“I’m very interested in the ways that people act against their own best interests. Even smart people, nice people—we all do it. When we look at someone else’s life, it’s very clear what that person should do to get it together. But in our own lives, it’s much harder. Or we can even know what we’re doing wrong, and still do it. That’s a very interesting phenomenon to me,” muses Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, American Wife, The Man of My Dreams, and Sisterland, which is set in St. Louis.
“Look at say, a sex scandal … whether it’s Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner, or John Edwards … you think, ‘Oh my God.’ It seems like a novel because it’s like, how could people screw up so dramatically and so avoidably?” she asks. While Sittenfeld creates characters who struggle with these sorts of problems, her inspiration for them does not come from an autobiographical place. “I’m too boring,” she insists, running her fingertips across her name printed on hardcover copy of Sisterland. “People are very strange, contradictory, self-sabotaging and complicated … why people do that is not for me to say, but it’s interesting to explore. If that didn’t happen, fiction wouldn’t exist and we’d all be robots.”
Growing up, she spent much of her youth reading, writing, observing, and watching Oprah after school. “I first became hooked on her show in 1988, when I was in eighth grade and would walk home from school every day, fix a bowl of ice cream, and eat it lying down in front of the TV while learning about transvestites and adultery,” she says in a 2011 New York Times article. Today at the St. Louis Bread Company in the Loop, Sittenfeld stands in line while digging in her purse for quarters to feed the parking meter. Glancing up at the menu, she eventually selects a sugary iced coffee drink, which she sips out of a big purple straw. “God help me, I have to start tweeting this summer,” she laments, both amused and aghast at the prospect of managing a Twitter handle. “In some ways I have a lot of ambivalence about things like Facebook and Twitter … I feel like those are these forums for living your life so that you’ll be perceived in a particular way by others. And I just feel like it doesn’t matter … that doesn’t make it true or not.”
Until the success of Prep, her debut novel, Sittenfeld never expected to make a living as a full-time writer. “I don’t think I always had a sense of … I don’t think I was always 100% confident that I would be able to support myself writing fiction. In fact, I think my assumption until Prep came out was that I wouldn’t ever be able to support myself writing fiction, let alone help support a family. I thought I’d teach high school, or college.” Prep, which came out in 2005, quickly became a New York Times best-seller and her 2008 novel, American Wife, is in talks to be adapted for the big screen by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner.
But before she had studios asking for film rights, an agent, and a Wikipedia page that she did not write herself, Sittenfeld started out as a regular college graduate, driven, but unsure of what would come next. All she knew was that she’d be writing. “Being a writer is an ordinary part of my identity,” she says. “From the time I was very young, like in childhood, I always liked to read and write. It’s not like I developed an interest in writing at any particular point. It’s more that—I mean, as soon as I became literate, I liked to do it, and I just never really left it behind.”
After graduating from Stanford in 1997, she started with a series of freelancing assignments and an internship at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina as a general assignment reporter. “I wasn’t very good at it,” she says, which feels like a truthful reflection rather than false humility, especially given what the job required. “An assignment would be like, ‘This beloved grocery store or beloved drugstore is being torn down and replaced with a CVS.’ And they would say, ‘Curtis, go out and talk to people about how they feel about that.’ So I would have to kind of approach people on the street and say, ‘This drugstore is being torn down!’ It just felt really aggressive. Although I probably learned more in those 3 months than in the rest of my career.”
Her next gig was working for a business magazine writing stories about startups and fledgling entrepreneurs. “They would have me write the kind of quirky, artsy articles, like, ‘These teenagers are consulting for Microsoft—Curtis, go write about them!’ Or, ‘This man teaches executives how to be more creative,’ and it’s some random person in Atlanta.” Sittenfeld traveled, interviewed, and continued writing before attending the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop at age 24, which lists Flannery O’Connor and John Irving amidst its alumni. In light of her rapid ascent to literary success, she has a surprisingly calm, unaffected disposition. “I think there are much harder, more challenging, and certainly more physically laborious jobs to have than being a writer. I don’t see this as heroic at all. But I do feel like I worked hard and I was responsible. I mean, it’s the whole 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration thing. I believe that, and I have very unromantic ideas about creating art.”
This past June her New York Times op-ed about learning to embrace St. Louis, like most of Sittenfeld’s work, drew responses that were both passionately positive and negative. Some St. Louisans cited it as well-observed praise for the city, some argued that it reinforced frustrating stereotypes, and some, like this blogger, didn’t take issue with anything Sittenfeld actually wrote, but instead posed the question, “Why do we need The New York Times to tell us what we already know?”
“I think that people felt almost like I had appointed myself the spokesperson of St. Louis,” says Sittenfeld, laughing. “Maybe some people might think, ‘Why does she get a forum in The New York Times for talking about St. Louis and I don’t, and her life is nothing like mine?’ I would encourage those people to write their own essays and speak out. I would never dispute that my experiences in St. Louis are not universal. I’m sure they’re not. But they are mine,” she says. “St. Louis is a place where I became a parent. Becoming a parent made me appreciate St. Louis in ways that I hadn’t.”
She speaks with a perceptible distance between herself, the work, and her audiences, which she came to by way of the realization that it isn’t possible to control how people respond to her writing, nor would she want to. “The moment that the rest of the world encounters it for the first time … my contact with it is finished,” says Sittenfeld. “It’s just not … it has a life that’s separate from me.”
It’s a strange marvel of publishing work that she has witnessed: upon unveiling a piece to the public, an author inadvertently surrenders ownership of it. Now, she can talk about criticism and commentary with relative ease. “Sometimes stuff is written about me or about my books that’s literally inaccurate. And sometimes it’s innocuously inaccurate. Sometimes it’s irritating, or it’s damning to me, but it’s still inaccurate. And then of course, there’s stuff that’s damning to me that is accurate.”
Rather than defending her prose, at this point in her career she has learned to rely on wry observation, which she has learned over the years. When Prep came out, several reviews speculated autobiographical parallels between Sittenfeld and the young protagonist of her story, both of whom attended elite northeastern boarding schools. In a 2005 New York Times profile piece, she responded, “In a way it’s flattering that it seems so real. But is it so easy to believe that I have no imagination and I can’t invent dialogue or those scenarios?” and “I do think I was trying to entertain the reader more than I was trying to purge myself. I don’t see Prep as cathartic. It was hard work to write it. I almost think some people think I went home one night, I had a glass of wine, pulled out my yearbook and got lost in my musings.”
Sittenfeld pauses for a moment, reflecting. “I think when Prep came out, I probably did have a thinner skin,” she says, vulnerable, just for a moment. At some point, she had to decide for herself what to do with other people’s words about her. She recalls an opinion piece written about her in The St. Louis Post Dispatch. “It said in it like, 7 times that my favorite restaurant is Applebee’s, or the person had imagined my favorite restaurant is Applebee’s. I don’t really care if someone thinks my favorite restaurant is Applebee’s. I don’t feel like it’s my responsibility to prove or disprove that. I know myself. I know what my life is like. I know what kind of person I am.”
She also sounds mildly amused by the ruckus her books often create. “I actually think that my books tend to be good book club picks because there are always people who hate them.” Opposing reactions, which people have shared with her, are common. “People are like, ‘I wanted to throw it across the room,’ and someone’s like, ‘I identified!’ And that’s been true since Prep,” she says. Often relying on highly specific, nuanced details, her novels cut deeply past small-talk.
“I don’t think a novel or an essay is ever supposed to represent the universal. I think the power of it tends to lie in representing the specific and the individual,” says Sittenfeld. In the early stages of assembling those details into a draft, Sittenfeld is often skeptical of her own work. When writing, she says, “I’ll think, ‘This is terrible.’ And it is. But I just have to finish it and then start figuring out, ‘How is it terrible? How can I improve it?’ You just have to let it be messy at first and get it closer and closer to your perfect idea, instead of expecting it to be perfect from the outset.” For her, it’s both terrifying and formative. “I think some people can psych themselves out by feeling like they have to write really perfect first drafts,” she surmises.
Her most recent novel, Sisterland, relies heavily on detailing specific St. Louis-area sights, streets, and neighborhoods to create an authentic setting. She treats the city as one of her human characters: it becomes complex, beautiful, and fragile, meticulously elucidated. “Once a month for the next three months, my father returned to St. Louis to woo my mother,” writes Sittenfeld as Kate, one of the two female protagonists.
She tells the story of how Kate’s father courted her mother, peppered with St. Louis landmarks. “She was living with a roommate on Wydown Boulevard, and he stayed at the hotel—and on these trips they attended a Cardinals game, strolled in the Missouri Botanical Garden, and toured the Anheuser-Busch Brewery … ” These local details provide an access point to complex characters who sometimes make self-sabotaging decisions, allowing for full portraits of each one to emerge. “Why did my mother make things unnecessarily hard?” asks Kate, who narrates the book. “That’s the main question I ask myself in retrospect. Our lives weren’t glamorous, but they weren’t so bad; they were ordinary, and there are many worse ways to be.”
“I think that maybe St. Louisans underestimate themselves or underestimate their city, and that’s why people felt kind of prickly about my opinion piece, or prickly about the book,” she says, looking out the window, having delved headfirst into the land of Cardinals baseball, gooey butter cake, and Highway Farty. Out on the Loop, there are busking musicians lining the streets, glowing stores and shops, and people walking over brass stars inlaid into the pavement, each one representing a notable St. Louis resident. “St. Louis is full of possible novels,” she says. If she chooses to write them and her past work is any indicator, there will be plenty of provocative discussion to come. As to whether she would mind? “Then I shouldn’t let it be published.”
For more information about Curtis Sittenfeld, visit www.curtissittenfeld.com