This week, author Curtis Sittenfeld's new book American Wife hits book stores near you. The book is inspired by the life of Laura Bush, and a few weeks ago, when I was about halfway through American Wife, I chatted with Sittenfeld about the controversial aspects of the book, how this epic American tale is a departure from her previous two books, and what's going on with the movie version of Prep!
Buzz: This character, Alice Blackwell, is intriguing and sexy, and generally those terms are considered mutually exclusive from the first lady. How did you work around people's ideas of what it means to be the first lady?
Curtis Sittenfeld: I think that all people are complicated and all people have inner lives. I think that a lot of times our view of first ladies is that they’re very stiff or proper or formal but I think they’re people like anyone else. When they’re not in public they probably can relax a lot more.
I know that these characters are based on the lives of George and Laura Bush, and when I read some of the sex scenes, I wondered if you had a hard time going there?
Laura Bush was a starting point for this novel, but there’s so much that we don’t know about her even though she’s a very public figure. And so what I did was invent a character who’s loosely inspired by her but isn’t her. I do not see Alice Blackwell as just, you know, Laura Bush is her name change. I see Alice Blackwell as a distinct person. I know that some readers might feel differently but I don't feel like I wrote sex scenes between George and Laura Bush [laughs].
To learn more about her new book and why she might still write about weird, neurotic girls,
My experience reading the book so far has been to forget it’s Laura, and Alice is her own person to me except when I bump into events that I recognize from Laura’s life. It’s a unique reading experience to say the least. Is that the experience you think people will have? Hope they’ll have?
Well, the way that I conceived of the book, there are four major events in in Laura Bush’s life that I included — you know, one in each of the four sections of the book that are real — and then pretty much everything else is made up. So I would say 85 percent of the book is made up. The characters, the situations, the conversations — and I trust the sophistication and intelligence of my readers and I like when I read a book that assumes my intelligence. So I know that it's a kind of weird hybrid book, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
When it comes to women married to men who do things that we don’t agree with, there’s this tendency to implicate them by association. Did you find yourself more sympathetic to a woman like that? This book has made me rethink my ideas of those women’s responsibilities, etc.
Yeah, that is definitely a question that’s really interesting to me, which is: How much is one spouse responsible for another spouse? Or how much does one spouse represent another spouse? And I think it’s an incredibly complicated question and the answer varies a lot from marriage to marriage. But I actually just got married, like, three months ago. So I do think the subject of marriage is probably interesting to me during the time I was writing this. You know, I’m about to turn 33 and you know there are marriages . . . like of course the ideal is to marry for a long time but then sometimes you look at, you know, marriages that have lasted, you know, 30 or 40 years and you think, "Well it lasted long, but I don’t know if I’d want to be in it." But I think it’s a worthy goal for people to try to stay together, but I also think that you have to make compromises.
Yeah, it's such an intriguing question and so far I find myself feeling very sympathetic toward this character who I know will become the first lady and judged by people for her husband. I keep thinking, "Aw, but she's young and falling in love."
Right, well, it’s so hard to guess how anyone’s life will turn out I mean even with, you know people I knew in high school or people I knew in graduate school. Their lives . . . some have taken much different turns than I would have guessed, but you know, that’s what makes life interesting.
Unlike Lee in Prep, or Hannah in The Man of My Dreams, Alice is a grown woman and more mature than either of those young women. Are your characters going to grow up as you continue to grow?
Well, by the end of the book Alice is 61, so she obviously gets to be much older than I am in real life. I think that I don’t feel like I’ll never write about teenage girls or young women again. I mean, I still think that there’s so much material there, so I don’t think my characters will only get older as I get older, although to some extent that will probably happen. I do feel like one of my core readers is probably like the 22- or 23-year-old young woman, and I do hope she does not feel abandoned by this book. You know, like, "What happened?!"
Right! You hit on my initial reaction when the book was in my hands. Which was, "Oh my. This is a big epic book . . . It’s so different from the others."
This is a story and a personality that really captured my imagination, but I’m not determined to only write epics from here on out, you know? I still have room in my heart for neurotic, you know, weirdo girls [laughs].
Oh good — I feel like I can speak for many when I say that’s somewhat of a relief!
Yeah — I promise, I promise!
Finally, are there plans for any of your books to become movies? Do you want that?
Prep was optioned by Paramount, and the option has been renewed, and actually a screenplay exists, which was written by Noah Baumbach — he did Squid and the Whale. I think, you know, it seems like with movies all the stars have to align — every thing has to correspond perfectly for a movie to be made. But I think things are a little bit murky, but I would be delighted if it got made. He is attached as a writer/director. I would be delighted if he were the one who made it. I don’t know, Man of My Dreams was not optioned and this one I think they just started sort of sending it out in Hollywood. I don’t know. It’s not an area where I feel like I have any control, which is kind of liberating.