What Kate Did Next: Allison Pearson on How Hard Can it Be?
From the moment readers encountered her, Kate Reddy - the heroine of Allison's Pearson's hilarious bestselling novel I Don't Know How She Does It - earned a place in reader's hearts. Now, fifteen years later, Kate is back in a sequel How Hard Can It Be?, this time juggling traitorous hormones, unknowable teenage children and ailing parents. Here the author discusses the joys and challenges of returning to a much-loved character for a brand new chapter.
For a novelist, returning to a well-loved character is a potentially hazardous business. Will the voice come back to you? How will that voice have altered over the years? Anyway, aren’t sequels doomed to be pale copies of the original?
Fifteen years ago, after I Don’t Know How She Does It, the story of Kate Reddy was published, I was under pressure to write a follow-up. Kate’s frantic, tragi-comic escapades, as she tries to combine motherhood with a career, had struck a chord with millions of women much like me. We were supposed to be the Having It All generation. Instead, it turned out we had been allowed to do our fathers’ jobs while retaining our mothers’ responsibilities. The result was a brutal double-shift and lashings of guilt. At the opening of the novel, in a scene which subsequently became famous, Kate is up at midnight distressing shop-bought mince pies so she can pass them off as home-made at her daughter’s school carol concert. One of my life’s proudest moments came when Marks and Spencer launched a range of ‘pre-distressed’ mince pies so that mums no longer had to fake it.
Many readers told me that my book empowered them to laugh at the ridiculous burden of expectations for modern motherhood which had caused Kate Reddy such stress. It had since become perfectly acceptable to turn up at a school event with cakes you hadn’t had time to make yourself. Who says literature can’t change society for the better!
You know, I never wanted to write a sequel. I had poured my maternal heart and soul into that first novel; it said everything I had to say about Kate’s universal dilemma. When I appeared on the Oprah show in Chicago – ‘Miss Pearson, you’re going live in front of 40 million Americans’ Gulp! - Oprah called I Don’t Know How She Does It ‘a Bible for the working mother’. I needed no other accolade. Job done.
But something that happened on the American book tour lodged in my mind. A woman, she was probably in her fifties as I am now, came up to me at a signing and smiled. ‘Sorry to tell you this, but having little kids is the easy part. Just wait until Kate has teenagers...’
What on earth did she mean? Back then, I was still in the Calpol years of projectile vomiting and broken night. Surely, parenting would get easier? But that reader was right. As my own children entered their teens, I found out that the bigger the kid the bigger the problem. All of my friends were wrestling with the usual difficulties of having an adolescent, plus we were doing it in the diabolical era of social media when peer pressure followed your child home from school and taunted them in their lonely bedroom.
Sharon, my best American mate, revealed that she had put parental controls on every electronic device in her house to stop her three kids getting into mischief. One day, a computer guy came round to check the system. ‘I hate to tell you this, Mrs Seltzer,’ he said, ‘but your daughter has downloaded How To Bypass Parental Controls. And she’s charged it to your credit card.’
It’s as if adults were Stone Age people living with Bill Gates Jr. I found myself itching to write something about the perils of parenting teenagers in the digital age. It was such a resonant topic. Hardly a week went by without some unfortunate kid getting expelled or even arrested for sexting. What if Kate’s daughter got into trouble for innocently sharing a picture of her bare bum with friends? Wouldn’t that give me an opportunity to explore the epidemic of anxiety and self-harm that was blighting my daughter’s generation?
And what about Kate herself? A member of the so-called Sandwich Generation, poor Kate would be dealing with teenagers and increasingly needy elderly parents just at the time she was going through the menopause. No novelist that I could think of had written about this seismic change in a woman’s life. Yet half the population would experience it. I caught Whoopi Goldberg on the TV saying ruefully, ‘Nobody tells you about the balding pudenda.’ I decided that I would write as honestly as I could about all the crazy humiliations my own body had gone through and challenge this taboo. Hell, I would become the Quentin Tarantino of menopause. (Look out for the bloody scene in the oligarch’s bathroom.)
In the sequel, Kate is forty-nine and a half. Like other women her age, she experiences ageism as she tries to re-enter the workplace. So she decides to be 42 instead. Trouble is it’s not easy lying about your age when you have menopausal memory loss. Kate used to have a state of the art computer retrieval system that would fetch her any fact or name she needed in an instant. Now, as the oestrogen leaves her body, she has Roy, an elderly librarian who wanders to the back of the stacks to dig out Kate’s memories. Sometimes, Roy comes back in time, sometimes he doesn’t reappear for a few days.
So, I sat down and tried to wrestle all of these themes into a novel. I typed the first sentence of the Prologue: ‘I never worried about getting older.’ And she was back straight away, Kate was back. Expressing all her fears, sad and weary, sure, but also funny and defiant. I knew then that, if I trusted her voice and dew on the stories of all my friends, I could create a book celebrating the unsung virtues of the middle-aged female.
I wasn’t afraid any more that the sequel would be a pale version of I Don’t Know How She Does It. This novel would be richer, deeper, better, precisely because it was written by an older woman with years more experience of life under her belt. Funny, that turned out to be the theme of my book too.
It’s just been optioned by the producer of Big Little Lies for an US multi-generational TV sitcom that, once again, will bring my beloved heroine to the screen. There will be parts for lots of amazing older actresses (something Kate highly approves of!) and I hope that, in the #MeToo era, it will help change the disgusting, dismissive attitudes towards middle-aged women, the way we are expected to disappear from view while men are allowed to age into eminences grises. I’ve been asked to write some episodes myself and, to be honest, I’m daunted. I feel quite old to be learning a brand new skill, but I guess I should try to follow Kate Reddy’s example.
After all, how hard can it be?