Of all the books that I’ve read this summer, one of the most compelling has to be Alexandra Potter’s wonderfully written and very relatable Confessions of a Forty-Something F**k Up (available in the U.S. from Harper Perennial on September 5, 2023), which is sure to appeal to readers of all ages. After all, who among us hasn’t, at some some point, thought their lives don’t look as they imagined they would? Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with Alexandra about her book, the story behind it, social media, online dating, loneliness, the benefit to having friends of all ages, the importance of literacy and access to books, and more. Read on to see what she had to say…
Andrew DeCanniere: To begin with, one thing I am always curious about is the story behind the story. How did you decide that you wanted to write this book? How did it come about?
Alexandra Potter: Well, I’ve been writing books for a long time. My first book was published in 2000. I always used to write romantic comedies about twenty-somethings looking for love. They often used to have a little bit of a magical twist in them. Then I didn’t write a book for a few years, and so I wanted to write something that had older characters in it. I wanted to have a main character in their forties, and I wanted her to have an older friend, because I saw that the older generation is ignored and invisible. When they’re portrayed in the media, they’re depicted as little old ladies, or as people that are not relevant anymore. That’s not what I was seeing. My mom is in her eighties. Her friends are in their eighties. I also was talking to many of my friends and we were sort of saying our forties are not how we imagined they were going to be. We kind of thought everything would be all sorted out and, of course, no one’s life is ever sorted out. On top of that there’s social media. Everyone is looking at everyone else’s lives and thinking they’re all perfect, when it’s really just a highlights reel. So, I thought it would be really funny to write this book. I wondered if anybody else would like it. I thought it was funny and relevant, so it has been really fantastic that so many people have said they completely relate to Nell — that it’s exactly how they feel. It’s been quite funny because often, when you’re writing a book, you wonder whether anybody will get it. Will everybody think this is boring? Will people find it relevant?
DeCanniere: Absolutely — and, you know, I agree about social media. The whole thing is just so incredibly bizarre. I feel as though there are many people who somehow seem to believe that what they will see on somebody’s social media account is literally everything that is happening in that person’s life — as if they’re literally sharing everything that happens to them. In a way, I can’t even fault people for believing that they are sharing everything, because I feel as though that is the way that many on social media design it. They want us to believe that they are sharing everything, and that everything is always wonderful. The reality, however, is that they aren’t sharing everything that is going on. They, too, are most often selectively sharing what they want to share. They are attempting to cultivate a certain image and, therefore, it is not very likely that they will share the things that do not comport with that image. Those parts of their lives that do not fit the image they wish to cultivate are, most often, simply being omitted. And that’s fine. It’s fine for them not to share every part of their lives. Everyone is entitled to privacy. It was true before social media, and it’s true now, in the age of social media. That said, it would be nice if people were more open about the fact that they aren’t literally sharing everything about their lives — that, rather, these are just the snippets of their lives that they feel comfortable sharing.
Potter: Someone called it the “highlights reel.” That’s really what it is. They post all of the great stuff. They can go on holiday, and it could’ve rained every single day. Then, one day, it’s sunny. So, they post that picture. They don’t tell you about all the days it was raining. They don’t tell you about the argument they just had with their boyfriend. Everything is fantastic. We all know that’s not real life. It’s quite funny. We all know it, yet we still look at social media, and a part of our brain believes it.
DeCanniere: Right. It’s almost like there’s this disconnect between what we know intellectually and the way that we behave.
Potter: It’s compare and despair. We all do it. Everyone does. I’ve read so many interviews and everybody admits they do it. You know, I’m of an age where I remember life before social media.
DeCanniere: As do I, actually. I didn’t even use social media until late 2012. That was my first experience with it.
Potter: I remember what it was like before we were all taking pictures of things and posting them. I wonder if we’ll get bored of social media and something else will take its place.
DeCanniere: Me, too. I know that there already are people who are dissatisfied with the current social media landscape — and with very good, completely relatable reasons. For example, content moderation has really gotten very bad on some platforms. I think it always could’ve been better, but it has really gotten just awful. I feel as though there are now even more falsehoods going unchecked than before — there’s just more disinformation and misinformation.
What I also find interesting is when Nell says she thought loneliness is something that only affects older people. She didn’t think loneliness is something that happens to people in their forties with 147 Facebook friends. To me, that also kind of highlights this weird blurring of the line between someone you know solely from your extremely limited interactions on a social media platform and someone you know in real life. I feel as though that’s something that has happened as we have embraced social media as a society.
Potter: I think loneliness is a big thing. A lot of people are lonely, and I think that they sort of have an online community of friends — like you say, she has 147 Facebook friends — but what is a friend? A friend is someone you can count on, someone who will be there for you. So, you can probably count your good friends on one hand. The real friends that will come to your aid. However, you can sort of be fooled by this idea that you have all of these friends on Facebook. Half the time you’ve never even met these people. You know, they’re a friend of a friend of a friend. I thought that was really interesting for Nell, because she finds herself really lonely. Like you say, she thought that was something that only happened to old people — not someone with all of these online friends.
DeCanniere: What’s also interesting to me is that you would think that with all of these tools that we have to connect with one another, we would be less lonely. That all of these different opportunities to connect digitally would equal less loneliness. However, I feel as though some of these technologies have actually led us to become more isolated, more lonely, and perhaps sometimes even less empathetic. It’s just kind of odd to think about, and perhaps runs counter to what our more idealistic selves would have anticipated from these new technologies, particularly in the earliest days of these platforms coming online.
Potter: I think so because I think that if you can sit at your computer, and you can do your online grocery shopping, and you can chat to people online, and you read your newspapers online — basically everything is online, then you will find yourself sitting in your bedroom, never leaving the house and never having actual human contact. In one way, I do think it’s sort of amazing that it has widened the world and I can talk to you right now, when you are in Chicago. On the flip side, I think there are a lot of teenagers who spend all of their time online. They’re not out there in the real world with other teenagers, and then things can be misinterpreted online as well. You can perceive peoples’ lives to be different than what they are like in reality.
DeCanniere: I will say that there are things I do like about these technologies or platforms as well. I do think that they made staying in touch with one another during the pandemic easier than ever, and I do think that they made peoples’ work lives and personal lives easier during this pandemic as well. During normal times, however, I do think it’s nice to be able to get out there — to get out and about and interact with people in real life.
Potter: It is. I do a lot of stuff online, because I’m busy and it saves time, but there is something really fantastic about going out and speaking to somebody when you get a coffee, or speaking to someone in a store. Having that human contact. The book I wrote after Confessions was One Good Thing. It was all about how you could be having a terrible day, and someone smiles at you when you’re waiting for a cup of coffee, and it can completely change your life. It can really lift your mood. I think that human contact is really important.
DeCanniere: I completely agree. Switching gears a bit, I will also note that Cricket seems to be extremely different than Nell’s image of the elderly — in a good way, that is — and she often seems to have very good advice. So, I think there is something to be learned from that as well because, as you suggest, I do feel as though older people are either treated as if they are invisible or they’re stereotyped, which really bothers me.
Potter: Yeah. As I said, my mom is in her eighties, and I know a lot of her friends — who are also in their eighties — and I have friends who are in their seventies. They are funny, witty, relevant, wise people that have lived really interesting lives — and who are still living really interesting lives. I don’t like how they’re sidelined in popular culture, in the media or in society. In the western world, we are in a youth-obsessed culture. I’ve traveled to India and the elderly are treated very differently. They are a lot more respectful. In this western world there is a youth culture. So, I really wanted to have a character who is older, who is interesting and doing fun things, and who has to restart her life — just like Nell has to restart hers. I thought it was interesting to put them together, and to see this intergenerational relationship, because I think that’s another really interesting thing. We all think that we have to have friends who are our own age. Actually, you can have friends who are 20 years younger than you, and your can have friends who are 40 years older than you. It doesn’t matter. You can find things in common with people. Somebody’s age is irrelevant, really.
DeCanniere: I agree. In my own experience, I have worked with or volunteered with people of all different ages over the years, and I think that you really do benefit from exposure to people of all different ages — your own age, but also older than you and younger than you. I think there’s a lot to be learned from people who are older, who have more experience than you do — there can be a lot of wisdom there — and I think that there are things that older people can learn from younger people as well.
Potter: I agree. I think it is mutually beneficial. I love having younger and older friends. I think people should do a lot more of it. Actually, I get a lot of messages and there are a lot of people who say “I love Cricket. Where do I find a Cricket?” I say that the world is full of Crickets. You just have to open your eyes.
DeCanniere: You also touch a bit on the world of online dating in your book — or the awkwardness that can be online dating. I think that is the way so many people put themselves out there these days, and one way that so many people meet. I think you could argue that for some — particularly for busy professionals — it could be said to be a primary way of meeting.
Potter: I thought that was quite funny — this sort of idea that you could have a whole relationship online. You can share links and find out about their parents and what they’ve had for dinner. They send you all of these pictures, but then you never actually get to meet them in real life. It’s almost like the relationship just existed online, and then it kind of fizzles out. Nell says she’s not very good at speaking emoji. She’s not very good at all that. She’s not very good at online banter. She’d just rather meet someone for a date or a cup of coffee or something. I do know that when a lot of people get older — if a relationship has broken down or there’s a divorce or something — are moving into online dating. It can be really tricky. I have some friends and their kids are younger and everyone’s online. I think it can be harder if you’re a bit older. I think everybody has a great online dating story to tell.
DeCanniere: I definitely think that is one of those things as well where, on the one hand, I feel as though there is more of an opportunity to meet or connect with people than there might have been in the past. However, I also think that, in another way, it’s more complicated. It can also be lacking in some ways, compared to dating in real life.
Potter: I think it can be brilliant in some ways. If you live in an area and aren’t meeting a lot of people, or if you work from home, how are you going to meet people? So, it’s fantastic you can meet online. However, there are downsides to online dating. You know, people put the best pictures of themselves online. Sometimes you don’t get the right feel for someone. I have Nell finding pictures of men on Everest, taking selfies. It’s quite funny, because they’re always jumping out of planes or they’re on Everest or something.
DeCanniere: Right. And that gets to another concern, which is that people can misrepresent themselves online, which is a whole other issue. I also thought it is interesting that it seems as though Nell is trying to find her niche, and it happens to be at the exact same time as when Cricket is trying to find a purpose — or a new purpose — in her life. So, even though they’re at different points in their lives, they both sort of find themselves in the same place where that’s concerned.
Potter: They both find themselves in places they didn’t expect. So, Nell finds herself single and without a job and back in London. Cricket finds herself a widow. So, they’re both starting their lives again, and trying to find meaning in a new life. It’s kind of scary and it can be lonely, and I think that’s why they got each other. It’s this unlikely friendship, and they go on a really great journey together, and they discover a lot of joy. Nell teaches Cricket things, and Cricket teaches Nell things. I think that, by the end of the book, they have found new purposes, and they have done a lot of growing and learning and accepting their situation. They’re both in a grieving process. I think the different types of grief and how people treat her as a widow — Cricket wants to talk about it, and nobody wants to talk about death. Nell allows her to do that.
DeCanniere: I think that, at one point, Cricket even says that one of the worst things you can do when someone dies is not to say anything to the person who is grieving, because you are afraid you’ll say the wrong thing. I just thought that was a very important point.
Potter: Well, that’s just it. My dad died — it’s about 12 years ago now — and I remember that people didn’t know what to say, and you’re so upset that they can’t say the wrong thing. Nobody can say the wrong thing, because the worst thing has already happened, but you want to talk about it, and you want people to acknowledge it. Before my dad died, I’d been that person too. If somebody died, I used to think “What do I write in the card? Should I say something? I don’t want to upset them.” Now that I’ve experienced it, if somebody dies or something, I always get in touch. I always visit. I always send a card. I always say “Do you want to talk about it?,” because you can’t upset them. They’re already upset.
DeCanniere: Right. I just thought that was so important that you addressed that in your book, because people do seem to be tiptoeing around the issue when they’re around Cricket, and that’s not what she wants.
Potter: But I think we do. That’s a sort of cultural thing. We don’t talk about death. We’re scared of aging. In the west, anyway, we keep death very separate, but it’s happening everyday and it’s happening to all of us. So, there needs to be more of a conversation about it. I think it needs to be more normal to talk about it.
DeCanniere: And it does seem that when Cricket does find her new purpose through this project of hers, it fills this need both within her community and in Cricket’s life as well.
Potter: I think they both find things that really give them a new purpose in life.
DeCanniere: And, while I don’t want to give too much away, I will just say that as a lifelong reader, I was so happy that the whole Little Free Library thing does factor into the story, because I do feel as though literacy and access to books is so incredibly important.
Potter: Me, too. I just dropped a big bunch of books at the charity store near me. I wish I had a bigger garden space, because I would definitely love to have my own Little Free Library. So many readers have said they’ve bought my book, and then they’ve given it to a friend, or they’ve gone on holiday and left it on a bookshelf for the next person. I think books and stories should be shared. I was an avid reader as a child. I started young. You couldn’t get my head out of books. I think reading is amazing, because you can sit in your armchair and travel the whole world in a book. You can get into different peoples’ minds. So, I love that storyline.
DeCanniere: Not to suggest that other people who aren’t readers aren’t empathetic, but I do think that as a reader you do tend to be encouraged to be empathetic, you’re encouraged to be more open-minded, and you’re encouraged to see things from others’ perspectives. Like I’ve said to others many times, I’m with myself 24/7. I know my perspective. I know my own story. I know my own thoughts and feelings. I’m more interested in hearing other peoples’ stories, in others’ thoughts and feelings and perspectives.
Potter: Me, too. What I love about this book is the messages I get from people — mostly from people saying “I’m not a reader. I haven’t read a book in 10 years. I don’t normally read, but somebody told me about this book and I read it, and I loved that the chapters were short.” So, because the chapters are short, they can read one chapter just before they go to sleep at night. I get a lot of people saying they love the short chapters, because I think some people that don’t read a lot can get overwhelmed by a long chapter. I, myself, read a lot and can get overwhelmed by a long chapter. I think keeping the chapters short has brought a lot of new readers in — which is fantastic, because there’s nothing I love more than thinking that someone hasn’t read a book for 10 years has read my book, and that has gotten them back into reading.
DeCanniere: What I also found of interest is how Nell seems to have imagined her life one way, and it has arguably taken this completely different turn. Cricket, however, touches upon and teaches her about the freedom of saying “I don’t know,” and to sort of open yourself up to these other opportunities you might not have realized or may not have otherwise taken advantage of.
Potter: A lot of readers have said they absolutely love that passage. I really remember writing that passage, and it just kind of flowed out of me. That really just came from the heart, because I think there is so much freedom in saying “I don’t know,” because if you say that you don’t know, then it allows you to make a mistake — to try something and fail, to take a wrong direction, to travel a different path. By doing so, you can learn more about yourself and find new things. I think there’s so much pressure on us to make the right choice, and that can be really restrictive and make you really anxious. It can make you stuck. I think that being stuck is one of the worst things. So, I think that the advice that Cricket gives Nell is just one of the best bits of advice.
DeCanniere: You also touch upon how, depending on one’s perspective, not knowing what is going to happen can be terrifying but it can also be exciting. The flip side of not knowing is that it can actually be exciting not to know what’s going to happen — it doesn’t always have to be this scary thing.
Potter: Yeah. It’s this idea of sort of traveling without a map. You’re sort of traveling without a destination. It can be terrifying. I once read that being terrified and being excited are actually really close. So, it’s like if you’re on a roller coaster, you’re kind of terrified but excited. So, I kind of explored that. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen, which is scary. It’s also exciting, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
DeCanniere: There’s definitely something to that, and to leaving yourself open to new possibilities, rather than simply sticking with the familiar. There really is so much more that we could discuss, but is there anything else that you wanted to touch on?
Potter: I think we’ve touched on most things, really. I think there’s a lot to take from this book. I tried to write about them in a humorous way, but to write about a lot of serious topics. I think you can touch on a lot of serious things by using humor to talk about it. So, there are some big themes in there. There are all kinds of things happening. I also think it appeals to lots of people. Even though the title is Confessions of a Forty-something F**k Up, the whole idea is nobody is a f**k up. It’s just that society can make you feel like one. Like I say, I’ve had readers who are in their twenties right up until their eighties saying it’s relevant to them. We can all feel we’re kind of failing in some way, and that someone else is succeeding. I get some lovely messages, and I’m just really thrilled that everyone has taken it into their hearts. I’m over the moon and excited to see what U.S. readers think. The book has also been made into a TV show [Not Dead Yet, which airs on ABC and is also available on Hulu], and that’s been well-received, so that’s exciting.
DeCanniere: Last, but not least, I always find it interesting to know what writers are reading. Do you have any recommendations yourself — either authors you consider to be influences, or something that you’ve recently read that you’d recommend to others?
Potter: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.
DeCanniere: Coincidentally, that’s on my To Be Read list as well. I’m really looking forward to that one.
Potter: I just read it and loved it.
About the Author…
Yorkshire born and raised, Alexandra Potter lives in South West London with Mr. California and their Bosnian rescue dog. When she’s not writing or traveling, Alexandra is getting out into nature, trying not to look at her phone, and navigating this thing called mid-life.