OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER. We're coming to you live from The Pageant in St. Louis.
EISENBERG: I'm Ophira Eisenberg and with me is our house musician, Jonathan Coulton, and our puzzle guru, Greg Pliska. Now, please welcome our VIP, author of "Prep," "Sisterland" and the upcoming retelling of "Pride And Prejudice," Curtis Sittenfeld.
EISENBERG: Hi, Curtis.
CURTIS SITTENFELD: Hi, Ophira.
EISENBERG: Now, your first book, "Prep" - huge hit, highly acclaimed - New York Times named it one of their top five works of fiction that year; is it's ten year anniversary right now.
SITTENFELD: It's its 10 year anniversary.
EISENBERG: That's amazing. So, I mean, that book is beautifully written and obviously got so much great press about how great it was written. When you look back on it 10 years later, do you go, yeah, this is great? Or are you like, oh, I would do this different?
SITTENFELD: Of course, you don't really curl up with your own book for pleasure reading, right? I mean...
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Why?
SITTENFELD: But something I do when I'm writing whatever current book I'm immersed in, I sometimes - if I feel like I'm writing the exact same scene or the exact same sentence, I'll pull down my own book from the shelf and think, like, OK, where was - and weirdly when my books - at the point of publication, even though they're 300 or 400 or 500 pages, I probably have memorized them in their entirety. So I can find any sentence, any - I had this conversation with someone where he said something like, you know, nobody should be held accountable for anything they wrote before the age of 30. And I was 29 when "Prep" came out and I feel like - I mean, there's plenty of horrible things I've written before and since. But I actually do feel like - really - I mean, I feel like I stand by "Prep." And, you know, that I - I feel like if I hadn't written, I think I would still enjoy reading it. So sure, yeah.
EISENBERG: OK, no, that's great. That's very positive.
EISENBERG: Now, "Prep" follows the life of a young woman who is having a hard time fitting in, basically, in a boarding school. You described yourself when you went to boarding school as not so much preppy but weird.
EISENBERG: So do you relate to the character in "Prep"? Is there something of you in that?
SITTENFELD: Well, I would say of course there's something of me in her. But I think if you're reading a book and you know that any part of it is autobiographical or true, there's this kind of leap to feeling like it's all autobiographical. It's all true. And so the thing that I think readers sometimes don't remember is that I kind of have to inhabit all the characters. Like, I had a friend, actually, when "Prep" came out and he said, I had no idea how neurotic you were. And I said, well, but it's not autobiographical. And he's like, but even for you to be able to imagine how awkward and weird this person is, you must have, like, many more neuroses than I realized.
EISENBERG: And is that true?
SITTENFELD: Well, I actually thought he knew me well enough to know that I did have all these - like, we were college friends, so I thought he - but I feel like for a normal person, I'm very weird. But for a writer, I'm actually very normal - it's true.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's awesome.
EISENBERG: Now, your third novel, "American Wife," is a fictional character, but loosely based on former first lady Laura Bush who you are obsessed with.
EISENBERG: What is it about Laura Bush that fascinates you so?
SITTENFELD: People asking me that question was what compelled me to write a 550-page book. Like, it was like if I could give you an easy answer, you know, I would. But I just - I think that she always seemed interesting to me. And it seemed like there was this public idea of what she was like. You know, people would say Stepford wife. Sometimes when there was evidence to suggest things contrary to the stereotype of her, people would ignore them. I mean, there's definitely - and there's all these fascinating tidbits about her life, her life before she married George Bush or, like - and all these sort of improbable things that have happened to her where if you wrote a novel and you only put these events in and, you know, you had never heard of Laura Bush, you would say there's no way that all these unlikely things could happen to one person. But, in fact, they actually did.
EISENBERG: What is one improbable thing that, if you told me, I would be like, that is definitely not Laura Bush?
SITTENFELD: She and George Bush - I believe she was 32 when they met, and this was in west Texas in the late '70s, so, you know, 32 is relatively old to not be coupled off. And I think that someone had wanted to introduce them or fix them up before and she had resisted because she felt like he seemed like he was really political and, you know, she was wary of that. And they actually - they met, they were engaged within six weeks of meeting and then married within six weeks of being engaged.
EISENBERG: Whoa, yeah.
SITTENFELD: I know. And they would joke - I think she will joke - that they were, like, the last two people standing in their social circle, so...
EISENBERG: They're like whatever. There's no one else.
SITTENFELD: I know.
EISENBERG: Now, your upcoming book is a modern retelling of "Pride And Prejudice." How did this come about?
SITTENFELD: The British division of the publisher HarperCollins initiated this project where they thought we'll pair six writers and, you know, one each of Jane Austen's novels. And we'll have them tell a contemporary version. You know, of course, I loved "Pride And Prejudice" when read it for the first time. I think I had read it maybe twice when I embarked on this project. It was one of those instances where I thought that I would be able to use certain skills or interests that I had. But it would also make me use my brain in a new way. And for people who have read my novels in here, I mean, the truth is my existing novels do have a kind of - I shouldn't say this on the radio - they have a sort of bleak undertone to them.
EISENBERG: That's good.
SITTENFELD: Or they're sort of - and even though "Pride And Prejudice" deals with serious subjects, it's really fun.
EISENBERG: Now, you and your friends in St. Louis, a bunch of them just started a Jane Austen book club kind of to help you out or they were just excited about your project.
SITTENFELD: I think that they - so there was one particular friend of mine who I think that maybe she had read some of Austen's novels, but not others, which was the same. I think I had read three out of the six. And so she said, you know, we should start this book club and we should read all of Austen's novels, which we then did, so...
EISENBERG: Yeah. All right, Curtis, we have an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge that is sort of built a little bit on your experiences at your book club. So would you like to take an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
SITTENFELD: I would like to, thank you.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK, fantastic. Curtis Sittenfeld everybody.
EISENBERG: So this game is called Fifty Shades Of Jane...
EISENBERG: ...As in Jane Austen because you noticed something at your book club, which I'll let you explain.
SITTENFELD: Basically, in every meeting - every book club, every meeting - eventually there would come a point when we were discussing not Austen but "Fifty Shades Of Grey."
EISENBERG: Well, we noticed that there are many similarities between "Pride And Prejudice" and "Fifty Shades Of Grey." For example, in "Pride And Prejudice," 21-year-old Lizzie Bennet falls in love with Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich, brooding man who's not great at small talk. In "Fifty Shades Of Grey," 21-year-old Anastasia Steele falls in love with Christian Grey, a rich, brooding man who likes to spank people. See, they're the same book.
SITTENFELD: Almost, very close.
EISENBERG: So we are going to see if you can tell the difference between "Pride And Prejudice" and "Fifty Shades Of Grey" in the following quiz. And if you get enough right, Taylor Breezy (ph) of Falls Church, Va., is going to win an ASK ME ANOTHER prize.
EISENBERG: All right, let's see if you can do it. Here we go. Correspondence, whether by letter or email, plays an important role in both novels. Which protagonist - Lizzie or Anastasia - receives a note that includes this line - do not punish me so far as to exclude me from P? I shall never be quite happy till I have been all around the park.
SITTENFELD: That would be "Pride And Prejudice."
EISENBERG: That would be Lizzie. You are correct.
SITTENFELD: Oh, sorry, yeah, Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie, sorry.
EISENBERG: P not being pee. P being Pemberley.
SITTENFELD: I - that did kind of throw me, actually.
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: (Laughter) Yeah, right, please don't exclude me from pee.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly. That is very mean.
SITTENFELD: See, you know, I'm kind of at a disadvantage because I haven't read "Fifty Shades," but I'm guessing.
EISENBERG: I think most people have read it over someone else's shoulder.
SITTENFELD: Yeah, yeah.
COULTON: Which protagonist - Lizzie or Anastasia - says to her love interest, your defect is to hate everybody?
COULTON: It is Lizzie. You're right.
EISENBERG: I think we can argue not really a defect (laughter).
SITTENFELD: Not anymore.
EISENBERG: All right, which book received this write-up on the website Goodreads? I kept seeing this book on lists of goodest books ever.
EISENBERG: However, I must admit I was hesitant going into this for two big reasons. One - I thought it might be a bit too romantical for me.
EISENBERG: The second and much more distressing reason was that "Twilight" was on many of the same lists.
SITTENFELD: I would guess "Fifty Shades."
EISENBERG: Unfortunately, the answer is "Pride And Prejudice."
EISENBERG: It's on the goodest books ever, everybody. I'm sure Jane Austen would be so proud to be on the goodest books ever.
COULTON: It was pretty goodest, but it was too romantical.
EISENBERG: Too romantical.
COULTON: All right, this is your last question here.
COULTON: Is it Mr. Darcy or Christian Grey who memorably says, laters baby?
SITTENFELD: I believe that that's Christian Grey.
COULTON: That's a bit of a gimme, but yes, you're right.
EISENBERG: Congratulations, you and Taylor both get an ASK ME ANOTHER anagram T-shirt. Let's hear it for our VIP, Curtis Sittenfeld.
COULTON: (Singing) I was first learning of love as a teenager. One source gave me all my ideas and theories. Jane Austen's masterpiece work, "Pride And Prejudice," were actually the '95 BBC miniseries. Oh, that Mr. Darcy, so gruff and so distant, the sensitive spirit just waiting to shine. There's a good reason that women love jerks. It seems like a fantastic idea at the time. Oh, oh, oh, Mr. Darcy, oh, oh, oh, Colin Firth - tall, dark and handsome, you're charming and wonderful. No other men are worth half what you're worth.
EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton.