Tag Archives: american wife


I have had the pleasure of knowing author Hilary Liftin for a long time. We went to school together here in DC from 4th-12th grade and have stayed in touch over the years since then. I’ve always known that Hilary is a great writer, both from what she wrote in high school and from her two non-fiction books published under her own name: Dear Exile, a collection of letters she exchanged post-college with a friend who was living abroad, and Candy And Me, Hilary’s ode to candy, one of our shared passions.

As a ghostwriter of several celebrity memoirs, Hilary has also seen Hollywood up close. She knows how that world works, and what it’s like to live on the A-list. And so when it came to writing her first novel Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper, she drew on her knowledge of that world, one that fascinates so many of us.

The quick synopsis of Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper is that it’s a fictional retelling of the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes marriage. Lizzie is a young actress with some notable roles and relationships under her belt who is suddenly and intensely wooed by Rob Mars, the most famous movie star on the planet. After a whirlwind courtship, they get engaged, she gets pregnant, and they get married. But while Lizzie is surrounded by unimaginable luxury and privilege, she is unhappy in her marriage. She’s not only trapped by Rob’s celebrity and the public’s insatiable appetite for information about their family, but she’s also unwillingly drawn into Rob’s participation in a Scientology-like cult called One Cell. She eventually comes to understand just how powerful and dangerous the cult is, and how her children’s lives have been – and will continue to be – affected by One Cell.

Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper is a fun book. It’s a bit lighter than what I usually read and review here on EDIWTB, but I enjoyed it just as much as my usual (depressing) fare. Hilary has done her research (anyone with an US Weekly subscription will recognize pieces of Katie Holmes’ story reimagined for Lizzie Pepper) and has infused the book with many satisfying, juicy details about her characters’ lives. There is an element of suspense as the story heats up – how will Lizzie make her escape and will One Cell retaliate? And Hilary is a smooth, entertaining writer who crafts believable dialogue and satisfyingly leaves no stones unturned. And of course the book raises questions about why as a society we are so obsessed with celebrity culture and whether being famous is really something to aspire to.

I read in an interview with Hilary that she had never tried fiction before and didn’t know anything about how to write it. I am very impressed with her ability to craft a story, develop characters, and pace the plot so evenly with no prior experience or training.

If you’re up on celebrity divorces, aren’t afraid to read US Weekly in public (or even, gasp!, subscribe), or enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, then you’ll probably enjoy Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper.

Nice work, Hilary. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

Q&A with Curtis Sittenfeld

In June, I attended three great Q&As at my local independent bookstore, Politics & Prose: Curtis Sittenfeld, Roxana Robinson and Lionel Shriver. I have gotten a little behind in writing them up for EDITWB, but here is a start: a summary of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Q&A about her new book, Sisterland, which I reviewed here. While I didn’t love Sisterland, I found that her answers gave me some good perspective on how she wrote it.

Intro: Sittenfeld had a memory growing up of someone who had predicted an earthquake. She thought it was a “juicy premise” for a novel, because there is built-in tension around whether the quake will happen or not. She decided to base Sisterland on this premise, told by someone who is close to the person making the prediction. “Oh, and they’re psychic.”

Q: Now that you have a national audience, does that change your writing process? Does being famous make you focus more on how people will receive your work?

A: My last book was 5 years ago. I had written three close together, and then had 2 children. I don’t think about how a book will be perceived until it’s closer to publication. Then I get fretful, especially about the sex scenes. With this book, and my new life as a mother, I was more conscious of the sex scenes!

Q: Has your writing process changed from novel to novel?

A: Yes, because my life has changed. With Prep, I was not under contract, so writing it was a leap of faith. I hoped that someone would want to publish it. Since then, I had three book deals. I’ve needed to be saved from myself, from writing books that are “good enough to publish but not that good”. My goal is not just to sell books but to be proud of what I’ve done. Also, being a mother has made me much more efficient. It used to be that I would only write if I had at least 4 hours. Now, I will write if I only have 90 minutes.

Q: There is a gay character in all of your books. What is your inspiration?

A: My oldest friend from growing up married another woman, and she once told me that she loves my “strong lesbian characters”. Some people think that there are characters in my books for diversity’s sake, but the fact is that this is the world I live in at age 37. Characters can have biases/prejudices that are not the same as the author having them – there can be an “uncomfortable overlap” there.

Q: Did you expect Prep to be as popular as it was?

A: No. I went to the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, so I did know of people who’d had books published, people who enjoyed bidding wars over their books. For Prep, out of 15 publishers, only one wanted it. I got a $40,000 advance, which isn’t that low. With Prep, I was lucky – I had young publicists who were really into the book and found all kinds of creative ways to promote it. This made me a little spoiled and I didn’t appreciate how great an experience that was. It made me have an illusion about publishing. With The Man of my Dreams, that experience put the first one in context. I realized that it is not all automatic.

Q: How is it different writing about a real person vs. making up characters completely?

A: When you write non-fiction, people try to prove it isn’t true, and if you write fiction, people try to prove it is. With American Wife, I focused on the broadest parts of Laura Bush’s life. I borrowed the irresistible details, and made up the rest. It is hard because there was a lot of public awareness of her life, and people wanted the book to match up to that.

Q: What impact have women writers had on your success?

A: That’s a good question, but a fraught one. I’ve gotten away with writing “lady books that are still taken seriously”. Some people call it chick lit, but I think it is in the eyes of the beholder. We all live in the world and have impressions of which books are “serious”. I think of myself as being my own demographic: I write books that I would want to read. I want covers that looks like books I’d want to pick up, though the publisher decides how to market the books. “If I had to choose between sales and prestige, I’d choose sales.”

Q: Race is an integral part of the story. How much was drawn on personal observation?

A: I compare writing a book to building a nest; I borrow people, places, etc. from many different places to create the story. Sometimes I take things that I read in the papers (I had read about an incident in Wal-Mart that was similar to what happened at Target in Sisterland.) I also make things up. I tend to write about upper-middle class white women because that’s the world I live in. “I’d rather have someone be engaged with my book and find shortcomings in it than not be able to get past page 3.”

I was happy to have had the chance to hear Curtis Sittenfeld talk about her writing process. Stay tuned for more write-ups!


AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld A little over two years ago, Curtis Sittenfeld came to Politics & Prose here in D.C. to read from her (then) new novel, American Wife. I enthusiastically went to the reading, took a lot of notes, and wrote this post about her talk. She answered a lot of questions about the book – a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush – and her answers were fascinating. I left knowing that I wanted to read the book, but for some reason I was daunted by it. It's a long book, to be sure, but I also feared it would be boring. How could the life of a modest and unassuming woman – one whom I thought I knew - be worth spending 550 pages reading about? So I let the book languish at the bottom of my TBR pile, despite the fact that I loved Sittenfeld's Prep so much that I rationed out the pages so that I wouldn't finish it too quickly.

Well, that was a mistake. I finally got to American Wife, and it was an excellent book. Not boring at all, as I feared, but compelling and beautifully written. As I noted above, it's the fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush. In the book, she's Alice Blackwell, and while she and her husband Charlie hail from Wisconsin instead of Texas, there's no mistaking who they are supposed to be. George W.'s presidency is the same, down to the flipflopping of Florida's votes on election night, the Svengali behind the scenes, and the older, hawkish VP.

Yet as far as Laura Bush's - er, Alice Blackwell's – life is concerned, Sittenfeld says that outside of some tentpole events (the car accident she had as a senior in high school, her life as a children's librarian, her marriage to Charlie), Sittenfeld made the rest of it up. She definitely did her research, but Alice's internal dialogue, as well as the nuances of her relationship with her husband, are the result of Sittenfeld's creative mind.

Just like in Prep, Sittenfeld creates a deeply sympathetic heroine in American Wife. Charlie is flawed – at times terribly selfish and self-absorbed – but the reader can at least understand how someone like Alice ended up with someone like him. American Wife is ultimately the depiction of a marriage – albeit that of a couple who ultimately ends up living at 1600 Pennslyvania – and the sacrifices and secrets spouses make and keep to preserve their unions, for better or worse.

I had a few issues with the ending. I will leave it at that, so that I don't reveal too much. I think Sittenfeld pushed her own political agenda a little too strongly, which detracted from the character and story she had so carefully constructed. But that was just one part of a much larger book. 

I feel like I am not doing American Wife justice in this review.  It's a hard book to reduce to a few paragraphs – it's so sweeping and detailed. It was one of my favorite reads of 2010, and I highly recommend it.

One note: I went back and forth between the audiobook and the paper version of American Wife. I can't recommend the audiobook. The narrator's voice borders on robotic at times, and it bothered me. She also read unecessarily slowly. I understand why they picked her – she has a vaguely southern, proper sound to her voice – but I found it kind of grating.

Would love to hear from others who have read this!

Book Reading and Q&A: AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld

SittenfeldLast night I went to a book signing at Politics & Prose by Curtis Sittenfeld, whose new novel, American Wife, just came out. The book tells the story of the life of a political wife based very closely on Laura Bush. American Wife has gotten very good reviews (see recent Washington Post and New York Times Book Review reviews). I wasn't particularly interested in reading this book, based solely on the subject matter, but I am much more enthusiastic about it after hearing Sittenfeld read from and talk about it tonight. I was a huge fan of her first book Prep, though I didn't love her second book, The Man of My Dreams (reviewed on EDIWTB here).

Here is a summary of the Q&A from last night. It was quite interesting and entertaining. This is by no means a transcript of what Sittenfeld said in response to audience questions; what follows are just reconstructed selections based on my skeletal notes.

Q: How did you imagine American Wife so that you could write it?

A: Sittenfeld said that the book is "loosely inspired by Laura Bush – very loosely". Sittenfeld is a liberal Democrat but has always been intrigued by, and liked, Laura Bush. When Laura Bush was First Lady of Texas, she would invite writers with different political opinions than her husband's to literary events. She's a big fiction reader, which endeared her to Sittenfeld. In 2004, Sittenfeld read a book called The Perfect Wife, by Ann Gerhart, about Laura Bush. Sittenfeld wrote a Salon article about Laura Bush that year, in which she said, "Laura Bush's life would be the perfect story for a novel." In 2006 she decided to write that novel.  There are four big events in the main character's life, which are based on Laura Bush. The rest – characters, situations, plots and dialogue – are all made up. Sittenfeld says she "feverishly made things up."

Q: Was it Laura Bush's car accident in high school (in which a classmate was killed) that grabbed you?

A: Sittenfeld says she was fascinated by Laura Bush in general, who seems like a "sincerely kind person," "a reserved person leading an extreme life." This tragic accident is just another extreme.

Q: Has there been any comment from the White House about American Wife?

A: Sittenfeld thought about sending over a copy of the book, but worried it "would seem manipulative." She has read articles that quote Laura Bush's spokesperson as saying that neither she nor the First Lady has read the book, and that the White House will not comment on fictional characters. Sittenfeld admits to wondering what Laura Bush would think of the book.

Q: Do you think that George and Laura Bush get along after these 8 years? Is it still a true marriage?

A: "Honestly? Yes," says Sittenfeld. "But that question would be better answered by someone who's been around them."

Q: How did you nail the summer vacation home – Halcyon – and its community so accurately?

A: "I've been in summer homes before."  Sittenfeld says of summer homes… prep schools… "they seem distinct, but they are really all the same."

Q: Did you feel a sense of responsibility writing about someone in the White House, or did you think to yourself, "This is a novel"?

A: Sittenfeld says yes. She wrote the book with "sincerity and sympathy." She wouldn't have written it if she didn't have affection for Laura Bush (after all, writing a novel requires spending a lot of time with the subject!). Someone told her that the book is"such a violation [of Laura Bush], because it is so plausible." Sittenfeld wonders, is it more respectful to treat her as flat and one-dimensional, or as more complicated?

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Sittenfeld says she's not working on anything right now other than publicity for American Wife. She wrote three books in short order, and now says it would be "elegant not to write anything for 10 years… make people miss me."

Q: How long did it take to write American Wife?

A: Sittefeld had the idea to write it in 2006, even though she wrote the Salon article about Laura Bush in 2004. She was worried that if the book came out in May 2009, it would be stale. She thought that if she did nothing in the next year, she needed to write to write the book. She worked long hours and finished it in a year and half. She admits that she was "obsessed" with it.

Q: As a writing teacher, what does she tell young writers?

A: Sittenfeld says that she got great advice from Ethan Canin, her advisor at the Iowa Writer's Program, who told her that the secret to writing is STRUCTURE. Writers need to figure out how events unfold, and in what order. What elements need to be introduced before big events happen, so that they make sense? Structure gives you control over your writing.

Q: Is there a writer who inspired you to write?

A: Sittenfeld says that she never stopped reading and writing as soon as she learned how. Early books – Eloise, for example ("Like Prep, it celebrates elitism! Of course I loved it!") and the Little House on the Prairie series – were influential for her. She says she's become more finicky as a reader lately. She loves Alice Munro.

Q: Your use of dialogue in Prep was perfect- you nailed it. Did you have a sense of how Laura Bush talks to her friends? Did you do research?

A: Sittenfeld says no. She'd love to talk to someone who is friends with Laura Bush, and doesn't feel that she necessarily captured her accurately. "85% of this book is made up at every level. Only the large events are real." She says it is freeing to write fiction, because you are allowed to make stuff up!

I hope I accurately captured Sittenfeld's words and thoughts here. It was a lot of fun to hear her read from the book and talk about writing and I think I will add American Wifeto my impossibly long TBR list.