Curtis Sittenfeld’s third novel ‘American Wife,’ out September 2nd, is narrated by one Alice Blackwell, a former children’s librarian haunted by the memory of a tragic, random accident. Oh, and her husband is a George W. Bush-like US President. As Alice tells the story of her life, Sittenfeld allows us a nuanced, clear, almost psychic glimpse at what life might be like for one of the most public women in the world. Here, she answers two questions about the hotly anticipated book, one obvious and one random.
Q: Gee, where did you get such a wild idea’ is the worst question ever, but I suspect that you must actually have a good story for this one. Like, what were you reading or watching when you first thought, “Hmm, how does the person who sleeps next to George W. Bush sleep at night?”
Basically, after Bush was elected, I read a few articles about Laura Bush that made me realize she was more complex than many liberals (and I am definitely a liberal) want to think. I then read a biography of her by the Washington Post reporter Ann Gerhart which made me even more intrigued–Laura Bush was a Democrat until the age of 30, she worked in low-income ethnically diverse schools and libraries in her 20s, she got engaged to Bush six weeks after meeting him. In February 2004, I wrote an article for Salon about how, because I’m a Democrat, my fondness for Laura Bush is the love that dare not speak its name. I also wrote that her life is “like a great novel,” and naturally, I now wish I hadn’t included the word “great.” More than two years later, I was washing my hair when I thought, Wait! It’s not just that her life is like a novel! It’s like a novel I should write!
2) Your narrator, a onetime children’s librarian, is a lifelong serious reader. What’s up with her taste in books, though? I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with John Updike and Saul Bellow. But what is it about her that draws her to these books? Or was that just what everyone was reading back then?
Well, I did try to have her read books of the time, whether it was the sixties or seventies or whenever. I also thought it was important that her taste in books be different from mine–just so as not to be self-referential, or to seem like I was commenting on my writer peers–and so a lot of the books she reads are either by people who are no longer living or who have achieved a sort of legendary status. I didn’t want to include distractingly obscure books, where the reader might wonder if I’d made the title up, so that means a lot of books she reads are reasonably well-known. The last book she reads is the only book that has special personal meaning to me–it’s Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, who was head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I went there, and it’s a really wonderful memoir. My husband tried to talk me into changing it because he thought people would see it as me name-dropping that I went to Iowa, but I love the book so much that I don’t care and I left it in.