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.