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Comedian Sara Pascoe On Her Debut Book, Animal

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Photo: RICHARD DAVENPORT
Sara Pascoe is a stand up comedian, television personality and, now, an author. She hails from Essex, where she says she’s “no longer welcome” because she’s too “judgey and preachy” about the local culture, where she says – for example – boob jobs are not just acceptable, but verging on the norm. Pascoe reckons that “young women are duped; they begin to pad and enhance and the cycle continues” and concludes that “it only stops if we accept ourselves.”

Boobs jobs are just one topic to arise in Pascoe’s book, Animal: An Autobiography of the Female Body, in which she doesn’t come across as judgey and preachy at all. (Okay, maybe a little bit preachy, but it’s well-meaning). The book tackles the evolutionary theory that makes up what it is to be a “female”, and interweaves this with personal tales from Pascoe’s own life – stories spanning abortion to one night stands. It’s a novel form, and one that provides a sizeable chunk of serious science, but in a humorous and digestible way.

Since Pascoe hit the comedy circuit, in 2007, she’s become well-known for talking about feminism, gender and sexuality, and now, in Animal, it feels like she's finally put it all down in writing. We talked to Pascoe to find out more about what motivated her to write the book, and why it's important to talk about the biology that makes us female... or, at least, the ever-changing idea of what a female should be.
In Animal, you talk about always having wanted to write a book. What was a foremost aspiration: Stand up or writing?
Well, I’d never seen stand up when I was growing up and I didn’t really know about it, mostly because we didn’t watch television. By the time I was 18 I’d only seen two or three comedians on TV. I hadn't seen live comedy until I was 27. Before that I thought comedy was silly and that the world was very serious. So probably writing a book!

However, because I started writing it after doing stand up, I found writing it was such a joy because of the absence of having to make everything constantly funny. I’m on tour at the moment and the stuff that isn’t funny enough has to be taken out.... You’ve told people you’re giving them a certain form of entertainment... so you have to give them that. With the book, it wasn’t so pressured.

How did the idea for Animal come about?
I was researching a lot of the topics anyway. Partly because I wanted to talk about female sexuality in the show. And the rest of it was about trying to understand myself and my psychology. At some point that became more scientific and about hormones and neurotransmitters... and then that turned into the book.

So you didn’t quite set out to cover the history of evolution?
After the original pitch my agent came back to me and said, “I’m not saying this is BAD but it’s hard and serious.” And I said, “Yep, I’ve got a year to write it. Fine.” I didn’t doubt myself, but then you start and you have blank pages and unread text books and a third of the way in, writing about consent, I did panic, I felt: ‘This is too huge for me. There’s too much to do.’

The book makes biology easy for people like me who grapple with scientific information. Were you into science when you were younger?
No. I’m a recent adopter... kicking myself about how little attention I paid at school. I don’t know if that was because bad teaching didn’t get me interested or because the syllabus just didn’t show you the relevance of how a cell works in your own life. Either way, looking back I feel like you don’t have any idea at the time what you’re missing out on. I remember adults saying to me “I’d do anything to learn all day now” and me thinking 'you’re an idiot’. And now I’m that guy.

I guess that brings us onto your unusual choice of form – human evolution told through the lens of autobiography. They serve each other well because your personal anecdotes brings the science stuff to life...
It’s exactly like that – I wanted to give the science in small chunks. I had to write with someone in mind; I was hoping my book would read by different people but thought that the most important person might be a 14 or 15-year-old girl. Particularly because I would have appreciated a book like Animal at that age. I didn’t want them to close the book and say, “nah, you lost me”. So I limited myself; I decided to talk about three hormones in the book, and then I looked for stories that could illustrate or prove this information, or make it less confusing. As human beings I think we love being told stories, it helps turn the pages. I wanted to have enough of those that you didn’t realise how much information you’re actually getting.

If you had read this when you were younger, how would it have helped you?
I’d have been better about boys. You can’t tell young people enough about consent and about female pleasure because those conversations are just not had. I’m in my early thirties now and I’ve been having these conversations for a couple of years, but I could have known that earlier – I could have known that I was in culture that doesn’t talk about female pleasure properly. It takes a while for you to wake up to things, things like ‘why do magazines keep telling me to put on sexy underwear?’
The most personal aspects cover your family, your previous relationships, your innermost feelings – did you ever think, ‘maybe I wont put this in?’
There were things that didn’t go in because they weren’t good enough or they were about other people. My mum is very generous about how I talk about her – in my Live At The Apollo show for example, I talk about my mum telling me about oral sex when I was 12 and how that was sexual equality. And in the book there’s a lot about her relationship history and her history with my dad. I never worried about the personal stuff that concerns me though... at least not until I did my first interview and the journalist’s opening question was: “Do you think you have issues with men cause your dad left?”

Wow. I would at least warm up to that... If you’re going to ask it at all, at least ask at the end.
Maybe it’s a technique, because I did then stumble through the entire interview after. But anyway, I wanted to be honest because I wanted to reflect my experience of being a woman. For me, getting pregnant was an important part of that. The trips to get the morning after pill, the pregnancy scares, the self hatred that ensued, we don’t talk about that much and it’s all heavily part of the female experience. Although working on ourselves never stops at any age, young people are where our power lies and I think we need to think about what we are saying to young women. We need to shift the focus from telling them they’re pretty... you might want to tell young girls how cute and gorgeous they are but I think more and more with every generation we need to emphasise their skills.

And finally, what’s next, more stand up or books?
Both! I’m working on my second book now about men, it’s the counterpart to Animal and looks at how the male body works.
Sara Pascoe is on tour with ‘Animal’ - Soho Theatre from tonight & dates around the UK until July 2 2016

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99)
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