Before her debut novel Prep hit bookshelves, Curtis Sittenfeld promised her ninth-grade English students that if the novel hit the New York Times Bestseller list she would buy pizza for the class. Well, I hope that her class enjoyed those pizzas, because Prep, a wry coming-of-age story set in a New England boarding school, became a surprise sensation upon its publication in 2005.
Sittenfeld knows the insular world of boarding schools all too well. When the precocious writer was a pre-teen, a recruiter from the exclusive prep school Groton came inquiring about Sittenfeld at her Cincinnati home. Curious about embarking on what she saw as a potential adventure, Sittenfeld decided to attend the school. As she told the Washington Post, "I just became enthralled by the idea of boarding school, and it happened to coincide with this period where I was restless and ready for a new adventure, in a 13-year-old's kind of way. I was just curious about the world. I wanted a change."
That change she sought would eventually become material for her first novel, the witty, insightful bestseller Prep, in which a smart and singular 14-year-old named Lee Fiora finds herself at the fictional Ault prep school near Boston. The shift from a life at home with a loving family to the elite Ault, with its pretty, pampered, yet cynical teenagers, is an eye-opening experience for Lee, whose wariness of their little society does not stop her from drifting into it.
In her debut novel, 29-year old Sittenfeld already displayed a sure-handedness with character and dialogue that many of her older and more seasoned contemporaries would surely envy. Little did the high school English teacher know that her first novel would become such a runaway success, being that it had been rejected 14 times before finally being picked up by Random House. "One editor actually called my agent and turned it down, and then she called my agent back and said, 'I've never done this but I want to un-turn it down'," Sittenfeld says. "And then, she called again and turned it down." That editor is quite likely kicking herself now that Prep has not only made it to the New York Times bestseller list, but has received raves right down the line: The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Publisher's Weekly, etc. The New York Times named it one of the ten best books of 2005. Paramount Pictures has optioned its film rights.
Sittenfeld's sophomore effort is The Man of My Dreams, yet another coming-of-age story, this time using a dysfunctional household rather than a ritzy prep school as the backdrop. The Man of My Dreams follows Hannah Gavener for over a decade, detailing the travails of her friendships, familial relationships, and therapy sessions. The book is yet another example of Sittenfeld's gift for crafting fully dimensional characters and blending drama and humor. Only recently published, The Man of My Dreams is already receiving accolades from the likes of The Library Journal and acclaimed short story writer Alice Munro. Who knows, Curtis Sittenfeld may even have to buy another round of pizza for her class.
Good to Know
Back to Top
A few fun facts about Sittenfeld from our interview:
"I eat so much fruit that my friends and family tease me about being a monkey."
"I have trouble staying awake past 10:00 p.m."
"I have a big crush on Bruce Springsteen (but then, who doesn't?)."
Back to Top
In the spring of 2005, Curtis Sittenfeld took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
When I was a sophomore in high school, my English class read Monkeys, the story collection by Susan Minot about a big New England family. It came as a revelation to me that you could write a completely powerful, engaging book about the dynamics among parents and kids living together in a house -- it wasn't necessary to write about, say, war or mountain climbing or other explicitly, externally dramatic events. Reading Monkeys made me comfortable focusing on writing about what came naturally to me: the daily lives of fairly ordinary people.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Old School by Tobias Wolff -- This is another boarding school novel, and it is (for me) humbling and brilliant. It came out about a year before mine did and is set at an all-boys school in the early '60s. The boys are obsessed with famous writers, several of whom visit the campus. Wolff is just dazzlingly smart and such a beautiful writer.
Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott -- I actually reviewed this book for The New York Times Book Review, and before I started reading, I didn't think I'd be crazy about it -- it's about a boy who becomes a ward of the state of Illinois, and it has some dark drug and sex stuff. But I absolutely loved it. It's told very matter-of-factly and is really poignant.
Sarah Phillips by Andrea Lee -- This novel in stories, which was published in 1984, follows a black girl from an upper-middle-class background through private high school and onto Harvard. It's fantastic -- it's so intelligently written, the details are perfect, and I really like the fact that Sarah is a nuanced character who sometimes acts out of self-interest and isn't always endearing but always seems real. Andrea Lee is also the author of the collection Interesting Women, and the characters in that (adult women) have a similar edge or a complexity that to me makes them so much more interesting than cutesy chick-lit types.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton -- Even though this novel is about New York's high society in the 1870s and is elegantly written, it's not at all stuffy -- it feels totally alive. Without mocking her characters, Wharton wonderfully depicts how we often act against our own best interests, how we can be manipulative or passionate or repressed, and how in spite of it all we can still remain (one hopes) sympathetic.
Atonement by Ian McEwan -- It's really as great as everyone says. I was amazed by McEwan's ability to get inside the heads of his female characters, especially 13-year-old Briony. This book has everything -- romance, war, insights on writing -- and it feels so dead-on and all-consuming. You feel like you're experiencing the events rather than reading a book.
Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett -- I don't love every story in this collection, but the first one, which is more of a novella than a story, is worth the price of the whole book. It's told in letter form (the first letter is written in 1863), and the letters create and encapsulate a whole intricate, complicated world.
White Noise by Don DeLillo -- This novel does something tricky, which is to satirize various parts of American society while keeping the characters three-dimensional (the protagonist is a college professor). It's scathing at times, but also hilarious. As one of four siblings, I especially appreciate its affectionate depiction of a large, imperfect family.
Open Secrets by Alice Munro -- Munro is by far my favorite writer, and I love pretty much everything she writes. This collection contains one of my all-time favorite stories, "The Albanian Virgin." Embedded in a completely riveting story that switches between two very different women's experiences are really provocative (and accurate) ideas about gender. I truly don't think I can express how much I admire Munro's work -- her characters feel so real, her plots are so juicy (and so unconventionally structured), and there's nothing she can't describe. She's a magician.
Drown by Junot Diaz -- When Diaz is on, he's so on -- his writing just crackles with energy, and he vividly and unsentimentally captures what it's like to be a child and an adolescent. A lot of these connected short stories center around the same family of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. He's a really daring writer in the risks he'll take with language. I've read some of his stories in The New Yorker since this book came out, and I think he's just getting better and better -- I can't wait until his next book.
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf -- I also read Woolf for the first time in high school, and I was amazed by her ability to put into words moments and feelings that you think there are no words for. And you know exactly what she means. She's just stunning at depicting people's interior lives.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I saw Heavenly Creatures not long ago, and I thought it was really well done -- it portrayed the complications of female adolescence in a non-condescending way. (It's also a pretty dark and disturbing story.) The again, I also loved Mean Girls. And I thought Napoleon Dynamite was terrific -- it's so confidently weird. There are two sisters who've made the movies Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing -- and I think both movies are very realistic, funny, sad portrayals of the way women actually are. Oh, and Next Stop, Wonderland -- it's quite romantic and features Hope Davis, whom I love.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to everything from Bob Dylan to Shania Twain (though maybe there's less distance between the two than many people think). I don't listen to music while I'm writing because I find it distracting.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
The next book I want to read is Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee -- I've heard raves about it from a wide range of people.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give and get novels and story collections. I pride myself on my ability to buy books for other people, and to figure out not what I think is good but what the other person will genuinely like. (For instance, my dad has a surprising fondness for chatty, southern tales.) Over time, I've had to face the fact that Alice Munro is not everyone's cup of tea.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Unfortunately, I have tons of paper all over my entire apartment, including on my desk. I write lots of notes to myself, but most of them aren't very literary -- they say things like, "Buy toilet paper!!" I don't really have special rituals, but I don't try to write fiction unless I have a minimum of a few hours. For me, it takes a while to settle into a mode where I'm truly concentrating.
What are you working on now?
I'm writing my second novel, which will be published by Random House at some point in the next two years. It's called The Man of My Dreams (a title that's meant semi-ironically).
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Well, I won Seventeen magazine's annual fiction contest when I was 16, and now I'm 29. I was interviewed recently by a reporter who asked, "What have you been doing for the last 13 years?!" Since high school, I've submitted my work to magazines and I've received many, many rejections. When I was in graduate school, I asked myself, is it really serving any purpose for me to submit to these tiny university literary magazines that 1) barely pay, 2) have very small readerships, and 3) always reject my work anyway? I basically quit submitting and just concentrated on writing my novel. I think whenever you're spending more time on the business aspect of your work than you are actually writing, it's not a good sign.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I feel a little silly identifying a "new" writer because I myself am about as new as you can be -- my first novel was published in January 2005 -- but one relatively young writer I admire is Meghan Daum. She's in her early 30s and has an essay collection called My Misspent Youth and a novel called The Quality of Life Report. I just loved both of them. She's very smart and very funny, and I would read anything by her.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Be hard on yourself, and look at what's actually on the page as opposed to what you wish were there. Also, write sincerely, which doesn't have to mean autobiographically -- just don't try to be cute or clever. Write about topics that genuinely interest you so the reader can feel your own engagement in the material.
Back to Top