How can we ‘be good’? An interview with Sara Pascoe onfeminism, empathy, writing, stand-up and why publishing is like a Richard Curtis film
Comedian Sara Pascoe sits in a room at the Faber offices surrounded by piles of her new book, Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body. She speaks quickly, as if each of her thoughts are eager to be expressed first, and uses her hands expressively to illustrate her points.
We’re here to talk about Animal, but in our half-hour chat the conversation zips from feminism and publishing to empathy and burning orangutans, all set against the backdrop of her career as a comedian.
The process of writing
"I think there is a leap between comedy and writing," Pascoe starts. "I think what happens is with comedy is that you do stand up and then people trust you to do other jobs, like acting in radio series or sitcoms. It’s quite a versatile job and, obviously, lots of other comics have written books before. If you write an Edinburgh show, that’s probably 6,000 or 7,000 words, so a book is just multiplying that by fifty. Writing Animal wasn’t like something that I hadn’t done before, but it was really magnified. It took a lot more time and effort. But I’ve always wanted to write a book, ever since I was really young.
"I always wrote diaries, so I was used to writing every day, that was how I dealt with things. When I started doing stand up, I realized I was writing diaries a lot less but I think that was because I started jotting things down, then going and talking about them on stage instead, but it’s a similar mechanism."
The diary-writer is definitely present in Animal, which combines evolutionary history and autobiography to analyse the experience of modern women. Sections of the book are deeply personal, but Pascoe didn’t worry about that when she was writing it. "I don’t have those kind of filters. What’s in the book is what I would tell anyone after a glass of wine. I wasn’t searching myself for the truth, it’s the kind of stuff I would talk about on stage. It doesn’t feel too raw to me, but people do bring stuff up from the book – even people who I know – and I find it odd. Now, people I don’t know will know those things. I hadn’t quite figured that out."
During the writing process, Pascoe didn’t keep a strict writing regime, but wrote around her shows, which she carried on despite advice to just focus on the book. "I needed that sanity at the end of the day. No matter how mad I felt, there was a gig and I was out of it in half an hour, then I could say to someone, ‘I’ve just been reading about child brides and I feel really sad.’ I ended up scribbling away in cafes, or on trains. I sometimes even put notes on my iPod. Then I started writing lying down – which is terrible – but I would lie down with a computer on my chest, like this!" she demonstrates in the air. "The really nice bit is after the deadline, because you don’t have that guilty feeling that you should be working. It felt really great to finish it!"
Beyond the writing, Pascoe also seems to have enjoyed the process of being published. "I think publishing is a fascinating world. It’s very civilized compared to comedy – not that comedy’s bad – but I think that people decide to work in publishing because it’s their dream. It’s really lovely to be around people who love books and audiences are so nice compared to comedy. I can’t believe how lovely everyone is," she pauses. "But I do wonder that it’s such a middle class industry – comedy really isn’t – so the other thing I picked up on in publishing is, ‘We are basically in a Richard Curtis film.’ This is not the real world!"
Autobiography of a Female Body
The subject matter of Animal, on the other hand, is completely real. Pascoe has been interested in feminism, female sexuality and depictions of it, since she was a teenager. "I’d done an Edinburgh show, which had talked about sperm selection, women being written out of evolution, and women’s sexual choice being important. Everything else kind of spun out of those things, once I began to research and actually ask myself what these interests meant.
"What I found when I was reading stuff is that there was a lot of what I would call almost ‘neck up’ feminism, which kind of ignores that we’re animals and that we’ve evolved to behave in certain ways and that there are certain behaviours that maybe aren’t just choice. I knew that because I was going to end with consent, we were going to have to understand certain things along the way," Pascoe explains, talking about her research process. "Sometimes you go down these dead ends, but everything comes back and informs. Other times you go off on these big tangents, but they helped you too. Sometimes you have to go a long way off track to get to what you mean."
There has been a lot of discussion about how her work as a comedian has influenced her, but the subject seems unavoidable none-the-less. "I honestly always identified as a person. Although I would have called myself a feminist all through my teenage years, I very much felt like a human being. The odd thing about stand up is that people tell you you’re a woman every day and I don’t think there are many jobs where other people remind you of it like that. I’m sure most women are aware of their gender, but literally every room you walk into, someone will say, "Ah, there’s the woman!" It’s just so constant. Dissembling that has made me think so much more about gender, and what’s relevant about it. Which has ended up here. I think if I’d just been an actor, maybe I wouldn’t have been so concerned with it."
But when it comes to Pascoe’s book, comedy has been nothing but supportive. "I think maybe in the ‘80s and ‘90s comedy was a difficult place, but I came along in a boom time, especially for women. What that breeds is generosity. Economically when there’s enough for everyone, people are so supportive. In the writing process, it can be really annoying when people are like, ‘How many words have you got?’ But quite often people can be interested in the topic, so there were a few times where I would go, ‘I’ve been reading this today’ and everybody would have an opinion. That really helped me.
"There’s lots of stuff that I started researching, but I just realized I would never finish the book unless I stopped. I haven’t talked about prostitution and pornography and I really want to. But for me that’s about men and women – you can’t talk about it just from a female perspective, it felt like that would be misleading. So, I want to write another book that’s much more about masculinity, power and economics, and how that underlies gender relations. And testosterone, actually. It’s such a fascinating hormone."
How can we ‘be good’?
Pascoe is an avid book fan, and claims that she was more excited about sharing a cigarette with Zadie Smith than she would have been about meeting Michael McIntyre. "The only people who really make me star struck are writers, so the idea of going to Hay is very exciting," she says, discussing the details of her forthcoming book tour, which will coincide with a new show, also called Animal, but on quite a different theme.
"I wanted the book and the show to be separate," Pascoe explains. "I feel like because it’s in the book, I’ve covered it. So my show’s all about empathy – like if we remember we’re an animal what does that mean, but with a different topic. So rather than it being about sexuality, it’s about how we are supposed to care about people who don’t exist yet who we are destroying the planet for. How do you make yourself do that?
"The empathy topic spun out of the same things as the book. How do we ‘be good’? How do we do better? How do we forgive ourselves when we’re not? All of us every day just by living in a Western country destroy everything – like, I’m a vegan, and everything I consume is still evil! Then you start thinking about clothing, and you hear about sweatshops, and you think, ‘Well, maybe I should just never buy any clothes ever again.’ Then I listen to a thing about effective altruism and you find out that if these people weren’t working in sweatshops, they’d be working in the sex industry! So there are two sides to everything."
She turns the conversation to what makes different people empathise effectively. "For me, the idea of a pig really makes me want to cry, but for other people it doesn’t. Maybe I’m over-empathising, or under-empathising, or somewhere in the middle? Empathy is the thing that stops us killing each other or makes us not care." She cites the recent publicity around palm oil as an example, how she’s seen friends that will regularly eat steak that is farmed on ex-rainforest land, but refuse palm oil. "I’m just like, what do you think everything’s made of? Stuff that other people died for! So I’m interested in the contradictions of empathy, and how one person’s good is another person’s evil."
The interest in empathy, unlike the feminism, is new. "With shows you tend to get a theme. You read about it and think about it and talk about it as you’re building up your argument of your show, so the empathy thing probably started about two years ago. But I think I’ve always had a thing about subjectivity, acknowledging that a personal truth isn’t the truth, and so always in stand up trying to go down that line."
There’s definitely something conscientious in what she’s trying to do with her work, walking the line between funny and making you really think. But, despite investigating these contradictions, is she hopeful?
"Oh. Yes. I think you have to be hopeful because the pessimism isn’t very useful. I was listening to a podcast that talks about us as a self-domesticating species, which said that just because things are really difficult, or really hard, or really flawed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people are really bad or that we’re doomed. But it does mean that generation on generation, if we reward the people who are kind, then those people flourish and that’s a really positive thing."
Picture credit: Dave Brown