21 Questions

‘I was inspired by my love of celebrity gossip’: 21 Questions with Curtis Sittenfeld

The author of Romantic Comedy on the university experiences that shaped her, the awkward author encounter that still haunts her, and the inspiration behind her latest novel.

Katie Russell
Image design: Flynn Shore/Penguin

When Curtis Sittenfeld was in graduate school in America, she approached a professor at a party and asked, “Is it fun being a successful writer? Do you walk down the street feeling like, ‘Life is good, I’ve had books published’?” Though she looks back on this “ridiculous question” with embarrassment, one might well feel compelled to ask Sittenfeld the same thing, given that she now has seven novels to her name.

Sittenfeld is perhaps best known for her works American Wife and Rodham, which reimagine the lives of Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton had they not married George and Bill, respectively. Both novels were celebrated for their political rigour and insight. Her latest novel, Romantic Comedy, feels lighter than her previous work, given that it is, as the name suggests, a romantic comedy. The story follows a woman who works as a script writer on a comedy show (think Saturday Night Live) who falls in love with a famous singer over email.

Humour flows freely through Sittenfeld’s new novel – as it did through our conversation below, where she revealed the best advice she’d ever received, what it’s like being “very good” at grocery shopping, and why her signature dish is a bagel with cream cheese – and an apple on the side, if you’re lucky.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Alice Munro has been my favourite writer since I first read a book of her short stories when I was about 16. I love the complexity of her characters, the vivid settings (no less full of intrigue for usually being rural Canada about 80 years ago), and the juicy plot twists.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

I was a big E.B. White fan and I bawled over Charlotte’s Web and adored the twists and turns of Stuart Little, about a human-ish mouse, the family he lived with, and his friendship with a bird.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

I think I was 18 when I read the book The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt. It’s four long stories told in very plain but sharply intelligent language from the perspective of a graduate student in New York named Iris. She has several strange experiences that for me capture the way life really is — often incredibly odd without being melodramatic.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

My professor said, "Live cheap, write what hurts." That's stayed with me

I read the story collection Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin as a teenager and was amazed by the stories’ wisdom and compassion. In my 20s, I attended graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Ethan was my advisor. I know you’re not supposed to meet your heroes, but Ethan turned out to be such a lovely, funny, warm person and he taught me an enormous amount about writing, especially about structure.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

In college, I was briefly one of those people who cold calls alumni of the school to ask them to donate money to their wonderful alma mater…but the irony was, I wasn’t very happy at that school and I ended up transferring to a different one.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Another of my grad school professors, Chris Offutt, once said to us, “Live cheap, write what hurts, and don’t kill yourself,” and that’s always stayed with me.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

The books I’ve reread the most are the picture books I read to my kids when they were young. My friend Andrea gave us a simple but really sweet rhyming book called Mama Loves You by Caroline Stutson that she’d read with her own kids, and I think I still know all the words.

What's the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

It’s not exactly guilt but more the knowledge that I’m depriving myself by never having read Middlemarch.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

Something writing-adjacent, like an English teacher.

What makes you happiest?

Either going for walks in nice weather (which I define very broadly) or watching TV with my family members and our chihuahua.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

This will make me sound just as boring as I am, but I consider myself very good at grocery shopping and all the planning around it. I try to get a week of food at a time, check what we already have before I shop, and am strategic about things like getting some soft bananas and some harder greener ones. All that said, I never actually cook – my husband is always the one who makes dinner and if he’s not there, my kids and I eat things like a bagel with cream cheese and an apple.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Being separated from my phone…but my kids being in the house so I don’t worry about them!

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

Also in graduate school (where clearly a lot of formative experiences happened for me) Elizabeth McCracken was a beloved guest professor, though I was not her student. I liked her books, and once at a party – for the record, I’d probably been drinking but wasn’t drunk – I asked her something along the lines of, “Is it fun being a successful writer? Do you walk down the street feeling like, life is good, I’m Elizabeth McCracken, I’ve had books published?”

I don’t remember her answer to this unanswerably ridiculous question, but I remember that she was gracious. We now follow each other on social media, and I loved her recent novel The Hero of This Book, so maybe I should ask again?  

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Alice Munro and, for reasons explained above, bagels with cream cheese and apples.

What’s your biggest fear?

I’m far too superstitious to even put it in writing.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I routinely have vivid dreams in which I’m flying, in which I think, Yeah, I did suspect I knew how to do this, so I’ve got that one covered. I suppose I’d be 99% psychic, instead of 19% psychic, which I believe I already am.

My new book was inspired by my love of love

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months? 

The forthcoming novel Everything’s Fine by Cecilia Rabess is about a conservative white guy and a more liberal black woman who attend college together, where they only sort of know each other, then they work together at Goldman Sachs in New York and become extremely close. It’s a phenomenally smart book, and the character development is spectacular.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

I take a bath less than once a year so no, though reading in the bath sounds lovely in theory.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Coffee with oat milk.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Obviously, this is as unanswerable as the question I once asked Elizabeth McCracken, so I’ll go with another recent favorite: Trust by Hernan Diaz is a masterpiece.

What inspired you to write your new book?

Saturday Night Live, my love of celebrity gossip, and my love of love.

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