Author Q&A: Curtis Sittenfeld

Best-selling author Curtis Sittenfeld talks to Elena Bowes about her new book Rodham, imagining what life would have been like for Hillary had she turned down Bill’s proposal of marriage. Sittenfeld’s’s fantasising what-might-have-been story is human, intimate, believable and a great read.

In your Acknowledgments you write that you were offered a magazine assignment in early 2016 that inspired you to write Rodham. Can you expand on that?

Because my 2008 novel American Wife is loosely based on former first lady Laura Bush, sometimes editors would reach out and ask if I’d like to write an essay about Hillary. I’d decline—there’s so much that’s been written in the last 30 years about who Hillary is and what she “means” that I just didn’t feel I had any insights to add. But when an opportunity from Esquire arose to write about her fictionally, I was intrigued. I realised that I could flip around a frequent question. Instead of asking “What do the American people think of Hillary?” I could ask “What does Hillary think of the American people?”

I read in an interview that when you were in college you wanted to be a social worker. You wanted to make the world a better place, but your talent as a writer led you down a different path (luckily for all of us fans). Did you see Rodham as a chance to imagine a better world – for you and your readers?

I definitely see it that way. I think the novel does other things, but certainly I was trying to rewrite the 2016 American election, which I found and continue to find incredibly distressing. I do sometimes still wish I had gone into a profession that more directly helps people, but I like to think maybe my books are enjoyed by the people who help people.

Please describe your perfect reader?

For Rodham specifically, a high proportion of readers are clearly women, especially over the age of 40 or so, and especially ones disappointed that Hillary did not become president. In general, I appreciate readers who are comfortable with ambiguity and aren’t looking for fictional protagonists to be moral role models.

In the heady youthful romance between Bill and Hillary depicted in Rodham there’s a lot of passion, a lot of time in bed, showing a side to Hillary that many might not have imagined. Can you explain your thinking on writing so graphically about their sex life in the first part of the book?

The first section of the book is about two people in their twenties falling madly in love, and depicting their physical attraction seemed like a natural and important part of that. The premise of the book is what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill? And in real life, she turned down his first two marriage proposals. In order for the reader to care about the breakup, she needs to be invested in their relationship, and in order to be invested, she needs to believe it’s real. So I spent a lot of time on their early dialogue, relationship milestones, and, yes, physical encounters.

You read no less than 15 books to help you with ‘facts, anecdotes and analysis’ for Rodham. In addition, you listened to several relevant podcasts and read many public statements. At what point do you stop with the research and start filling in the blanks with your imagination? What is your process?

I once heard the novelist Mona Simpson say that she writes up to the point where she knows exactly what information is missing, and I consider this excellent advice. So in some cases, I might write a scene on the campaign trail and in the act of writing, I’d realise I needed to know things like which staff members are in the van with the political candidate, how those staff members address the candidate, and where they are geographically. For Rodham, I was researching and writing at the same time (as in, within the same day). For instance, I listened to the audiobooks by the four female senators who ran for U.S. president in 2020—Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. I didn’t always “use” the books in a direct way, but they all helped make me more conversant in the topic.

You have an amazing imagination – conjuring descriptions, details about your characters that make them very believable – What advice would you give a novice fiction writer on letting their imagination run wild?

When you’re writing, make your choices based on what strengthens the fiction rather than worrying about how you as the writer will be perceived. After all, you can always revise before publication. Also, don’t be afraid of research. Real details are often more surprising and interesting than the ones you might invent.

Rodham includes many unflattering images of Bill Clinton. When does a writer cross the line between fiction and libel?

This is a legal question rather than a literary one, so it’s better answered by a lawyer.

I really enjoyed Donald Trump’s cameo appearance in the book because it captured Trump perfectly and because it was only a cameo. Have any of the famous names mentioned in the book like Hillary, Bill or Donald reacted to your book?

I have not received feedback from any of the real people whose fictionalised counterparts exist in the book. I suspect Hillary won’t read it, that she’s used to being the subject of all sorts of attention and knows how to tune it out. I could have written an unequivocal love letter to her, but I wanted to make my fictional version of her admirable but also complex and flawed, and I accept that most people wouldn’t yearn to read that depiction of themselves.

What was the most challenging aspect to writing Rodham? And how did it compare to writing American Wife?

Rodham and American Wife cover about the same amount of time—more than 40 years—but Rodham explicitly blends fact and fiction in a way that was complicated to write. Sometimes I almost felt lost within the book or unsure of how to enter it at the beginning of a writing session. So that was sort of organisationally difficult, and, because I’m a Democrat, it was emotionally difficult to read articles or watch video clips that pre-dated the November 2016 election where the creators often clearly believed, even without stating it, that Hillary winning was a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, watching some of Trump’s speeches to try to capture his verbal patterns was like exposure therapy.

What’s next?

I want to write a very short, very fun novel that requires no research.

– Elena Bowes

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