Curtis Sittenfeld on Hillary Clinton’s other life

The novelist's New York Times' bestseller imagines a world in which for former First Lady never married. She tells Alice Vincent about the most challenging novel she's ever written.


In the midst of history-making events, especially those that leave most of us feeling rather helpless, it’s easy to play a game of what-ifs. What if the government had listened to warnings about Covid-19, acted upon them earlier? What if we hadn’t left the EU? What if Trump hadn’t won the election? What if Hillary Clinton never married Bill?

That is the subtitle that covers Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest book – an alternative history – and one of the most anticipated novels of the year. We were meant to speak in early March, before the cancellation of her UK press tour became one of the harbingers of the lockdown, and so instead I speak to her in Minneapolis, Minnesota over the phone (a technology that seems quaint after weeks spent on Zoom). 

Rodham is Sittenfeld’s sixth novel; her previous publication was You Think It, I’ll Say It, a collection of short stories released in 2018, when Sittenfeld was a year into writing about Hillary. Sittenfeld, who is 44, won acclaim with her 2005 debut, Prep, which follows the teenage Lee Fiora as she navigates her way through boarding school. She then gained more fans with American Wife, the New York Times bestseller that fictionalised the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. Sittenfeld’s cult following is so ardent that, among the few friends who knew I was reading the heavily embargoed Rodham, most had already pre-ordered it.

It didn’t, Sittenfeld says, make the prospect of its release that much easier. ‘I know that certain people were very excited about the book, and I really wanted to do justice to the topic,’ she says. ‘I didn’t just want to write the book and for it to exist. I had to get it right. I wanted to do justice to how complex Hillary is, and how complex gender and ambition are in our society. The premise of the book could have been seen as gimmicky, but I didn’t want the book to be a gimmick.’

'One of the things I tried to examine was fate verses free will'

Like American Wife, Rodham’s first-person narrative spans several decades. Sittenfeld defines it as 40 years, but we hear from her fictional Hillary about her girlhood, in the suburbs of 1950s Chicago, through to when the book closes, in her late sixties. The story sounds familiar until the Seventies, when, instead of marrying her leonine college contemporary Bill Clinton – a man who induces in our heroine some of the headiest passions in the book – Clinton leaves him, pursuing a legal and political career instead. It’s a credit to Sittenfeld’s finely tuned plotting that it’s impossible to tell how her version of the 2016 election turns out until we read it, in Rodham’s final pages.

Those au fait with recent US political history will recognise certain familiar, if skewed, events: the 1992 60 Minutes interview in which Bill Clinton, in the company of his wife, addressed his alleged infidelities; the comments Hillary made in the same year about having  career instead of staying home and baking cookies, Barack Obama’s political career and Donald Trump’s political ambition entwine with fictional events that paint a portrait of the woman Hillary could have been had she not become Mrs Clinton.

‘One of the things I tried to examine was fate verses free will,’ Sittenfeld explains. ‘Are there multiple lives that all of us could lead? And are those lives totally different from one another, are they only slightly different? Could tiny shifts have major repercussions?’

Curtis Sittenfeld

Before there was Rodham, there was ‘The Nominee’, a Sittenfeld short story commissioned by Esquire after Clinton accepted the Democratic Nomination for President in 2016. Reading it after Rodham is peculiar: the central character feels familiar – you can hear the beginnings of Sittenfeld’s Hillary in her – but she is also married to Bill. Sittenfeld says she was ‘on the fence’ about the assignment (‘I didn’t feel like I had anything new to contribute to the journalistic analysis of her over the past 30 years’), but the notion of a short story intrigued her. ‘Instead of writing an examination of what the American people think of Hillary,’ she says, ‘it was asking what Hillary thinks of the American people’.  

It was only in the wake of Trump’s election win – something that left Sittenfeld ‘very disappointed and very concerned’ – that the concept of Rodham began to form. ‘I’d had a slow realisation that for schoolchildren who knew Hillary had run for president, they did not know that Bill Clinton even existed,’ she explains. ‘I became very intrigued by the implications of that. What if adults also didn’t know that Bill Clinton existed, how would the election have played out differently?’

Both American Wife and Rodham examine the machinations of Washington DC through the prism what it is to be a woman there. Unsurprisingly, feminism – and the constraints and meanings of femininity – beat a rhythm throughout Rodham; the fictional Hillary is reminded of the restrictions of her gender from childhood until she is in her Sixties and knocking on the door of the White House. It is the father of a schoolmate who decrees the nine-year-old Rodham ‘awfully opinionated for a girl’, and it’s an assessment we watch her bump up against for the rest of her life.

‘A few times, I just felt so overwhelmed. There were so many pages, so many scenes, covering so much time'

‘There are people who think, “Oh she never would have been elected senator if she weren’t married to him”, and then there are people who think, “He wouldn’t be President if he wasn’t married to her”, Sittenfeld continues. ‘There are people who think he’s held her back more than helped her professionally.’

Of course, Sittenfeld’s Hillary has her pitfalls, too. As the author says, ‘if she weren’t flawed it would be a really boring book, and it would be this unrealistic celebration of some kind of political saint.’ She loses a mentor and dear friend in a quietly devastating skirmish caused by her own white privilege, something Sittenfeld first explored in a short story called ‘White Women LOL’, Originally published online in December. Writing short stories, she said, offered a kind of relief from what she calls the ‘incredible mess’ that Rodham sometimes felt it had become, the 'most challenging novel’ she says she has ever written.

‘A few times, I just felt so overwhelmed. There were so many pages, so many scenes, covering so much time – a few times I did open a new document and write a short story because it felt small enough that I could control it. It wasn’t this big messy disaster. And then,’ Sittenfeld laughs, ‘I was like, “Curtis, finish the novel. This is ridiculous.”’

'What is more ‘alternative history’ than for the 2020 US presidential race to be mired in social distancing?'

Rodham demonstrates Sittenfeld’s ability to capture – pre-empt, even – the cultural conversation. When Laura Bush published her own memoir, Spoken from the Heart, in 2010, the press were swift to point out the prophetic similarities to the imagined inner life of Sittenfeld’s Bushian protagonist, Alice Blackwell – Bush even went on to disagree with her husband’s politics in far more public sphere than the fictional Blackwell could have gotten away with.

It’s also uncanny that, as Sittenfeld was writing her version of Bill Clinton’s career, the real one was being re-appraised in light of the #MeToo movement. Particular focus was given to revisiting the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which inspired longform podcasts such as Slow Burn.

And so, bizarrely, it’s almost fitting that Rodham should come out now – at a time of unprecedented, otherworldly events; in a moment of grand, what-if questioning; when political leaders the world over are being held accountable for decisions they should, or could, have made many weeks or months earlier. What is more ‘alternative history’ than for the 2020 US presidential race to be mired in social distancing?

Given the option to ‘hand-pick’ a president this time around, Sittenfeld says she would have chosen Elizabeth Warren. But the fact that she read the memoirs of the female senators who ran for 2020, among them Kamala Harris and Warren, shows considerable change since Clinton’s run. ‘I feel like a woman running for president already feels much more normalised than it did in 2016,’ Sittenfeld continues. ‘The novelty has worn off which I think is a good thing. I don’t believe that progress is inevitable. But I do think in certain ways it does seem to be happening.’

And therein lies another reason for the excitement over Rodham: in a world where a female president remains tantalisingly out-of-reach, Sittenfeld’s book gives a forensic insight into the ambition that leads one woman to try.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more