Comedian Sara Pascoe talks to Anne Miller about her new book, feminism and abortions.
“My Aunty Juliet had seen a news programme saying there was pressure in Oxbridge to admit more students from working-class families so I reckoned I’d be alright,” she says. “I had an Essex accent and my mum’s suit on. I was exactly what they were looking for.”
She ended up studying elsewhere, but during the interview Pascoe was asked what she planned to do with her life and replied she wanted to write a book about sex and her generation.
Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body – published by Faber & Faber – is exactly that. It examines the effect our evolution as animals has had on how we behave today. For example, in pre-modern society ‘needing a man’ was key to survival rather than a dated trope. Women at the time were often pregnant, lactating or carrying babies, making them vulnerable, as they couldn’t run easily.
Pascoe adds, “There isn’t some really awful man, 17,000 years ago punching women going ‘I’m gonna do everything!’ Actually it came from a really natural place, which doesn’t mean it’s excusable now and we should discuss it and talk about it, and be conscious and rational.”
Animal is funny, feminist and sensitive to differing points of view: “I’m not attempting to be the last word in a conversation, I just want to be part of it, and then I’ll sit back and listen some more.”
A lifelong lover of books, Pascoe had always wanted to write one herself but found having the ideas and actually doing it were two very different things, not least because of the way the process of writing tends to be romanticised: “I used to write question marks like, ‘then maybe a bit about Dad, question mark?’ [then I’d think] what? That’s not how Hemingway wrote books – he was drunk at 11 o’clock and writing with a pencil, standing up.”
There’s also a lot of pressure to get books, especially novels, right first time, something that isn’t expected from most other occupations: “You might write 20 novels and the 21st is the great one. I would never have done an Edinburgh show if your first one was supposed to be ‘ta dah – finished! You can turn comedy off, it’s done now.’ Instead you should go, oh it’s a craft and you have to do bad things – or less good things – at the beginning.”
Given that Pascoe has already had storming success as a standup, I wonder if it’s easier telling stories on stage or having them read in a book.
“There isn’t some really awful man, 17,000 years ago punching women going, ‘I’m gonna do everything!’ Actually it came from a really natural place, which doesn’t mean it’s excusable now.”
“When you’re writing the book you feel like you’re writing a diary. At the beginning I found it really hard because an audience, they let you know ‘hahaha! we like it’ or ‘ugh, we’re very bored now’ so you have this instant editing. With a book you keep having to trust yourself. I kept thinking, does anyone care? Do I even care? Would I read this going ‘oh, shut up!’?”
She’s equally frank discussing her own experiences in the book, including body image, disordered eating and a teenage abortion and argues for more openness and discussion: “Sex education in schools should involve women who’ve had terminations talking about them and answering questions. No shame and more prevention, that’s my motto.”
Pascoe also has ideas on how to improve the public’s poor perception of politicians. People who are otherwise well-educated and smart can struggle and come across as unlikeable if they don’t have the right look or sound.
“In comedy what would happen is you’d have someone writing for somebody else, so I actually think there should be two politicians, like the face of Ed Miliband and then the heart and soul of Ed Miliband. Imagine if he had a George Clooney playing Ed Miliband… He’d have eaten that sandwich, he would have looked fit – he’d have had ketchup on his mouth and he’d have laughed and people would be like – ‘watch it again!’”
Animal comes with a further reading list. Pascoe’s favourites from an extensive research period include Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Woolf, Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, and Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine – although she also allowed herself the odd fiction ‘treat’ like Elena Ferrante’s novels. She’s aware of the perils of reading books with interesting titles on the London Underground: “At the moment I’m reading I Love Dick – [thinking] everyone is looking at me, I must be really famous. Then you remember what you’re reading!”
“[The college] was called Corpus Christi, which like all Latin means ‘you don’t belong here.’”
“I hope the [abortion] law in Ireland has changed by the time this book is published so it’s me that seems outdated rather than their legal system.”
“Adam and Eve… if they can’t make it work in Paradise, what chance have I got in Lewisham?”
Having a partner who does the same job as you:
“He has written a funny list of ‘things my girlfriend has cried at’ to do in his standup routine, and if you heard it you’d think he made them up but he didn’t.”
Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99)
We have five signed copies of Sara’s book to give away. To bag yourself one, simply send a message to our mailbag with the subject line: “I am an animal”. Closing date 23 May; winners will be picked at random.
Sara Pascoe is on tour with ‘Animal’, 6 May to 2 July 2016.
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne