Interview with Curtis Sittenfeld

Posted by Goodreads on June 25, 2013
The plot description for Curtis Sittenfeld's new book, Sisterland, reads like a fantasy novel: A pair of twins at odds about their own psychic abilities. An old mystery solved. A looming prediction of mayhem and destruction. Thrilling elements, but they're handled with the same nuance and deftness that she's always brought to her work, beginning with the best-selling boarding school heartbreaker, Prep, which established her career when it came out in 2005. After Prep's callow coeds, Sittenfeld's characters grew up alongside their creator as she chronicled the romantic travails of twentysomething Hannah in her second book, The Man of My Dreams, before moving on to a woman's full life story in American Wife, a thinly veiled portrait of former First Lady Laura Bush. Sittenfeld spoke to Goodreads from St. Louis, her hometown since 2007 and the city where Sisterland is set. She talked about siblinghood and psychic predictions, plus dispensed some good dating advice!

Goodreads: On the door of their childhood bedroom the twins have a sign that says "Sisterland. Population: 2." This gives a sense that siblinghood is its own closed universe. Do you feel like that's true for your daughters?

Curtis Sittenfeld: My daughters now are two and four, and I would say that they definitely already have moments of kind of communicating with each other and trying to shut out my husband and me, and actually it's fine. It might be less fine as they get older and are up to greater mischief, but right now it's really hilarious to see them scheming.

GR: What about your own siblings?

CS: My older sister and I are less than two years apart, and then there's five years with my younger sister and four more years with my brother, so in some ways it was like there were two pairs of us. My brother's nine years younger, which is a lot. The funny thing is, I feel like when he was still in high school and I was in my mid-twenties, I would be seeking dating advice from him, which is one of the more pathetic stories I can tell about myself.

GR: And he gave it?

CS: Oh yeah, he believed himself to be speaking on behalf of all men. My brother is opinionated, and he's not bashful about it.

GR: Did you and your sisters use the term "Sisterland" or was it something that came up as you were writing?

CS: I was going back and forth with my editor and my agent, trying to come up with a title. I think I woke up one morning and thought...Sisterland! And then we had some back and forth about whether, well, there's a lot of things out there that have "land" on the end, so we thought, "Is it one too many?" But all of us liked it, and so it just kind of stuck.

GR: Of the twins in Sisterland, Vi revels in her psychic abilities, and Kate, the narrator, tries to suppress them. Kate really strives for ordinariness, and that's not vilified. Often in books the message is—you're a crazy diamond, you gotta shine! But here you let her celebrate that ordinariness.

CS: I think you're right. I don't know if we're having some cultural moment that really encourages individuality, but obviously it's like, "Have your own Pinterest board, have your own blog, have your own Twitter account! You make your snarky observations about that public event and then you post them!" You're your own mouthpiece and publication. But I think that's not tempting to everyone.

GR: What was it about the psychic abilities that attracted you in terms of storytelling?

CS: The origin of this novel was actually not the psychicness but an earthquake prediction. In 1990, a self-described climatologist named Iben Browning predicted that there would be a major earthquake in Missouri on or around a certain day. I think it was something where it was a really big deal here [in St. Louis]. A lot of people thought it was ridiculous, but some took out earthquake insurance or kept their children home from school. I have a friend who's a law professor, and she says she was teaching on that day and she knew it would be preposterous for her to cancel classes, but she did put running shoes in the trunk of her car.

So when I heard about that event, I thought it would be so interesting to have that in a novel, to have a countdown to an event that might or might not happen. The person who made the prediction, I decided not to make the person a scientist or a pseudoscientist but instead to make her a psychic.

GR: Are you someone who believes in psychics?

CS: Not really. I don't think when I started the book I had a clear idea myself how much credibility I wanted to give the psychic or how I wanted to treat it tonally, and that kind of evolved as I wrote the book. It accepts that the sisters have psychic abilities, and it also treats it in a fairly matter-of-fact way. And there are characters who don't believe that their abilities exist, and those characters kind of represent all of the readers who may not believe that these abilities exist. I mean, the book is not satirical, obviously...

GR: The book takes the issue of believing in one's own psychic ability fairly seriously.

CS: Right, especially because the story is told in the first person by someone who not only believes she has psychic abilities, but doesn't want to have them. And so it's almost like she takes them so seriously, whereas if she were a different person, she might just think, "Of course I don't have to worry about that, because it's impossible!" Instead she doesn't want it, but she still believes in it.

GR: And yet you've set up a situation where there's proof that she does have these abilities.

CS: I think the book is not about sham psychics. The book is about people who believe that they're psychic and have evidence to support what they believe.

GR: Is there something that makes earthquakes more interesting than other natural disasters?

CS: An earthquake does seem like it comes out of nowhere more than a tornado or a hurricane. There's at least a few hours for a tornado, or a few days for a hurricane warning, but it's an earthquake! You could just be sitting there and it happens, and I think that's also a metaphor for these disruptions in our lives that we're not necessarily prepared for.

GR: Maybe that's why people were so riled up over Iben Browning's prediction.

CS: Sometimes you wonder why those things get as much attention as they do. Even though people tend to treat those predictions very mockingly, they probably wouldn't get as much attention if they didn't tap into underlying anxieties that average people have.

GR: Do you think there's some part of us that just wants the world to go out with a bang?

CS: Maybe.... There's a lot of parts of our daily lives that are sort of mysterious and we go day-to-day not giving them that much thought, but maybe end-of-the-world predictions make us pause and think, "Well, how did it all start" and "when will it end" and "why are we all here?" Those bigger questions that we manage to not pay attention to because it might be immobilizing if we thought about them every morning.

GR: On a much lighter note, I hear that you're writing a contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice. What kind of world are you putting the characters in?

CS: I feel too superstitious, I feel like I can't say, but I think it's like a fun parlor game for anyone to think, "If you were rewriting Pride and Prejudice, how would you do it?"

At this point I'm leaning toward setting it in Cincinnati, where I grew up. The British Harper Collins is who initiated this project, and I think they wanted one of us to be American, and they understood I would set it in the United States—but there's a lot of creative freedom.

GR: Did you get to choose which Jane Austen you'd write?

CS: They actually said, "Would you like Pride and Prejudice?" and I said, "Of course!"

The challenge for me will be writing a book that's not longer than Pride and Prejudice—there does seem to be something kind of hubristic about rewriting it, except twice as long!

GR: Here's a question from Goodreads Author Lucy Silag, who says she was your student at the University of Iowa!

CS: Oh yes, I love Lucy!

GR: She asks, "Do you think that your writing has changed a lot as you've gotten older, and if so, in what ways? Obviously, as we mature, our writing matures, becomes more knowing and is based on more experiences. However, I'm curious to know if there are things you are willing to try in fiction that you wouldn't have before, or things that you no longer have much interest in writing about?"

CS: What a good question! I think that some readers will feel like there's too much about having young children in this book, while other readers will really like that aspect of it. I suspect if I had not had children of my own, I would not have included as many details as I did—I tried to do it in the service of the plot and not for the sake of itself, but I think that's one thing that's probably different. By the same token, never say never, but it's hard for me to imagine writing another novel that's entirely from the perspective of a teenager. I mean, even Prep is from the perspective of a twentysomething looking back, but it's rooted in the adolescent world and I feel like the adolescent world is still of some interest to me, but it's not of unlimited interest.

At the level of language, I don't think it's changed enormously. I think that probably from the time I started writing Prep to the time I finished writing Sisterland, I think I've become a tighter or more economical and more succinct writer, but Prep and Sisterland are almost exactly the same length, so I still go into a lot of detail, for better or for worse!

GR: Here's one from Goodreads member May Warren. "Before you met your husband, were you a little like your characters Lee and Hannah from Prep and The Man of My Dreams? I'm only asking because I think those characters are a big comfort to all awkward daters out there (at least they have been to me), and it gives me some hope that you are now a married mother of two."

CS: I don't consider my characters to be autobiographical, but I definitely was bad at dating and incredibly awkward! I'm probably the last person in the world who should give romantic advice, but now that I look back, I'd say, don't assume that anyone else is necessarily less awkward than you are, and don't get that hung up on rejection. If someone's not interested in you, just move on. I mean, the world really is big. And a cliché that's true is that there are lots of fish in the sea. I think some young women can have a tendency to let rejection in dating loom larger than rejection in other contexts, to think that some guy who isn't interested in them has spoken on behalf of all men, when you and I know only my brother can speak on behalf of all men! I wish I could tell my younger self to lighten up.

GR: Do you have any particular writing habits?

CS: When I'm writing fiction, if I have to look something up online, I try to look it up on my iPhone and not on my desktop. Because of the smallness of the iPhone's screen, it tends to stop me from going down the rabbit hole of the Internet.

GR: What are you reading right now?

CS: I actually am almost finished with Where'd You Go Bernadette—I'm in the process of finding out where Bernadette has gone. I'm also in the process of reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

GR: Any books that have been a big influence on you?

CS: My favorite writer is Alice Munro. She's so smart, she's so good at describing every situation. She doesn't purposely make things difficult for the reader, but she doesn't spoon-feed the reader either. I love Mona Simpson's novels, she has an amazing way of describing daily life, and she has really believable, complicated characters. And again, she's unapologetically smart. Someone else I admire who's both a fiction and nonfiction writer is Meghan Daum. I think her essays are really smart and I admire her novel, The Quality of Life Report, which I think is like one of the funniest, best novels I've ever read. I think she's incredibly talented. I want her to write another novel just for my reading pleasure.

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Mystica (new)

Mystica I enjoyed American Wife very much and I think this one is also my cup of tea. Unfortunately will have to wait for quite a bit for this kind of book to wend its way to my country. It will eventually but it takes a while!

message 2: by Darlene (new)

Darlene gotta get this one.

message 3: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Starting "Sisterland" tonight - so excited! Thanks for the book recommendations.

message 4: by Vinny (new)

Vinny O'Hare Sounds like a great book. Will add it to my list to read.

message 5: by Fernanda (new)

Fernanda The title, Sisterland, got my attention and made me read the book blurb, and then the interview. Now I definitely want to grab Curtis' books and enjoy what's she's created for "our reading pleasure".

message 6: by Sarojini (last edited Jun 28, 2013 06:53PM) (new)

Sarojini Pattayat I will love to read this book.The title wants me to remember my sister land.

message 7: by Devon (new)

Devon Brownell Curtis, I'm glad you're doing so well. I haven't brought myself to read Prep yet...I'm worried that I'll relate a little too much. I feel like you and I were kind of similar in school. Your new book sounds interesting.

Hope to talk soon,

message 8: by Lily (new)

Lily Luvly Curtis, i love to read this book. Can you send me free? I live in Ubud Bali.i'll waiting...much love for you.

message 9: by Parash (new)

Parash Sharma well i will love to read this book. i am sort of psychic but not a genuine one. have a little smattering knowledge about it and so i tried on some stuffs/persons. but as per your saying goes that you don't believe in psychic abilities, believe me dear, there are people in this world who can just tell your past,present and everything related to you by having a just glimpse of you..

message 10: by SueKich (new)

SueKich Fascinating interview - thank you, Good Reads!

message 11: by Sylvine (new)

Sylvine I'll surely read this book!!I'm a twin!!!

message 12: by Carmen (new)

Carmen Campos I too will surely read aSisterland my sister and I are now housemates and are so close we finish each others words so maybe u dont have to be twins just close.

message 13: by Sally (new)

Sally Wool I intend to read this book (and probably the earlier ones, too) - but was surprised and confused to read that you "don't believe in" psychics, but obviously spent quite a good deal of time writing about psychic ability and skepticism of it anyway - I'd suggest that you find a good one, and book yourself an hour with that person, then include it in some future writing . . .

message 14: by Carmen (new)

Carmen Campos I'm not giiving up on buying Sisterland our weather right now is 102 breaking heat record for our part of Texas, so I gave up after 2 stores it was so HOT out there

message 15: by Sarkar (new)

Sarkar Khoshnaw like this book

message 16: by Hanan (new)

Hanan Like

message 17: by Jagdish (new)

Jagdish Sethi I find it quite interesting. I will read it. I am sure, I will enjoy it.

message 18: by Lawrence (new)

Lawrence Ogechukwu Okafor Seems unputdownable. I will love to have copy.

message 19: by Anna (new)

Anna Kim Will read it.

message 20: by Flor (new)

Flor De This book just came on time and I will eventually read it. "Sisterhood"? I wonder what I am going on right now with my sister may be a theme for a novel within sisterhood components? I think if I read it I will gain a lot of insights about my own sisterhood family!!!

message 21: by Julia (new)

Julia Fierro Congrats, Curtis! I loved Sisterland just as much as I loved all your books. And Mona Simpson is one of my favorites too.

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