Curtis Sittenfeld interview: American Wife

Curtis Sittenfeld is the New York Times bestselling author of the highly acclaimed Prep and The Man of My Dreams. Her third and latest novel, American Wife, chronicles the life of Alice Blackwell, First Lady -- a character inspired by Laura Bush. We were delighted when Curtis agreed to sit down with us for our third chat.

EG: I must admit, when I heard what your book was about, I was like, what the? The least-liked president ever, and Curtis has written a book about the one person who loves him the most? But then I started thinking ... yeah, but why does she love him? It suddenly seemed like a great idea for fiction to explore, and I started thinking of works like Autumn of the Patriarch, Primary Colors, Citizen Kane . Was it hard to sell the idea to your agent or publisher? Were there pitfalls you wanted to avoid?

CS: I was under contract with my publisher for a third novel, and the subject of it was up to me (or at least I had this illusion!). Basically, I did know that a novel loosely inspired by Laura Bush could turn out to be a disaster in any number of ways, so I started writing it as a secret experiment and didn't tell my editor until I was hundreds of pages in. My concern was not that the book wouldn't be sellable but more that even if it turned out to be really bad and cheesy, it had enough of a hook that it could probably still get published -- and I didn't want it to be published for the wrong reasons. But ultimately I was happy with it, and so was my editor -- all she saw before I finished the whole thing was a 30-page excerpt, but she was always enthusiastic. The most difficult thing to explain to people who hadn't read it was that even though I'm a Democrat, it's not a satire.

EG: In a 2004 Salon essay called "Why I Love Laura Bush", you wrote: "How can she really be a good person if she's married to him? How can she be married to him if she really is more liberal than he is? But ambiguities are the foundation of fiction; it is only in the world of politics that they're met with hostility." Did you write the book partly as a way to explain our recent history to yourself?

CS: I definitely think I wrote this book to try to examine some of those questions that most intrigued me about Laura Bush. I suppose I also wrote it to try to show that famous people don't exist just for us to judge and critique -- they have their own stories, experiences, private wishes and regrets.

EG: Alice says her life is "lived in opposition to itself." She justifies/rationalizes her shared responsibility in her husband's conservative administration while disagreeing with much of it. She tries to separate out her love for Charlie from her distaste for his political job. Do you think Alice is happy with how she's handled her life? And do you think her down-to-earth father, who had his saying about fools appearing in public places, would have approved?

CS: I'd say that, by design, American Wife explores these questions more than it answers them. I don't think the answer to whether Alice is happy with how she's handled her life is as straightforward as "yes" or "no" -- it's probably a mix, and it changes depending on the day. This would be a difficult question for any of us to answer, don't you think? As for whether her father would approve, he'd probably feel wary about her living so publicly, but he'd also probably be a bit wowed, as most of us are, by that level of fame and power. By the way, former or current residents of Iowa City reading this interview might be amused to hear that when I read at Prairie Lights last week, Julie Englander asked me if I too lead a life in opposition to itself.

EG: I'm curious who you envisioned as your reader. Liberals might not be interested, thinking it's fluff, and conservatives might assume it's a hit job.

CS: Oh, believe me, I thought of this as I was writing -- that there's enough in the book to turn off Democrats and Republicans for different reasons! But the topics in this book were endlessly interesting to me, and I tend to let my own preoccupations be my guide. I guess that I imagine the people who read American Wife will mostly just be people who like novels, who are interested in the various complications of human relationships and aren't necessarily political junkies.

EG: What has the reaction been from conservatives? Have you heard whether anyone on the "inside" has read it? Were you worried about that aspect? It's funny how a sex scene, for example, that wouldn't raise an eyebrow in a "normal" book suddenly seems fraught with danger and controversy here. We are still talking about fiction, after all.

CS: Mrs. Bush's spokeswoman told a reporter that she herself didn't plan to read it, that Mrs. Bush didn't plan to read it, and that they don't comment on fictional characters, which I thought was pretty diplomatic. If anyone on the inside has read it, I haven't heard, though I do know of some political reporters or former political reporters -- including Maureen Dowd and Joe Klein, who both have written about American Wife and seemed to enjoy it. Their affirmation meant a lot to me because they'd certainly be in positions to notice my gaffes or false notes more easily than the average reader.

EG: Laura Bush has surprised many liberal writers, who presumably loathe her husband, by her knowledge of their work. She is by all accounts a devoted reader, as is your Alice. You describe Laura Bush's approach as "stealth independence." There was that poetry symposium where she invited many writers -- but once it was announced that there would be anti-war poetry, she canceled the event. In your essay you speculate that the poetry might have been acceptable if it had simply happened in the moment, but once it was foretold it became untenable to allow it. What is your view of the benefits of Laura's/Alice's stealth independence?

CS: In a weird way, a person has more credibility if she's not known for consistently voicing the same viewpoint, or even for voicing any viewpoint. For instance, a few months back, Laura Bush made generous comments about both Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, and those comments got much more attention than they might have coming from a Democrat (Rosalynn Carter, for example).

But I also think it's presumptuous for any of us to say what someone in Laura Bush's position should or shouldn't do -- we have to take into account her specific personality and temperament, and what she's comfortable doing. In writing American Wife, I was very influenced by a great biography of her, The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush by Ann Gerhart, and a question Gerhart grapples with is, given that a first lady can be very influential, is it her duty to exercise that influence? Is it a cop-out not to? But, of course, as a Democrat watching Mrs. Bush root for various Republicans at their convention in September, I was wishing she'd use her influence a bit less!

EG: You also wrote: "Literary fiction acknowledges the discrepancy between how we act and what we feel. When I teach creative writing to teenagers, I tell them to think about going with their parents to a party. The people are boring, and the house smells bad, and you just want to leave. In real life, you say to your hosts, 'Thanks so much! I had such a great time!' But fiction admits how boring and smelly it was." That seems like a great way to introduce young writers to the possibilities of writing fiction -- the tension between the interior life and one's exterior actions. How has that worked with your own students?

CS: Hmm ... you should probably ask them! In recent years, I've found myself teaching workshops for adults (like the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, or a summer course at the Iowa Writers' Workshop) more than for teenagers. But when I've taught teenagers, I feel like part of what's exciting for them is realizing they're "allowed" to write about situations or feelings that they could actually get in trouble for discussing in another class.

EG: I loved Alice's ruminations on her unsolicited fame -- how people come out of the woodwork, people you barely knew, and they all seem to want something, and how she and her husband have to wonder whether they can trust anyone to simply be their friends anymore, and once you reach a very high level of fame that all goes away because you are insulated by a barrier of handlers and so forth. What are you trying to get at in your own mind when you explore these questions of inequality in social standing and unequal access to resources and comfort?

CS: This might sound facile, but the world is an outrageously unfair place, and a lot of us, including me, often choose to pretend this isn't so -- maybe because otherwise we'd be paralyzed by guilt, or just bewildered by the senselessness. Certainly I'm interested in what the obligations are of people who are more fortunate to people who are less fortunate. And I do struggle with feeling like being a fiction writer is a fairly self-indulgent profession, that I am not exactly improving people's lives in any important way. I have often thought that I'd have a lot more respect for myself if I were a social worker instead of a writer.

EG: How is the real-life presidential campaign looking in Missouri, with the country about to "turn the page" on the Bush years? What's your take on how history will view the Bushes?

CS: Well, my fingers are tightly crossed for an Obama victory, and if that comes to pass (please, please, please!), then I suppose a case could be made that some people will have voted for Obama partly in reaction against Bush. It definitely seems like Democrats have learned from some of the mistakes of the 2000 and 2004 elections. Here in Missouri, I take note of every new yard sign in my neighborhood for either McCain or Obama. The Obama ones outnumber the McCain ones, but my fear is that people voting for Obama are excited enough to put out a sign while a lot of people voting for McCain will do it sort of quietly and unenthusiastically. I think an Obama presidency would be (will be?) thrilling.

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