“Do you write fiction?” Curtis Sittenfeld asked me during our phone interview. When I answered in the affirmative, she said, “I had a hunch. I psychically knew that you did.”
Okay, so maybe she was kidding. But even if Sittenfeld’s not literally psychic, like twin sisters Kate and Violet in her latest novel, Sisterland, she is indisputably blessed with a finely honed intuition. In her deeply satisfying coming-of-age novel Prep and the Laura-Bush-inspired not-obiography American Wife, she proved herself a master at rendering the complicated inner workings of her female first-person narrators. With a combination of delicacy and piercing clarity that has raised comparisons to Edith Wharton, Sittenfeld portrays the minute social interactions that structure every relationship from a prep school pecking order to a marriage facing its first major crisis. Sittenfeld’s gift is to lay bare the transactional mechanics of such relationships, making smooth prose of the emotional labor that maintains the social fabric.
It’s no wonder that all of her protagonists so far have been women. However, while Wharton valorized tragically rebellious characters like Lily Bart and Madame Olenska, Sittenfeld’s heroines tend to have a vested interest in maintaining the social order. Kate, the protagonist of Sisterland, keeps her psychic powers on the down-low, while her twin sister Violet is the embarrassing kind of psychic, hanging prayer flags in her living room and advertising on the Internet. When Vi goes on television to predict a massive earthquake, Kate’s normal life is threatened both by the danger to her family and by her own potential exposure as a freak. (One wonders if Sittenfeld herself was ever ambivalent about her own specialness; she won Seventeen magazine’s annual fiction contest in high school, was a Glamour magazine College Woman of the Year at Stanford, and got her MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.)
The real threat of Sisterland, when it emerges, turns out to be as mundane as those in Prep or American Wife, and no less shattering. Reading Sittenfeld’s carefully-observed novels, we get the impression that family is the most common form of natural disaster. You don’t have to be a psychic or a fiction writer to know that, but it helps.
The Rumpus: Is Sisterland your first exploration of non-realist themes?
Sittenfeld: It’s funny when someone says that, because now I know whether you believe in psychic ability.
Rumpus: Well, do you believe in psychic abilities?
Sittenfeld: I’m open to them. So you know, in the book, there’s the character Hank? He basically says there are a lot of things in the world that are a lot weirder than psychic abilities, that we accept as true. There’s a lot that’s not explained about the universe. And so, psychic-ness is not stranger than that. And I feel like I’m in agreement with Hank. It’s not like I consider myself to have psychic abilities. I guess I consider myself at times to have intuition. But I also don’t feel like the book is supposed to be an exposé about how psychics are frauds.
Rumpus: I certainly didn’t read it that way. But at the same time it was interesting trying to suss out where the book was going to fall on that issue. I never thought that the book was debunking their psychic abilities, but there were times when intuitions proved to be slippery things.
Sittenfeld: The book is obviously told in the first person from the point of view of Kate, who believes that she has psychic abilities and believes that her sister has psychic abilities. And so, in a way, the book allows for the possibility, no matter what I personally believe. But I think there came a point where I realized I do have to come down on one side or the other in terms of how much credibility I’m going to give both the sisters.
Rumpus: Did you do a lot of research about psychics?
Sittenfeld: I did a medium amount of research. I interviewed a psychic years ago for an article before ever writing this, and then I interviewed a different one while working on the book. I went to this New Age bookstore in a distant suburb of St. Louis. I basically went there and was like, “I’m doing research,” and then I un-ironically bought some crystals. I think that there’s some confusion in my own mind about what I believe. Now that this is my fourth book, I know that, ironically, writing a novel is not a way to sort out your confusion. I think I have some confusion about boarding school and what I think of having gone to boarding school, and it turns out that writing Prep did not help me sort out that confusion.
Rumpus: Speaking of Prep—a lot of your female, first-person characters have this investment in conformity and flying under the radar. Why are you interested in those characters particularly? Because, especially in Sisterland, you had a choice. You could have talked from Vi’s point of view instead.
Sittenfeld: I guess in life I find people who, at first glance, appear to be very typical or average, whatever that means, and then turn out to have hidden qualities—I find that to be a very interesting kind of person, much more interesting than someone whose eccentricities announce themselves immediately and can sometimes turn out to be very superficial. So I think that that’s part of it. I do think when I was younger—when I, myself, was a teenager—it was almost like I gave people the benefit of the doubt, thinking, so many people that appear very calm and even boring must have all these wild emotions and crazy ideas. I feel like as I’ve gotten older I’ve unfortunately come to the decision that a lot of people who seem normal and boring maybe are normal and boring. But in a novel I have the privilege of making people more layered.
Rumpus: You include a lot of finely-rendered psychological detail. I wonder how that developed for you? Were you conscious of going after that psychological realism?
Sittenfeld: I don’t think that I would ever, while writing, think to myself, “I need a little more psychological realism.” I think I write what’s interesting to me, and so if I’m reading I like to have a very thorough idea of a character in a book that’s by someone else. I like it when characters are some combination of appealing and maybe flawed or self-interested. I think in terms of scenes, and what I want a scene to achieve, and I think that the psychological realism arises from that. It just kind of works its way up. I have my first-person narrators make a lot of observations, I have lots of dialogue, and so it just kind of bubbles up out of that.
Rumpus: A lot of the psychological details tend to be these very fine observations that the character is making about the social interactions happening around them. Do you have a special interest in social dynamics?
Sittenfeld: To some extent I do. It’s not like, tonight I’ll go with my family to some neighbor’s house for a little cookout, and it’s not as if I’ll be mentally taking notes. I would not be above borrowing something juicy if it happened, but I think that I interact fairly normally in social situations. I think that a lot of people can be having these interactions, and then afterwards maybe you make some observations about it that you weren’t even conscious of making in the moment.
Rumpus: Did you ever wish that you were a twin?
Sittenfeld: Yeah, I think I would have liked to have been a twin. I have a sister who’s two years older, a sister who’s five years younger, and a brother who’s nine years younger, so there was lots of sibling in my life already. But I will say that sometimes my sisters and I get mistaken for twins, and I always take it as a compliment. My two sisters and I were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., and we got mistaken for triplets, and we were extra-complimented. At least I was. Maybe they weren’t, but I was.
Rumpus: Why is that, do you think?
Sittenfeld: I don’t know. I guess because twins have this mystique, and triplets—I think the normal sibling connection potentially can be very powerful, and there’s this idea that it’s even more powerful. It really is, not just someone like me, but another version of me.
Rumpus: Did you talk to identical twins when you wrote the book?
Sittenfeld: Yes. I’m friends with these twins who, they’re about to turn forty, and they don’t know if they’re identical or not. I guess they’ve never had the test, and I think they are, but I guess it’s not totally clear. By total coincidence, my British editor is an identical twin. So my friend Emily the twin and my British editor read early drafts, and I specifically asked them to keep an eye out for anything that smelled wrong, twin-wise, and actually, neither of them had any concerns. Then the funny thing was, a magazine editor read an early copy, and I didn’t even know this woman was an identical twin. She said, “You nailed it.” But she said, “There’s a part where it’s New Year’s Eve and the twins are at a party and one of them kisses the other on the lips, and that was totally disgusting.” But otherwise everything rang true.
Rumpus: Yet you kept it in.
Sittenfeld: I did keep it in. I think by the time she read it it was too late to change it. Being disgusting wouldn’t have deterred me anyway.
Rumpus: Were you ever tempted to write from multiple points of view? From Violet’s point of view?
Sittenfeld: No, I wasn’t. I understand why that question would come up. It’s funny, because I think that readers like Vi. Some readers don’t, but I think a lot of readers like her, think she’s refreshing and funny. But I think if she were the one telling the story, I think they would not like her. People would think she’s kind of obnoxious.
Rumpus: Yeah, she’s a great character, but I can see where she’s better from the outside.
Sittenfeld: Less is more.
Rumpus: Part of what makes her great is how monstrous she is.
Rumpus: Like what?
Sittenfeld: She’s very blunt. She’s very entertaining. She’s unapologetic. I think she has an ability to enjoy herself.
Rumpus: And yet you feel like if you were with her she might be enjoying herself more than you.
Sittenfeld: Yeah, at your expense.
Rumpus: Getting back to the psychic connection the twins have, their powers. We never get to find out if there’s an entity behind their psychic abilities, and if it’s a force for good or evil. How did you make that decision, not to explain?
Sittenfeld: I feel like the twins believe that they are psychic, and so essentially the book accepts that they are psychic, and I think neither the book nor the characters are trying to prove to the reader that they are. They just believe they are, which I think is much more natural. It’s almost like in life we’re most hell-bent on proving things that we’re not really sure are true. I didn’t want to present it in a really defensive way, I wanted to present it in a matter-of-fact way.
Rumpus: That’s also very effective when you have a first-person narrator. Do you like the first-person better than the third-person?
Sittenfeld: Yes, because I just like to inhabit a character really deeply.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Sittenfeld: Usually I’m very secretive about what I’m doing, but the British publisher HarperCollins has commissioned this project where they’ll have six contemporary writers rewrite each of Jane Austen’s six novels. I’ll be rewriting Pride and Prejudice.
Rumpus: Wow, jackpot.
Sittenfeld: It’s really meant to be fun and amusing. I think it’ll be set in the United States in the present day. And of course I feel a little ridiculous talking about it, because I understand that I’m not Jane Austen, but it’s—sort of in the way that “Clueless” is fun, it’s meant to be fun.
Rumpus: Is that a lot of pressure?
Sittenfeld: I think it would be pressure if I were saying, “I guess now I’m going to officially step into Jane Austen’s shoes.” But I don’t feel like that’s what this is.
Rumpus: Sure. And you’ve been at it a long time! You started writing very early.
Sittenfeld: I did start early. Basically, I started writing fiction as soon as I knew how to read and write. So, whatever, five or six, or four. Then I started being published when I was in high school, which is a double-edged sword. Yes, I have been at it for a while. Now I’m a crusty thirty-seven.
Rumpus: What was the first thing you ever remember writing? The first piece of fiction you ever wrote.
Sittenfeld: I saw the movie of Annie. I saw it in the theater. What would it be, my fourth birthday? What year did that come out? Anyway, I remember after that, taking this piece of paper, and—it was actually very Freudian!—leaving it on my dad’s desk. It was like: “I am an orphan. My name is Annie.” It was essentially plagiarism. But I believed myself to be writing a story. I would sometimes do research by asking my parents questions. One time I said to them—this was kind of dark—I said to them, “Are people that have cancer not hungry?” And they were very alarmed. They said, “Why?” “I’m writing a story.” I was definitely, obviously weird.
Rumpus: What shaped your tastes as a weird young child writing stories?
Sittenfeld: Well, as a family my parents would read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books out loud to us, and they also read Stuart Little. We were definitely a reading family, and I loved books. I still feel this way, that a book—and magazines, too—is what’s interesting about life in this distilled format that you can hold, and there’s something that’s very enchanting to me about that. That it’s interesting stories and pictures, and someone took all this time to strip away all the boring stuff, and they just give you this story and these facts. If I’m at somebody’s house and they have magazines on the table and people are chatting, I feel almost a physical urge to start reading the magazines instead of talking to people. Because of course a magazine is usually more interesting than a conversation, because so much more time and preparation has gone into it.
Featured image of Curtis Sittenfeld © by Josephine Sittenfeld.
Second image of Curtis Sittenfeld © by Dilip Vishwanat.