Let’s try something a bit different. Instead of just posting my review of this book – comedian Rosie Wilby’s account of her thoughts on love, life and whether monogamy is still valid in modern society – I’ve been having a chat with the author herself. We’ve done a bit of a question and answer session covering things which occurred to me while I was reading the book. They may not be the questions you’d ask but, if you are in the vicinity of Bradford on Saturday 1st you can go along to an event with Rosie and Mona Eltahawy and ask your own!
Jane – If I were doing the classic bookseller ‘if you liked x try y’ I would compare you to the likes of Sara Pascoe and Caitlin Moran? Educated, well-researched feminist humour with a serious edge. Does this sound fair?
Rosie – Thank you! I’m pleased you say that. How To Be A Woman was very much a stylistic reference point in terms of tackling a societal issue through a combination of peering through a personal lens and then breaking into a broader passionate polemic. What Caitlin Moran does well is to seamlessly flow from one to the other within a chapter. I modelled my formatting, particularly for the first half, a bit more on a book I read last year: Trans by Juliet Jacques. Juliet introduces separate chapters for the factual and science-y sections that occasionally interrupt (and I mean that in good way!) the compelling memoir. When you read one, they illustrate some of the historical, political and sociological personal elements that have come up in the chapters you’ve just been reading. When I was on the LAMBDA queer writers’ retreat last Summer, Sarah Schulman, the non-fiction tutor said an amazing thing: ‘Nonfiction is the story of an idea’. It was the moment that influenced my decision to embed my own thinking and research in a memoir that illuminated why I had come to a point in my life to be questioning monogamy.
Jane – You say that when you first met Sarah you may, in hindsight, have met the wrong person to love but you did meet her at the right time. You were ready to fall in love. How many people do you think end up in bad relationships because they are ripe to fall in love at 16, 17, 18…..?
Rosie – I’m sure it’s an incredibly common phenomenon. We fall in love with the idea of being in love and who we pick as our object is really just random.
Jane – Jane Austen is often criticised for making love and marriage all about money. Nowadays we are completely focussed on the ‘sex and passion’ side of the equation. Do we need to rebalance the passion and the practicalities of actually being with another person?
Rosie – Yes, that’s very much my argument. The science shows that sex and passion wane. So to just expect them to stay at the same high intensity level is to immediately open yourself up to disappointment and probably impose a shorter life span on your partnership. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try and keep those things going. My friends, Jac and Angie, who are interviewed towards the very end of the book are, to some extent, my own saviours of monogamy. Angie said to me the other day, ‘we’ve always agreed that it’s never okay to not have sex.’ So they have pretty strict rules about keeping things sexual and not letting intimacy go for more than two weeks.
Jane – The book is about finding the right woman but also about finding the woman you want to be. Do you think you’ve ‘found yourself’ yet?
Rosie – I think humans are in constant state of evolving and rewiring. I’m very defined by what I do professionally: performance and creativity. That’s the one part that feels invincible. Nobody could ever tell me to give up my career.
Whereas shaping myself as a human in terms of compassion, listening, interacting in the world etc is something I’m happy to take constant advice from a partner on. We can never have all the answers to that.
Jane – The relationship escalator you describe is a scary thing – and very real – I had to have a menopause before people stopped asking me if I was sure we didn’t want to have kids. Do we need to find the big red emergency stop button (and hang on so we don’t get thrown off)? If so, what do you think it is?
Rosie – It is indeed a scary thing, particularly for women perhaps. I’m watching the terrifying Handmaid’s Tale on TV at the moment. It’s interesting how even such an extreme story has such a ring of truth. Maybe a woman’s destiny really is still viewed globally as giving birth. And that’s it.
Jane – Comedy seems like a very isolated way of performing. Is it harder than being in a band or easier (because you only have yourself to rely on)?
Rosie – Exactly as you say, it’s both. I am a fiercely independent person. It’s typical for only children. I think comedy starts off incredibly social when you make friendships with other acts and you’re all in the same boat as new acts who nobody has heard of. Nobody knows who’s going to do well. I’ve done gigs a decade ago with Sara Pascoe, Bridget Christie, Susan Calman, Sarah Millican and more where we were all doing five minutes in some terrible pub to ten people and a dog. There’s a camaraderie to it. But when people start to become mega famous, you don’t really meet them much on the circuit any more. All the above are very friendly whenever I do.
However, I would say that writing is probably even lonelier than either thing. I’ve been quite struck by that. Even if you have a publisher and a nice agent and editor, it’s really all down to you. In comedy, you have the opportunity to constantly test your writing out on a real, live audience. And you can shape it accordingly by gauging their response and chatting to fellow acts afterwards. There’s no real equivalent in writing.
Jane – Loving the amount of scientific research you’ve done on monogamy. Anthropologically speaking do you think we are hard-wired for monogamy? Or are we still trying to fit into what we think society demands?
Jane – Our human lifespan is getting so much longer. Marriage for life used to mean for 30 or 40 years but soon it could mean 70 or 80 or more – is this exposing us to the ultimate limits of how long a monogamous relationship can last?
Rosie – These two questions very much fit together and your second question here identifies why it has become so much harder to stay exclusive for life. It’s so long now.
There are lots of interesting books like Sex at Dawn that argue that we are very much built for non-monogamy and that that has evolutionary benefits. In that book, there’s a diagram showing relative penis size of males in various species. Because the human male has such a relatively large penis, the authors argue that he’s showing off and trying to attract multiple mates.
Jane – You obviously do loads of research for your shows, including crowd-sourcing opinion via social media. How long does it take for a show to take shape? And do you tweak it during a tour?
Rosie – Again, thank you. I sometimes think if I actually costed all the hours I spend researching shows, I’d be in a huge financial deficit on every one of them, even the ones that have won awards, been programmed internationally, sold out venues and got five-star reviews. So it’s really rewarding when someone recognises the effort that has gone in. As I often use my own life, body, brain and heart as a science lab and experiment, I’m often living out the question in order to illustrate what is going on through my own experience. If you work in that way of deliberately provoking a life and art mirroring, then there can be an emotionally exhausting toll too. Fortunately, I find it all really fascinating. This book, in particular, has had a wider significance than just providing an interesting topic to write about. It’s crystallised ideas and thoughts about how I would like to exist in the world and what sort of people I want to keep close.
Jane – And finally, chocolate salad? Dark, milk, white or a bit of each?*
Rosie – Ha! Milk is my favourite. I know dark is healthier but if we also have the salad…
Hope you enjoyed this discussion. Don’t forget if you are keen to hear more you can catch Rosie at the Bradford Literature Festival on Saturday 1st July ( with a second event on Thursday 6th July).
*I could explain the chocolate salad but you’ll need to read the book to find out…