Helen Fielding: From singletons to spies

With a chardonnay-swilling tragi-comic heroine, Helen Fielding invented chick lit. Now she has created a new character, whose adventures include an encounter with al-Qa'ida. Fielding herself has left the London singles life behind to become an LA star and mother-to-be. So, asks John Walsh, has our Helen gone all serious?
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The Independent Culture

Given that the address is Whitehall, and the venue is a government building with an unfeasibly long name (The Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, no less), this is a pretty ritzy party. The cocktail barmen are making Russian apple martinis at a lick; the entrances and exits are policed by young men amusingly dressed as spies in Bogart raincoats, false moustaches and dark glasses; the expensive canapés are served by melting-eyed beauties; and a pregnant Helena Bonham Carter is holding court, surrounded by laughing gallants and her American boyfriend Tim Burton, the wild-haired visionary behind Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow.

Among the thronging drinkers and chatterers, you can see Angus Deayton and John (Spitting Image) Lloyd, Tim McInerney and Mariella Frostrup, Nick Hornby and Sebastian Faulks and the two-man British film industry, Eric Fellner and Richard Curtis. But this is not a film premiere. These media groovers have come to a book launch tonight because the author is their old pal (and the ex-girlfriend of at least two) and one of the sales phenomena of British writing in the past 20 years.

Helen Fielding stands demurely by the back wall, greeting friends she hasn't seen for months, because she now lives in Los Angeles, and wishing she could sit down, because she is noticeably pregnant and chronically nauseous (which she pronounces US-style). She's a strikingly pretty blonde, power-dressed in a formal black jacket that strains across her primigravida tummy, but her demeanour is anything but formal. As Jonathan Cavendish, the producer of the second Bridget Jones movie, brings her news about how the 14-week shoot is going, she widens her cat's eyes until she looks like a little girl being told a big secret, then her face creases up with laughter.

Despite the fame and riches, she has not changed a scrap from the girl with the breathy Leeds accent who used to drop into The Sunday Times, 13 years ago, to write witty pieces for the Style section, and you couldn't work for the creak of male heads turning to gaze. Today, everyone radiates positive energy about the new book, because everyone knows it cannot fail.

Her work has become a franchise and a cash cow for her publishers, Picador, and her film friends at Working Title. The two Bridget Jones books have sold countless millions around the world, sat on the British and American bestseller lists for aeons, and sparked off a genre of novels about sloshed and self-pitying young women having shrieky evenings with their zany pals and trying to find a man to distract them from their enslavement to Chardonnay and self-improvement manuals. Bridget Jones is now a name as well-known as, say, Sherlock Holmes in the pantheon of fictional figures whom British people regard as their own, and the rest of the world recognises as a form of shorthand for adorable British eccentricity.

Fielding has herself achieved such fame. She's even turned up in The Simpsons, where she briefly joined Marge's reading group. Her walk-on part may have had something to do with Kevin Curran, who writes for the show and lives with Fielding. They are trying to think of names for the baby. Lucifer and Chlorine have been considered, albeit briefly.

Inevitably, Bridget has become a burden for her creator. Fielding is weary of being identified as the madcap singleton. Dammit, she was once a serious, black-comic writer. Before Bridget was born as an Independent column, Fielding wrote a fine novel called Cause Celeb, a black comedy set in the London fashion world and the drought-stricken regions of the Sudan. Now, in a bold attempt to break away from the Chardonnay-and-shagging Bridget shtick, she's publishing a spy spoof called Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination. Where the Bridget diaries were claustrophobic metropolitan romantic farce, Olivia Joules... is recklessly cosmopolitan, jet-setting, worldly, adventurous - a 340-page romp that tries to conflate Ian Fleming and Jilly Cooper.

We talked at the Orange Word literary festival, held at the Gielgud Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue in London. Backstage, Fielding sucked lollipops to calm the raging dyspepsia that accompanies her condition, and sensibly kept a polythene bag up her sleeve for any unscheduled bout of "nawsha" that might interrupt our discourse.

The last time we met, Fielding was embarking on a novel set in the industrial North, full of updated Catherine Cookson stuff about community values. So what happened to it, and where had Olivia Joules... come from? "I did write the saga book. I spent three years on it. It was a three-generation saga, which I was going to call either Rich is Better or Where There's Muck, There's Brass. But just before last Christmas, I was looking back through it and found these notes I'd written, saying, 'Oh God, this is soooo boring, I'm so fed up with it'. And I thought, well, if I can't even read it myself, I can't expect anyone else to read it. I think I was trying to be profound. I wanted reviews that said, 'Think Helen Fielding is only good for chick lit? Think again!'

"I realised it just wasn't any fun, so I tried to write the sort of book I might take on holiday and read on the beach, and write it quickly and enjoy it, make it fun and not try to be anything more. I wrote the first draft in six weeks. It was terrible, because I put the whole plot in the first two chapters. Then my young man, Kevin, pointed out, tactfully, that that wasn't the way to write a thriller, so I shared the plot out a bit more..."

Olivia Joules... is set in a world of suave playboys and mile-high supermodels, of yachts and private helicopters, fashionista parties and international terrorism. The feisty, style-journalist heroine Olivia ("If Bridget was the bit of me that I didn't like to admit to, then Olivia is the person I'd like to be in a fantasy world") is romanced by, and falls in love with, a handsome but slippery cove called Pierre Feramo, whom she suspects may be none other than Osama bin Laden. Feramo is a perfumier who is pretending to be casting a movie, but may be planning some biological Armageddon from his Bond-villain lair in Honduras. Olivia follows him as a dogged reporter and later a spy, and finds herself falling in love.

What was Fielding doing writing about this Martini-generation world of luxury and glamour? "Olivia notices herself being attracted by the Cinderella syndrome, being attracted by the yachts and the international lifestyle, and is furious with herself for being such a sucker. She catches herself doing that awful thing of saying, 'Maybe he isn't a terrorist at all, maybe he's a doctor or something,' and trying to change him into the person she wants him to be."

Was there a taste issue she'd had to confront, in having her beauty-journo heroine fall for a mass murderer? Some people might find the combination of phwoaar! and war, of al-Qa'ida and Aloe Vera, a little hard to stomach. Julie Burchill, in a fiery review of the new book, called the combination "rather nauseating" and referred to the "dumb sad bitches" who wrote love letters to the Yorkshire Ripper.

Did Fielding feel she was pushing the boundaries of taste? "Olivia does feel concerned when she finds herself falling in love with Pierre, but, as she says, it could happen to anyone. OK, apart from him being an international terrorist. But yes, it does happen. I did a lot of research into al-Qa'ida, and they do target women and make them fall in love with them, because, obviously, it's a very good way to infiltrate Western culture.

"And anyway, I've always liked writing that travels on a fine line of bad taste. My first book, Cause Celeb, made jokes about a refugee camp for women in Africa. I used to make documentaries when Comic Relief first started, and take comedians out to famine-stricken refugee camps. At the time it was pointed out that that was in rather poor taste. I don't agree. When I went to these camps in the 1980s, I thought the people would be terribly worthy and solemn, but of course they weren't - they were just people, making jokes in the midst of horror. Even the refugees were at it. I remember one making a heartbreaking speech about their plight, straight to camera, and turning to us at the end and saying, 'How'd I do?' That's just life."

A curious feature of the new book is its shifts of tone, from ditzy, Girl-Guide breathlessness to deadly explosions, from soufflé comedy to darker reflections on al-Qa'ida and the Iraq war. Can one detect, at these moments, the author surprising in herself a hunger to be more serious, to be thought capable of more than Bridget J, with her Scratchcards and catastrophic dinner-parties?

"I really like writing," Fielding replied simply. "I'm interested in trying different kinds of writing. But I prefer being funny as a way of looking at things, because it's more enjoyable to read. I don't like books that are trying to impress rather than entertain. I like books that make you want to turn the page and see what happens.

"One day, when I reach my senior years, I'd like to write a profound book, but one that's also a page-turner. When I was writing about the bomb going off in the ocean liner, I had a feeling of crazed power - probably from having worked on the Bridget Jones script - that I could blow up the ship, split it, have half of it sticking up into the water like in Titanic with everyone sliding down - and I wouldn't have anyone around saying, 'Sorry, that's too expensive...'."

Research for the novel took her into unusual territory. She met ex-spies and soldiers, former SAS men, bomb-disposal experts. "I had a thrilling time with one chap who said he wasn't a spy, but he just knew about them. Halfway through the conversation, he changed from talking about 'them' to talking about 'us'. When I was talking to the SAS men, I thought, 'My God, you really do what we see actors doing on television...'." She also, typically, bought some books about how to write a thriller. "One told me useful things like, 'Use the weather to create emotion.' So there's a chapter in Miami, which is very windy. I wrote, 'Olivia felt very unsettled. The wind fluttered the papers on her desk...'."

Fielding has always been intrigued by advice - the advice given to her generation by self-help manuals, the dating-game rules, the abstract counsel of lifestyle gurus on the idiot fringe of life in California. You feel that half the reason she stays in LA is to make notes on its excesses. Like talking to a chap at a party and discovering that he was "Edward's sober friend" - that is, Edward is in a 12-step programme and needs someone to go to parties with him to curb his thirst for alcohol. "There's a big industry in sobriety," Fielding said. "People in LA don't drink at parties. But I think they all go home and drink secretly and then have to go off to rehab."

She likes the way everyone is in a job-slash-different-job: an actress-slash-waitress-slash-lifestyle guru, for instance. "And I particularly like the television because they don't do the news like we do. Everything has to be a riddle. 'It's wet, it's see-through and without it we'd die... Water!' It's all like that. 'They're small, they're shiny and they're all over your house - batteries!'."

Okay, so Fielding does not sound like a newly-serious person. Her career began in TV with Play School and John Craven's Newsround, and there is something of the breathless little girl about her still, in her receptivity to the weirdness of life, her enjoyment of the success carousel, the filter of comedy through which she views everything. She has grown older and wiser (those curious little gems of insight, like: "I used to go to parties and spend the whole evening feeling either hurt or rude, because either I'd walked away from someone too soon, or they'd walked away from me") but without letting seriousness come breaking in. The only thing that might slow her down is the baby - an ambiguous acquisition for a woman whose alter ego used to grind her teeth while smug couples talked about her biological clock.

How was she enjoying pregnancy? "I think Bridget would have found it quite funny," she said, "like the way you lose your centre of gravity. If I lean over, I'll just keep going. If I bend down, I can't get up again. The other day, I said I wanted to go bowling and Kevin imagined this spherical figure launching herself at the skittles...

"But as for the birth - in America, it's like a holiday. You can choose a normal bedroom, a one-bedroom suite, a two-bedroom suite with a hillside view or a city view. You don't really get that, do you, with St Mary's, Paddington?"

'Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination' is published by Picador at £12.99