Novelist Curtis Sittenfeld on her ''Prep'' follow-up
As a first-time novelist, it’s hard to beat appearing on both New York Times best-seller charts — hardcover and paperback. But as Curtis Sittenfeld is learning, it’s even harder to beat the crushing expectations that await your sophomore effort. The author of last year’s tart, incisive boarding-school chronicle Prep took the time to discuss her latest, The Man of My Dreams, which follows the romantic journey of yet another socially awkward but intensely acute young woman, this one named Hannah Gavener.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One year is an awfully fast time to turn a second book around. Was Man of My Dreams really all written post-Prep?
CURTIS SITTENFELD: It actually started as a short story, which I scrapped about 85 percent of. I’m not sure of the exact date, but it was before graduate school that I started thinking about episodes in Hannah’s life. In some ways it seems like I wrote this book in six months, but I actually probably wrote it in more like eight years.
It’s interesting that this second novel features a totally different kind of female protagonist than your first — for one thing, she’s still a virgin at 21. People might actually start believing that Prep wasn’t in fact a memoir…
[Laughs] Let’s hope. It’s impossible for both to be true.
Still, you have had two books about adolesence and young adulthood. Is it fun or is it just kind of painful to visit that era, which is basically when you’re most mixed up and miserable?
Well, I guess it must be fun if I keep doing it, right? [Laughs] People do ask me that a lot. But when I’m writing, I’m thinking of technical issues: Does this dialogue sound realistic? Have I described the setting in a way that the reader can picture? Is this entertaining or is this boring? So I’m not really thinking, Oh, I once had an experience exactly like this and I’m so moved!
I have to be honest: After reading the book I’m sort of wondering why you chose this particular title. It could be construed as pretty chick-litty.
I know what you’re saying. I think that some people felt, ”Oh, Prep, that’s set at a boarding school, what a juicy hook, I want to read it,” and I think some people felt, ”It’s set a boarding school? No thanks, I’m not interested.” But this, maybe more people can identify with, I don’t know.
Well, obviously you’ve got a lot more name recognition now because of Prep, but if I saw a book called The Man of My Dreams by someone named Curtis, I might just think, Oh, gay fiction!
[Laughing] You can’t please everyone with a title. Some people said the title and cover of Prep conveyed that it was lightweight. But the first title that I gave to Prep was Cypher; it was also the name of a chapter, and I thought that it was this incredibly clever, appropriate title. Then my editor said to me, ”It sounds like a murder mystery, and there should be knife with blood dripping off on the cover.” That experience really highlighted the benefits of having a accessible title. Whatever else you want to say about The Man of My Dreams, it’s accessible.
Speaking of accessible, after last year, you sort of took down Melissa Banks’ book The Wonder Spot as not deserving any better than the chick-lit label. Are you worried that people may say the same about your book, which is basically also about a woman and her romantic relationships?
Well, I can’t really control what other people say or write about me, but if my greatest fear in life was that people would think my books were chick lit, I probably wouldn’t have the title I chose. Undeniably, I sometimes am labeled that way. But I also don’t think people agree what the term means. Is it a compliment or an insult? There’s not a real consensus.
To me, it pretty much means any book with a cover I feel like I have to hide on the train. [Laughs] Can you name some female writers you do enjoy, who may possibly go either way with the label?
There are some women who, I think, transcend the genre: Big Love by Sarah Dunn, I really enjoyed, and The Quality of Life Report by Megan Daum, I loved. I think she’s a fantastic writer, very smart and very funny. If a book appeals primarily to women, that doesn’t strike me as negative. It’s not like women readers are lesser readers. I mean, I’ve heard different figures, but aren’t most readers of fiction female anyway?
Good point. Not to rush ahead, but have you started a new project yet?
I’ve fiddled around a little bit with some ideas for my third book, but I have not gotten very far at all.
Is it hard to say goodbye to [Prep‘s] Lee, or Hannah when you wrap a book up, or are you more like, ”Good riddance”?
When I’m answering people’s questions about my characters, it becomes necessary to talk about them like they’re real people, but there’s no confusion in my mind like, ”Oh, Hannah and I are going to go shopping later,” you know? Hannah is a character that I created, so I really couldn’t miss her like how I miss my boyfriend, or something like that. She’s on the page, and I want her to seem as real as possible, but I’m not under the illusion that she is real.
It’s so hard for readers though, I think, when they relate to a character so much. It’s impossible not to imagine that the author went through something at least similar, in order to convey it so well…
For any reader to have that reaction is sort of a compliment to the book, because it indicates an emotional investment — well, I guess it could just bae prurient interest… Either way, obviously you draw from your own experiences, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to convince anyone of this: I really am capable of making things up. It’s fiction! [Laughs]