Curtis Sittenfeld's best-selling debut novel, Prep, dropped a Midwestern girl into an East Coast boarding school, where readers watched her struggle toward adulthood. In her third novel, American Wife (Random House, 576 pages), Sittenfeld raises the stakes: this time, the Midwestern girl ends up in the White House. Readers will recognize Laura and George Bush as the inspiration for Sittenfeld's first couple, Alice and Charlie Blackwell, but it's the author's rich imagination that brings the Blackwells to life. TIME's senior arts editor Radhika Jones spoke to Sittenfeld a few days before the book's publication on Sept. 2, timed by her publishers to coincide with the Republican National Convention.
TIME: How did this idea come to you?
Curtis Sittenfeld: Soon after George W. Bush was elected I read a few articles about Laura Bush that made her seem different from what I would have expected. I learned that she's a big reader, and that she would invite people who had political opinions different from her husband's to events at the governor's mansion and then events at the White House. And then I read a biography of her in 2004 by Ann Gerhart called The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush. That reinforced the sense I had that she had led a really complex and interesting life. So I wrote this article for Salon which I would not have written it if I'd known that I would end up writing this book that was basically about being a liberal who has this weird admiration for Laura Bush. In that article I said that her life resembled a novel. And then two years later it occurred to me, I should write that novel.
It's clear when you read the book that it's about the first couple, but it feels equally like a book about relationships and how you fall in love and how your character forms.
I agree one hundred percent. And if I'd wanted to write a book that was a hatchet job on Laura Bush if that was my big goal I could have made it 200 pages. But I wanted to explore the human heart much more than I wanted to explore politics. Some people have said to me, why did you not write more about Charlie Blackwell's political ascension and his becoming governor, and the campaign, and I feel like there are excellent books out there on political campaigns and mine wouldn't add anything to the mix. There are so many people who are so much better qualified to write about politics than I am.
I understand that plot is very important to you; you have literary concerns but you also want to keep people turning the pages. And that happens in American Wife. But in this case, unlike your earlier novels, many of the elements of the plot came to you ready-made. Did that affect the way you worked?
The book has four sections, and in each section there's a major plot twist that has a strong resemblance to an event in the real life of George and Laura Bush or Laura Bush, I should say; not all of it is George's. But then everything else is made up. There's a chapter where Charlie Blackwell is drinking heavily, and he buys the baseball team and gives up drinking and finds religion, and obviously those have George Bush parallels. But there's all this other stuff that has to do with a Princeton reunion, and Alice Blackwell's sister-in-law having doubts about her own marriage. So even in the sections that borrow most heavily from real life, almost everything is made up. And of course, literally, every scene is made up because even if we all know that there's a point when George Bush became religious, I sure wasn't there!
How long ago did you start working on it?
It's been two years in the making. When I was writing my first two books I was also freelancing and teaching and doing other odd jobs. For this one I pretty much just wrote. And I wrote much longer hours than I had in the past. I worked more intensively on this book than I plan to for any future book. I don't think I'll have another book for four or five years, and that's fine with me. In some ways I think it would be very dignified if I went away for twenty years and then wrote my fourth book.
Can you describe the research you did? You mentioned The Perfect Wife.
That was my biggest influence, and that's the book I recommend to people. If someone says, Oh, American Wife makes me curious to learn more about Laura Bush, I would definitely urge them to read Ann Gerhart. I read another biography of Laura Bush by Ronald Kessler. I read a book by Frank Bruni called Ambling Into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush about Bush's first presidential campaign. I read Hillary Rodham Clinton's autobiography, which I enjoyed much more than I thought I would. I read a book called For Love of Politics: Inside the Clinton White House by Sally Bedell Smith. I interviewed some people who worked in the White House. Because the book takes place primarily in Wisconsin, I ordered 1960s Wisconsin yearbooks off eBay, and I interviewed people from Wisconsin. For the Princeton stuff I talked to Princeton librarians. And I interviewed friends and family members who I thought had expertise on any topic that might be relevant to the book.
How about the sex in the book? I was reminded of something you said about Prep, that it might not be your parents' cup of tea for various reasons, and the graphic sex was part of that. It's quite a visual, the sex in American Wife.
Actually, for Christmas last year I gave my parents a special copy of the book that had all the sex scenes cut out. Then when some of the sex scenes were put up by websites in July which was very misrepresentative of the book my dad stumbled upon them and I basically said, You know, I tried to protect you from that, and if you sought it out on your own, that has to be your concern, not mine.
I mean, the book is about a thirty-year marriage, so of course there's sex.
And realistically, there's less of it as it goes on.
Exactly. And I know the distinction is hard for people to make, but I do not feel like I wrote a novel about Laura and George Bush. I feel like I read things about them that inspired me to create fictional characters, and then these fictional characters lead their own lives and have their own interactions. So this is not a book about Laura Bush's sex life.
I've read that you didn't expect Prep to get the kind of reception that it did. But American Wife was coming into an environment where it would get a lot of attention precisely because it is so relevant. Was the run-up to publication different? Did it feel different as you were writing?
To me the question when I was writing is (1) will I finish it, ever? That's a question that a lot of novelists ask themselves while writing. And (2) will I feel like it's good enough that I'll want it to be published? Those were the questions I was focused on. The fact is that in this day and age I don't think any novelist can assume that a book will get attention. There are books that have pretty provocative subjects that disappear without a trace. I would say that already it's gotten more attention than I anticipated. At the same time I think it's probably the most commercial book that I'll ever write. It has the most obvious hook of any book that I'll ever write.