Curtis Sittenfeld Turns to Alternate History for 'Rodham'

The acclaimed author of 'Prep,' 'American Wife,' and 'Atomic Marriage' takes a look at what could have happened if Hillary Clinton never married Bill.

Rachel Smalter Hall: I'm Audible editor, Rachel Smalter Hall. And I'm here talking to Curtis Sittenfeld about her latest novel Rodham. Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of Prep, American Wife, Eligible, and the Audible original Atomic Marriage. In Rodham she imagines what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had turned down Bill Clinton's marriage proposal. Curtis, thank you so much for being here, talking to me about Rodham today.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Thank you for having me.

RSH: Curtis, you talked before about how intrigued you were to learn that Hillary Clinton turned down Bill Clinton twice before she accepted his third marriage proposal. Is this when you first had the idea to write the story or did the idea come from something else?

CS: So I would say the idea came sort of the intersection of two places. One was an editor at Esquire reached out in early 2016 and asked if I would like to write a short story from the perspective of Hillary Clinton, as she accepts the democratic nomination for president. And the reason I was asked is that I had written American Wife, which came out in 2008 and was a fictionalized version of Laura Bush. So, I think I'm sort of considered a political fiction writer. I'm far from the only one, but it's also not an enormous group. So, I had declined the opportunity to write essays, but writing a short story was much more tempting. And the reason it was tempting was that instead of the underlying question being, what do the American people think of Hillary Clinton? The question was what does Hillary Clinton think of the American people?

And that was super interesting to me and I had a lot to say, but I still don't think I would have written the novel if she had become president. I am definitely a Democrat. I think I would have just enjoyed her presidency and not written an alternate history. But after the election and this is the sort of the second thing I think motivated me. I had this realization that school children who knew who she was, knew that she'd run for president, often literally didn't know that Bill Clinton existed. And so that kind of made me [think] would the outcome of the election have turned out differently if adults saw Hillary and Bill as totally separate the way that the kids do. And I think that that realization that not everyone sees them as so intertwined kind of combined with the knowledge that she had in fact turned down his marriage proposal. It did make it seem like, Ooh, things could have gone a different way. This is not the most farfetched kind of hypothetical.

RSH: So, okay. I'm very fascinated by that too. I hadn't thought about kids, not even knowing who Bill Clinton is. But I can see how that planted this really intriguing seed for you. People when they find out I've been listening to this book about Bill and Hillary and what would have happened if she hadn't married him, I'm telling them that it's amazing. And that there are so many cringy Bill and Hillary sex scenes. And I'm not even 100% sure what I love about these moments as a listener, but I do, I really love them. And I want to know what it is about these intimate moments that speaks to you as a writer.

CS: So, when someone says to you, I am so enjoying your cringy sexing, I believe the appropriate response is, “Thank you.” So, I feel that including sexing is not only important, but sort of necessary because that's what a novel is. A novel is these kind of small, granular, very personal moments. And that's the difference between a legitimate biography or memoir and a novel. And a novel takes you very deep inside people's daily experiences. Whether it's brushing their teeth or staring into the refrigerator or going for a walk and hearing a bird chirp or something. And so to me, even though a description of sex is much more provocative. It's not, I try to sort of write about everything in a detailed way to evoke a person's daily habits. And in this case, it happens to be the daily habits of a very famous person, although it’s a created, imagined version of a famous person. And I think that, especially if you're listening, don't be deceived, Hillary Clinton did not write this book. I wrote this book and I've never met Hillary Clinton.

RSH: Now I'm thinking about someone picking up this book and imagining that Hillary Clinton wrote it. Do you anticipate that confusion happening? Do you, has that happen already?

CS: It hasn't happened already. So the print book says a novel, very conspicuously on the cover and it's called Rodham. And so I guess you could be confused at first, but then it follows the real timeline maybe the first third of the book and then it deviates very significantly. So I don't think — unless you were like thought you might've hit your head and ended up in a parallel universe — I don't think you could complete the book and believe it to be an autobiography or a memoir.

RSH: Right. That makes sense. You've written fictional characters inspired by famous people before. Public figures like Laura Bush, The Pioneer Woman, and Hillary Clinton, as you've talked about in the Esquire story. But I think this is the first time you've committed to using their actual names. Why did you make that decision now? And what was it like for you to write that way?

CS: So the reason I used Bill and Hillary's real name and the real names of a few other, mostly political figures is, as I said the novel deviates very dramatically and obviously from the historical timeline. And so I thought that it would be confusing or distracting to readers to, let's say I name them their names are Helen and Bob, instead of Hillary and Bill, and you're reading about two young promising law students at Yale in the early 1970s. And they're in love and then they go back to Arkansas together and then she leaves and goes in a different direction.

I feel if their names are different and the deviation from the timeline occurs, it sort of might be distracting or confusing the reader. And they might think, Oh, I thought I was reading about people who are stand-ins for the Clintons, but actually now it seems they're not. And so I thought almost like with a scientific experiment where you change only one variable at a time, I thought, okay, leave their names, because they're there isn't confusion, ultimately that this is fictitious. So leave their names, but change the timeline. Whereas in American Wife, I kept a fictionalized version of the timeline, but changed their names.

RSH: Did that feel different to write that way to you?

CS: Yes, actually it did. I mean, yeah. But I think that if you're a writer, a fiction writer, you sort of have your own internal logic and offering your own rules for your fictional world. And so you'll do this, but you won't do that. And you'll do. And so it did give me a certain clarity and even, I mean, this kind of gets back to the sex scene question. Like some people I think feel its sort of intrusive to imagine that or include that. And I feel, well, of course, it's fictitious. So therefore, and I know not everyone agrees with this, but I'd be, it's fictitious, it's clearly fictitious. I never pretend that I know the Clintons, let alone were anywhere near them when they were kissing each other.

So, I kind of feel like, it's almost like once I decide to write the novel, I think I give myself a lot of flexibility to execute it in a way that I think makes it the most interesting and complex and entertaining. And if I were going to kind of constantly say, what will people think or is it conceivable that this could be off putting to some readers? I feel that would be in mobilizing. And I almost assumed from the outset, this is not a book for everyone.

RSH: Yeah. I wanted to ask you, if you allow yourself to imagine Hillary Clinton reading or listening to your book, or do you have to put that out of your mind in order to write such a sincere and honest novel?

CS: I think I did have to put that out of my mind during the writing. So, I really admire Hillary, but I do not think, I think I could have written a book that was sort of just a very pure, clean love letter to her. And this is not that. The character who is the fictional Hillary makes compromises, including moral compromises, you see her in very intimate moments. And so, I think that those choices, I recognize that it, if I were Hillary Clinton, knowing that those are parts of the book would not make me wish to curl up and read it. If she does read it, I certainly would welcome her feedback. Even if that feedback was to say, this is overwhelmingly ridiculous and you got tons of things wrong. I did a ton of research in the hope of getting details. Right? But I also would like to know what I got wrong.

RSH: I think that in the story Hillary fares quite a bit better than Bill. And so I would wonder how she would react to the portrayal of Bill, which I felt was a very honest exploration. But that would be my question is how would she react to that? In this book, you really explore this moment in the early nineties when Anita Hill testified to Congress and how that was a catalyst for more women to start running for public office. What was so interesting to you about that moment in time as a writer?

CS: So, I sort of came into that by really thinking about, okay, if Hillary and Bill, instead of getting married in 1975, if that's, when they break up and she goes her own way, then what happens next? Does she enter political office, which in my version of events, she does. And what's the way to make that sort of the most interesting. And it is in 1992 after Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings, which were in the fall of 1991, there was a record-breaking number of women who ran for office. And especially female senators, which I think the total was eight senators, which is kind of depressing. I mean, that was this record-breaking advance. But it's one of those things where I do think that we still, those events feel historic and yet not that distant. And it's very interesting how the meaning of events can kind of change over time, even though the events themselves are obviously, sort of static or preserved.

And obviously Joe Biden led those confirmation hearings. He has a different role now than he had then. There was the echoes of Anita Hill's testimony with Christina Blasey Ford's testimony just in the, what was it? Two years ago?

RSH: Yeah.

CS: It’s interesting how history repeats itself and also how I think that Anita Hill even has a different sort of role in our culture currently in light of the #MeToo movement. And I think she gets more recognition for sort of being a real trailblazer. I mean, I think she got some at the time and I was in high school myself when Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings occurred. But I do think that it was, at the time it occurred that a person could say, Oh, she just wants revenge or she's a spurned lover, all this stuff that just seems in retrospect. I mean, not that I ever thought it even as a teenager, but in certain ways that our society has and hasn't changed, can give a different-

RSH: Yeah. The way you write about Anita Hill's testimony felt so relevant and immediate. And I think you write about Hillary sitting there watching with her colleague and how I forget the words you use, but she's feeling history unfold in front of her, or it's just the way Anita speaks just strikes as truth. And just the details, how strange the details were and how that just felt true. And the way you wrote about it just felt so resonant to Dr. Ford when she testified in 2018. So I was wondering if you were thinking about Dr. Ford when you wrote those scenes or if it just happened to be a fortuitous coincidence?

CS: I would say that I think I was, not explicitly thinking of Dr. Ford. But I think I was thinking of how, again, history repeats itself. And to me in that instance, how it repeats itself in depressing ways. 

RSH: I'm going to pivot a little bit to ask you a little bit about some of your previous work. A few years ago, you wrote a novel called Sisterlands about a set of twin sisters who are psychic, and you also wrote a short story collection called You Think it, I'll Say It, that references a party game where you try to imagine what the other person is thinking. And the way you have of getting into characters minds, and your work always makes me wonder Curtis Sittenfeld are you psychic?

CS: [Laughter] Oh my God, this is my favorite question I've ever been asked in an interview. I want so badly to say, yes right now, but I'm afraid the answer is no.

RSH: Do you think that you have to be a little bit psychic to be a novelist.

CS: So yes, actually the short answer is yes. I think there's a fine line between being psychic and being sort of observant and sensitive and being able to see things from someone else's perspective, or maybe even just noticing patterns and behavior in ways that then allow you to anticipate behavior. Yeah, I think. Are you psychic at all?

RSH: I am not, but I think a lot about the relationship between being psychic and being intuitive. And I just, I love that, that's kind of this, whether intentional or not, but that's a reemerging theme in your work, this idea of being observant. I think does dovetail with being psychic and maybe you're a little more psychic than you think.

CS: I did know you would ask that. Just kidding. I mean, I think it's funny because one time had a professor who would say, "There's a disproportionate number of books written from the perspective of the outsider because writers feel like outsiders more often than the average person." And I feel presumably there's a disproportionate number of books written from the perspective of people who are very observant because you almost can't write a book if you're not observant.

RSH: Yeah. I think that's true. Especially the kinds of work that you write, which really digs into the character's internal life, which I really enjoy. And I also have to ask, please forgive me, but with your interest in writing about the Midwest and first ladies, do you have a Michelle Obama book cooking in your brain? Is American Wife, along with Rodham going to become a first ladies trilogy.

CS: So I do not think that I will write a Michelle Obama book for a few reasons. So I'm one of the many people who thinks that Michelle Obama is fabulous and wonderful just in every way that a person can be fabulous and wonderful. I loved her book Becoming. And I actually feel that Becoming was, or is in some ways novelistic and it's [inaudible] dorky technical terms to kind of describe why I think so. But the pacing is novelistic in terms of, almost slowing things down, including her courtship with Barack Obama. So, we sort of meet him as she met him as an associate in her law office and it's not like she knows then that he's going to be her husband. Or even I think Donald Trump is initially referred to as this real estate person in New York instead of the role that he eventually comes to play. And I think the details, the scenes are very novelistic.

And I think it's pretty open and honest and candid. So, I feel it achieves in some ways it achieves what a novel achieves. And also, frankly, I think that as a white woman, I mean, it's not that I wouldn't write from the perspective of a person of color or a black woman. In fact, there is a short story that I once wrote from the perspective of a black woman. But I do think that if I made that choice, I should be able to explain why I'm the right person to write that book. And I think there is a case to be made for [why] it would be more appropriate if a black person or a black woman wrote that book.

I think she could probably have insights into Michelle Obama's experience that I wouldn't be able to have. So maybe I'm not the best person. In all honesty, in doing research for Rodham I thought someone should write an Anita Hill novel. And for similar reasons it's probably not me. But she had this very interesting upbringing. She was the youngest of 13 children in rural Oklahoma. So I do think that I want to use my imagination and, but I also think that I shouldn't write from the perspective of somebody who's demographically dissimilar to me just for the sake of doing so.

RSH: That makes sense. And I do hope that someone listening to this interview right now writes that Anita Hill novel. I would put that straight into my brain as the kids say. Speaking of Becoming by Michelle Obama, it's such a good audio book too. She narrates it and her narration is just gorgeous. I want to ask you, are you an audio book listener?

CS: So yes, actually this may seem like product placement, but I feel like after I wrote my short story for Audible Atomic Marriage, which is available for the low, low price of… no [laughter] I don’t know how much it costs. But I became more of an audio book listener. But here's the thing I actually listened to nonfiction as audio books. And I virtually never listened to fiction as audio book. And I don't read that many nonfiction books in print form, but I do listen to them in audio form.

RSH: I find that with fiction, the language can feel overwrought so easily. If someone isn't really attuned to how the writing sounds when they're writing it. And I have to compliment you with Rodham. I just been drinking it down on audio. I was really upset the other night because I was going out rollerblading along the East river. It's my pandemic exercise. And my earbuds were not charged. I was, how am I supposed to listen to Rodham with my roller blade helmet on when my earbuds are out of juice. And I actually held the phone up to my ear while I rollerbladed and just blasted it like a boom box.

CS: Oh my God. [Laughter]

RSH: I mean, the way you write, it just feels so immediate that it doesn't feel strained or forced at all in audio. It feels so natural. And I really love that about the way it sounds.

CS: I’m happy to hear that. I definitely read my own work aloud to myself. Even though a first draft is a written document. Of course, I do try to be conscious of how it hits a person's ear. And I know it's funny. I've had the experience, because I live in Minnesota, sometimes my phone just dies, if I'm going for a walk and it's really cold. And so I have to fire up my audiobook while I'm still inside the house.

This book apparently has sold 12 million copies. So I think of myself as the 12000001st reader. But Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, I listened to that as audio. It was riveting and the reading with it was outstanding. I'm not sure if the person who read it is British. I mean, he had a perfect accent where he sounded very intelligent and elegant, but not over-the-top pretentious.

RSH: That's perfect. Yeah. That one is excellent in audio. That's a really good recommendation to leave it on. And with that, Curtis Sittenfeld, I want to thank you so much for sitting down with me to talk on the phone about Rodham. Listeners, you can find her novel Rodham, now in the Audible app and at Curtis, thank you so much.

CS: Thank you, Rachel, so much.


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