LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A young Hillary Rodham, madly in love with the man she met at Yale Law School, abandons her own path and heads to Arkansas. Slowly, she starts to uncover Bill Clinton's many infidelities and makes a choice. What would've happened if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton? A new novel by Curtis Sittenfeld imagines just that, and she joins me now to talk about it.
CURTIS SITTENFELD: Hello.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your book starts out in a familiar way, but then your book takes a very different tact from the historical timeline. What happens?
SITTENFELD: So in real life, Bill Clinton proposed to Hillary Rodham twice, and she said no both times. And then he proposed a third time, and she said yes. And in my version, she says no the third time, too, and she goes her own way. And she initially becomes a law professor in Chicago at Northwestern. And then she kind of goes on from there. And the book follows her over the next 40 years.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you before we go much further in this - you know, so much has been said about Hillary Clinton. Why did you want to write speculative fiction about her?
SITTENFELD: (Laughter) Doesn't everyone? Isn't it a totally natural impulse?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't know - not mine, possibly.
SITTENFELD: So actually, it's funny because I agree with you that so much has been written about Hillary. And it was sort of in reaction to that that I think I wrote this book. So in the lead-up to the 2016 election, I was invited to write essays about Hillary, and I would decline because I felt like every possible thing there was to say about Hillary had been said. She had been analyzed from every angle. And then an editor at Esquire magazine invited me to write a short story from Hillary's perspective, and I accepted.
And writing that story was this kind of strange exercise where I realized that the question was not, what do the American people think of Hillary Clinton, but what does Hillary Clinton think of the American people? And it turned out that I had 400 pages' worth of thoughts to say on that. So it was actually trying to sort of flip the narrative and instead of making her the one who's scrutinized, like, giving her a voice, which, of course, is a totally fictionalized voice. Like, she did not write this book. I wrote this book.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so she says no to Bill Clinton. She becomes, as you mention, a law professor. She then becomes a politician. Was it inevitable that she become a politician? How did you come up with this path for her?
SITTENFELD: I think that in real life, if she had not married Bill Clinton, I'm not sure she would've led the life that I create for her in the novel. And I think with a novel like this, you know that the reader is bringing some opinions or expectations. And I as the writer, I'm kind of toying with those expectations and sometimes fulfilling them and sometimes defying them. And I felt like it was the most interesting version to have her enter politics but, you know, have no public association with Bill Clinton.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Yes, except quite a few meetings along the way. I want to ask you about writing Bill Clinton the character because like the real-life Bill Clinton, your fictionalized Bill also has a swirl of sexual misconduct allegations around him. And he's also accused of sexual assault.
SITTENFELD: So one of the reasons that I love fiction is that I feel like it acknowledges that people are very complex and that the same person can have very appealing qualities and very troubling qualities. And I think that Bill Clinton is, like, the embodiment of that where I would never pretend that I can't understand his appeal. I would never, you know, sort of say that I can look at him with admiration, you know, without feeling any sense of sort of discomfort. And so - and I think that a novel allows for acknowledging that. Like, this isn't an essay that's trying to either celebrate him or take him down.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They're both, though, very entwined in our consciousness. Are you trying to suggest that we might consider them differently if we had to think of them as individuals?
SITTENFELD: Yes. So actually, I think that one of the reasons I wrote this book is that around the time and even after the 2016 election, I had this realization that schoolchildren who knew Hillary was running for president often literally didn't know that Bill Clinton existed. And that kind of blew my mind where I thought, you know, what if adults saw Hillary as completely separate from Bill the way that kids do?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you think that that would change fundamentally the way that she's viewed.
SITTENFELD: Yes, I do. I mean, I'm not saying that it would sort of solve all the problems of sexism, but I think it would make her have an identity much more like that of Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess I wonder if it isn't insulting to suggest that a man held Hillary Clinton back. Maybe this story and their story is one of a hugely successful partnership that is arguably one of the most successful in American political history.
SITTENFELD: It's totally possible that you're right. Like, I'm not even sure it's either/or. I think that maybe Bill Clinton held her back in some ways and probably helped her in others, and the same for, I think, maybe she held him back in some ways or maybe didn't always do things that were in his personal or professional best interest. And then in other ways, she was hugely helpful. Like, I don't think it's an either/or sort of situation for either of them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did your opinion of either Bill or Hillary Clinton change after giving them the fictional treatment, you know, being intimately involved in sort of creating this alternate narrative for them?
SITTENFELD: So I was already an admirer of Hillary before I began working on the book. If anything, I definitely have more admiration for her in terms of her toughness, her perseverance, her hard work. There's also - there's all these stories. I think they are sort of in the public, but they don't get that much attention about what a loyal, thoughtful friend she is, like, often over many decades or, you know, like, she's very funny, which is not really part of her public image. So I am fully pro-Hillary.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Curtis Sittenfeld. Her new novel is "Rodham."
Thank you very much.
SITTENFELD: Thank you.
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