Curtis Sittenfeld interview
August 3, 2005 update from Curtis: My second novel, called The Man of My Dreams, is scheduled to be published in June 2006. I wrote a story called "The Man of My Dreams" at Iowa, and several of my classmates said, "The story's fine, but I hate the title." Well, at this point, pretty much all that remains is the title--but I have certainly learned in the last few months that you can't please everyone!Original interview post: Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novel Prep, which today (March 29, 2005) sits at number 10 on the NYT bestseller list. The book tells the story of Lee Fiora, a midwestern girl delivering incisive takes on class and sexual politics at an elite Massachusets boarding school. It has been praised for its "... achingly funny authenticity…" and "pitch-perfect voice that's brimming with acute self-consciousness and wit" (Boston Globe).
The novel follows a character named Hannah from the age of 14 to the age of 28 and chronicles her interactions with her family (especially her father, her older sister, and a cousin who is her age and sort of torments and enthralls Hannah) and also delves into Hannah's messy dating relationships. Hannah is less analytical than Lee in Prep--which I think is why this book is about 100 pages shorter, because Hannah doesn't anxiously anticipate every event and then anxiously reflect on it afterward--but she's still pretty neurotic. Go figure!
The craft and detail of Prep go far beyond most coming-of-age efforts. As the NYT put it: "Sittenfeld's dialogue is so convincing that one wonders if she didn't wear a wire under her hockey kilt …" Curtis was two years ahead of the Earth Goat prosers at the IWW, and as a TWF may well be responsible for many of us getting into the program. So if you can't bring yourself to genuflect, at least take off your hat, sit up straight, and try to still look deserving.
Earth Goat: At the moment, your career is turning into the kind many writers dream about. How are you finding the spotlight? Is it weird? Exhilarating?
Curtis Sittenfeld: Well, the spotlight is appointment-based, if that makes sense -- like, I'll have an interview or give a reading and I'll be in public writer mode, but for the rest of the time I'm normal Curtis (or abnormal Curtis, as the case may be). Although I feel really lucky, my life has not changed in most ways, and I'm certainly not walking around flooded with self-satisfaction. I've had a few surreal moments, like I was at a wedding and some people asked me to sign their programs, or I was invited to a party hosted by Meg Ryan -- but I should admit that the people who asked me to sign their programs hadn't actually read Prep, and I couldn't go to the Meg Ryan party.
EG: I'm sure you saw the Newsweek caption in a story on L.L. Bean "boat and tote" bags, saying they were perfect for "your new copy of Prep." And there was something about Payless Shoes "putting Prep in your step"? Your book seems to be already on its way to becoming a kind of icon. How is it that your book has become so aligned with fashion trends? Is it that belt on the cover? People are putting their collars up again. Is your publicist in league with the Devil or something?
CS: I'd like to claim that I'm incredibly prescient, but the fact that preppiness is trendy right now is basically a lucky coincidence -- it's a wave Prep is riding rather than creating. I just hope the cover doesn't look really passe by the time the paperback comes out.
EG: Are you tired of the "how much of it really happened?" issue yet? In a way, it's a compliment to your writing skills that they have convinced so many that Lee's story must be true. I must say I thought the book read like a memoir. That's high praise for fiction. But are you tired of explaining to people the basic fact that writers make stuff up?
CS: I'm not surprised that non-writers ask how much is true (and, hell, I often have that question myself about fiction) but I'm surprised that writers (including you) think it reads like a memoir. I don't want to spoil anything, but the number of things that happen to Lee, and the sequence of them, is somewhat improbable -- as I was writing, I worried that she would seem Forrest Gump-like in being conveniently omnipresent. I suspect part of the reason the book seems true is that I don't make certain things work out for her that typically do work out for characters in fiction. I guess I'm a mean author.
EG: You have said that your fascination with prep schools may have came at least partly from watching "The Facts of Life." Can you expand on that a bit? There was something comforting about that show.
CS: I know -- wasn't there? Maybe it had to do with the fact that the things characters would freak out about would typically be along the lines of getting embarrassed in front of a boy, or feeling jealous of a friend -- relatively safe problems, all things considered. Most sit-coms are pretty comforting, even more than they're funny -- I also was comforted by "Golden Girls" and "227."
EG: The film rights for Prep have been sold to Paramount, if I'm not mistaken. To those who have fantasized about such a moment, what's it been like to sell your book to Hollywood?
CS: So far, the book has been optioned rather than sold -- my agent explained it to me as optioning is like renting, where the studio pays me such-and-such amount for 18 months (and they can renew for another 18) and they reserve the right to make it, but what people would typically think of as the real money doesn't come unless they actually start making it. Also, to put things in perspective, a producer told me that out of every 100 projects in development at a studio, one becomes a movie. So, in short, it's not like Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon, and I are drinking martinis together just yet. The funny part to me is that, legally (and this applies to things like sequels), if the movie gets made, the character of Lee Fiora belongs to Paramount in perpetuity. I find this hilarious because I think Lee Fiora would be so excited and find it so glamorous to be owned in perpetuity by Paramount.
One thing I feel compelled to say is that although I definitely can imagine writing a screenplay or writing for TV at some point, I don't see writing fiction as a stepping stone to those opportunities. I actually find it kind of offensive when people imply that fiction is a lesser form, or what you write because you're not sufficiently connected in Hollywood. To me, fiction is the best form, and other forms would be more of a lark.
EG: You said you got a little sentimental reading the notes from Frank's workshop. What influence did the workshop, or Frank in particular, have on you? Were there similarities between prep school and the workshop as communities or experiences?
CS: I can't say enough good things about the Workshop. I truly adored all my teachers, including Frank -- my others Workshop teachers were Chris Offutt, Ethan Canin, and Marilynne Robinson. They all were so wise and so generous-spirited. I think of things they said all the time when I'm writing, and just in normal life. Some of my favorite nuggets from each are (I'm going in order of semesters, and I'm not phrasing any of this as eloquently as they did):
Chris saying to be a writer, you have to "Live cheap, don't kill yourself, and write what hurts." Chris also would point to a good passage in a story and say that if any part of it could be that good, it could all be that good. He really discouraged me from "coasting."
Ethan said, "Don't write what sounds good or clever -- write what's true." (True NOT being the same as autobiographical here.) This was so important for me because I think young writers, including me when I arrived in Iowa, can be in love with their own verbal cleverness , but it's really so off-putting in writing, and so shallow. Ethan also would say to love all your characters because of course why would the reader have interest in or sympathy for them if you don't?
Meanwhile, I love how Frank talks about fiction as one soul speaking to another across the abyss, how the reader has to be this sort of active participant, and also how a sign of good fiction is when you can feel a soul on the page. (Frank can somehow pull off talking about "souls" without sounding remotely cheesy.) I also of course think constantly of Frank's various comments on abject naturalism, ping-pong dialogue, meditating on the text, and making the reader carry a backpack up a mountain -- I've repeated that one many times.
And Marilynne is less sound-bite-ish, but she taught me a lot about seeing larger meaning in a work. She also taught me about teaching, in the way that she lets students sort of fight things out and only then does she speak -- she teaches with a light touch, in a way that's impersonal but not at all cold. She also scared the hell out of me regarding Mad Cow disease -- for some reason, my class talked a lot about that.
As for similarities between prep school and the Workshop, the main thing is that you're around a lot of bright people who are roughly your age, interested in the same thing you're interested in, and the environment can be simultaneously quite inspiring and quite incestuous and gossipy. I think in prep school, the gossip is unavoidable, and in the Workshop it's avoidable, not that I chose to avoid it. In both places, I felt like I was in juicy, exciting settings, which can provide both fun and anguish.
EG: You've been compared to J.D. Salinger. Do you see similarities between Lee and Holden? Were you influenced by Salinger at all? Have you read him as an adult? What book or books did influence you, do you think?
CS: I like Salinger's stories more than Catcher in the Rye, which I find hugely readable and charming in places but also excessively voice-y. It's an easy, obvious comparison because of the settings of Prep and Catcher in the Rye (and A Separate Peace), and the teenage narrators, but I don't see the books as having a tremendous amount in common. I also suspect most people who compare Prep favorably or unfavorably to those books haven't read them in years. I don't take the comparisons that seriously one way or the other. I also think it's so funny that people talk about whether there's "room" for an addition to the "boarding school genre" when that genre exists only because it's so small -- that is, there's no genre of books about unfaithful men living in the suburbs because there are so many you could never tally them. That's just considered a normal novel!
EG: You've made quite a first impression with your debut book. Are you afraid at all of being pigeon-holed in the future? Do you feel you're locked into a genre now? Let me put it another way: What's next for Curtis?
CS: I'm working on my second novel, though I haven't written a lick of fiction since Prep came out. But Random House bought Prep in June of 2003, so I had time to get well underway before that and I'm planning to get cracking again in April. As for other people's expectations, it's probably healthiest to try to ignore them and just write the best I can.