Curtis Sittenfeld: Fictionalizing A First Lady
TERRY GROSS, host:
Laura Bush has not discussed her private thoughts or her inner life with the press, but novelist Curtis Sittenfeld has tried to imagine what would go on in the mind of a first lady, like Laura Bush. In Sittenfeld's new bestseller, "American Wife," she's created a fictional first lady named Alice Blackwell, who marries a man with no political ambitions, and watches him rise to become a very popular president, only to lose support as a result of a war and his other policies.
Although those who hate Blackwell's husband, hate her by extension, she secretly disagrees with many of his policies too. Many of the details in Alice Blackwell's life come from the biography of Laura Bush, but many don't. Curtis Sittenfeld is also the author of the bestselling novel "Prep."
Curtis, the novel is so much about the thoughts, the often hidden thoughts in the mind of your main character. Why did you want to imagine through fiction what Laura Bush is really thinking?
Ms. CURTIS SITTENFELD (Author, "American Wife"): Well, I really admire Laura Bush, which I think - some people who know me think it's strange, because I'm a very liberal Democrat.
But when I first read articles about her, you know, this would be early in 2001, she was very different from her sort of obvious or stereotypical public persona. And I think people see her as sort of stiff, and proper, and heavily made up, but she's actually supposed to be very down to earth, very unpretentious.
You know, there's these stories about at the governor's mansion, there would be parties, and she would leave the party and go play with the dogs in the yard. And you know, she's - supposedly she would fly Southwest all over Texas, visiting her friends, she would shop at Wal-Mart, she would go to the post office herself to mail letters.
So, I felt like she was a very sort of sincere, down-to-earth person, and then also, all through her 20s, she was a Democrat who worked at low-income ethnically-diverse schools, which, you know, she intentionally sought out. And it was very intriguing to me how someone who is still a Democrat into her early 30s, would feel marrying into this you know, staunch Republican family.
GROSS: The prologue to your novel begins with the question, have I made mistakes? And the prologue ends with the line, I lead a life in opposition to itself. What does your character Alice think she's living a life in opposition to itself?
Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, one important distinction I have to make is that I don't consider Alice Blackwell an American wife to be the same as Laura Bush. But the character that I've created, Alice Blackwell does remain a Democrat, sort of a quiet, secret Democrat, even after she marries into a Republican family.
And so for decades, she has different political leanings than her husband, and she doesn't anticipate that he'll ever be elected to office, let alone that he'll become president. And she also has, you know, again a kind of quiet sense of morality and so she has to - she's not someone who can just make decisions, or act falsely and disregard them, you know, she does take things seriously and she tries to live on her own terms, but that becomes increasingly difficult.
GROSS: You imagined that she married a man and ended up being a - married to a president, something she's completely unprepared for, and she feels very kind of guilty and responsible for decisions he's made that she doesn't agree with.
Ms. SITTENFELD: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. And at the same time, he's always still her husband and he's always still a man, but then, you know, it's almost like he's leading a double life as their marriage - I mean, not a double life in a secretive sense, but just that a public life and a private life, and that she still loves him privately. But she feels increasingly uncomfortable with some of the political decisions he makes.
GROSS: Some conservatives have described your book as a smear book, because it's a book that imagines or appears to imagine what Laura Bush is and her life is like. In your novel, the first lady when she's a teenager, long before she's first lady, has an abortion, something that needs to be kept secret.
There are sexual scenes between the first lady and her husband, and so for some people that makes the whole book into a smear. Why would you argue that it's not, you know, that they're - what do you think they're seeing inaccurately about it?
Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, I'm fairly sure that you know, 99 percent, if not a hundred percent, of the people who are saying the book is a smear, haven't read it. So, you know, I can see that someone might have an idea of it or an impression of it, but the book, you know, could be different from what they think.
You know, the point of a novel - or to me, the point of a novel, the gift of a novel is to go really deeply inside people's lives and inside their personal experiences. And that includes things like sex, you know this is a 30-year marriage, of course they have sex, and there are all sorts of other things depicted, you know, like fights or you know, feeling sick or you know, their experiences with their daughter, and it's just part of their life together and you know, there's a lot of sex in a lot of books, it's not an unusual thing to have sex scenes in a novel.
GROSS: If I were Laura Bush, here's something I think I'd be worried about, about your book, because you give the character an abortion when she's a teenager. I think I would be worrying - will that plant the seed in reader's minds that maybe I had an abortion, and I covered it up when I didn't. And although it's fiction, and it's clearly labeled fiction, and it's just so obviously fiction, it's also inspired by the story of Laura Bush, and suddenly there's this idea that's planted. You know...
Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, I definitely...
GROSS: When that line between reality and fiction is a little blurry.
Ms. SITTENFELD: I definitely don't think that Laura Bush had an abortion, and I'm not trying to make anyone else think that. I mean again, this is a novel I had to create a plot, because that's what you do when you write fiction.
I mean, I feel like, if this book makes people curious about Laura Bush, and want to know more about her, there are lots of biographies about her out there. There's - the one that I relied on most, that I think is really great is called "The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush."
And it's by someone who works at the Washington Post named Ann Gerhart(ph). I feel like if you read something, and it makes you so curious about a topic that you then go read something else, that's exciting. And that's - I don't know. I mean, the information is very easy to find about Laura Bush's real life.
GROSS: Do you see the Bushes differently after imagining Laura Bush's inner life for your novel?
Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, sometimes when I read about Laura Bush, when I read an article, I feel more of a sense of - I don't know, connection. I don't know if that sounds too creepy. But I feel more of a sense of connection than when I see her on television. She seems very distant on television.
You know, she sort of holds herself just kind of apart, which in a way is one of the things that I admire about her. I admire the fact that she doesn't just give her soul away or even worst, pretend to give her soul away.
So, I mean, I definitely see the Bushes as real people and not just as kind of these two-dimensional political figures that exist for me to mock or disagree with, even though I often do disagree with, you know, especially with President Bush.
But I think, you know, they're real people with sort of likes, and dislikes, and fears, and little daily habits, and you know, they have sort of these relationships with their children or their friends, their family members that are probably a lot like the ones that I have with my friends and family members.
GROSS: My guest is Curtis Sittenfeld. Her new novel, "American Wife," is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Curtis Sittenfeld. Her new best-seller "American Wife," is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. Your first novel, "Prep," was based on your experiences in prep school. And you were how old when it was published?
Ms. SITTENFELD: I was 29.
GROSS: Twenty-nine. Oh, I was thinking you were really, really young. It's really not that young anymore.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SITTENFELD: I was over the hill.
GROSS: Well, she goes - your character goes to prep school, because the campus is beautiful and she imagines meeting an athletic, attractive boy, who loves books as much as she does, who can take walks on overcast days, with them both wearing warm, wool sweaters. Was that an appealing image for you, too, before you went?
Ms. SITTENFELD: Sure. I mean, I would say there's sort of a pattern clearly with my books. But I don't feel like the book is based on my own experiences. Although, I did go to boarding school.
You know, I certainly feel like I borrowed from the setting, and the kind of, you know, dynamic, and tone of boarding school, but I don't feel like it's an autobiographical novel. You know, which I think, you know, there's - I can see these parallels emerging between the ways that I would say, you know, perhaps not about me. And now I'll say "American Wife" is not about Laura Bush.
And of course, I mean they sort of are, but in a lot of ways, they sincerely aren't. But in terms of the idea of boarding school, I think that there are plenty of, you know, 13 or 14-year-old girls and probably 13 and 14-year-old boys who sort of think, oh, boarding school, so glamorous, so romantic.
GROSS: You know, I've asked you some questions about false assumptions people might make about Laura Bush, based on fictitious portrayal of her in your novel. I'm wondering what false assumptions people have made about you, based on your novel "Prep," because you went to prep school, and the novel is about a girl who goes to prep school and who isn't from the wealthy backgrounds that most of the students in the school are?
Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, I think in my first two novels, both the characters are pretty neurotic, which I would say that I am. And - but they're also - I mean they're sort of - I suppose you could say that sometimes their negative moods or thoughts outweigh their positive ones.
And so I think actually a lot of people who meet me, you know, readers at events at bookstores or something, might say, you seem so normal or you're so friendly, or you know, like I thought you'd be crippled by awkwardness, and I mean, I think that I'm a more average person than people might imagine, because people assume that I'm my characters, which - you know, I feel like I've created my characters.
GROSS: Your name is Curtis, which is almost always a male name. My name is Terry, and I spell it T-E-R-R-Y, so just looking at my name, or just reading my name, you have no idea whether I'm male of female.
And I've gotten many, many, many Mr. Terry Gross letters over the years. What's it been like for you to go through life with a name that appears to be the name that belongs to a guy?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, actually, the amazing thing - you know, sometimes I try, you know, not to look at stuff online. But occasionally, there will be, you know, I - whatever - it will appear on the screen before me, and people will say things like, one of my favorite comments ever, it was something - it was about "Prep," and it said, this book is set at boarding school.
You know, it's by a person who clearly has never been to one, written from the perspective of a girl by someone who never was one. You know, like that was sort of saying - you're like, what gives you the authority to write from the perspective of a woman or conversely, I think, there have been times in my life when people have assumed I'm a man, and they've said, you know, the way that he gets into the heads of his female characters is so sensitive and extraordinary.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SITTENFELD: And then of course they're actually way less impressed when they realize my gender.
GROSS: Well, Curtis Sittenfeld, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. SITTENFELD: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Curtis Sittenfeld's new book is the best-seller "American Wife." You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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