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Pop Culture of My Life: Curtis Sittenfeld on Whitney Houston, 'Dirty Dancing,' and Taylor Swift

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Josephine Sittenfeld

To mark the publication of Eligible—a wickedly funny modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice—the author of Prep and American Wife dishes about a tree-house dream home, writing the sequel to Dirty Dancing, and the healing power of Taylor Swift.

My favorite childhood book

I was obsessed with The Boxcar Children, about four orphaned siblings who resourcefully make a life for themselves in an abandoned boxcar. (I only ever read the first one and didn’t know it was a series.) I recently re-read it with my own kids, and it’s dated in good and bad ways. (Bad: stereotypical gender roles. Good: Let’s just say those kids don’t need to be helicopter-parented.)

The novel I read in secret as a kid

Forever by Judy Blume. Last summer I had the thrilling experience of interviewing Blume on stage, and I reread Forever and wondered why in my 20s I had been so confused by dating and romance. When I was 10, Forever had told me everything I needed to know.

The first album I bought with my own money

Whitney Houston’s eponymous debut album. I was 10 and found “Greatest Love of All” exquisitely beautiful (and I was right).

The book that cemented me as a writer

The title story in Lust & Other Stories by Susan Minot, about a girl at a boarding school, is perfectly detailed and devastating. I read it as a girl at a boarding school, and I later wrote my own novel about a girl at a boarding school, no doubt partly because Minot’s example showed me that the subject was worthy of literature.

My all-time favorite movie

Dirty Dancing. I dream of writing the screenplay for a sequel, which I suspect is not a unique dream among female writers of a certain age.

The book people might be surprised to learn I love

Barbara Walters’ autobiography, Audition, is a great read—a surprisingly candid story of grit, moxie, and talent.

The book I’ve read over and over again

I’m a parent, so there are tons of books I’ve read over and over again. Currently in heavy rotation is Dr. Seuss’ Bartholomew and the Oobleck, which I can’t believe hasn’t been made into a movie—it’s so well structured, and its themes of environmental degradation and political hubris are so prescient.

The last TV series I binged

In December, my husband and I (finally) started watching The Wire for the first time, and we joked that this kind of commitment was probably the closest we’ll ever get to renewing our wedding vows. Four months later we’re in the last season, so I suppose the definition of binge is subjective.

My literary crush

I confess I recently bought the nonfiction book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City partly because I thought the author, whose name is Matthew Desmond, was good-looking. But I mean, who wouldn’t have a crush on a hot, socially conscious professor?

The song that always makes me feel better

“Shake It Off.”

The last album I listened to

1989, so that I could shake it off.

The last book that made me laugh, and the last one that made me cry

The memoir Bettyville by George Hodgman, about a single, gay New York editor’s return to the small Missouri town where he grew up to care for his aged mom, made me laugh and cry. Also on the cry-inducing front, Sara Novi’s Girl at War is a novel about a 10-year-old Croatian girl during the Yugoslav wars, and it contains one of the most upsetting (and artful) scenes I’ve ever read.

The fictional place I dream of moving to

I’ve always found the Berenstain Bears’ tree house unpretentiously cozy.

What I’m reading now

Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte. I didn’t know if I wanted to read a novel about screwed-up Stanford grads in 2007, but when it’s this caustically smart and funny, it turns out I like nothing better.

The last book I gave as a gift

The Swedish novel Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson. It’s about a woman who falls for a man who encourages her enough to keep her hope alive even though he’ll never give her what she wants, which is to say it’s about how love makes fools of even the smartest people.

The most underrated TV show

The exceptionally charming Master of None.

The book I’d use to squash a bug

My own—Eligible or American Wife—would suffice quite nicely. I actually yearn to write a slim, elegant, satisfying 200-page novel, which I plan to trick myself into doing by pretending I’m writing a short story.

A classic I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read

There’s not enough space to list them all! That said, I’ve realized that everyone has vast holes in their personal bibliographies. There are a lot of books in the world.

My literary hero

Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice—do you even need to ask?

The fictional character I’d want on my side in a zombie apocalypse

Um… Lizzie Bennet.

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