Perhaps, instead of having a therapist to decipher our murky inner lives, we should all have Curtis Sittenfeld write us as characters in her short stories. There, we’d have our flaws and neuroses identified and described frankly. We’d understand what motivates us to make the strange, oftentimes self-sabotaging decisions that define our lives and gnaw at happiness. Essentially, we’d see ourselves as we are.
Because that’s what Sittenfeld, author of five acclaimed, bestselling novels (including Prep and American Wife), does in each story in You Think It, I’ll Say It: She understands people better than they understand themselves. For the duration of the ten-story collection, we are graced with an insight about the human condition we rarely have in our own lives, and it's all thanks to Sittenfeld.
We spoke to Sittenfeld about her short story collection, the strange spell Donald Trump may cast over fiction in the years to come, and her upcoming project about Hillary Clinton, which imagines a world in which Hillary Rodham declined to marry Bill Clinton.
Refinery29: My reading experience was similar to the game found in your story “The World Has Many Butterflies,” where a woman gives harsh, honest analyses of the people in her social circle. She judges people — and that’s how I felt towards the characters in your book. How much does the pleasure of reading stem from our ability to judge people in a safe space where no one will judge us?
Curtis Sittenfeld: “I think a lot of pleasure of fiction is having this really intimate access to the lives of characters that you rarely have reading nonfiction about real people and that you rarely have in real life. Whether that’s voyeuristic of judgmental or nosy depends on your definition. Or, whether it’s natural human curiosity. And even compassion."
I was dying to know what you thought of your characters, and how you feel about them while you’re writing.
“I would say that I always feel some degree of compassion for my characters. If a writer loathes their character, I don’t think the character is very interesting. Just like in real life. A person you have mixed feelings about is much more interesting and confusing than a person you outright detest, and therefore, dismiss.”
Which brings us to the unlikeability paradox. Sometimes your characters have been called unlikeable. Why should likability even be a virtue to aspire to in fiction writing?
“Why should it? For me, it’s not. The definition of likable is very subjective. I am not someone who looks to fictional characters to be moral role models. I find that a little boring. I like characters who are flawed the way real people are flawed. The likability question comes up much more with female characters created by female writers. On the other hand, I, of course, have had the experience of reading fiction where I say, ‘That character is annoying and her annoyingness does compromise my reading experience.’ There’s not a clear path as to how likability should be addressed.”
Your characters make occasionally bewildering, self-destructive decisions. How do you feel towards them: Pity? Frustration? Anger?
“I feel sympathy and compassion for people who make mistakes. I think there’s a weird idea in our time of FitBit and meditation and very clean eating — there’s a pretense, at times, that we’re all either the ideal versions of ourselves or working toward being the ideal version of ourselves. I actually think that in large and small ways, a lot of people routinely act against their own best interest. There wouldn’t be fiction if people didn’t act against their own best interest. It’s almost what makes us human and not robots. As a writer or a storyteller, it’s almost always more interesting if I make a character make a foolish choice instead of a smart choice. Making a smart choice is narratively not as interesting.”
“Gender Studies,” the first story in the collection, is one of two stories in the book to mention “Donald Trump” by name. How much of this collection was a response to a shifting political climate?
“I can feel the cultural and technological and political shifts happening around me on a daily basis. I do feel like short stories are a way of making sense of those shifts.”
The story that captures that shift is the final one, “Do-Over,” in which the election forces a man and a woman to revisit a shared moment in their past. So many characters in this collection have reckonings with their past, but this one is spurred by Trump’s election. Going forward, do you think this historical moment will be a recurring motif in literature?
“In the near future, there will be a big wave of Trump-influenced novels. Which is not to say that they’ll be about him, or he’ll be a character in them. Writers are very attuned to their surroundings. There are so many colorful and disturbing things happening right now; it’s inevitable they won’t work their way in. Because of the delay in the schedule of publishing, I think it’s right about now that we’ll see these novels and stories.”
Your next project is about a person we're all very well acquainted with: Hillary Clinton. Your third novel, 2008's American Wife, centers around a character inspired Laura Bush. Writing about real, living people requires a certain amount of boldness. What about that challenge excites you?
“Those two books resemble each other, but they come from different places. American Wife is a book that I wrote because I’m a Democrat, and I admired and was fascinated by Laura Bush. My friends would say, ‘Why do you like Laura Bush so much?’ And I felt like I could explain it to them, but I needed 500 pages. That’s why I wrote American Wife. The Hillary Clinton book is a little bit different. I would not want to write a straightforward retelling of the 2016 election. For me, that would be a really unpleasant experience. But I am still thinking about how it played out, and what influenced what, and how I see her and how other people see her. How the most common views of her do and don’t overlap with my own perspective. Again, I wouldn’t say that I particularly have a First Lady fascination. I am very interested in politics. But my interest in Hillary Clinton is more an interest in someone who was a presidential nominee than in her as a first lady."
Will you ever tackle Melania Trump?
"No. Well, never say never. But it holds no appeal to me. To write fiction about Melania is to write fiction where you’re trying really hard to imagine what it would be like to be married to Donald Trump, and that’s not a way I want to spend my time. For me to write fiction about a fictional or real person, I have to feel fascinated by the person. I would not say I’m fascinated by Melania. It was interesting to see those pictures of her at Barbara Bush’s funeral, and to think about those implications. But I do not naturally feel drawn to writing fiction about her."
You Think It, I’ll Say It is being turned into Apple’s first TV show. Could you give us a preview?
"Reese Witherspoon optioned it through her production company. Kristen Wiig is going to be in it, and the showrunner is a woman named Colleen McGinnis. I do have some title that I can’t remember. It’s not like I’m going to move to L.A. and work full-time in a writer’s room. But it’ll be thrilling for me to visit the set."
What books are on your nightstand now?
I’m reading a story collection called A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. It’s outstanding. It just came out. It’s mostly about Black boys and men who live in and around New York. Some stories are about their parents, some about their schooling. It’s really smart and moving. Next up, I want to buy Alexander Chee’s essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I want to buy Chasing Hillary, Amy Choznick’s summary of her years reporting about Hillary Clinton. It’s written just for me.