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Surprise Me: An Interview with Sophie Kinsella

Sophie Kinsella writes funny, engaging heroines, some single, some married, but all with a lot of heart. I’ve found them to be lovely companions on my journey as a single person. They make me laugh, occasionally cry, and often give me something to think about (plus, since Sophie is British, the audiobooks are a treat to listen to). Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Sophie has a new book out: Surprise Me! If you, like me, don’t have a date, this book would be happy to keep you company.

I had a chance to chat with Sophie about her new book and her best advice for dating and making relationships work.

Tell me a bit about your book?

This is a book really that looks at marriage—I’ve written a lot of books which are all boy meets girl—this one slightly fast-forwards: they’ve met, they’re together, how are they going to sustain their relationship? The kind of kicking off point is this discovery that they will have longer together than they perhaps realized. The figure of 68 years, which the doctor gives to them as sort of being a ballpark that they might last together, in itself means nothing, but it sort of starts to symbolize to them the fact that ‘wow, life really is long and we didn’t quite imagine this,’ which I don’t think any of us do, to be fair.

The wife drives a lot of creative, wacky projects to keep their relationship alive and I think a lot of people do this, they sort of reach a moment where you think what’s new? What’s exciting? And so you try to inject a bit of novelty into your life. Of course because I write comedy everything has to go horribly wrong, but it’s also the story of a couple who thinks that they’re perfect and they start off the book pretty smug, kind of ‘look at us we can read each other’s minds, we can finish each other’s sentences, we can order for each other,’ but they are sort of in a slight space of denial—especially Sylvie the female character. She knows that they are a little niggles in their relationship, she knows this but she doesn’t really want to look at them, she doesn’t want to address them, she just wants to sort of gloss over and kind of decide that everything is fine, everything is perfect—but there are fault lines in her marriage and it’s really the story of how these sort of innocent surprises expose the fault line and then create a marital earthquake. I love the idea that you start with something that seems so perfect and put together and it doesn’t take much disruption, much sort of poking at it with a stick, which is the way she puts it, for the whole thing to seem as if it’s going to fall apart. I think that actually a lot of our relationships, although they seem strong, there might be some fragile weak point that we ought to address. If I really believe in anything, it’s don’t dodge the tricky conversation. Don’t just put your fingers in your ears and say ‘la la la every marriage has its fault lines and never mind I’m sure it will be fine.’ Address it. Be brave, and think ‘Well, if we do have this strong marriage that I believe in then we can cope with an awkward conversation.’ Shine a light, work out what the problems are and then you’ll be on a firmer footing going forward. Don’t live in denial.

Sylvie and Dan’s ‘surprise me project’ isn’t all that different from the early stages of dating, trying to figure out how to delight someone and reveal more about both of you in the process. What advice would you offer to those looking to keep dating fresh without running into the hilarious errors your characters experience?

I always write quite extreme scenarios for my characters so of course everything they try to do backfires hideously and it wouldn’t be one of my books if that didn’t happen. A lot of the ideas that my characters have are good, per se, it’s just that I can’t resist making life terrible for my characters—so if they try to organize a photo shoot that will go wrong, and if they try to organize a surprise gift that will also go wrong, but I would say that where they’re coming from is a good place which is to just mix it up. I think that when we date we can just be quite rigid if we’re not careful and think that a date is just two people sitting across a table staring at each other choosing food, eating it, going home and then doing the same, and then doing the same. For me, the way I get to know people the best—not just in a romantic way but in a friendship way—is to do stuff together and to have different reasons to talk other than ‘what are you going to order?’ Go for a walk and tune into who is this person? What do they pick up from their surroundings? Do an activity together. I recently took a bread making course with a friend. We turned up and we spent the day making bread and although none of us hooked up romantically we felt bonded by the end of the day—a group of strangers—because we all started from scratch. We knew nothing about making bread—I mean, it was sourdough, it was pretty tricky bread—and so we all kind of kept getting the giggles. You really understand who a person is when you’ve seen them grappling with sourdough starter. Do they have a sense of humor? Are they good with their hands? Are they acetic? Do they appreciate good food? I think there’s all kinds of things you can learn about people in an environment that is not just sitting across from one another, and I think that staring into each other’s eyes and trying to keep conversation going, much like a married couple, it can put the pressure on saying the next witty thing. Anybody is going to find that difficult to sustain, so I think mix it up. Think of something that you haven’t done before and try doing it together. Just kind of keep your radar attuned and that’s how you’ll learn about this person, but also you might have some fun independently—so you’re not just doing the activity because it’s a date—you’re doing it because it’s fun anyway and the date is like the added bonus element.

What advice and encouragement do you think Sylvie and Dan would give to their single friends? What advice and encouragement would you give?

I think Sylvie and Dan would say just be on the lookout, you never know. Sylvie meets Dan at a barbecue and she even says she noticed him flipping burgers, and it’s not like flipping burgers was at the top of her wish list, what she wants in a future guy—someone who can flip a good burger—but that’s in fact what first draws her attention to him: his competence with the burgers. I think that although it can be useful to know what you are interested in in a person and to sort of have maybe a checklist or certainly something that would really turn you off, I think you have to have an open mind, you have to be ready to find love in an unlikely place when you’re not expecting it and just be kind of receptive to the world. The world throws us all kinds of opportunities, not just in love, but in work, and in friendship, and in romance, and it’s not for us to be too prescriptive: ‘well, it’s got to be this way.’ I think that way we close the doors on things, I mean, I certainly did. I would say my advice would be similar, I did not plan to meet my husband so early. I did not plan to get married so early. I very much thought I was going to have my career and then start looking around for a mate, but there he was, he sort of arrived in my life, and it just felt instinctively right to get married far earlier than I had planned. So I’m a great believer in being open. The other thing that I would say is don’t force it through fear. Don’t feel like ‘well, I have to find someone, and here’s this person and because I really want to be with someone I’m going to ignore this worrying factor and this other worrying factor and I’m just going to go into a slight state of denial and I’m going to try and mold them to be what I want them to be or perhaps ignore the things that aren’t right.’ I’ve got friends who have done this and the trouble is you just can’t do that forever. If the chemistry is just wrong, or if there is something about this new person that actually upsets you but you’re trying to ignore it because, you know, it’s a date, just value yourself don’t put yourself through that. If they are wrong, they are wrong, and it’s better to act quickly and make that decision than just sort of persevere and persevere just for the sake of it.

One of the most compelling elements of your book is the idea that couples aren’t finished growing and changing after they marry, each day is an opportunity to pay attention and make healthy changes, whether or not you are coupled. What are your thoughts on how this plays out in the lives of both coupled and singled people?

It’s all about change. This is particularly highlighted because I’ve written about long-term marriage and sort of sustaining it over time, but it’s the same day to day over a much shorter period of time. Whether you’re with somebody or not, we change. We change as people. When you meet somebody, how do you define them? You might look at the job they have and define them by their role, or you might define them by their hair, or any number of things ,but that is not the person that they are, and these things may change. They may decide to change their career completely, you may decide as a couple to move country, your spouse might lose all their hair—they are still them. I think you have to be like these trees that are able to bend and still flourish and not get worried by change because no one is going to stay the same from the beginning to the end of a long-term relationship. You’ve just got to decide to sort of grow together and hopefully not be growing apart. Notice if your partner wants to make a change and see if you can go with that change. Now if that change is so drastic and wrong for you then perhaps that’s the moment that you’re not supposed to be together, but if you can follow the path of change and sort of together find a change that works for both of you then you’ll be like two healthy trees that are sort of growing in tandem not clinging on and certainly not giving up your own independence and just kind of collapsing on the other one, but aware that you have to change. I think that this is a challenge that I certainly see in my own life and in my contemporary’s lives—we all start off as a couple and then things come along to challenge us. The same in life: you might define yourself by a certain role in your family, or by a certain workplace role, and then, guess what, you change: you get promoted and suddenly you’re a boss and this brings new challenges, or you decide to go freelance and you’re not working in an office and this brings new challenges and you just have to hold on to who you are throughout all of these challenges and be the person you want to be throughout and if you are with somebody be the couple that you want to be.

Your heroines are funny, relatable, and earnest, sometimes married, sometimes single. What are your hopes for the ways your readers will interact with their stories?

I want my readers to laugh, above all. I want my readers to turn the pages of my books, I want them to be excited and to wonder what’s happening next and be kind of transported away from life. I think that a book is a wonderful escape, and so what I love is that my readers can step into a new world the world of the book and also the world of my heroine’s mind. The reason I try to make them so relatable is I think that that way you can easily step into the story, root for the heroine, care about what happens to her, perhaps reflect upon your own life, and although I try to write comedy I always try and give it truth because I think that’s how comedy works the best—when it’s grounded in truth. I really hope that my books actually make people think, maybe even cry sometimes, and be moved and come away and have something to think about. That’s what I’m aiming for.

Anything else you’d like to say to those hopeful about finding their own love stories?

I would say love yourself—that’s the first love story in your life and it’s the most crucial love story in your life. Don’t always be looking out and thinking ‘my life will be made complete by another person.’ Another person may complement your life very well, but start with yourself. Be happy with who you are, challenge yourself, grow, like we were saying just now, life is long, you’re going to change, you’re going to be unrecognizable in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. Be happy with the changes that you’ve made. Don’t be afraid if you aren’t with someone at the moment. Just be a great person on your own. You know what? Happiness attracts happiness, confidence attracts confidence, so start with yourself.

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.