Really disarming. Writing is such a private activity, you’re on your own for such a long time every day. So for the past five years I’ve just been at home, wearing pyjamas and listening to the Girl from Ipanima and Miles Davies and writing away. Then suddenly you’re out in the open and you do feel a bit exposed. I think I’d never realized how shy I am. I mean, with my friends and family I’m not really, but then when you’re talking to strangers you suddenly realize that you’re quite a private person.
And I guess that must be even more so as your book at least appears to be so autobiographical. Do people find it difficult to separate the Shannon in the book from you the real Shannon?
People who are writers themselves instantly get that Shannon in the book isn’t me. But for other people it can be harder. They can’t really understand that you create composite characters and events, and as well as drawing on my own experiences I’ve also used my friends’ stories and things. But the emotions at the heart of the book are all me. I’ve had women tell me that it feels like Shannon is their new best friend, which is just so nice.
But it’s not just you. Your mum really is called Flo, like the mum in the book. Is she okay with that?
Well, the main thing is that my mum is just really really proud. And the Garrison Keillor quote where he says that she’s one of the greatest mothers in American literature just made everything fine. After that, she can’t really complain! And, you know, her friends have read the book and they just say she IS Flo, but also that they recognize so much of themselves in the book, too. So I guess Flo in the book is really this archetypal mother. But they also recognize themselves at 20. I’ve had women of 70 say they see themselves in Shannon, which is great.
In the book, Shannon has this sort of ‘grown up’ life which gradually she sheds and ends up moving back to live with her mum. Did you do that in real life, too?
Yes. I’m from this generation when doing that was really quite common. The American economy is really strong at the moment, so college graduates are walking into these great jobs, but when I left university it wasn’t like that. You had graduates who couldn’t even get the sort of jobs they’d had in their vacations. So quite a lot of people ended up moving back home. And I guess no one really wants to be a grown up – until you go back to the life you had as a child again and realize that maybe independence and standing on your own feet isn’t so bad and maybe you don’t want to be mothered to within an inch of your life after all!
You say that writing the book was almost like a therapy, a way of working through your twenties. Do you think, as you knew your mother would read it, it was also a way to tell her how you feel about her?
Well, I’ve always talked to my mum about everything. We’re really close. Most people do their rebellion thing at 13, but I never really did – we just had this relationship where she knew everything about me. So in a way the book was a way of working towards independence and learning what to filter out from the things that people tell you. At the end of the book, Shannon comes away with this lesson of not telling her mum everything and I think that’s true for me, too. So I don’t think anything in the book came as a surprise to her, but, yes, I guess it was a nice thing.
But to your therapist, you can still tell everything?
I suppose what you get from your therapist is the objective view. It’s great because you can just get everything out and there isn’t the same emotional involvement. There’s this bit in the book where Shannon accuses her therapist of sounding just like her mother, and the therapist is like ‘and …?’ So I suppose it is a bit of an extension of the mother-daughter relationship too.
Has your therapist read the book?
Yes – and she’s said things like ‘I never said that!’ But the thing is that the therapist in the book really becomes a sort of inner voice for Shannon – like her alter ego. So by the end she’s working things through for herself, and the therapy sessions are her commentary on her life.
So, echoes of the Tracey Ullman character in Ally McBeal …?
Well, she’s never given me a theme tune or anything!
But you have the Girl from Ipanema …
Yes, but she’s never sung to me – although sometimes she does just really go for me in that way. I love that therapist character, though.
I think that one of the most moving things about the book is its honesty. Books like Bridget Jones do strike a chord, but at the end of the day it’s written as a comic novel and you can keep your distance from it. Welcome to my Planet is witty and entertaining, but when you put it down at the end it stays with you and I think that’s because of the truth in it.
Yes, although even when I was reading Bridget Jones, I’m one of those people who looked at Helen Fielding’s photo on the jacket and then imagined Helen Fielding running around doing all those things.
So is the book jacket image the same sort of thing on Welcome?
Yes – I think of her as the cartoon Shannon! She’s great. And you know, her t-shirt is the same shape as a map of Minnesotta. Juliet (my UK editor) says I’m really over-estimating the Brit knowledge of American geography, but I love it! And I love the dog, too.
But no picture of the Kayaking guy …?
No. In fact, the Kayaking guy wasn’t in the original manuscript but then my US editor said ‘we need some romance’ – and so there he was.
And have you had guys coming up to you now and going ‘hey, I can Kayak, you know!’
Yes, actually! I went out for a meal with this guy and he got a bit drunk after a couple of margueritas and started saying, I could come to London with you, I can Kayak, and all this stuff. And I’ve had letters from people …
So, he’s out there!
I hope so! I think there’s a part of me that thinks if you dream it, then they will come true.
So maybe one day you’ll find a parking space for your scooter?
I think the thing with being an adult is that you don’t really get to park – you just have to