Atomic Marriage: Inside Curtis Sittenfeld and Diane Lane's sublime audiobook collaboration
Atomic Marriage features the author at her sharpest, ruminating on the age-old institution with wit and empathy. But there’s a twist: It’s an Audible Original, meaning it’s a short story for your ears. “There are so many ways that technology [affects] our behavior,” Sittenfeld explains. “The potential timeliness of a story… makes a perfect literary form for this moment.”
Clocking in at 58 minutes, Atomic Marriage depicts the relationship between self-help author Brock and film producer Heather, who wants to adapt his book; meanwhile, her marriage is crumbling. Equally important to Atomic’s words is the voice behind them: Diane Lane, who serves as the story’s recorder. “Curtis’ writing really grabbed me,” says Lane. “I enjoyed expressing the inner workings of what’s inside someone else’s unspoken mind.”
EW caught up with Sittenfeld and Lane for background on how this project came together. Read on below. Atomic Marriage is now available for free to Audible members through the month of January, and otherwise purchase for purchase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Curtis, let’s start with the origins of this project. What was the appeal of writing a short story to be exclusively listened to? Why was now the time to try it?
CURTIS SITTENFELD: I started — as a child, a teenager, and a grad student — as a short story writer, then I wrote five novels. In 2016, I fell back in love with writing short stories, and my first collection [You Think It, I’ll Say It] came out this past spring. I think the potential timeliness of a story, the way it can be written more quickly than a novel, plus its compactness and energy, makes it a perfect literary form for this moment. And there are so many new platforms, so many ways that technology affects our behavior, including that I suspect many more people listen to audio fiction now than just a few years ago.
What about this story do you believe works well as an audio piece, to be listened to?
SITTENFELD: I love listening to audio versions of short stories — I prefer it to listening to entire novels. The story comes alive with the reader’s inflections, and it’s satisfying how you can absorb a self-contained plot in one go. At the most basic level, things happens in Atomic Marriage — the main character is in a different place at the end than she was at the beginning. I think listeners can participate in both her external behavior and her shifting emotions of sadness, lust, confusion, and even a little triumph.
DIANE LANE: Atomic Marriage is not too long. It’s honest, emotionally intimate, and easy to visualize. [Sittenfeld is] gifted at creating the visual, as well as the internal experience. The mercurial nature of our memories and how they define our internal experience is immediate. The shared pangs of recollection of our flaws within a long-term relationship, the slow settling effect that time has on our expectations, feels like a communion.
The story, listened to, is about an hour. What’s the optimal setting to listen this to in?
LANE: I enjoy this sort of story while I am on a long stretch of highway, a public transport commute, sitting on a beach, or while puttering in my kitchen. In this modern era, we get so much information through our eyes, it’s a relief to let our imagination participate more.
SITTENFELD: What isn’t the optimal setting?! I imagine a bus or subway commute, a brisk walk outside, or maybe some distraction while you wash dishes at home would all work well.
This is a funny, relatable exploration of marriage. What does it say about the institution? What will listeners take away?
SITTENFELD: Marriage is sometimes talked about as if it’s monolithic, but individual marriages come in so many shapes and sizes. Given that the story includes a list of behavioral recommendations from [a fictional] best-selling marriage guide, I suspect listeners will have fun seeing if they agree or disagree with the recommendations or finding out whether they do or don’t practice these behaviors.
LANE: Long-term relationships have moments of regret or disappointment that are “benchmark.” It’s comforting to hear how other couples have navigated this terrain: expectation versus forgiveness, and how to manage these internally or externally, is an art!
Diane, can you talk about how you approached the recording? There’s a lot of humor and heart, so it requires some range. How did you want to play it, and specifically, Heather — who’s from a space you know rather well, in Hollywood?
LANE: Atomic Marriage is not very Hollywood at all. Folks listening might be intrigued a bit at the process of how a modern marital-help book could ever become a feature film. I enjoyed the contrast of our very human hypocrisy, our judgemental-ness, and life being stranger than fiction — when suddenly one’s spouse is suggesting applying themselves to the efforts suggested in the book! One person’s “prudery” is another’s “decency”; raising children while navigating marriage and career is not for the faint of heart.
Finally, Curtis, what does Diane bring to your words? Has she changed the way you viewed the story or characters?
SITTENFELD: I read aloud my own work in the revising and editing stages… and let’s just say I don’t sound like an Oscar-nominated actress when I do it! It was exciting to hear my words in her elegant, versatile voice. I was especially impressed by her ability to use an Alabama accent and also to fearlessly roll with the story, whether she was reading a recommendation that you don’t fart in front of your spouse or a description of awkwardly almost kissing someone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.