In this episode, Curtis Sittenfeld discusses the mix of historical context and fictionalized character development—as well as the double standards every professional woman faces—in her new novel, Rodham. Sittenfeld joins Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to ask the question no one else has dared to: what would the world look like had Hillary Rodham never accepted Bill Clinton’s marriage proposal?
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This episode was produced by Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan.
Selected readings for the episode:
Chasing Hillary: On the Trail of the First Woman President Who Wasn’t by Amy Chozick · The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White · Philip Roth · John Updike · Ulysses by James Joyce · Wellesley, 1969 from “With Her,” a podcast by Hillary Clinton · Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1969 Commencement Speech
Whitney Terrell: One of the techniques that I really like of what you’re doing, and you did this with Laura Bush also in American Wife, as many people have noted, but one of the secrets I think you’ve discovered here is how poorly we imagine the interior lives of our political figures. So, it all becomes Vince Foster and hitlists and the fact is they obviously have non-cartoon lives. In a lot of fiction, the point is escalating the life of an average person to the point where it seems grand. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, we’re going to pretend that this regular Irish guy is actually this Greek hero. But with a politician like Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush, the point is to tone it down, to get away from that stuff and back off so that people can see them at rest and in regular situations.
One of the things I really liked here is that you talk a lot about the work that Hillary does particularly early on in her career, and I was so impressed by it because I knew that it was based on reality: she investigates housing violations, he works with Child Services, she’s a lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee Impeachment Inquiry, she works for the National Children’s Initiative, researching how private schools are trying to avoid Brown v. Board of Education. This is all in her 20s, and I just feel completely—I’m like, I didn’t do anything! I have not even achieved what this woman has achieved by the time she was 28 years old. You realize what a worker she was.
Curtis Sittenfeld: Amen to all of that. One, I think that sometimes there’s this tendency, I think for most of us, to feel like a famous person only exists when we’re observing them. So a politician only exists when they’re giving a speech and they don’t exist eating a granola bar in an SUV between events or they don’t exist brushing their teeth at night. I don’t know, maybe social media is dispelling some of that, but I do think that it can feel weirdly revelatory to show famous people in a mundane daily moment. But, I also think real Hillary, almost all of the work she does, is grounded in reality. I’m sure you guys know, there are these two opposing views: this idea that Hillary would never have been able to run for Senate and then never have been qualified to run for president if she hadn’t been First Lady, if she hadn’t been riding Bill Clinton’s coattails.
Then, I think the opposite viewpoint is that he was completely holding her back, and she was always the more talented one and the more impressive one, from the time that she was a Wellesley student or a law student. I think the truth is somewhere in between. I think they both publicly helped each other and maybe had impulses that weren’t in each other’s best interests. But it’s true, doing research, I would sometimes think, some of the people who think they don’t like Hillary, I want to say, ‘Okay, can you recount her biography? Just tell me in a few sentences what she did in each decade.’ And there are some critics, who I think could probably say, ‘Here.’ But I think a lot of people would be like, ‘I don’t know.’
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Yeah. I think you’re getting at one of the things about the novel that’s the most interesting to me—the ways that you engage with reality and history. I’m going to attempt to ask this without revealing too much of the delightful plot, but your book has some very, very satisfying set pieces in which we see real speeches in alternate settings, or in which one character is swapped out, or in which a person emerges in a different time period than the one that we know them to have emerged in, and one of my favorite parts almost reframed the novel for me so that we can understand the question not as, what if Hillary didn’t marry Bill, but which moments in Bill’s life would suck without her?
CS: To paraphrase the Kelly Clarkson song!
VVG: [laughter] So, I’m curious if you could just talk to us about how you figured out how you were going to Jenga time, place, and people and talk through maybe a favorite scene in that vein that you feel like you can talk about in that way without giving stuff away.
CS: In some ways, I was very literal about the premise. Like if Bill and Hillary had not gotten married, that would affect Bill’s 1991-92 presidential run, if the person standing next to him was someone other than Hillary. But, for example, there’s a part that talks about Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, and, presumably, whether the Clintons got married would not have affected those hearings or that nomination. So some of it was just trying to think in a very literal way, although, if you said to me, is the life that’s laid out in Rodham really the life you think Hillary would have lived? I think probably not. I think if she hadn’t married Bill, she probably would have married someone else. But, if I made her some trailblazing female lawyer in the suburbs of Milwaukee who had three kids, at some point, that’s not a novel about Hillary Rodham or Hillary Clinton. There has to be echoes of reality and tensions with reality, I think, to make it interesting.
V.V. Ganeshanathan: As you’re getting at, so much of the history in the book remains the same, including some notable screw-ups, which is another one of my favorite parts of the book. Hillary still talks about baking cookies, for example, and she gets called condescending, and she does at one point use the term “deplorable.” But beyond that, you invented these great things that fit with and around those incidents, like puzzle pieces, which are political fuck-ups that seemed to me entirely invented. Maybe I’m not recognizing them from history, but they just seemed like these great, totally plausible political fuck-ups. When you’re trying to create an incident that gets your character in the right level of trouble, how do you do it?
Curtis Sittenfeld: Well, again, because you’re fiction writers, I think that you guys probably understand this, in a way—that I feel like I try something, and then it exists on the page, and either it works or it doesn’t work. And, if it doesn’t work, I change it a lot. I do outline, but it’s not like I know if something will succeed on the page without doing it.
VVG: Do you bat around ideas with people? So, when I do this, for example, when I try to get my character in the right level of trouble, I’ll sometimes put it on the page and be like, ‘Oh, no, that doesn’t work.’ But sometimes I’m too slow to realize that, and so I have a friend, a couple of friends in particular, who I call up sometimes after I’ve written a first draft. I maybe haven’t even asked them to read it, and I say, ‘Is this situation plausible?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, something like that happened actually, but it would be more interesting if you did it this way.’ They often have awesome plot ideas. They’re all anthropologists. I write about Sri Lanka, which has a particular tradition with anthropology, so they’re also storytellers in a different way, and they’re really fun to bat around plot with. I was wondering, reading your book, were you calling up people who had reported on Hillary Clinton or just friends of yours in the political world? I know you have family in politics.
Whitney Terrell: Maybe she just called up Amy Klobuchar!
CS: Amy and I would have lunch … no, I’m just kidding. I’ve never met Amy Klobuchar. I’ve never met Hillary Clinton. My brother, who’s nine years younger than I am, is an elected member of Cincinnati City Council in his third term, so I would sometimes ask him questions. Actually my sister, I have two sisters, but one of them is an environmental lobbyist. I feel like I always have to say ‘the good kind of environmental lobbyist.’ Sometimes I’d ask her questions, too. I did research, but I do not do the thing that you’re describing, Sugi. I do not describe hypothetical plots—I think almost ever—to friends, because I feel like it’s almost all in the execution. Like, Whitney, you were saying, ‘Oh, you can do whatever you can get away with.’ So, something that might seem implausible, actually can read as fine on the page or something that you thought was such a great idea can sort of just not work. Sometimes I can feel myself writing a bad scene or an implausible scene, but actually writing it helps me understand what’s wrong with it in a way I don’t think I could have understood in my head.
WT: Well, that makes me feel better, because I can’t plot for shit. If I write anything out in outlines, if I am stupid enough to do it, the minute that I start writing a scene, it all just goes away, because the scene starts happening. Then you’re like, ‘This thing I wrote down in my outline, that seems like it’s a good plot move, is not at all a good plot move.’ I can’t make it happen on the page, so I have to do something else. So, my only way of finding plot is by doing what you’re talking about by seeing its course.
CS: I do outline, but I probably have one sentence in an outline correspond to anywhere from half a page to ten pages. In the book, Hillary goes to see her old friend, Marine, and Marine reveals blah, blah, blah. Maybe that’s a paragraph or maybe it’s nine pages. I think that’s how I find the balance between feeling like I have a path forward and still having access to some spontaneity or discovery.
VVG: I find even when I diverge from an outline, that it’s still useful. It seems like some of what we’re saying about plausibility and stuff also has to do with questions of audience. So, I wonder also when you’re thinking about traveling that line of what’s possible or what’s not—before you’re talking about, it would be boring if she were a lawyer in Milwaukee, there’s some line of interest, and so you’re imagining who will be interested. Who was that?
CS: That’s such a good question, because I think that being a fiction writer, there’s such a fine line between not anticipating your book being out in the world and not caring what anyone thinks except for you by yourself, sitting at your desk or wherever you write. And then, on the other side of that, understanding that there probably will be an audience and this is not a diary entry, and I think that’s a complicated thing to balance.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Dylan Miettinen, Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan. Photo of Curtis Sittenfeld by Josephine Sittenfeld.