Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Weird girls and instant bestsellers

Hanging out with fiction writer Curtis Sittenfeld in Sun Valley

Express Staff Writer

Curtis Sittenfeld was one of many authors asked to speak at the annual Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. Photo by Barbi Reed, courtesy of Sun Valley Writer’s Conference

    A book snob Curtis Sittenfeld is not. Despite her first book, “Prep,” placing in The New York Times’ top 5 works of fiction for 2005, the author says she doesn’t regret any of the “trashy” books she read when she was young.
    “My wish would be that my children would be readers more than they would read any particular book,” she said.
    The author of four fiction novels—and mother of two—was in Sun Valley last weekend as a speaker for the annual Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. She spoke with the Idaho Mountain Express Saturday, talking about her most recent book, “Sisterland,” and finding success while writing about, as Sittenfeld described it, weird girls.
    Sittenfeld’s career was launched as a teen when she won the Seventeen magazine fiction-writing contest.
    “I think both Sylvia Plath and Lori Moore have won it in years past and they were both writers I admire,” Sittenfeld said. “It was a short story about a weird girl—what else do I write about, especially in 1992?”
    Sittenfeld went on to get a bachelor’s degree from Stanford and a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. She worked in between as a journalist, doing internships and some magazine writing. Sittenfeld still considers herself a “lightweight journalist.”
    “I still write several articles a year,” she said. “I’ll write a book review or an opinion piece. I usually write a few pieces a year for The New York Times; sometimes I write for Slate. I actually did a profile of Barbara Walters for Vanity Fair.”
    Currently working on a modern adaptation of Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Sittenfeld gained national notoriety as a fiction writer with the publication of “Prep” in 2005. Since then, she’s published “The Man of My Dreams,” “American Wife” and “Sisterland.”
    The plotline of “Prep” follows protagonist and high-schooler Lee Fiora as she transfers to a private Massachusetts boarding school loosely based on Sittenfeld’s own high school, Groton. Sittenfeld said that the layout and schedule was reminiscent of Groton, but the characters came out of her imagination.
    Fiora’s world changes as she comes into contact with social stratification, alternative lifestyles and simply adjusting to the microcosm of co-ed boarding school life. The book falls in a subcategory between young adult and chick-lit. Sittenfeld said there are a number of older female “Prep” fans, though the coming-of-age novel mainly enjoys popularity amongst teens.
    While there may be elements of Sittenfeld’s protagonists—all female—who share qualities with the author, she’s insistent that readers often make the mistake of assuming that all main characters are mirror images of the author.
    “I write the dialogue for all the characters,” she said. “So there is some of me in everyone.”
    The media speculation over the plotline of “Prep” mirroring Sittenfeld’s own boarding school experience is something that she tries to stave off in later books. Before she published “Sisterland” in 2013, Sittenfeld was pregnant with her second child. In her book, the protagonist has a firstborn daughter and a baby son. Sittenfeld, who already had a daughter, was worried she’d give birth to a son, making her and the protagonist Kate dead ringers. Fortunately, she gave birth to a girl and didn’t have to change her plot.
    “Sisterland” is a growing-up tale that takes place in St. Louis, Mo., about twin sisters Kate and Vi who share “senses,” their word for a psychic ability to foretell the future. The sisters grow drastically apart, as Kate chooses to settle down with a husband and become a suburban housewife with two kids. Vi uses her psychic powers to do readings and publically foretells major event, while her stay-at-home-mom sister tries to suppress her abilities. The plot is centered on a major earthquake foretold by Vi in St. Louis, and how the city reacts to her public declaration.
    The book was based on a real prediction made in 1990 that the St. Louis area would fall prey to a devastating earthquake in December of that year. It didn’t come true, but the hypothesis succeeded in royally terrifying the entire city, Sittenfeld said.  
    “I thought that was a really interesting premise where immediately there was a ticking clock,” she said. “It’s suspenseful it if happens, dramatic if it doesn’t.”
    Since one rarely gets the opportunity to pick an author’s brain about her plot decisions, Sittenfeld was asked why she made both sisters psychic.
    “If the psychic makes the prediction, it would be more interesting to me to not tell it from the perspective of the psychic herself but from someone close to her,” Sittenfeld said. “Once it was a sister, I thought, ‘Why not make them twins?’ It’s potentially the most intense version of a sibling relationship.”
    She says that telling people it’s a book about psychic twins makes the book sound more fantastical than it really is—in truth, the story focuses heavily on the suburban marriage of Kate and her husband Jeremy.
    Sittenfeld said it took her about three years between starting and finishing “Sisterland.” After it was published, she was contacted directly by the British branch of Harper-Collins publishing house to create a modern adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” Sittenfeld is setting the stage in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and is making the female protagonists older and the male love interests doctors. She won’t reveal too much else about the book, which will come out in either 2015 or 2016.
    As she was talking at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, Sittenfeld had a few tips for aspiring writers. She believes it’s important to find a writer’s community and select people who are “on the same wavelength as you” to critique and edit your work and to set deadlines for sending them manuscripts. She also believes that one must carve out time for writing and maintain a distraction-free area during that time.
    “People who are supposed to be writing feel better when they are,” Sittenfeld said. “They feel like themselves.”     

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