TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Watching the Justin Bieber craze makes you wonder, or maybe it makes you remember, what's it like to be a tween or teen in love with a pop idol. That's the state of mind that Allison Pearson penetrates in her new novel, "I Think I Love You."
The novel opens in 1974 and gets deep into the mind of Petra, a 13-year-old girl in Wales in love with pop star David Cassidy, who had the hit song "I Think I Love You" and also starred in the TV series "The Partridge Family," about a mother and her five children who play in a band together.
(Soundbite of song, "Come On, Get Happy")
THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY (Music Group): (Singing) Hello, world, there's a song that we're singing. Come on, get happy. A whole lot of lovin' is what we'll be bringing. We'll make you happy.
GROSS: The second part of Allison Pearson's novel takes place in 1998, when Petra is divorcing and raising a daughter and ends up meeting the writer responsible for many of the David Cassidy fan magazine articles that Petra studied religiously as a teen, articles that helped manufacture Cassidy's image.
"I Think I Love You" is Allison Pearson's second novel. Her first, the bestseller "I Don't Know How She Does It," is about a working mother who can't manage the change of gears between home and the office.
Allison Pearson, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start by asking you to do a short reading from the first chapter of "I Think I Love You." Would you briefly just set it up for us before you read?
Ms. ALLISON PEARSON (Author, "I Think I Love You"): This is Petra in her bedroom at home, in 1974. She's 13 years old, and she's reflecting on her plan to eventually get together and meet David Cassidy.
(Reading) The cancellation of the David Cassidy tour at the start of 1974 was a bitter blow, but it also came as a relief. It gave me more time to perfect my plan for meeting David, when he came later to London in the year, maybe autumn.
He would call it the fall, which seemed perfect for me. I knew that somehow, I would have to travel to London or Manchester because Wales was so small, it had no concert venue big enough to hold all the fans. I wasn't sure how I would get there: no money, no transport, a mother who disapproved of pop stars. But once I got there and was safely outside the concert hall, I knew that everything would be fine.
I would be hit by a car, not a serious injury, obviously, just bad enough to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. David would be told about my accident, and he would rush to my bedside. Things would be awkward at first, but we would soon get talking, and he would be amazed by my in-depth knowledge of his records, particularly the B-sides.
David would be impressed by my command of American. Jeez, he would smile and invite me to his house in Hawaii, where I would meet his seven horses, and there would be garlands around our necks, and we would kiss and get married on the beach. I was already worried about my flip-flops.
Yes, it was a kind of madness. It didn't last all that long, not in the great scheme of a life, but while I loved him, he was the world entire.
GROSS: That's Allison Pearson, reading from her new novel "I Think I Love You."
So of all the teen idols in the world, why did you choose David Cassidy?
Ms. PEARSON: I think the truthful answer is he was around at the time. I mean, you can usually date a woman by...
GROSS: At what time, when you were 13?
Ms. PEARSON: I was 13 in 1974, and he bestrode my teenage world like a colossus in a white jumpsuit with silver embroidery. Girls slightly younger tended to be Donny Osmond girls or Michael Jackson girls. But for my generation, it tended to be David Cassidy or, in America, it was Bobby Sherman, I know.
GROSS: So was "The Partridge Family" big in Wales when you were growing up?
Ms. PEARSON: It was broadcast very infrequently, and so it was very frustrating to us. I know in the States, it was on Friday evenings, and it was a big deal, but it was only broadcast intermittently. So we felt very lucky if it was ever on.
But David Cassidy started to feature very heavily in the fan magazines, and I would get, you know, one magazine a week, which was my sort of research material on him. And another feature of the teen fan, I think, is that you muster all this information.
You become a kind of rabbinical scholar of the material just in case, you know, David Cassidy happened to be in South Wales, which was 5,000 miles away from his home in California. But, of course, you never knew when the moment might come, and you would need to have all the facts of him at your disposal so he would like you better.
In fact, I taught myself lots of American expressions, which Petra does in the book, just so he wouldn't sort of think that you were a stupid Welsh girl.
You know, the things that - you know, Americans say mad meaning angry, not crazy; and bathroom, not loo, all these, you know, these crucial distinctions which were going to endear me to him.
GROSS: So you studied the fanzines, you know, the David Cassidy magazines and the pop magazines, to see what did you need to know about him so that he would love you.
You have a lot of that kind of writing in your book, and I don't know: Did you write the fan magazine stuff that's in your novel, or is that actually borrowed word-for-word from real magazines?
Ms. PEARSON: Some of it was borrowed from magazines, and some of it was improvised by me. The book starts with a cutting, which I absolutely love, which came from a real magazine, and I found it, and it was called "How to Kiss: Part Two." And even more hilariously, at the end, it said: Next week, "How to Kiss: Part Three."
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARSON: I thought: Oh my God. How complicated can this thing be? And one thing that struck me, because I bid on eBay for lots of these magazines of that era, and one thing that struck me was how much fear these magazines put into the young female reader because it's always, you know, how to be popular, you know, worried that your neck's too long, or your knees are too knobbly(ph) or whatever.
So all of these magazines, with the purpose of apparently encouraging you, make you feel worse and worse, and I don't know if you can cast your mind back to being 13, but the teenage girl feels probably the most horrible creature on the planet when she's 13 anyway. It's such a difficult age, I think.
GROSS: Let me read an excerpt of that "How to Kiss: Part Two," that begins your book. And this from Sixteen magazine, a real magazine. (Reading) Don't make these mistakes. One, don't be nervous. So you're nervous already, reading that, right?
Two, don't spend too much time practicing so that's all you can think about when the time comes. Three, don't look flustered or nervous. Don't look as though you're afraid.
Four, don't close your eyes all the way, until you're sure your lips are going to meet his and his lips are going to meet yours. He may be just as nervous as you, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Like, there's so much to worry about with just, like, a kiss. So one of the things that Petra reads in one of the articles about what David likes, what David Cassidy likes, is that David likes girls with sparkling free and easy personalities, blah, blah, blah. Most of all, he likes girls who are fun. He likes girls who are individuals, who never try to be like anyone else.
And she thinks to herself: Well, I don't even know who I am yet.
Ms. PEARSON: Well, she's the unformed self. And I think one of the challenges of - in the first part of the book was recreating that 13-year-old mindset when you're still constructing yourself, aren't you? You're still wondering who you are. And, of course, it was trying to get that kind of feeling of transparency, of looking back to that young girl.
One thing that did give me pause for thought, when I told my female friends now that I was writing about a 13-year-old girl, without exception they all said: I would not go back to being 13 for a million pounds. So I think it's a - you know, it's a uniquely vulnerable and quite traumatic age to be, particularly given the friendship groups at school.
GROSS: Part of your novel is set at one of the magazines that cranks out all this David Cassidy fan literature. And the main writer, who writes the David Cassidy stuff, is so cynical about it. It's not what he wants to be doing. It's not the music he likes. He's not writing anything he believes. He's never even met David Cassidy, yet he's pretending to either be David Cassidy or to know everything about David Cassidy.
Did you visit any of the teen magazines before writing this?
Ms. PEARSON: No, I didn't, but I heard about this guy whose job on one of the magazines was to airbrush out David Cassidy's pimples because he famously had very sort of stress acne. And originally, when I started writing the book, I was trying to write it all through the 13-year-old girl's perspective, but I wanted to introduce these deeper, more satirical scenes, about the way the girls are manipulated, and I just couldn't do it through Petra's young voice because she's all blind trust and romantic yearning. And I thought: How am I going to introduce any of this cynicism?
And I went to an Osmonds and Cassidy reunion concert with a friend of mine who is a rock critic, and Tim was sitting next to me in the dark, and I could see he was scribbling down all these kind of hilarious comments about, why are all these women screaming? You know, what is going on on the stage? What is this strange thing?
And of course, that gave me Bill. I suddenly saw Bill, who will be the journalist writing the David Cassidy letters to the fans, thinking: Who the hell is this American Nancy-boy that's driving all these girls wild? You know, he looks like a girl. He can't even sing.
So I wanted to get in that male bewilderment at this sort of female teen phenomenon.
GROSS: When did you realize that the person you invested so much romantic fantasy in, David Cassidy, didn't really exist in the sense that the David Cassidy you loved was really manufactured? I'm not saying David Cassidy isn't a real person, but that presence that you fell in love with was manufactured.
Ms. PEARSON: I don't think I thought about it at the time at all because I think that this teen-idol phase probably lasts for about - between nine months and a year and a half. It doesn't last very long.
And I think that the love for them is incredibly powerful. It's like a tsunami. But then it goes out like the tide. It just - it just disappears, and you don't think about it.
It was much later in life, I think in 2004, I was asked to go and interview David Cassidy by the magazine I worked for, and I bought his autobiography, "Come On, Get Happy." And of course, I started reading that, and it was absolutely jaw-dropping stuff about groupies and, you know, the kind of life he had.
And what struck me, Terry, so forcefully, was that, as a grown woman and the mother of two children, I was not shocked by what he was writing about. But I could feel within myself, the 13-year-old girl who had loved him was really shocked.
And I thought: Now isn't that interesting? We carry our younger selves with us our whole lives, and we can measure out of lives somewhat by music we've loved or icons we've loved. So that was my first kind of real vertiginous falling perception, that this creature David Cassidy that I had loved was a manufactured being.
I mean, he was as much a victim of it as the girls were. And I thought there was something darker there to tap into.
GROSS: Did that interview inspire the book, or were you already planning on writing your book?
Ms. PEARSON: I was already planning on writing the book. And in a way, going to see him was me testing myself to see what my kind of reaction to it would be because I thought that - as a fictional writer, I thought that would be very interesting.
And one of the things I remembered about him - in fact, I realized that I remembered more about David Cassidy than about guys I'd actually been out with. And I had read, when I was a child, that his favorite color was brown.
And so for about 18 months of my precious adolescence, I had worn brown; and of course, I looked absolutely dreadful in brown because I was a very sallow, a skinny little girl. I looked yellow in brown.
But going to Florida to see him, I remember thinking: Should I wear brown to this interview? I was thinking: Do I go as the woman I am now, or do I go as my younger self? I mean, it was just - it was this confusion. You know, who is it I'm taking to interview?
And in the cab on the way to David Cassidy's house, I remember thinking: Please don't let me pity him. I thought: I can deal with any reaction, but I just don't want to pity him, you know, because it was very important to me that someone who had, you know, had loomed so large in my imagination.
But of course, the other thing, the book isn't just about David Cassidy. The book is about love and its delusions. And really, that's the conclusion that Petra comes to later.
You know, when she says to Bill, later on, when they're grownups: It was all fake. It didn't mean anything. It was just ridiculous. And he says: No, it was a wonderful love story, and you told it to yourself with all your heart, and you made it true.
So we go on telling ourselves love stories with all our heart, and we can make them true.
GROSS: But, you know, the love story you told yourself about David Cassidy, and you say that those teen-idol love stories become a narrative, like your first real, like, romance narrative. Was that a good template to build a genuine relationship on? Like, where did that lead you in real life?
Ms. PEARSON: Well, of course, no, it isn't a good template to base it on. And in fact, in the second part of the book, when Petra's a grownup, she's emerging from a marriage where she has married a man who is another fantastical projection, who is a glamorous cellist and a very brilliant, charismatic figure but really not the man for her, a man who has made her, a brilliant cellist, feel like she's playing second fiddle. So she's made another bad choice.
I'm not saying in the book that the teen-idol template is necessarily the one we carry with us. But I do think it's a dress rehearsal for love, and I do think that it's a safe place for a young girl to put her deep affections because the guy in the poster on the wall is never going to hurt you. You know, it's trying out love for size, really.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist and newspaper columnist Allison Pearson. She wrote the bestselling novel "I Don't Know How She Does It" and the new novel "I Think I Love You." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Allison Pearson, author of the bestseller "I Don't Know How She Does It" and the new novel "I Think I Love You." It begins in 1974, when the main character, Petra, is obsessed with pop idol David Cassidy. Then the novel fast-forwards to 1998, when Petra is divorcing and raising a daughter.
The mother in your book, the main character in your book, thinks that she doesn't want her daughter wasting her life hating her body. And her biggest fear about her daughter is that she'll be anorexic.
You have a daughter who's how old?
Ms. PEARSON: She just turned 15.
GROSS: What are your fears about your daughter and the kinds of problems that teenage girls face nowadays?
Ms. PEARSON: Well, my daughter is, as Petra in the novel, she is going through her teen-idol phase. So she was staring last night at the latest Justin Bieber bible. So she's scrutinizing that, and she's absolutely in love with Robert Pattinson, the vampire in the "Twilight" books. And so I'm - I think I'm facing becoming a mother-in-law to a vampire, Terry...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARSON: ...is my forthcoming... I'm not quite sure of him as a son-in-law. We'll have to get married in the dark, I think, won't she?
I think that what struck me, digging deep into my own memories of those years, is the astounding vulnerability of it and that self, as you've said, you know, inventing itself.
And I think even though they're bombarded with different things now, I mean, my childhood was so boring compared to Evie's(ph) childhood. I mean, Evie's bedroom looks like Cape Canaveral. I mean, honestly, it's got a computer and iPhone and iPod. And, you know, I had a little, tiny, you know, Motorola record player and a few, just a few records, you know, some soundtracks from "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music," and of course a couple of Beatles albums and David Cassidy, of course.
So we didn't have very much. I think these idols dominated our imaginations in a way that the more distracted, modern, teen imagination is not quite so dominated.
But the fears are still the same, you know, her having the courage to become her own best self, not being intimidated or defeated by the group around her as she struggles to find popularity.
I think the female is programmed to pick up information which will help her get, you know, get knowledge about the world and will make her popular. I think it's - you know, I think it's extremely fundamental. I think it's - you know, it's hard-wired, I think, really.
So wither her, with Evie, I suppose I would want her to have confidence in her young self and to feel that, you know, she is pretty and attractive. But, of course, that's a doomed hope because, you know, she's a young girl, and she'll say, you know, I'm not the cleverest, I'm not the prettiest, I'm not the most popular.
So I think the lesson that Petra learns as the mother in the novel is that the little child, you can make the world safe for them, but once they're a teenager, you can't really protect from this stuff. They have to learn it for themselves.
GROSS: You have a couple of lines about cliques. Would you read that for us?
Ms. PEARSON: This is Petra reflecting on the fact that she has recently been admitted to queen bee Jillian's group with mixed consequences.
(Reading) You chose the kind of friends you wanted because you hoped you could be like them and not like you. To improve your image, you made yourself more stupid and less kind. As the months passed, the tradeoff for belonging started to feel too great, the shutting down of some vital part of yourself just so you could be included on the shopping trip into town, not have to sit on your own at lunch or have someone to walk home with.
Now, among friends, you are often lonelier than you had been before. The hierarchy of girls was so much more brutal than that of boys. The boys battled for supremacy out on the pitch, and after, they showered away the harm. The girls played dirtier. For girls, it was never just a game.
GROSS: Did you do things that you wished you hadn't to get in with a clique when you were 13?
Ms. PEARSON: I think one of the autobiographical things in the book, which I remember with such a sort of electric shock of pain, is that our Jillian in our group - I remember saving up my pocket money to buy her a special Mary Quant eye-shadow compact and handing it over and thinking that by giving her this generous gift, you know, my young life would be transformed: I would become the close friend. Jillian and I would be, you know, invited round to her fabulous house to listen to records and so on.
And about a week or so after I had given her this gift for her birthday, one of the other girls in the group produced the eye-shadow compact in the girls' bathroom at school, and she said: Oh, Jillian gave this to me. Isn't she fabulous?
Oh, Terry, my God. Everything I was went - fell down a mineshaft of humiliation and misery. So I put that in.
I think you should always, to make the connection with the reader, if you can, always put in those moments you can hardly bear, even in retrospect.
GROSS: My guest, Allison Pearson, will be back in the second half of the show. Her new novel is called "I Think I Love You." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Allison Pearson, author of the bestseller "I Don't Know How She Does It," about a working mother that is been adapted into a film starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Pearson's new novel, "I Think I Love You," opens in 1974, when the main character, Petra, is 13 and obsessed with pop star David Cassidy. Then the novel fast forwards to when Petra is raising a daughter of her own. Allison Pearson has a daughter who is 15.
You point out in your novel that 14-year-old girls increasingly choose to dress like hookers, while 40-year-olds dressed like teenagers. Now, you've written -you're a columnist for a newspaper in England, and you've written about popular culture over the years. You're a former TV critic. You have a real understanding of popular culture, how it works, the impact it has on teenagers. But when it has an impact on your teenage girl, if you see your teenaged girl dressing like a hooker or if you see your teenage girl investing maybe a little too much energy into her romantic idol, do you intervene? Or do you just stand back and say: Yes, I know. That's how pop culture works on young teenage girls.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It happened to me. It's happening to her. She'll get over it. Let's just, you know, be calm about it. Which approach do you take?
Ms. PEARSON: I think it's harder to be philosophical as the actual physical mother, rather than the all-wise, all-seeing novelist. Well, I think of women -mothers down the ages are doomed to repeat the phrase: You're not going out looking like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARSON: So - and, of course, they are becoming sexualized younger, even though they don't really know what it is. I mean, I think they try on these attitudes. I notice all young girls now in these snapshots they take of themselves on their phones, all adopt these very kind of pouty, sensuous poses. They're putting on the kind of sexual clothes younger and younger. I mean, in my era, I think we were just that much more innocent. But I still think the teen idol for them is a safe refuge. It's kind of safe sex, really. It's a pre-sexual feeling.
But they whip each other up. I was watching Evie and her friends the other day talking about Justin Bieber, and they whip each other up into a frenzy. It's like some witnessing - it's like being Margaret Mead, witnessing some kind of anthropological ritual in a tribe. It's really incredible. And I think it's the right of passage.
And one of the things in the book it's a lot of people think, oh, teen idols, how cute. Teen fans, aren't they sweet? In fact, actually, underneath it all, there's something really quite frightening and brutal about it.
I mean, David Cassidy himself says that, you know, he was scared when these girls were crawling, swarming over the trunk of the car he was in, you know, wanting to take a piece of him home for their bedside table. But it was very frightening. And I think that some of these emotions that are swirling around are really kind of dangerous. That young female sexuality, before it's got anywhere to go, is actually highly combustible.
GROSS: So getting back to the question of whether you intervene or not as a mother, like if your daughter goes out dressing more like a hooker, do you say something? Or if you think she's going too far in her idolization of Justin Bieber or the star of "Twilight" series, do you try to put the brakes on? Or just do you just leave it alone, thinking you don't really have any power in that situation anyways, or it's wrong to intervene?
Ms. PEARSON: I definitely intervene when she comes clomping down the stairs in her high heels and her teeny shorts. They're all wearing these teeny shorts these days, even in the dead of winter. So I definitely will make some comments about that. But when I wrote "I Don't Know How She Does It," various mothers of teenagers who were a little further down the motherhood track than I was, they gave me very good advice. They say learn to pick your battles. If you're worried about her getting her ears pierced because she's going to look trampy, just think about when she asks for a belly button ring. You know, just pick the things that you actually feel the most strongly about. So that's some wisdom I've tried to import into my own mothering, think: Do I really mind about that?
When it comes to the teen idol, Terry, quite honestly, I could say anything to her about Robert Pattinson, and it would just absolutely be water off a duck's back. She, you know, my input to her is just, it's of no relevance whatsoever, because she and Rob and Justin, they exist in the dream kingdom, and I'm just a boring grown-up pointing out these things. You know, I don't even intervene when she covers her entire wall, you know, in posters of these calf-like young boys.
I should tell you a funny story, that when I was writing the novel, I papered my tiny office at the top of our house with posters of David Cassidy, which I'd excavated from my attic - my mom's attic and had bought on eBay. And Anthony, my husband, came in one morning and he said, my God. He said it looks like the lair of a serial killer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARSON: And I thought there was something about that that degree of obsessiveness, slightly worrying obsessiveness that's entirely true to the teen fan experience.
GROSS: My guest is Allison Pearson, and she's the author of the bestseller "I Don't Know How She Does It" and the new novel "I Think I Love You."
Let's talk a little bit about your bestseller "I Don't Know How She Does It," which is about a woman who has to balance her working life at a hedge fund with her home life as a mother. And the change of gears, as she says, between home and work, is just unmanageable.
So there's a famous opening scene in which the mother buys mince pies for a school function and then distresses them. She kind of, like, messes them up a little bit so that they don't look store-bought. They look like they're home...
Ms. PEARSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: They look imperfect, like a home-baked pie would look. Is that kind of thing you ever found yourself doing?
Ms. PEARSON: I didn't find myself doing that, but I found myself doing lots of similar things. I think that...
GROSS: Give us a couple of examples.
Ms. PEARSON: There was a school fair, and I sent in some jam, which had a homemade label on it, but actually, it had been a shop-bought jam. So that was my act of fakery.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Who did you do that for?
Ms. PEARSON: Fake...
GROSS: Did you do that to make yourself look like a better mother? Or did you do that so that your daughter would feel that she had a better mother? Were you proving something to your peers, or to your daughter and her peers?
Ms. PEARSON: I think it's both. I think you want your child to feel they have the right kind of mother. And I think with some of the other mothers who will be feeling, oh, that woman's never around that much. Typical of her to, you know, to just throw any old thing down on the table. So I think that because my generation, we were allowed to do the jobs our fathers had done, that we retained our mother's responsibilities, so we were leading this sort of double life where you ended up faking it.
I think that because my mother was a stay-at-home mother and was an extremely good baker, always had food on the table by the time we got home from school and so on, I think we carry that memory of the template of a good mother with us whilst trying to negotiate this new world that's opened up to us, which is of being, you know, having a career. But when they were smaller, I was eaten up with the fear that I was letting them down or was not being a good enough mother.
I think that one of the reasons I really wanted to write "I Don't Know How She Does It," even though I was a working mother who had no time to write a book about an exhausted working mother, I had to write it at 4 o'clock in the morning. It was another thing on the giant to-do list. But I felt amongst my friends this both kind of comic madness, really. And beneath the comic madness of sharing all those things you've forgotten to do or you weren't on the right list for some school trip or something, beneath that was a real yell of pain. And I think that "I Don't Know How She Does It" is described as a sort of great, uproarious comedy. But for me, it was a tragedy written at a comic pace.
GROSS: Your character says, all I know is I didn't want to be my mother. Is that a fear of yours?
Ms. PEARSON: I think my fear was that my mother was abandoned by my father when we were still quite young. And we had no money, and she was frightened of the phone bill. She had a little book next to the phone in which she would write the number of minutes of any calls she would make, and she would add up the sums for the - how much the phone was going to be. And as we got older, if we were ever on the phone, she would always be shouting at us to get off the phone. And at that time I just thought she was just being horrible. But now, of course, I realize the fear, the fear of not being able to pay bills. So we had no car, we had to walk everywhere or take the bus.
And I think at some level in the back of my mind, I just had this sense that I would - if I was ever abandoned by a man, I would be sure that I had a way of making my own living. And that was not conscious, Terry. That was not - really, that was not conscious. But now, looking back, I realize that there was no way I was going to be, you know, left with children and no means of making a living.
GROSS: My guest is Allison Pearson, author of the bestseller "I Don't Know How She Does It." Her new novel is called "I Think I Love You."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Allison Pearson, author of the new novel "I Think I Love You." Her first novel, the bestseller, "I Don't Know How She Does It," is about a working mother of two who can't deal with the competing demands of home and office.
This next question is going to strike a lot of people - and it might strike you this way, too as either being stupid or rude. So if it strikes you as either, please feel free not to answer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So here it comes: Being a working woman, you know, a writer who has a, you know, a newspaper column, after you had one child and realized how hard it was to work, you know, and be a mother, why did you have a second child? What did you think about - I'm assuming, you know, that it was a choice that you made, but that might be a false assumption. But having already experienced the difficulty, why did you decide to have a second child?
Ms. PEARSON: Well, I hoped to...
GROSS: Is that a horrible question?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARSON: No, it's a reasonable question. Two is harder than one, of course, you know. I think that one was, you know, one was reasonably manageable. And then, you know, I definitely wanted to give her a sibling, because she would say to me, you know, I don't want to be a lonely meaning, I don't want to be an only. I don't want to be a lonely child, she'd say to me when she was about three.
But let's take that question and examine it for what you're saying. You see, my strong feeling is that women have changed enormously to accommodate being mothers and working. But the world of work has not changed to accommodate the fact that now almost half of the people in work are women and many, many hundreds of millions of them are mothers.
So I would say to you: Why should I deliberately limit my family because work is too hard to combine with motherhood? How about work becoming slightly easier to combine with motherhood so that women can fulfill both the things that they want to do, which is to be - to have wonderful children, which are the great lights of most of our lives, and to have a career?
And the extension of what you're saying is since "I Don't How She Does It," I go into lots of firms and I talk to young women who are in their early 30s, and I tell them to go home that night and get pregnant, because they are telling me that there's no time. I can't get pregnant now, because it would be so bad for my job. It will, you know, I'll lose my bonus. I'll lose my place on the ladder. And I say don't let work structures dictate the, you know, the concerns of your heart.
In "I Think I Love You," there's a woman working in a magazine who has postponed and postponed having children. And I say in the novel: This was the great delusion of our age, that love could be held waiting in a holding pattern like airlines above an airport, waiting for you to call in the plane until you were good and ready. But love and motherhood and pregnancy will not wait endlessly.
GROSS: Now, you're talking about the importance of having your family, deciding what your family priorities are and making work adjust to that as opposed to the other way around. And you have two children. You have a, you know, a successful career, two novels, you're a newspaper columnist, former TV critic. You wrote a column not long ago about realizing you were suffering from depression, and that you really had to cut back on the things that you were doing.
Can you talk about that a little bit and how much - and again, if this is too personal just say so - but how much of that you think was situational, it was just like having too much to do? Because I think this was at same time that your mother was sick. Your mother had had two heart attacks. You were going back and forth to take care of her and, of course, having two children to deal with too, plus your work.
Ms. PEARSON: I think that I was deceiving myself because I think because I'd written "I Don't Know How She Does It," I had somehow inoculated myself against the virus of depression. I think Kate in the book, in retrospect, probably is suffering from depression. She's certainly suffering from the stress eczema, which now plagues me, or plagued me in the run-up to me realizing I was depressed.
I think the thing about the crazy juggling act is that you can just think this is just how it is and for a long time you can go on just absorbing all the pressure. I think that it took me a long time to realize what was happening to me. I just had accustomed myself to the way I was maybe, you know, long periods of not going outside, just certain insomnia, waking at four in the morning, that kind of thing, feeling that I just wanted to, not to commit suicide, but to feel I just wanted someone to throw the switch so I didn't have to be for a while. Just so I could just, someone could just turn, you know, like with a computer, let's just let the whole system go down for a while because I can't cope.
And it was news to me that I was - that I finally did seek professional help and the person said you're having a very serious clinical depression.
And I wrote in the column that because Petra in "I Think I Love You" has an obsession with filling in questionnaires and coming out by choosing the right letter of the questionnaire: A, B, C or D, so she will reveal herself to be the right kind of girl. And in the psychiatrist's office I was given a questionnaire to fill in which was these rather macabre things, like I no longer have any appetite for life. You know, my life fills me with dread and it was A, B, C or D. And even at that moment, even in extremist, I was still desperately trying to pick the one that would make me the right kind of girl to be, which, of course, in retrospect is very funny.
And even at the time I remember a sort of slightly bitter laugh, thinking Allison, you're still trying to be the best kind of girl to be, which probably is the perfectionism in Kate and in myself which was driving us nuts.
The one thing I would say, Terry, is that by the time I wrote that article about depression, the beast no longer had me by the throat. I was able to look back on it by the time I wrote that piece. The fact that you could ever organize your thoughts into something that's insightful or even amusing about depression means that you have moved beyond it a little bit because certainly at its height I was not capable of reflecting like that on my experience.
GROSS: So I think a lot of our listeners know that you are married to Anthony Lane, who reviews movies for The New Yorker. And you used to be a television critic before you became a columnist, so you both have backgrounds in criticism. At what point do you give each other your writing to look at and how hard are you, how honest are you with each other's writing when you're looking at it before publication?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARSON: Oh boy, that....
GROSS: Or even after publication?
Ms. PEARSON: That's a very good question. He shows me never, because he's a man and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARSON: ...he has absolute cast-iron confidence, as he should because he is the most brilliant writer of prose. I love him, but I love his prose almost more, the great dancing intelligence of him alive on the page. Me, I would show him every three minutes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARSON: Because such is the all too typical female self-doubt. No, to be honest, I rely on his judgment. I have a great critic on the premises and I would show him a chapter and I would ask for his input. And he will zero in almost inevitably on the sentence I have been thinking is not quite correct. So there's some very symbiotic relationship between us when it comes to writing. He almost always knows where I'm uncertain and will kind of prod me in the right direction.
But I should also say that I have - I am much more sentimental. I have a much sweeter tooth for writing than he does. He's a very - he's a sort of austere, T.S. Eliot, Henry James man, which I'm not. And I'm more of a W.B. Yeats girl, I guess, so I tend to go in for a sort of more romantic sentimental stuff. And he always kind of puts a big line through it and says this has got to come out. And I say but that's the bit that's going to make people cry, so we're keeping it in, and I always keep it in. And you know what, Terry? It's always the place where people cry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PEARSON: So he doesn't know everything.
GROSS: Allison Pearson, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Ms. PEARSON: Thank you so much. My pleasure.
GROSS: Allison Pearson's new novel is called "I Think I Love You." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new tribute to Charlie Parker, the album "Bird Songs" featuring Joe Lovano's Us Five.
This is FRESH AIR.
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