After Curtis Sittenfeld wrote “American Wife” — her fictionalized portrait of a woman who strongly resembled Laura Bush — editors started asking her to write essays about women in politics. Specifically, Hillary Clinton.
She turned them all down. “I didn’t think I had anything new to say,” Sittenfeld said in a recent interview via Zoom. “I thought to write a piece about what Hillary means, or about Hillary and feminism — it didn’t feel like there’s anything I could say that hadn’t already been said repeatedly.”
But then along came an editor at Esquire magazine. He didn’t ask for an essay — he asked for a short story. A piece of fiction, told from Hillary’s point of view. Now that was intriguing.
“It’s such a different way of approaching her,” Sittenfeld said. “Not asking what the American people think of her, but what does she think of the American people. That turned out to be a super-interesting question to explore.”
The story, “The Nominee,” was published in Esquire in May 2016 and also opens the U.K. edition of Sittenfeld’s 2018 collection “You Think It, I’ll Say It.”
After she finished it, Sittenfeld realized she had more to say. “I thought to myself, and I told my editor, I think I’m going to write a really short, like a 120-page novel,” she said. Four hundred pages later, she was done.
Published by Random House, her new novel, “Rodham,” has garnered glowing advance reviews and will go on sale Tuesday. It explores the provocative question: What would Hillary Clinton’s life have been like had she not married Bill?
Conducting an interview via Zoom is awkward and sterile at best; even more so when the interviewee sits on a plain couch in front of a bare white wall. But it gives the interviewer more opportunity to study Sittenfeld — her strong, intelligent face, those dark, deeply attentive eyes, that sudden, brilliant smile.
Sittenfeld moved to the Twin Cities with her husband and their two children in August 2018 when her husband took a job teaching at the University of Minnesota. Almost immediately, she became a steady presence in the Twin Cities’ writing community.
During those 18 months, she’s headlined a fundraiser for the Loft Literary Center, taken part in both Wordplay festivals (last year in person, this year on Zoom, sitting in front of that same blank wall talking with writer Emily Gould) as well as events hosted by Rain Taxi. She’s been in conversation with writers at various bookstores and coffee shops — Booker Prize finalist Daisy Johnson, British novelist Tessa Hadley — and she’s done events with Dessa and Nora McInerny and others.
“About eight months after moving here, I was at an event a writer had organized, and I thought, ‘I am standing in a room with more writers than I met the entire time I lived in St. Louis. Literally,’ ” she said. “That’s not a knock on St. Louis, just a factual statement. There are a lot of writers here.”
Though she was educated mostly out East, Sittenfeld is a Midwesterner at heart. Born and reared in Cincinnati, she lived in St. Louis for the past 11 years. St. Louis was where she married, bought her first house, had her children, wrote many of her books. She had figured she was there to stay.
And then along came her husband’s job at the U. “I had some trepidation about moving somewhere in my 40s,” said Sittenfeld, who is 44. “I think it can be hard to make friends in adulthood. But I have been very happy here.”
Real people, imaginary lives
“Rodham” differs from “American Wife” in several important ways, including the use of real names. The main character of Sittenfeld’s 2008 novel is Alice Blackwell, a literary and thoughtful first lady, a former librarian married to a conservative, military-loving recovering alcoholic named Charlie.
Though the Blackwells’ home state is Wisconsin, not Texas, “American Wife” otherwise follows the trajectory of the Bushes’ life fairly closely. It peers into the mind and motivations of Alice and addresses the questions: Did Alice make a mistake when she married Charlie? How can she stay with him and still be true to her values — or can she?
In “Rodham,” however, the main character is fully, unabashedly Hillary.
Bill Clinton plays a huge role. Donald Trump is a minor character. The whole novel is loaded with people right out of the pages of the newspaper.
“Because ‘Rodham’ diverges from reality I felt comfortable using real names,” Sittenfeld said. “That was a decision I had to make. You could start ‘Rodham’ and think this is based on real life. But there’s no way you could finish it and think that.”
The first quarter or so of the book follows the real Hillary’s life pretty closely. Character Hillary has a passionate affair with Bill Clinton (yes, the book has a lot of sex scenes), whom she meets at Yale Law School. She moves with him to Arkansas.
But then — then — around page 150, Hillary turns down Bill’s proposal of marriage, moves back up north, and the whole rest of “Rodham” flows straight from Sittenfeld’s fertile imagination.
Is it fate?
To get to the personality of Hillary, Sittenfeld said, she first plunged into the writing, but quickly realized she needed to do more research.
She read biographies, Clinton’s own memoirs, and books by other women who had run for office in 2016, including Amy Klobuchar. Several themes emerged, including the tension between public and private lives, love and marriage, the impossible standards our society puts on successful women, and the way we tend to equate a woman with her husband.
“When I reread ‘Living History’ [Clinton’s 2003 memoir] as research for ‘American Wife,’ it made me revisit my opinion of her,” Sittenfeld said. “Why do I see them as a unit? Why do I not see her as independent of him? Is that sexist of me?”
In the Hulu documentary “Hillary,” which Sittenfeld watched after finishing her novel, “she talks about being in a lot of male-dominated environments such as law school and working in a law firm where not being very emotional was seen as an asset.
“And then the decades passed and she’s accused of being insufficiently emotional. I do think that we ask something impossible of female candidates and maybe any high-profile women.
“The scope and quantity of criticism heaped on her is remarkable.”
Character Hillary endures the same criticism as actual Hillary. In the later chapters of “Rodham,” though pure fiction, there are echoes of the life we know about. A man who becomes a close friend commits suicide, and Hillary is accused of murder. Bill appears on “60 Minutes” with his wife at his side to apologize for sexual transgressions. Hillary makes an unfortunate remark about baking cookies.
It’s almost as if she can’t escape her fate.
“That’s one of the big questions that I thought about,” Sittenfeld said. “What is fate, what is free will, do we all have parallel lives that are totally different, or only slightly different?
“I think it’s more interesting if her parallel life has a relationship to her real life. I could have made her live in a different country and have seven children. I could have done anything — it’s a novel.
“But I think it’s more interesting when there’s tension” between the two lives.
About those sex scenes
As might be expected in a novel about Bill Clinton, he and Hillary have sex. A lot of sex. In bedrooms, in motels, in moving cars. And since both characters are based on real people who, presumably, also had a lot of sex, it can give those parts of the book a bit of a voyeuristic feeling.
“It’s a very strange thing, because on the one hand I have very mixed feelings about my own sex scenes,” Sittenfeld said. “But I do think they’re necessary for plot and character development, and I think they serve a purpose.
“I also feel kind of sheepish. You can read this book and think I don’t have the ability to blush, but I do. I have the courage of my convictions as a writer, but as a person who is then asked about it, I think, oh God.
“At one point an editor did ask me: Wait, do you really want to include these? And I thought, hmm, yes, I do. I think they serve the story.”
The novel, which is narrated by Hillary, begins this way: “The first time I saw him, I thought he looked like a lion.”
There is no mistaking who she is talking about — the fictitious Bill Clinton is larger than life, charming, brilliant, needy, manipulative and, yes, sexy.
“Even though the premise of the novel is what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill, it’s not difficult for me to see why she did marry him,” Sittenfeld said.
“I would say that I enjoyed writing Bill more than I enjoyed writing Trump. I was pretty methodical about creating Trump’s dialogue. I watched some of his rallies and I transcribed some of his comments to kind of get a feel for the rhythm of his speech. And I certainly read a bunch of his tweets in a sort of studious way. Whereas I’ve been hearing Bill Clinton’s voice in public for such a long time that I could much more naturally evoke Bill’s voice in my head.”
Sittenfeld has not met Hillary or Bill — or Trump, for that matter. But she is pretty sure she would like Hillary if she met her.
“She’s a good listener, she’s prepared for any situation, she’s done her research, she’s funny, she has this warm laugh.
“The reality is — and people might think I’m not cynical enough — she has spent a lot of her life trying to make circumstances better for people, especially women and children, and I would say she’s done so at personal cost. And to have all this crazy anger and criticism directed at you — this feels like, if I were her, I think I would have said to hell with all of you.
“There are times when I think we were unworthy of her.”