Curtis Sittenfeld, 45, is the author of two short story collections and six novels, including Prep, her 2005 debut about a teenage girl at boarding school, and American Wife, narrated by a White House first lady, based on Laura Bush. Both books were bestsellers longlisted for the Orange prize (now the Women’s prize for fiction). Her latest novel, Rodham, out in paperback next month, imagines how Hillary Clinton’s political career might have looked had she not married Bill. Sittenfeld, who was born in Ohio and studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, spoke to me on Zoom from Minneapolis, where she has lived since 2018.
What led you to write a counterfactual novel about Hillary Clinton?
Early in 2016, Esquire asked if I’d like to write a short story from Hillary’s perspective as she accepted the Democratic presidential nomination. It was an interesting exercise, but I don’t think I’d have gone on to write Rodham had Trump not won the 2016 election. I was devastated. I found myself thinking about schoolchildren who had known Hillary was running for president. In many cases, they literally didn’t know Bill Clinton existed or that she’d been first lady - they knew her as a politician. I thought, what if adults also didn’t see Hillary and Bill as connected? Would the 2016 election have turned out differently?
The novel isn’t afraid to imagine Hillary’s sex life…
I certainly got mocked for it. I knew critics could take sentences out of context and make me seem ridiculous and yet I still made those choices – so they should have asked why, instead of going: “Oh, Bill Clinton’s penis, hee hee!” It felt radical to write about sex from Hillary’s point of view. We know about Bill and sex; I’d say the public knows nothing about Hillary and sex and that’s probably not by accident. It reclaimed something, but I do respect that somebody could say: “Curtis? It’s actually not your right to reclaim that.”
Do you know if Hillary has read the book?
No, I’ve never heard from her or met her. I did wonder about sending it to her. If she was interested, I didn’t want her to have to pay for it; on the other hand, I thought it felt invasive to send it, so I never did. The book, for me, is this weird artistic project that is kind of contained – if I sent it to her, I’d be a real human being sending it to another real human being. Writing a novel is always like a fever dream. I’ve sometimes found myself thinking, “Did I write a novel in which Hillary did not marry Bill? And are there sex scenes in it? Did I write that?”
Given that US politics is so polarised, did you ever worry about losing readers simply through your choice of subject?
No. When I wrote American Wife, I thought Republicans wouldn’t want to read it because it’s written by an openly Democratic person and Democrats wouldn’t want to read it because it’s about a Republican couple. And the book came out in September 2008, two months before the Bushes were out of the White House, so I thought it would feel stale right away, but I was wrong about all of that: American Wife is one of my best-liked books. A novel’s reception is so hard to predict that you might as well just write what you want to write.
What has it been like living in Minneapolis since the murder of George Floyd?
A lot of white people are having an overdue reflection on white supremacy or white complicity - people say the quality of life is high in Minnesota, but for whom? I lived in St Louis for 11 years and I lived there when Michael Brown was killed, which was essentially the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement. The reckoning around George Floyd’s murder is reminiscent of that. People I know tend to feel great relief that Derek Chauvin was found guilty. There was this great concern that he wouldn’t be, even though there was this overwhelming video evidence. The thing I’ve heard people say is that this isn’t justice. George Floyd is still... It’s consequences, not justice.
What has lockdown been like as a writer?
Being a writer is good training for quarantine. I’ve been on deadlines where there’s something I want to do but I can’t do it for a year – I’m like, I need new jeans but I’m not going to buy them because I need to finish my novel first. I have written during the pandemic. When writers say dramatic external circumstances make it feel like fiction doesn’t matter, part of me thinks, yeah, fiction doesn’t matter – it took this to show you?
Which novels have you admired lately?
This is going to sound suspicious because we share a publisher, but Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle is magnificent, so good in so many ways: plot, structure, character development, language, the scope. Also, Dawnie Walton’s first book, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: it’s a fictional oral history of this musical duo, a white British man and a black American woman – it shows them at the height of their popularity in the 70s and then what happens over the next several decades. There’s a lot of clever touches, a lot going on in it.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I loved Eloise and The Boxcar Children. Like a lot of writers, I was very indiscriminate from early on. Sometimes, people would give my mother a subscription to the women’s magazine Redbook; I don’t think she ever read it, but from second grade I loved the advice column. I wrote stories from when I was seven, but I don’t think I ever imagined I’d be lucky enough to make my living from fiction - it was good to remind myself of that during the times when I was thinking, “But people misunderstood the sex scenes in Rodham!”