version of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is slated for release this fall, correct?

Yes.

Do you plan to adapt Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination for the screen?

Well, not at the moment. I have my work cut out producing a book and a baby. The first thing will be to get it into the bookshops for people to read it.

And you'll be coming to Albuquerque to do that?

I'm looking forward to it. I haven't spent much time there. I've been to Santa Fe. I really like New Mexico.

It's a beautiful state.

I actually asked if I could come to New Mexico when they were planning the tour. I said, ’Oh, can't we go?' I'm looking forward to it.

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