I Think I Love You: Interview with Author Allison Pearson
By Josie Brown
If British journalist Allison Pearson’s mommy lit classic I Don’t Know How She Does It aptly chronicles the way we women live now, her latest novel— I Think I Love You—reminds us of the way we lived way back then, when, as teens, we angsted over the mean girls who tortured us, the boys next door who were too shy to ask us out, and the teen idols whose posters we plastered all over our bedroom walls.
According to Pearson, the idea for I Think I Love you had been percolating for some time before she sat down to write it.
“I was on a publicity tour in Norway, for I Don’t Know How She Does It,” explains Pearson. “My editor and the publishing house’s publicists asked if I had any idea what I’d be writing next. I’d been playing with the idea of a story that dealt with the phenomenon of a teen idol. David Cassidy had been mine, and when I mentioned this, the women around the table confirmed that he had been huge there in Norway as well. This got everyone chatting—except for one woman: the prim, immaculate lady who was the translator. She just sat there, silently listening to the rest of us. Then very quietly she said, ‘But he was mine….’ Just like that: He was mine.”
That statement was the catalyst for Pearson to write the book.
“That was when I realize the impact our teen crushes have on us. They teach us about love, and about how to love. This is how we practice. You see, women go on through their lives telling each other about love.”
Pearson scribbled it onto a Post-It note and stuck it onto her computer’s screen.
An interview with Cassidy for the Daily Telegraph, which took place at his home in Florida, only solidified her desire to write a novel about teen angst and its effect it has on us throughout our lives.
But beyond her personal reasons for building the story around Cassidy, Pearson insists he was the perfect idol candidate for very one simple reason: in the year the book is set—1974— he truly had the largest worldwide fan base of any pop star or rock musician.
How did it come to be that this doe-eyed, androgynous man-boy was able to capture so many wildly beating hearts—including Pearson’s?
(Okay, yeah, I’ll come clean: he had mine, too.)
“Our crushes happened during our teens, when our hormones are raging,” explains Pearson. “David’s look was non-threatening. He was a ‘pre-real boy.'” She laughs. “I can really remember kissing the TV screen when the Partridge Family was on. My agent admitted to me that she would sit there, watching the show, wearing her best nightdress, her hairdryer going, so she’d look her best.”
But eventually—maybe after a year, maybe eighteen months later—the spell wears off.
Or does it?
Pearson has seen signs to the contrary. “A friend of mine—a music critic—invited me to a David Cassidy concert. There we were, amid all these women who still knew the lyrics to his songs and were singing along.”
That was when she realized these fans, now in their forties, still loved him.
More to the point, they loved the personal history he embodies—something Pearson captures so eloquently in her book.
Not everyone at the concert was enthralled with Cassidy. Pearson’s music critic pal did nothing to hide his own derision for the singer and his fans.
Pearson channeled his professional snobbery perfectly when she created the book’s hero: Bill, a twenty-year-old pop journalist who loathes the singer, not just for his success, but because the only job Bill can find is at a fan magazine devoted to Cassidy, where he ghosts letters from Cassidy to his legion of followers.
The most devoted of all is the novel’s heroine: Petra, a thirteen-year-old Welsh girl whose every thought and action revolves around her desire to please the David Cassidy she reads about in Bill’s fan missives, and whom she is bound and determined to meet someday.
The book’s pathos comes in all the missed opportunities and second chances that Fate throws their way, none of which I plan on divulging here. You’ll just have to take my word for it that I Think I Love You is much deeper than a nostalgic blast from the past.
One of the joys of the book is the way in which Petra’s tale of idealism, friendship, betrayal and lies alternates with Bill’s own travails: an aspiring musician involved with a woman who doubts his abilities at either music or journalism, it’s easy accept Bill’s cynicism—
But you won’t.
Thank goodness, Pearson didn’t, either, although she admits that, originally, she tried to write the whole other first half through Petra’s eyes, but then Ben was created because, as Pearson puts it, “No 13 year-old girl would have this perspective into her own human condition.”
So true. The puppy love heartache we’ve all suffered is proof of that.
Bill’s and Petra’s stories are played out in alternating chapters. “They are almost thinking the same thing,” explains Pearson. “Both are self-doubting, and just go along in life. But they are moving toward each other through time.”
Their stories finally converge midway through the book. The scene takes place during a tragic event that actually occurred during the second to the last David Cassidy concert of his hey days: in White City, England, on May 26, 1974.
On that fateful night, the emotional tsunami roiling from the pop star’s fans came crashing down—literally, crushing 650 fans, and causing the accidental death of fourteen-year-old Bernadette Whelan.
Pearson’s meticulous research is evident in the plotting of this scene. But it is the emotional climax, experienced mutually by Petra and Bill, that brings it to life. “I wanted the readers to feel their sadness, to feel them moving toward each other, through time.”
As Petra is being crushed by the crowd, Bill tries to save her. The moment in which their fingers finally touch, their destinies are joined as well.
Warp speed to 1994: The great expectations they’ve had for themselves have never been realized. Petra in particular has been burdened by the sorrow of that day, mainly because of what she’d done to get to the concert in the first place: lied to her strict mother.
Only after her mother’s funeral does she discover that she’d won a contest to meet her idol in Los Angeles, but her mother hid the letter in retaliation for her lie.
“Petra has just come out of this divorce. She’s feeling vulnerable,’ explains Pearson. “What is going to make this very sensible person ring up a fan magazine and take the risk to ask for what she lost? It is a ‘What have I got to lose’ moment.”
And yes, Petra has something very important at stake: that great weight of expectation.
“That lost letter came early in my creative process,” says Pearson. “There had got to be something that takes her back in time, to when she had hope about something. To discover that her mother had confiscated the letter announcing she’d won the quiz was essential. It propels her across the cliff, to claim what was rightfully hers, even after all these years. She’s thinking, ‘What the hell, I’m go for it,’ no matter how it makes her look.’
The twist is how Pearson works in the reunion between Petra and Bill. “She has to be open to meeting him. She has just come out of this divorce, and is still feeling vulnerable.”
Despite Pearson success in the realm of fiction, she views herself as a journalist first and foremost. When, inevitably, she again succumbs to her muse, fan can rest assured the next book will be filled with witty banter between a mildly angst-ridden everywoman heroine and some soft-hearted hero. “I’d like to write a great screwball comedy, but in this day and age,” says Pearson. “We rarely see that same playful erotic tension nowadays. They’ll be meant to be together, but they’ll have to find this out, deduce it o their own.”
While writing I Think I Love You, Pearson took special notice of her teenage daughter’s taste in current heartthrobs: the actor Robert Pattison, of the Twilight movies series.
“We measure our lives against certain people in the landscape. I remembered more about David than other boys I’d actually been out with,,” says Pearson. “I thought there was a wonderful pathos and comedy in this. As a writer, I love tragedy and comedy: when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I feel this book has got some of that. I hope readers think so, too.”
Her next novel, The Baby Planner, will be in bookstores on April 5, 2011.
Below: Allison Pearson meets her idol and the subject for her book, David Cassidy, on NBC’s Today Show: