Bridget Jones is back after a 14-year absence, somewhat bruised but as optimistic and chatty as ever.
British author Helen Fielding introduced Bridget in 1996 in the international best-seller “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and overnight became the godmother of the chick-lit subgenre. Bridget was lovable but ditzy, a 30-something single professional obsessed with losing weight, giving up smoking and looking for love in all the wrong places, which at the time was a fresh template in pop fiction. Bridget loves to tell all, recording her misadventures in an open, stream-of-consciousness style in her diary. The 2001 film adaptation starred Renée Zellweger as Bridget and Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, Bridget’s soul mate.
At the end of the plot-crazy 1999 sequel, “The Edge of Reason,” it looks like Bridget and Mark are bound for the marriage altar at last. The 2004 movie once again starred Zellweger and Firth.
Now, in the new “Mad About the Boy” (Knopf, $26.95, 400 pages), we meet Bridget 2.0. She’s 51 and the widowed mother of two young children. Five years earlier, husband Mark Darcy was killed while on an assignment in Darfur. The older Bridget has moved into the digital age, using social media to flirt with men 20 years her junior and again to share her life’s journey with her friends and her digital diary.
“Basically, Bridget likes being naughty,” said Fielding, 55. But her goal remains the same: Find Mr. Right – again.
These days, Fielding lives in London and continues to work on the stage musical of “Diary.” “We’ve done lots of workshops, and they’re good fun, but to get everybody together at the same place and same time is a lot,” she said.
I caught up with her by phone from the Clift Hotel in San Francisco.
Your fans are thrilled to see Bridget again.
I find it touching that people still want to read about her. (When the book was released) they were so upset about (the death of Bridget’s husband) that it was in all the newspapers and on the 10 o’clock news in England. First the Syria crisis, then Mark Darcy is dead.
Like the new Bridget, you’re a working writer in your 50s and the mother of two with an absent husband (the couple is separated).
When I first started writing Bridget, I was horrified that people connected me to the character. I’m very private, and then I made up this very exaggerated comic character. Of course, everyone thought it was me, so it was magnified a million times.
Now I’m a bit more relaxed. The diary form is so emotionally honest I’d find it hard to write about something that was a long way from my own circumstances. Sadly, given the amount of excitement Bridget has in this book, it’s not a memoir. Like “Diary,” it’s mostly a hodgepodge of stories people have told me, things I’ve seen around me, and things that could happen or almost happened to me. The comedy comes from the emotional truth at the bottom of it.
You’ve said “Mad About the Boy” didn’t start out as a Bridget novel.
Right, it was going to be about a woman who finds herself on the dating scene after the whole landscape has changed and is having to rediscover herself as a woman later in life. She turned into Bridget, who has to learn how to get back into the dating scene. She still loves self-help books, so she studies dating books (listed) on amazon.com and tries to distill that world into a new set of dating rules. Her No. 1 new dating rule is, “Do not text when drunk.”
Has Bridget evolved?
She still has the same insecurities and still senses there’s a big gap between how she’s supposed to be and how she actually is. But now there’s more things to apply it to, like how many Twitter followers she has vs. how many she thinks she’s supposed to have.
Feminists criticized the Bridget character when she debuted. Any heat over “Mad About the Boy”?
Feminism is about being equal, and we haven’t gotten very far if we’re afraid to laugh at ourselves. I tell Bridget’s age for the first time, just because of the shock it would cause: “How dare a woman of that age behave like this!” Bridget is not the secretary of state for women, she’s just a comic character. But I am saying that women do not just disappear as they get older. They are still sexual beings, still full of fun and life.
Why does Bridget stir such passionate reactions from readers, pro and con?
I don’t honestly know. Initially, I was really surprised because I thought I was just writing nonsense. Maybe it has something to do with the age we live in, where there is so much artifice. Bridget has a level of emotional honesty that some people find unacceptable, and some find funny and something they can identify with. She’s dealt with some tough stuff, but still finds the joy in life.
“Diary” was a modernization of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” What about “Mad About the Boy”?
I thought I’d grown up and made it my own this time, but it’s still stuck to the Jane Austen marriage plot. What I’ve got again is a buttoned-up romantic hero who needs the earthy, fun-loving joie de vivre of a Bridget. These two people spend almost a whole book arguing over children and parenting, and not recognizing each other.
Bridget’s love interest is Scott Wallaker, a teacher at her son’s school. When he and Bridget get together, the pages of the book catch on fire.
The funny thing about that scene was that Mr. Wallaker is the name of a teacher at my own son’s school – Andrew Walliker. I used “Mr. Wallaker” all the way through the book because it’s such a good-sounding name, thinking I would change it. … But when it came to publication time, I couldn’t think of another name that worked so well.
So I rang up Mr. Walliker himself and asked, “Can I use your name?” He roared in laughter and said, “Of course.” I said, “But you’ve got a sex scene with Bridget, what about all the boys at school?” He laughed even more and said, “It will be hilarious.” Now he’s become a minor celebrity in England. He’s been on the BBC and is doing interviews.
Try this: There’s a knock on your hotel room door. You open it, and there stands Bridget Jones. What do you do?
We go downstairs to the Redwood Room bar, what do you think? And we leave our cell phones behind.