Curtis Sittenfeld interview: The Man of My Dreams

She's back. I'm a couple months late with this, but the author of last year's surprising NYT bestseller Prep (one of the Times' Top Ten Books of 2005) and workshop grad (class of '01) has penned another novel, The Man of My Dreams, which this blogger found even wittier and more satisfying than the debut (as did some other folks). As Alice Munro put it, "The Man of My Dreams is so free of tricks, the honesty is so startling, you feel there's a writer here who isn't trying to beguile you but to lay out some plain, raw truth about emotions and sex. This is a courageous, refreshing novel." We join our interview already in progress...

EG: The novel opens with a kind of fascination about Julia Roberts' wedding in 1991. Hannah is discussing it with her aunt, and only gradually do we learn why she is with her aunt and not her family. This seems like a neat way to do several things at once: establish marriage as something fantastic, idealized, and remote to Hannah; distance her problematic immediate family; and dramatize her isolation right away. Then we skip from year to year, month to month. Can you talk a little about how you decided on this structure?

CS: Each chapter is supposed to be an episode in Hannah's life when her fascination with and anxieties about romance, boys, and men come to the fore. And then, or at least this was my goal, all the boring stuff between big events is just eliminated. These leaps in time meant I could make Hannah's maturity level change. Another big incentive for jumping over time was that I got to entirely skip her high school experience. And after writing Prep, I'd had my fill of high school.

EG: Your dialog reads as utterly real. Do you by any chance record people's conversations (you have been a journalist after all)? Or eavesdrop in coffeehouses, typing out the way people converse?

CS: I record interviews that I conduct if I'm writing a freelance article (something I did more in the past than I do now), and then I transcribe the tape, and transcribing probably has improved my ear for how people talk. But no, I never surreptitiously record people's conversations. Something Frank Conroy used to say was that you don't want dialogue to actually be realistic; you just want it to seem realistic. Most conversations are extremely repetitive and disjointed, and I try to make my dialogue crisper and fasted-paced than it would be in real life.

EG: One part of the book takes place in Alaska. Did you ever do a trip like the one Hannah, Alison, and the two fellows take? Alaska felt real, and I wonder if you had to go there to achieve that. Ethan used to tell us in class that you can be very convincing a lot of times without needing a ton of factual detail.

CS: I have indeed been to Alaska. But actually, I find that when I want to know if a fiction writer has experienced something firsthand which he or she has written about, I'm disappointed whether the answer is yes or no; even though I want to know, I'm disappointed by knowing. So admitting this to you, I feel sort of like I'm letting you down. (Ah, delicate, fragile, writerly me!)

EG: What differences, if any, did you encounter while writing this new book in third person after the first person of Prep? It seems to me your powers as a narrator are well served by this foray into third person. To take just a simple example, you are sometimes able to tell the reader what other characters are thinking and hence clarify a dilemma or conundrum.

CS: I don't always know why I choose the first or third person -- I just sort of try one, and then it works or it doesn't. This book is written in a close third person, so it's definitely very Hannah-centric. I think people's individual wishes and quirks and neuroses are what make them interesting, and are what I like to read about in fiction; I like to want something on a character's behalf. So no matter the POV I'm using, I try to keep readers close to, if not inside of, my own characters.

EG: Hannah's relationship with her abusive father seems to have dampened her relations with men later on. Did you meet Hannah grown-up first and then realize her backstory, or did she grow out of seeing a fourteen year-old character whose dad can't control his anger? Did she withdraw from men partly out of fear of her father?

CS: The first section I wrote was when Hannah is in college interning at an ad agency for the summer and has a really awkward drunken hook-up with a co-worker, and then I decided to write about her before and after that incident. While I would say that of course her relationships with men are influenced by her father, I also wanted to avoid a simplistic "A leads to B leads to C" type of storyline. I always see Hannah as being her own agent, and being complicit in all the relationships she has.

EG: Oliver was the most interesting and vivid male character to me. Would you talk a little bit about how you came up with him?

CS: I get different feedback about him -- some readers think he's charming, and some think he's scummy. I thought it would be interesting to create a character where his flaws are explicit, they're a given, and then look at the reasons why people are drawn to him anyway. Certainly I think people like that exist in real life.

EG: Did you feel yourself growing as a writer during this book? I ask because comparing Lee (from Prep) and Hannah, you seem to have taken Hannah farther along in development, and I wonder if that parallels your own growth as a writer in some way?

CS: The book follows Hannah into her mid-to-late 20s, so she's an official adult, whereas most of Prep takes place in high school, and even though Lee is narrating the story in retrospect, the details about her adult life are intentionally murky. I think The Man of My Dreams is in fact a more mature book, but it's not because of Hannah's age; it's because of technical and structural issues -- it's more tightly written and faster-paced; it's a tad less self-indulgent.

EG: Do you revise stuff as you go along, or get it all out and then go back and start slashing?

CS: Both. Chris Offutt once recommended looking only at the last line of what you wrote the previous day and then pushing on, and going back only at the end. And I think of that suggestion often, even though I don't usually do it. But I strongly believe that sometimes you have to write something wrong -- and you might even know it's wrong as you're working on it -- in order to write it right. It's impossible to fix a piece of writing when it's in your head rather than on the page. Of course, when you put words down on the page, and they're really cheesy and graceless, it's discouraging. But then, ideally, you make them better.

EG: How did you decide what to do with the last chapter? Not to give too much away to those who haven't read it yet, but it's epistolary. Was that something you imagined doing early on, or did it evolve out of getting to that point in the book?

CS: The letter form was a bit like choosing the third person point of view -- I decided to try it, it seemed to work, so I kept it. It's a letter Hannah writes to her former therapist, whom she hasn't seen for a few years. The therapist has told Hannah to drop her a line and tell her what happens after Hannah moves from Boston, and Hannah doesn't know if she really means it -- if writing to the therapist is a self-absorbed gesture, or if not writing to her is rude. I'm intrigued by how people do or don't stay in touch, or do or don't cross paths years after first knowing each other. It can be quite surprising and different from what you'd anticipate.

EG: Time magazine called you "the Faulkner of awkwardness." Do you think you notice the various tensions in situations more than most people? Are you always wondering what people are thinking as you observe them? In talking to you face to face, I must admit I can almost feel your intense curiosity emanating off you in waves. Do you get a lot of people who say your work hits too close to home, or that it's almost embarrassing to read because they feel so keenly for the characters? Where do you think this fervor to absorb so much about someone's character comes from?

CS: Wave-emanating curiosity?! Okay, now I'm the one cringing!! In all honesty, I secretly suspect I'm kind of a dull person, with nothing in particular to say most of the time, so that might be the source of the curiosity you refer to -- that I'm moved to ask people questions because otherwise I'd have nothing to contribute to conversations! All this said, I like to believe I'm socially normal, much more so than my characters.

But yes, some people do say that reading my writing makes them wince and squirm because it's too uncomfortably real. I guess I'm interested in the times when there's a discrepancy between what people are expressing and what they're really thinking and feeling, and that discrepancy often arises in moments of awkwardness. Plus, when there's awkwardness and tension, we're more alert, even if it's not in a desirable way.

EG: Your style is very precise, clear, sharp, and solid, etc. (for lack of better words). The reader doesn't have to guess anything or fill in the blanks. Which writers have taught you the most about style? Whose style do admire among contemporary writers?

CS: I have two contradictory theories about clarity in fiction. On the one hand, I feel like the writer is working for the reader, and I want to give the reader an enjoyable, palatable reading experience. On the other hand, I try to write with the assumption that readers are intelligent, to appeal to the highest common denominator, because I like books that allow me to figure things out for myself and don't over-explain a concept. (Alice Munro allows this, and I just finished The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which I thought was fantastic and definitely assumes the reader's intelligence.) So maybe what I try to do is make situations clear -- I hate when a writer has so little control of her material that you can't tell when or where something is taking place -- but use a lighter touch with ideas. One example of a person who does an excellent job writing clearly but not simplistically is our very own Ethan Canin.

EG: You've done some work on Ira Glass's "This American Life" radio program. What's that like? Do they assign you projects, or do you bring an idea to them and they give you recording equipment?

CS: I've pitched ideas to "This American Life," and they've rejected some and accepted a few. Once they accept an idea, they send me recording equipment, I talk to a producer about the structure of the piece, then I do the recording. Sometimes I have to go back and re-record additional interviews because there are holes. The biggest frustration with radio pieces, and the main way they vary from print articles, is that I can tape someone saying something so funny and great, but if the sound quality is poor, I can't use it; you have to focus on technical issues beyond just pure content.

Working with the "TAL" producers, including Ira Glass, is wonderful -- as fans of the show might imagine, they're so smart and funny and they're also amazingly nice and patient (I think because they're used to working with radio novices). You get off the phone with them enjoying this lovely illusion that you're new best friends. The only potential downside to working with them, and it's something I respect but it can also feel inconvenient, is that you might spend 20 hours on the phone working on a piece that's 12 minutes on the radio. They're perfectionists. And again, I admire this, but there have been times when I've been on the phone with a producer for three hours and I've had to say, "I'm really sorry, but I feel weak with hunger and I need to pee -- can I call you back in 10 minutes?"

EG: I was trying to come up with a concise theme so far in your two novels, and the best I could do is something like this: Everyone is weird, conflicts should be faced head on, and you can learn to like yourself if you remain honest. How would you summarize your thematic concerns so far? And how do you think they may develop in the future?

CS: Describing your own writing, or the themes in it, is like describing your personality; you're the least credible person on the topic. So I'll just say I think you've done a good job describing my work for me. As for the future, I'll always hold a special place in my heart for girlish angst, but I suspect I'll also tackle other subjects.


Trevor Jackson said...

Really good interview. I'd read a good and socially excruciating story by Sittenfeld last year (title escapes me--office party, New Year's Eve, I think--help me out) that I loved.

I'll pick up a copy of Prep. She's a thoughtful writer.

the plunge said...

Great interview again, EG and CS. Curtis's honesty is so disarming, and the stuff she says is always so frickin thoughtful. I read Prep a couple of months ago in like 2 days and felt like I learned a huge amount from it, writing- and other-wise. MOMD is in the mail.

Grendel - you're a pro. Can we get you paid for these?

PJKM said...

Grendel - we're hoping to have Curtis visit our illustrious institution this fall, and I'll direct the students to read this interview - really great!

Grendel said...

Thanks for the kind words. The thing about getting me paid is someone would have to pay me. I suppose I could do it.

And PJKM... soon as I get home, I'm tackling your new one and then, well... watch your email.

Trying to track down the Curtis story Trevor mentioned -- I have heard legends of it from several, but never located it myself. Anyone?

the plunge said...

I read it online a couple years ago. Doesn't seem to be up there anymore (who knew? I thought nothing ever got taken down).

If I'm not mistaken, it was the winning story in the Missouri Review contest in circa 2000.

Trevor Jackson said...

It was the Mississippi Review.

Here it is.

Sittenfeld mentions in an interview here that this story was the seed for MOMD.

Valery said...

Thank you for the post! I've read one good article about meeting your dream man, girls, you'll be interested!

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