The novelist Curtis Sittenfeld has written the autobiography of the woman who would have been Hillary Rodham — if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton. It’s detailed and well researched, but the first half is only true in parts; the second half is almost all false. And the intimate details of her relationship with Bill are fictional — the moment she grasps his white buttocks, for example, is entirely unsubstantiated.
“I have complicated feelings”, Sittenfeld says, “about the sex I chose to include. And I feel it makes the story.”
As Good as New
Sittenfeld, 44, is already a literary sensation. This novel, Rodham, will be a bombshell. I have never read anything quite like it. She had six books to her name before this. Two in particular — American Wife and the short story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It — established her as a leading writer; both anticipated the new novel. American Wife was loosely based on Laura Bush, the wife of George W, and the narrator of one of the short stories, The Nominee, is Hillary Clinton.
Sittenfeld writes women better than anybody else, and women read her in huge numbers with the joy of recognition. If anybody can turn Hillary into a fictional heroine, she can.
And she really is the heroine. This book is a counterfactual — a “what if?” way of studying the past. The big “what if” here is what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill? Her answer, thanks to the deft way she combines fact and fiction, is wholly convincing. This is clearly how she wanted Hillary to be. And, crucially, about how much she wanted her to become president.
So how much is true?
If anybody can turn Hillary into a fictional heroine, Sittenfeld can.
“The kind of external details early on, like about Yale Law School, are as accurate as I could make them,” Sittenfeld explains. “Then I would write scenes that have no basis, almost like something she could have done, not something she did do. But, yeah, the more intimate a moment is in the book, the more likely it’s fictionalised.” Very few of Hillary’s friends in the book are real. I say this to save you the trouble of googling them — I did.
“There was a time when I thought, ‘I’ll use the real names only of people who’ve run for president.’ But it was a little bit hard to stick to that. Anybody who’s a friend is made up.” The details of Bill and Hillary’s first date are, however, true. Bill did get them into a closed art gallery by agreeing to clean up the yard. The rest of the intimate detail is high-quality celebrity erotica.
Sittenfeld is very laughy when we talk, chortling and giggling. We have to meet on Skype and it seems to make her nervous. “This is a brand-new experience for me! I was, like, ‘Do I dress up for a Skype interview?’ ”
I’d thought about that too. But neither of us did. She is wearing a vaguely fleecy thing over a black T-shirt. Her hair is thick, long and dark. But, Skype aside, I think she laughs because that’s who she is. She is watchful and picks up every nuance, most of which make her laugh. Her speech is clear, if disjointed, and so peppered with the words “like” and “you know” that I have had to remove hundreds in the quotes used here.
She has not met Hillary, although was once “in the same space with her” at Stanford University. But she springs to utterly convincing life in these pages.
“I do feel it’s important for me to emphasise that I’ve never spoken to her. It’s not as if I have any inside scoop. Any research I did was publicly available. I never interviewed someone behind the scenes. But there is a lot of information that’s out there.”
If she did meet her, what would she want to ask? She emails her question: “If you hadn’t become a lawyer and politician, what do you think you’d have done instead?” My question would have been: do you think marrying Bill Clinton held you back? That’s the one that looms behind the book. However, I can tell Sittenfeld doesn’t like that. She’s a detail person, and if that is the looming question, it’s up to the reader to ask it, not her.
Did she like Hillary more than when she started this book more than three years ago? “Yes, more, more! You know, for a lot of the last three years I’ve put on a pant suit and blond wig, metaphorically. I would never write a book from the point of view of a character I was unable to sympathise with. I feel very emotional about her. There’s this reflexively negative way of talking about her. Yet she’s such a hero and role model to so many people, especially many women, which doesn’t get acknowledged as much as it should.” She says she ended up loving her.
The big “what if” here is what if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?
But she had also fallen for Bill during her research. She had read his big, swaggering autobiography, My Life. “I mean, this is the thing; while reading it, I felt like I fell in love with him. And it was very surprising to me. But I think a writer needs to be able to feel the emotions her characters feel.”
In the book the way Hillary is bowled over by the sight of Bill is pretty much the way Sittenfeld is bowled over by the thought of him. Her Hillary says Bill gives her the rare experience of being “the less impressive person … I was less articulate than he was, less charismatic …” Fictional Hillary remembers her first meeting with him. “More than forty-five years have passed away since that night in the library, and at times it crossed my mind that his smile may have ruined my life.”
I tell Sittenfeld about meeting the real Bill at a party. He charmed me in about three seconds, and there was some weird visual effect that made everybody else blur into insignificance. “Exactly, I’ve heard he has this very particular kind of magnetism that most mortals do not have.”
In The Nominee, told from Hillary’s point of view, a journalist interviews Hillary repeatedly over the years, often telling her she, like many voters, finds her unlikeable. The gasp-inducing payoff line — OK, spoiler — is: “How do you think I find you?” What’s the link between the two versions?
“They kind of exist in mutually exclusive universes. But there is a connection in the sense that in early 2016 an editor asked me if I would like to write a story from Hillary’s perspective … I feel so much has been written about what does Hillary mean? What do we think of her? What does she represent? Those questions to me are, one, kind of repetitive, and two, kind of unanswerable. A much more interesting question is: ‘What does the world look like to Hillary Clinton?’ Not what do the American people think of her, but what does she think of the American people? That was a big driver for the book.”
A World of Her Own
Sittenfeld was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, one of four children of Paul, an investment adviser, and Betsy, an art history teacher. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Matt, an academic, and her two children. This family is hardly ever mentioned. Fame has made her protective about her home life.
“I do have kids, and obviously it’s a huge part of my life. But I like to keep my job and my family kind of separate. That distinction between the two gives me clarity. I work out of my family’s house, so I try to have my writer brain and my parent brain be a bit separate.”
Her father is Jewish, her mother Catholic. The best of both worlds, then? “I did grow up going to church most Sundays. I’m not religious in my adulthood. But I think it’s more like a cultural thing than a religious thing. Well, sometimes I think I have a Jewish personality, whatever that means.”
It was a comfortable, middle-class, privileged upbringing. “I attended schools I was very lucky to go to.” At 14 she went to a boarding school in Massachusetts. This provided her with the material for her first novel, Prep, published in 2005. The reviews were mixed, but there was no doubt she had arrived as a literary player. The best reviews noted her convincing dialogue, and the depth and acuity of her evocation of character.
“I feel so much has been written about what does Hillary mean?… A much more interesting question is: ‘What does the world look like to Hillary Clinton?’”
She went on to two grand universities — Vassar and Stanford — worked for a while as a reporter in Boston and then, crucially, went to Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the best creative writing school in America, if not the world. There she encountered the great novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson.
“Would you agree with me that she’s indisputably brilliant?” I agree. “There’s something she and Hillary have in common. They both speak in well-formed paragraphs. It was a privilege to be her student.”
At boarding school she formed the Group for Female Awareness. “A name,” she wrote later, “that makes me cringe to type even now.” She didn’t want to use the word feminist because people persistently misunderstand feminism — “What if other students thought we didn’t shave our legs?” Her activism didn’t really go according to plan. She found it tiring and often boring. “There was something reductive and tedious in the endless conversations I found myself having.”
Politics, on the other hand, was her thing — but as material for her writing. “This obviously is a very political book, and American Wife was too. But I wrote Eligible, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, and Prep is about a girl who goes to a boys’ school, so it’s about the setting and life of the boarding school. I certainly am interested in politics, but wouldn’t say it was my defining interest.” She has also written that she regrets having been so earnest in her youth. “I might be one of the few Americans who thinks she should have spent more of high school cutting class and drinking beer.”
What she is really interested in are the traditional subjects of the well-made novel: plot, character and emotion. She gives Hillary an interest in “the specificity of people … in their own moments” that defines her entire literary method. Her politics are strongly felt, but mainstream. She is a Democrat and hates Trump. In the book he is a marginal figure who physically gets in the way of Hillary at one point, entering the room “like a sailboat tilting sideways”, and ends up investigated for tax fraud.
However, Trump does appear, unnamed, in one sequence in which — spoiler! — Bill and Hillary are fighting each other in an election. Trump, you will remember, basked in the crowds chanting “Lock her up!” about Hillary. In the book Bill has his own Trump moment. He revels in the anti-Hillary chant “Shut her up!”
“It’s hard to say how unique Trump is,” she says. “I think time will tell. Will he be followed by someone very similar, or is there a cult of personality that’s unique to him? I don’t know.”
This is clearly how she wanted Hillary to be. And, crucially, about how much she wanted her to become president.
Sittenfeld’s politics also extend to an endorsement of the #MeToo movement as “definitely a good thing”. “A lot of people are having this conversation, which is painful in some ways. But it makes people realise they are not alone, or that these terrible experiences are not because of something they, the individual women, did wrong. These systemic ‘norms’ are actually kind of outrageous, when you think about them.”
Furthermore, her natural feminism is played out in the book by her awareness of, and sympathy for, Hillary’s problems as a female contender. “Something in the book that’s definitely true is this thing that’s referred to as the Pink Tax. Women politicians are expected to spend about an hour a day more than men on their appearance. Hillary actually calculated how many hours she spent during the 2016 campaign. And people really would say, if she showed up somewhere not wearing make-up or not having had her hair done, ‘Is she ill?’ I just feel to be a powerful woman in the public eye is a very complicated thing.”
Hillary — in the book and in reality — also had to fight against flaunting her cleverness. Certainly people want clever leaders, but they want a very specific kind of cleverness. “You have to be smart, but only in this very specific way, and be down-to-earth, but only in this very specific way. We ask an impossible amount of politicians, and then we’re very critical of them when they fail to live up to our impossible expectations.”
In The Nominee Sittenfeld muses on the problem of cleverness: “I sometimes thought that the reason people who aren’t particularly bright don’t care for people who are is the hunch among the former that the latter speak to one another in code, which we do.” That is a perfectly formed Sittenfeldian thought; it can be read in many ways.
What Goes Around …
So people, not big ideas, are the point of her books, but there is one big idea that lurks in the background of Rodham: is everything that happens inevitable or could there have been another outcome? Sittenfeld’s Hillary certainly seems to see herself as inevitable. She speaks of “my own singular future”. But, as we know from the real Hillary’s life, it’s easy to be deluded.
“It’s something I think the book is grappling with — the tension between inevitability and free will. Also I think I’m trying to ask questions about the stories we tell ourselves. Sometimes, if events turn out a certain way, they seem or feel inevitable. But if they’d turned out a different way, they also would have seemed inevitable.”
The treatment of Trump and, to a lesser extent, of her beloved Bill will, I am sure, encourage some critics to say the book is a liberal revenge fantasy. How does she feel about that?
“There is a kind of a wishful thinking aspect of the book, certainly. It would be, you know, ridiculous to pretend there’s not. An early reader said, ‘Oh, I love this feminist revenge fantasy.’ There was a time of my life with another book when I might have said, I don’t know what you’re talking about. But I just said, ‘Thank you!’”
“Sometimes, if events turn out a certain way, they seem or feel inevitable. But if they’d turned out a different way, they also would have seemed inevitable.”
“The book tries to do a few things. I don’t think that the primary objective is political revenge. But I’m a Democrat, and I would never pretend otherwise. I would never want to pretend that I would support a Republican or think a Republican’s worth voting for.” Maybe the critics will divide along those lines.
What if Hillary reviewed it? She seems mildly stunned by the idea. Never mind, she has a fixed strategy for dealing with reviews. “I’ll read the ones that are smart and positive,” she once said, “smart and negative, or dumb and positive (hey, all our egos need a little sustenance!). But there’s no point in reading a dumb, negative review.”
She added that the best review she had received was in an email from David Plotz, once editor of the online magazine Slate: “Your sympathy is extraordinary, and so is your ruthlessness.”
So how ruthless is she? “I don’t think of myself as ruthless. I do think that as a writer I try to make the choice that best serves my fiction, and that isn’t always the nicest thing to do, or it’s not what would make me seem the most endearing to other people. I mean, I would never try to be disrespectful to someone for the sake of being disrespectful, but I do think, ‘How do I make this the best book it can be?’”
I remind her of Graham Greene’s remark that there was a “splinter of ice” in the heart of every writer. “That’s true, but I think really it should be only a splinter. A lot of compassion is also required. A lot of compassion and then one splinter of ice.”