Social Awkwardness, Long Odds & Sarah Palin: A Chat With Curtis Sittenfeld

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Most people who are famous — and I don't mean the kind of famous where a few people recognize you at the supermarket, I mean people who are known worldwide — are famous because they have sought the spotlight like particularly aggressive moths. But what about those mostly innocent bystanders who become famous not by choice, but merely by their proximity to those heat-seekers? The Lohans notwithstanding, those adjacent to the famous have an incredibly ambivalent attitude towards their public lives. Though most of the press about Curtis Sittenfeld's acclaimed third novel, American Wife, focuses on the fact that the heroine, Alice Blackwell, is based on the biography and persona of Laura Bush, ultimately it's about the nature of fate, and what happens to those loved ones swept up in the tide of someone else's ambition. In the third installment of our interview series, we talk with Curtis about First Ladies, Sarah Barracuda, and Laura Bush's stealth independence.What attracted you to Laura as a fictional construct in the first place? In the Times you've declared your love for her and I've read the Salon essay in which you first mention your admiration for her. You call her "a mastermind of stealth independence." Basically I read these various articles about her, and realized that she was more complicated than I would have imagined. She and George Bush got married at the age of 31, and she was a democrat until she married him. She actually has some very liberal close friends, including a woman who's a midwife in Berkeley. I think a lot of people, most people, are primarily friends with people who are of the same political persuasion as you are. I think it's notable to be First Lady to a super conservative President and friends with midwife. She would invite people over when she was First Lady of Texas and when she was at the White House. Because she was such a great reader, she would invite writers to events, and they would have been on record as disagreeing with her husband. They just assumed that Laura had never read their books, but then they would show up and have realized she had read everything they'd ever written. I've read all of your novels, and while Lee (from Prep) and Hannah (from The Man of My Dreams) are more cynical, all three heroines are quite shy and introverted. It seems like these sorts of introverted characters are not usually protagonists. What makes you gravitate towards them? Well I think that the all the protagonists of my books are observant, because I can't really imagine writing a novel that didn't have an observant protagonist. What would be the point? I also think that I'm interested in social awkwardness, because it seems to illustrate or magnify these aspects of human behavior. So I would say that's a lot of it: the things that interest me as a person. Alice's shyness makes her incredibly ambivalent about her husband, Charlie's, ascendence to the Presidency. I was particularly taken with the observation she makes as narrator: "We did everything we could to get as many people as possible to pay attention to us, and it worked, and now we complain. Leave us alone, we say. Just like you, we're entitled to privacy." I feel like most people who are famous have actively pursued their fame, but some people are famous as a result of their relationship to someone else, and that's always true for political families. For example, Sasha and Malia Obama didn't choose to be famous, but now they are. It's the outsider question. To me it's always more interesting to hear a story told from the perspective of an outsider, because an outsider notices things more, whereas an insider takes things for granted. I read the Cindy McCain profile in this week's New Yorker as I was reading the American Wife, and it struck me that very few women really revel in being First Ladies. What sort of person does enjoy being a political spouse? Do you think Hillary liked it? I think Hillary Clinton is a really interesting person because people have very strong reactions to her in terms of admiring her or disliking her. I think she was a good First Lady, but I think she'd actually be a better President than First Lady. Ok, now I need to ask the obligatory question about what you think of our potential First Ladies, Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama. There was an article on Cindy in the New York Times on August 23rd. It was the same day Biden was announced as Obama's VP pick so it didn't get as much press as it should have. I really urge anyone to read it, it raises a lot of questions about her professional involvement with her family's company (ed. note: the article basically says that Cindy, "a private person" is an absentee chairwoman who cashes the checks from the beer distributorship she inherited but "has left scarcely a mark on the company.") Michelle Obama seems like a much more regular person. I just watched her on Ellen and I think she's a good sport. You see her dance with Ellen, which Barack did too. It is interesting. Obviously because everything in politics is so scripted it makes us even hungrier to know people's real selves, which we kind of can't do. Speaking of real and fictional selves, one thing I thought was really interesting, and one thing I've been thinking about with Sarah Palin, is how these details come out about you and become your "official biography" that everyone refers to. Like with Alice in American Wife, her father being a postal worker, which wasn't even true, was seized upon by her husband's campaign. Do you ever wonder what details would emerge about you and become those sorts of talking points? I'm not planning to run for office, but there are definitely certain details. This is a different kind of book than Prep or the Man of my Dreams. So there are different questions that come up over and over. There's a set of questions with this book and a set that comes up with other books. There's a tidbit that Prep was turned down by 14 out of 15 publishers, which is true, but misleading because it was sold within two weeks. It makes it sound like I struggled more than I did. Anyone who is writing about fiction writing likes stories about long odds. Long odds makes me think of Sarah Palin. What's your take on her? I wish she were a fictional construct. I'm not a fan of hers. But I certainly admit that she's got a compelling life story. American Wife Curtis Sittenfeld [Official Website] Imaginary First Lady Tells All [NYT] Why I Love Laura Bush [Salon] For McCains, a Public Path but Private Wealth [NYT] Michelle Obama On Ellen [YouTube] Earlier: Pussy, Parents And Puppies: A Q&A With Comedian Margaret Cho This Is Not Chick Lit: A Q&A With Writer Janelle Brown New Yorker Profile Shows Cindy McCain Is A Nouveau Betty Draper




This makes me sad for Laura Bush. Like she is pretending her entire life.