A Conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld
Katie Bacon is an editor for The Atlantic Monthly. This interview originally
appeared on The Atlantic Online (www.theatlantic.com). (Copyright
© 2005 The Atlantic Monthly Group).
Katie Bacon: What has this experience been like for you? Did you
expect Prep to take off in the way it has? It’s really become a phenomenon
Curtis Sittenfeld: I would say the short answer is no, I didn’t expect
this. But at the same time, when I would talk to my editor and publicists
at Random House in the months before publication, they were always
really excited and enthusiastic. So I always thought that if it wasn’t
a bestseller they might be disappointed. I didn’t necessarily think it
would be, but I thought they kind of expected it. But then, as the book
started to sell well and did become a bestseller, they would say things
to me like, “Isn’t this great?” “Can you believe it?” “I can’t believe it.”
And I thought, You can’t believe it!? But didn’t you assume this would
happen, and didn’t you make it happen?
You used the word “phenomenon,” and I think that if I knew someone
who had written a book and then things had unfolded this way, I
would probably think, Oh, you must be so excited all the time! You must
be so swept up in everything. I do feel really lucky, but my life is not that
different. One big difference is obviously that in the past I’ve conducted
these interviews and now I’m giving one. But in a weird way, it
kind of takes up the same time. And because I’ve worked as a freelancer,
I’ve had the experience of going to a newsstand and buying a
paper or magazine and having my name in it. This is sort of a different
version of something that I’m familiar with. Probably a year from now
I’ll look back and think, Oh, that was exciting. But right now it’s not as
if I’m walking around winking at myself in mirrors.
KB: In coming up with these questions, I went back and looked at
some of your interviews just to see the types of things that you’d asked.
And I found a quote which I thought was funny, given the coverage
that you’ve gotten. In your interview with Tobias Wolff, you said,
“Among writers, it’s a faux pas to ask if a work of fiction is true, and it’s
also the first question that nonwriters ask. Does the question bother
you?” Could I ask you the same thing you asked Wolff?
CS: No, it doesn’t bother me. It certainly doesn’t offend me, because I
think it’s a really natural question, and it’s something I often wonder
when I read fiction. But there can be different subtexts to the question;
some of them are sort of flattering and some are sort of insulting. It can
mean something like, “I was so enthralled by this, and the characters
seemed so real—I just can’t believe that anyone could have made it
up.” That’s a compliment. Or, in my case specifically, it can mean
something like, “I know you went to boarding school in Massachusetts;
I know you’re from the Midwest. Clearly this is all true, you lack an
imagination, and you’re a lazy writer.” In my opinion, whether a novel
succeeds or fails doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s true.
It’s all in the execution. If you can get something down on the page
that’s interesting, it doesn’t matter how much you borrow from real life.
It’s not like the more you borrow, the less skilled you are.
I also think it’s a question that’s almost unanswerable, because in a
way whenever someone asks you how much is true, what they’re really
saying is, I assume a great deal of it is true. So your response doesn’t
really matter, and the more you say, the more defensive you sound.
KB: I’d like to talk a bit about literary fiction. Your book is considered
literary, yet it’s also a page-turner in a way that reminds me of some of
the books I’ve read that have no literary pretenses. Do you think there’s
a movement away from fiction that’s self-consciously literary toward
work that’s just more readable?
CS: One thing I learned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from Ethan
Canin, was how to think about structure. I consider plot above everything
else except character. There’s nothing I hate more than some
book that’s all just exquisite language. That’s so boring. I want there to
be forward momentum, so I take it as a really big compliment if someone
says Prep is a page-turner. Frank Conroy, at Iowa, would say, “Writing
fiction is this combination of knowing what you’re doing and not
knowing what you’re doing.” I very consciously think about plot and
say, I want there to be a twist here or I want there to be a surprise. In fiction
I love surprises that are genuinely surprising and that feel plausible,
too. I don’t know if I’m part of some larger movement. I doubt it. I
think it’s probably just something that some people think about and
some people don’t. But I know a lot of writers who seem to feel like
every word has to be a little gem and every paragraph has to be perfect
before they can move on to the next paragraph. I certainly revise a lot,
but I believe that the sum of the parts is what matters the most.
KB: Obviously the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had a big effect on you in
terms of your thoughts on plot and in giving you the space to write this
book, but did it change you as a writer? Would you have written this
book if you hadn’t gone there?
CS: I don’t know if I would have. I think while at Iowa I learned to be
harder on myself as a writer. When I arrived there, I would write a story
and if I finished it I would be glad. If it read well or read smoothly, and
if I’d thought of some clever turns of phrase, I would almost feel like,
Well, that’s enough. But you’re kind of discouraged from cleverness at
Iowa, thank God. I think that if you have a certain facility with language
it’s very tempting to show it off. But that can backfire in terms of
alienating the reader. There’s only so much cleverness that anyone can
take, and ultimately the reason someone wants to finish a book is because
that person feels invested in the characters and wants to know
what happens to them. I do feel that at Iowa I learned to write more sincerely
instead of preening on the page.
I’m very pro-MFA. I know other people have mixed feelings about
this type of program. But I think, among other things, that it puts you
on this path where writing can be the center of your life. Even if writing
isn’t the bulk of what you spend your time doing, getting an MFA
affirms writing as a really big priority for you. It can help you feel okay
about the fact that your income might be a lot lower than that of everyone
else you know. And if you choose to write a novel, I think that you
have more of a support structure in place and more patterns of how to
spend your time.
KB: You manage to make the minutiae of prep-school, adolescent life—
the obsession with who gets how many Valentine’s Day flowers, or how
the cool girls wear their hair—interesting to an adult audience. This is
no small feat, given that you’re writing about a time of life when people
tend to be self-centered, and that these adolescents populate a world
that’s more insular than most. Who were you imagining as your audience
for this? What are the challenges of writing about an adolescent’s
world in a way that would be gripping to an adult audience?
CS: Well, this might sound very self-centered, but in a way I think I’m
writing for myself. I’m writing the kind of book that I would like to
read. Also, not everyone picks up on the fact that the story is actually
told from Lee’s point of view when she’s in her late twenties. That’s because
I hate most books that are from a child’s point of view. I passionately
hate them. I know this is a very big generalization, but I just have
to make it. I hate when you can feel that the character is much less intelligent
than the author who created that character. In my own writing,
and I am sure I don’t always succeed, I am trying to avoid the
things I don’t like in books and include the things that I do. I always
like a little romance in a book. I like narrators who are at least a little
neurotic and who want things and are driven by their wants. And I sort
of assume that other people share my tastes.
KB: A friend happened to mention this quote to me the other day
while I was reading your book, and I was wondering what you would
think of it. It’s from a commencement address given by Meryl Streep.
She said, “You have been told that real life is not like college and you
have been correctly informed. Real life is more like high school.” Does
that hold any truth to you? How much does the Darwinian social structure
of high school carry over into the real world?
CS: For me, post–high school life has not been that much like high
school. The biggest thing that’s missing is the intensity. There’s this
trade-off where you think, Thank God everything doesn’t matter as
much to you as it did then. But then you also miss feeling that sense of
excitement. I think it’s sort of like having a crush, where you’re kind of
tormented but also entertained. All things considered, though, I prefer
adulthood. I’m not someone who yearns for high school. I just feel like
you have so little autonomy in terms of how you spend your time. I
don’t like being told what to do by other people.
KB: The fascination you were talking about with that time and the
drama of it, do you think that’s true of high school in general, or do you
think it’s specifically true of the kind of high school that you went to
and that you’re writing about in Prep?
CS: I think a lot of people had very intense feelings in high school—
more people than not. I think there are some people who might feel
like they weren’t intellectually stimulated in high school, and so they’re
happy to leave it behind. But at most boarding schools that intellectual
stimulation does exist. There’s no ingredient that’s needed to
make life engaging or exciting that is missing from an elite boarding
school. You’re in a beautiful place, you’re with tons of people your own
age, there are plenty of romantic prospects, you’re intellectually stimulated,
you’re physically active. And of course there’s a good chance
you’re miserable on top of all that. But you can sort of feel that your
happiness exists somewhere in the air. Maybe that’s what it is: that in
high school you can feel the potential of your happiness, whereas when
you’re an adult, your life is what it is.
KB: Lee is, at times, a complicated character to like—she’s so painfully
self-conscious, so cynical, and she always seems to be doing or saying
the wrong thing. Could you talk about writing a book with a main character
who is not always appealing? Did you worry about alienating the
CS: Well, I’ve always known that some readers aren’t crazy about her,
because I got that feedback very early on at Iowa. I’ve been very lucky
in terms of the quantity and the general tone of coverage for Prep, but
it certainly hasn’t been unequivocally positive. And some of it does
sting. At the same time, nobody has ever said anything that’s totally unfamiliar
to me. Every kind of feedback that I could get, I got for the first
time long ago, so I knew that people didn’t always find Lee likable, and
I didn’t try to change that. I feel that, one, she’s not really trying to present herself as likable,
and to me, having a character be honest actually makes up for a lot.
And two, when people say that she’s not always appealing, I think, My
God, who is? I don’t know anybody—except maybe my mother—who
is always perky and agreeable. So in that way, I think Lee is realistic. At
the same time, I don’t like to read a story, let alone an entire book,
where I really don’t like the main character. So if someone feels like
they hate Lee and can’t take it anymore, they should probably quit
reading. Reading Prep is not meant to be punishment.
I think probably the most loaded and severe criticism of Lee is that
she’s kind of racist. And I would say that’s true in the way of a white
fourteen-year-old who’s grown up in Indiana and just hasn’t met a ton
of people who are different from her, let alone lived closely with them.
But I think a lot of her biases are disproved while she’s at Ault. People
have asked me, Does she change? I think she does.
KB: I read somewhere that you didn’t let your parents read the book
until more than a year after it had sold. Why did it take you so long to
show it to them?
CS: Well, I just thought that it wouldn’t be my parents’ cup of tea. My
mother prefers biographies, and my father likes writing that I think is a
little schmaltzier. So I literally thought it wouldn’t be a book that they
would choose to read if it hadn’t been written by their daughter. And,
in my mind, the fact that I did write it would only make it more weird
and complicated for them. They would think, Is this true? Did this happen
to Curtis? This does seem like Curtis, but this doesn’t. I think it’s just
so loaded to read a book written by your own child. The parents in the
book are not my parents, though there are a few lines that the parents
say that my parents would say. But the funny thing was that when my
dad read it, he didn’t identify with the father at all. I thought—even
though I knew the father wasn’t based on him—that because I’m me
and I went to boarding school and he’s my father and there’s a father in
the book, it would be very natural for him to compare himself. But he
actually identified very strongly with Lee. I think it kind of stressed him
out to read the book, and he had to hurry through it because he felt so
anxious. But I don’t think my mother identified with Lee at all. My
mother thought—they both thought—it would have been a better
book without the last chapter. I think they thought the last chapter was
KB: The sex scenes are fairly explicit. It must have been a hard thing to
know that your parents were going to read them.
CS: I think it’s one of those things that as you’re writing you can’t think
about. It would just be paralyzing. There are plenty of cases where if I
had known the level of scrutiny the book would receive I might have
done things differently. As I was writing the book, I knew people would
wonder, Is this true? But I didn’t want that to determine how I wrote it.
And I didn’t want to write the book in such a way that I hoped it would
reflect flatteringly on me. I didn’t want to write a book where my main
goal was to make people think that I, the author, was a charming person.
I wanted to do what I felt was in the book’s best interest, not in my
own best interest.
KB: In an article about you in The Washington Post, the author commented,
“Beyond the setting of Prep, the novel is more deeply about
the universal experience of being a teenager, and about learning to
let go of the weirdness, the damage of having been one.” Do you
get the sense that reading this book has been cathartic for people at
CS: Yes, definitely. Probably the nicest part of having the book come
out is people saying, “I identify with this so strongly.” I’ve heard this
from people who are fifty and people who are still in high school, from
men and from women. Because Lee is the narrator of the book, the
reader gets to know her every neurosis. But if you went to school with
her, I think she would seem like a somewhat quiet, peripheral person.
I think a lot of people see themselves in her. During high school they
may have seemed perfectly normal from the outside, but so much was
whirling around in their heads.
KB: Years ago, in 1995, you worked at The Atlantic as an intern. Did
working here and reading so much of the fiction that comes in over the
transom have any effect on your own writing?
CS: Well, I started submitting fiction to magazines when I was still in
college, when I was in high school even. And sometimes I would feel
kind of apologetic about doing it, or I’d feel kind of embarrassed for myself,
especially after something was rejected. And, quite honestly, when
I interned at The Atlantic, reading some of the submissions made me
think, I have nothing to apologize for. There’s some stuff that’s really
good, and there’s a lot of stuff that falls in between, but there’s plenty of
stuff that is absolutely atrocious. And the people seem to feel no hesitation
about burdening you with it. This was important for me to learn,
because it helped me feel comfortable sending things out. I once
read an interview, I think it was with Kevin Smith—who made Clerks,
among other movies—and the interviewer asked, Why aren’t there
more young female filmmakers? And Smith basically said that men
don’t feel reluctant to learn publicly and make mistakes and make
flawed movies that then help them to make better movies. Whereas
women almost don’t want to burden people with a flawed product. And
I do feel like there’s something to be said for not protecting other
people too much from your imperfections. How else are you going to
learn? I don’t think that you can learn to write a book except by writing
a book. And then of course it’s going to be imperfect. I could look at
Prep and feel like there are a lot of things wrong with it. But, ideally, I
won’t make the same mistakes again.