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Interview with Helen Croydon: journalist, broadcaster, and author

For her latest book, Helen Croydon dutifully interviewed "swingers, married couples who live apart, asexuals, co-parents, dominant-submissives and more" – a typical day for a journalist, non? Certainly for this journalist, as FeaturesExec Media Bulletin All-Star Helen's day job takes in a whole plethora of interesting subjects, so instead of wasting time reading this intro, get stuck into tales of 17-strong relationships (as opposed to 17 strong relationships), matrimonial disenchantment, happy rides, and much more.

Hello again Helen! Last time we chatted back in 2011, you’d just released your first book ‘Sugar Daddy Diaries: When a Fantasy Became an Obsession’ – were you happy with the reaction to the book?

A leading question! The book does cover a controversial topic and I was nervous about the reaction. For those who don’t know, it’s a memoir about a ‘phase’ in my life where I had a penchant for the older man (by older I mean mid-40s when I was in my 20s. We’re not talking grey hair and bus passes!).

The reactions from people who’ve read the book were all positive. It’s clear that my motivation for joining a so-called ‘sugar daddy dating website’ was all about fun and adventure and meeting someone more sophisticated than the beer-and-football mindset of my peer group. But suddenly I found myself in a world of five star travel and so the book is very much focused on my own moral questioning of my new lifestyle. Readers and reviewers credited the book for being honest, self-reflective and a tale of redemption. However, I think those who haven’t read it see the title and assume it’s a story about trying to find a rich boyfriend. The charge is that I was ‘anti-feminist’ by seeking the financial support of men. The irony is, the reason I sought this culture of dating was precisely the opposite – I didn’t want a relationship at all. I wanted the fun of short-lived romances and weekends away. The whole appeal was that I could date at arms-length and keep my independence.

Back in 2011, you said your second book would be “A piece of non-fiction questioning the suitability of the monogamous, conventional, lifelong, full-time relationship in the modern world” … which brings us to your new work ‘Screw the Fairytale: A Modern Guide to Sex and Love’! Has the focus of your book stayed where you’d originally planned, or did it morph or expand in any way as you worked on it?

A book never ends up being the writer’s original idea. The writer Elwyn Brooks famously said that ‘the best writing is rewriting’. 'Screw the Fairytale' started off as a self-help book for women too hung up about finding a bloke, then it became social commentary about how our society is obsessed with finding The One at the expense of our own identity. Then, fancying myself as something of a comedian, I briefly made it into an irreverent poke at the marriage-kids-and-DIY-on-Sundays lifestyle. Then finally, it became what it is now – a journalistic exploration of modern models of relationships as alternatives to conventional marriage.

What inspired you to write on this subject? ‘Sugar Daddy Diaries’ was born from personal experience in your own life; does ‘Screw the Fairytale’ come from your own views on relationships?

Yes! I’ve always thought the idea of getting married and co-ordinating my whole life with someone sounds like hell. I can’t sleep when I share a bed, for a start! So I could never understand this obsession with finding The One/Mr Right/Other Half. We seem to be brainwashed in our culture that the only route to contentment is finding some person, magically in tune with our thinking, with whom to ‘settle down’ (does that mean that your life before them was unsettled or flawed?). This doesn’t mean I don’t want to find love – in fact I think romantic love is one of the biggest human highs of all. But really, do you have to share a fridge? So I wanted to write about this, question if love has to lead to a sacrifice of self-identity and whether ‘the fairytale’ is such a great life goal in the 21st century.

You spent time with a variety of people to research this book – who were some of the most interesting people you met during the process?

The highlight was the polyamorous commune. There were 17 people in one relationship. Yes, 17! The idea of polyamory is that you can multi-love. At the time I visited there were only two men and the rest were women. Not that it mattered, because they were all bisexual. The master bedroom featured three double mattresses stacked together on the floor. Two girls, who were legally married but still ‘in love’ with the others, had their own room. Another three lived nearby because there was no room for them. They pooled their income, made every decision as a group and had little time alone. It dawned on me that perhaps they are the polar opposite to singletons like me, who thrive on independence. They seemed to derive their identify from belonging to a group. If I’m a commitment-phobe, they are commitment addicts! This exemplifies why the one-size-fits-all prescription of relationships isn’t appropriate.

You’ve also continued to write pieces for the big newspapers while working on the book – is it difficult to juggle commissions while focusing on a book? Did themes from your book feed into your articles, and vice versa?

Some research doubled up as articles, and vice versa. For example I initially wrote about the ‘wife-finding tour’ to Ukraine for The Sunday Times. When I was writing the book, I dug out my notes and rewrote it (with much more detail) for a chapter for the book. The same happened in reverse too. I went undercover on a marital affair website to discover the reasons why men had become disenchanted with their marriage. I did it originally for the book but then at a later date, I wrote up the experience as a story for The Mirror.

A lot of journalists find events and press parties useful to attend to get inspiration, find out about new products, and to make contacts – as you write about sex and relationships, what kind of events does this lead you to attend?!

I get invited mostly to try out new dating sites/apps/fads/parties because I write a lot for the relationships pages in Metro. That used to be fun, but after three years of writing a book about dating I never want to make small talk over a luke-warm glass of Pino ever again.

I get invites to book launches, product launches, new venues, etc. but I don’t think all PRs realise that just because you’re a journalist doesn’t mean you can magically write about what you want. As a freelancer I have to pitch my ideas and can only really write about new social trends – things that would make a full feature. If it’s new products/venues/books, they are best contacting specialised journalists who do listings or reviews.

You must get lots of bizarre press releases featuring crazy sex toys and products – what’s the most outlandish/weird sex toy you’ve heard about?

Oh goodness, yes. I used to describe myself in bios and websites as ‘specialising in sex and relationships’. But this seemed to attract the wrong sort of interest! I got emails and press releases from people thinking I may like to write up a review of their porn films or self-published erotic novels. I took note and rebranded. It’s human relationships which interests me. I have little interest in writing about sex and all the weird things that I’m sure go with it! But if you must have an answer to the sex toy question [We must, we must – Ed], I did recently get a press release about a ‘happy ride’ from a store called SexShop365. It’s basically a vibrating bicycle seat! [Whoa – Ed]

You previously said you look up to Caitlin Moran as a writer – both of you use your own experiences as a starting point in your work. What are the drawbacks with being recognisable from your writing and putting yourself out there in that way?

You sell a bit of your soul with so-called ‘confessional’ or ‘first-person’ journalism. I think most writers and artists want to be writers and artists so much that they are willing to do whatever it takes, and in my case it was opening my personal life and sacrificing my privacy. I wouldn’t change it of course because it has shaped my career as a journalist, but it is an occupational hazard! My opinions and personal experiences are now documented online and frozen in time. So even if my opinions have changed or my experiences been superceded by more relevant ones, people build a picture from what’s there.

I dated someone recently who never knew my real name nor that I was an author. I avoid telling anyone I meet outside of media circles what I do because as soon as they ask ‘what’s your book about?’ they’ll know all my views on love and relationships, which kind of removes the mystery! I would prefer people to form their own impressions without the help of Google.

Twitter went crazy in reaction to Kirsty Allsopp’s recent statements on the advice she’d give to a daughter – what’s your personal take on the idea of ‘settling down’ with one man and having a child by your late twenties?

From what I’ve said above you’ll probably guess that personally, I couldn’t think of a life path I would want to take less. But obviously I don’t speak for all women and I know many women who have followed that path because it was exactly what they wanted. There is no other topic which makes us quite so prescriptive than when and how we find a partner and have children. But the question is always grounded in the same assumption that this is what we all want and have to do at some point. Who’s to say we need to find a life-partner at all. Even if you want children, relaxed social attitudes, financial independence for women and fertility technology allows us to do it alone or even with a platonic co-parent. Kirsty Allsop actually raised a good alternative – have your kids early and your fun later in life. She wasn’t trying to be prescriptive, just presenting another option for the lifeplan, which was actually a very valid one.

Do you agree with the view a lot of writers have taken in their commentary on the issue  that the criticism she received is mainly due to sexism towards a woman speaking publicly, rather than the views just appearing to be outdated, and spoken from a position of privilege a lot of people don’t share?  

Yes, the backlash she faced for her comments come from our stalwart views on what the ‘fairytale’ life should be. As soon as anyone expresses their preference or views on marriage, children and family life, it’s taken to be disapproval for everyone that has chosen a different way of doing things. We seem to be so defensive about the issue of whether, when and how to marry and start families, which to me hints that perhaps there are flaws in our ideology of the fairytale.

You research a lot of your work by meeting and interacting with people and communities directly and in person – do you use Twitter for this as well? Is it useful, or can it be a hindrance to getting ‘real’ content?

I admit, I find Twitter more of a distraction than a help. It’s rabbit-in-headlights-syndrome. There are so many things filling my timeline that I don’t know what to click on and so end up clicking on nothing. Everyone with any connection to media tells me to ‘tweet more!’ but I never think to, unless I have an article published. The result is that if you look at my timeline I sound like a total narcissist: ‘look at this article I wrote!’ and ‘I’m on TV today discussing xxx’. I tell myself I’ll tweet any interesting article I read but then it never crosses my mind!

And finally  what’s in store for the next book?!

I’ve started working on a couple of ideas but nothing has grabbed my 100% focus yet. We writers have to write about what we are passionate about. The reason my first book was a memoir about my dating life was because in my late twenties dating was new and novel and awakened a side of life I hadn’t experienced before. Now, eight years later, my new passion is competitive fitness. I run for a running club and spend most of my weekends in cross country races, obstacle runs, triathlons and whatever new outdoor challenge I can find. Most days all I want to do is train (which is probably why I’m not getting a third book done) so perhaps this will become the theme of my next book. There’s a growing cult of reformed-party-people becoming sports addicts in middle age and this is something I’d definitely like to investigate, via method journalism! 

Helen can be found tweeting @helen_croydon, and you can find out more about 'Screw the Fairytale: A Modern Guide to Sex and Love' here