Curtis Sittenfeld: ‘I have declined to write fiction about Melania Trump double digits of times’

Best known for her fictionalised memoir of Laura Bush, the US author talks about inspiration, her debut short story collection, and Stormy Daniels

Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of five novels, including Prep, Sisterland and American Wife. The latter scandalised some US liberals with its sympathetic portrayal of first lady Laura Bush, to whom Sittenfeld, a Democrat, tweeted in sympathy last week after the death of her mother-in-law, Barbara. She went on to horrify Jane Austen purists with Eligible, a brilliant, modern-day reimagining of Pride and Prejudice. Her first short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It (Doubleday, £16.99), which explores the questionable decisions, missed connections and extraordinary coincidences that make up a life, is published on 3 May.

Does the title You Think It, I’ll Say It sum up for you the role of the fiction writer?
The short answer is: yes, it does. But I might not have thought of using it if one of my friends [the writer Emily Jeanne Miller] hadn’t read a draft of the story the line comes from, The World Has Many Butterflies, and said: “This is what you do, Curtis, you say what the reader is thinking.” I thought: Oh my gosh, really? That’s perfect, you’ve given me my title. Sometimes, I struggle to find a title for my books, but this time it wasn’t painful at all.

Although she is not named, it is clear that the opening story, The Nominee, is about Hillary Clinton. What draws you to write about political women?
Certainly, I find politics and political women very interesting. But the truth is, this story fell into my lap. An Esquire editor reached out to me and said: “We would like you to write a short story from the point of view of Hillary Clinton when she is just about to accept the presidential nomination for the Democratic party.” So it was just a matter of saying yes or no. If only life always worked that way. It’s funny how writing American Wife gave me this identity as a writer of political fiction, but how that also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have declined to write fiction about Melania Trump double digits of times – almost on a weekly basis.

Why do you say no?
There are a few reasons. First, I cannot imagine at this point voluntarily writing about the Trump administration because it has claimed so much of my mental energy, so much of my life, that to allow it to take up my writing time too feels like I would be giving up something very precious. I don’t want to think about Trump more than I already am. Another reason is that I don’t like purely being satirical or savaging people. I really like writing about characters in a balanced, complicated way and I don’t think I could do that with Melania Trump. I don’t admire her. I don’t see her as one-dimensional, but neither do I see her as someone whose consciousness I yearn to explore.

If you were writing a short story about Stormy Daniels and Donald Trump what would the opening line be?
“I already knew, of course, who he was.”

Would you write a story about them?
I wouldn’t. But having said that, Stormy Daniels is, frankly, very interesting to me. She is simultaneously interesting and juicy enough and open enough as a person that you don’t actually need fiction to access her hidden depths. She is very articulate and has such a complex life that you don’t need a novel to show how multilayered she is – she demonstrates that herself in real time. She says such clever things. The way that she responds to criticism in her tweets and elsewhere is incredibly clever and disarming and funny and unexpected.

In several of your stories, we meet middle-aged characters who are caught off-guard and thrown into an existential crisis by a chance encounter with a past acquaintance. Why is this such a rich seam for you?
The passage of time is astonishing to me and this is a theme that keeps coming up for me as I get older. Do we stay essentially the same person for our whole lives? Am I still the person I was at nine, at 18, at 21? I don’t know, but I find it a fascinating question. Meeting up again with people who loomed large in our lives for a certain period of time and then ceased to exist for whatever reason, geographical or otherwise, feels to me like a good way to explore this theme.

Other characters are neurotic and self-sabotaging – not the kind of people you would immediately choose as friends. Do you agree with the author Claire Messud, who said it is not the writer’s task to create likable characters?
I actually really like being friends with people like that! If someone were to say to me, “Here’s this person who is neurotic and self-sabotaging and funny and smart”, I would say I’d be delighted to get to know them. But in general I agree, it’s not the writer’s job to create likable characters. I want to create characters who feel real and complex.

If you weren’t a writer, who or what would you be?
Realistically, if I weren’t a writer I think I would do something adjacent to writing, like being an English teacher. If I had to have a job that had nothing to do with writing or reading then I think I would like to be a social worker. I’d like to do some good in the world and it’s so much less self-indulgent than being a writer.

Who are your favourite writers, dead and alive?
Of writers who are no longer among us, definitely Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Roald Dahl. In terms of living writers, Alice Munro is my favourite writer. I also really like Mona Simpson, Jeffrey Eugenides and Mohsin Hamid.

When you’re not reading and writing, what do you like doing best?
Almost everything I do that’s not reading and writing is a suburban parent, errand-running activity. It’s not like I can say: “Oh, I love to kayak.” I mean, I go to the grocery store, I talk on the phone to my sisters. I have kids, aged seven and nine, so a lot of my life is structured around my family. I do like going for walks. That’s something I do every day, no matter how cold it is, partly because being a writer is so sedentary.

What next?
I’m actually writing a novel now about Hillary Clinton, which I think I was partly influenced to do by writing The Nominee. The premise is: what if Hillary had met Bill at Yale Law School in the early 70s – which she did – they had fallen in love, become a couple but then she made the decision not to marry him. Yeah… what if?

• You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld is published by Doubleday (£16.99) on 3 May. To preorder a copy for £14.44 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99re


Lisa O'Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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