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Interview: Curtis Sittenfeld, Author of American Wife

Author Curtis Sittenfeld Talks About Using Laura Bush as Muse


Author Curtis Sittenfeld's new book American Wife — a novel about a quiet librarian and wife of a bumbling American president — hits the stands this week. Buzz and I put our heads together to come up with a few politically-oriented questions before she chatted with Sittenfeld. Here's what the author had to say:

Do you think readers will forget that the book is based on Laura Bush? Do you hope they will forget?
I do think if a person didn’t know anything about this book she could read three quarters of it and NEVER think of Laura Bush. And then in the fourth section, then it might sort of be like, “Oh!” But . . . I don’t think that it totally hinges on familiarly with the Bushes. I would like to think that it stands on its own just as a story.

Are you at all as intrigued by the Bush twins as you were by Laura?
No. I know that’s kind of strange because I’m much closer in age to them. When Jenna Bush had that book, I read some articles about it and I saw her a little bit on TV . . . I don’t know, for some reason they aren’t super interesting to me! (laughs)

Alice is decidedly pretty, which is different than your other characters who were fretting about what they looked like.
Laura Bush is very attractive. If you look at pictures of her from her adolescence or from her 20s or 30s I mean – and I’m definitely a Democrat – she and George Bush were a good looking couple. . . I think they’re still attractive but you know there was something very cute about them when they were in their 30s and I think Alice Blackwell, like Laura Bush, is pretty . . . If the character is not really guided by her insecurities then it’s sort of there just (as) a distraction.

To find out why Curtis decided to set the book in the Midwest instead of Texas, and what she thinks of readers who may feel sorry for the Bushes, read more.

Why isn't the book set in Texas?
The Midwest is more familiar to me I felt like I could write about it better as a native. . . Of course I could have made the characters have the same birthdays that Laura and George Bush have, but I just felt like what’s interesting is this sort of big dramatic episodes in their lives and not the kind of back story.

It's funny because you write that Charlie has a little bit of a drawl, is he just trying to prepare for running for office?
People say, about George Bush, (that) . . . you wouldn’t have guessed he’d become president. . . if you met him decades before he did. . . Where, as you know, a lot of politicians are laying the ground work literally from adolescence on.

The funny part is that I’ve started to sympathize with Charlie and feel sort of bad for the pressure that comes with these dynasty families which is surprising!
Again I'm a Democrat but I like and admire Laura Bush, you know some readers have said to me – I like the book but I was frustrated because I found the Charlie character endearing and it made me feel like George Bush is more endearing and I don’t want to see him that way. I want to dislike him!

I was going to say, I think you’re going to mess with a lot of left-leaning minds with this book. Especially during an election period.
(laughs) I know! Believe me the last thing I want to do is convince anyone to vote for Bush.

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