Mother-Writer: An Interview with Curtis Sittenfeld

May 06

coverCurtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of American WifePrep, and The Man of My Dreams. Her latest novel, Sisterland, is a gripping, intimate portrait of identical twin sisters Kate and Violet. A portentous adolescent choice forces the girls apart, but circumstance later brings them back together with fateful consequences for both. It is out in paperback today from Random House.

As she does for many, Sittenfeld occupies a place in my personal pantheon of Contemporary Writers Whose Books I Buy in Hardback. Her American Wife, which was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2008 by TimePeople, and Entertainment Weekly, is one of my favorite novels of the century and it’s one I routinely recommend to others. In it and all her novels, Sittenfeld uses humor and pathos to paint multi-layered characters who transcend type. You leave her novels with a genuine understanding of the people in them, even if you don’t always like what they’ve done.

As a great fan of Sittenfeld’s work, I was delighted that she was willing to take the time to answer a few questions for the latest installment of my Mother-Writer series:

KL: How old are your children?

CS: They’re three and five.

KL: I once read that your goal was to write every day from 10 to 1. Has that goal changed now that you’re a mother? How do you manage your daily schedule to make time for writing and parenting?

CS: It’s safe to say that description of my schedule is completely outdated. I now sit down at my desk around 9, just after my husband leaves the house to take our children to pre-school. I do the first pick-up a few hours later and the second pick-up a few hours after the first. We have additional childcare after school that varies a bit from day to day, but I really try to get my fiction-writing done first thing, when my brain is sharpest. In other words, I use the exact time I once reserved for settling in, checking email, and futzing around to be the most productive. I usually set the timer on my iPhone for ninety minutes (based on this article) then I semi-gently toss my iPhone out of reach of my chair. Though I can’t say I never go down the Internet rabbit hole of celebrity gossip/viral videos/New York Times most emailed articles, I do so a lot less than I did before having children.

KL: Where is your favorite place to write?

CS: I have an office in our house. I recognize and appreciate this as the luxury it is.

KL: Has becoming a mother changed what you write or how you approach writing?

CS: I waste less time and am more efficient. I also see writing as more confined to a particular compartment of my life rather than defining it. I actually like existing in the world in non-writing capacities, as a mother, neighbor, etc. (you know, so I can spy on normal people as fodder for my fiction! Only kidding.). While I love getting together with other writers to gossip and talk shop, I’m not endlessly interested in hearing myself blather on in a public way about my own work and process (I mean, at this point I mostly know what I think). The fewer readings and events I do, the more I enjoy them.

KL: What do you like to read? Are there any books you loved as a kid that you now enjoy sharing with your kids?

CS: I loved Dr. Seuss as a kid, and I have new admiration for him now–his books are just so much fun to read and re-read and they deftly balance social messages with sheer playfulness (with the one exception of Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, which I find cheesy and pandering. And there’s also an illustration in If I Ran the Zoo that’s so racially uncomfortable that I ripped it out. But other than that…). I really love What Was I Scared Of?, which is about a pair of pants running around with no owner, or maybe it’s an existential meditation disguised as a tale about a pair of pants running around with no owner. I was reluctant to read Bartholomew and the Oobleck because it doesn’t rhyme (and is therefore less fast and fun), but after about twenty to fifty go-rounds, I’m a convert. In fact, I can’t believe it hasn’t been made into a movie, though if it does, it needs more female characters. Perhaps Bartholomew should become a girl named Barthia?

KL: Do you have any advice to offer fellow writers who are also parents?

CS: Hmm–beware of strangers who casually unleash advice on you? Or how about this: Read Jennifer Senior’s newish and really great book about the forces that have combined to create contemporary parenting, All Joy and No Fun.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Sisterland, is available in paperback today.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsey May 6, 2014 at 8:39 am

I’m a big Curtis Sittenfeld fan and it’s great to read her answers here. I am endlessly fascinated by the specific ways that others deal with, integrate, and don’t, the various aspects of their lives. xox

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Kristen May 6, 2014 at 2:21 pm

You and I share this fascination. It’s always interesting to me to see the commonalities (and departures) in the ways working parents “balance” their multiple responsibilities. (One of the many reasons I’m enjoying the new series on your blog so much!) xo

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Shannon May 6, 2014 at 8:43 am

Would you believe that I haven’t read any of her books. I am so excited to have a new (to me) author to read. I am putting American Wife on my list right now.
Also, I completely agree about her analysis of Seuss. I love Dr. Seuss’s work fiercely but Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was too much for me. Yertle the Turtle is my favorite.

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Kristen May 6, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Shannon, I think you would love it. There’s a long passage in American Wife where she describes the Midwest with loving, spot-on detail that I think you would especially appreciate. Let me know when you’ve read it. I’d love to hear what you think!

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Andrea May 6, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Thanks for the great interview, Kristen. I especially appreciate the comment about wasting less time as a parent. It’s amazing what I can get done in the car during baseball practice or at 5:30 in the morning (which is not to say that I don’t also waste plenty of time). I will definitely look for Sittenfeld’s books after your ringing endorsement.

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Kristen May 7, 2014 at 1:19 pm

I wish I were a morning person. I feel like that 5ish-7ish a.m. block of time is the one unchartered territory I haven’t yet tapped since becoming a parent.

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Andrea May 8, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Oh, I’m definitely NOT a natural morning person–it is excruciating to get up then, and I have to do it every single day, or I will just give it up–any little change to the schedule (late-night TV–I’m talking to you, Bletchley Circle–baseball season, whatever), throws it all out of whack and I lose the morning momentum.

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thekitchwitch May 6, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Love her work! It was really great to get a peek into her writing life and process.

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Kristen May 7, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Glad you enjoyed it! xo

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slamdunks May 6, 2014 at 11:59 pm

Thanks for the fun info Kristen and Curtis.

I like when you asked about how writing has changed since parenting and the theme was efficiency. What a great message–if someone can learn to be productive even if it is during a nap time or a play date, that ability will be carried forward and never forgotten.

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Kristen May 7, 2014 at 1:21 pm

Amen to that. I sometimes feel like a whirling dervish when my kids are napping. I think there’s real motivation when you know your time isn’t really in your own hands.

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rebecca@altaredspaces May 7, 2014 at 12:26 pm

I am giddy reading this interview! A mother with children 3 and 5 who writes 90 minutes a day and stills falls prey to the internet. There’s hope for me.

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Kristen May 7, 2014 at 1:22 pm

And a gifted, bestselling one at that! There’s hope for all of us, methinks! :)

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D. A. Wolf May 7, 2014 at 8:17 pm

These insights are fascinating. And the sense of compartmentalizing feels very tangible.

Thank you for giving us this peek into such a special world.

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Nina May 9, 2014 at 3:55 pm

How cool that you got to interview Curtis Sittenfeld! I’ve been a fan of her ever since Prep and have read every book. I went to WashU so I especially loved reading Sisterland with all the St. Louis references. I really enjoyed reading the answers here. (Great questions, K!)

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Rachel @ 6512 and growing May 22, 2014 at 12:20 pm

On request at the library! Thanks for the tip.

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Jack August 18, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Time to awaken from your slumber. ;)

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Lisa November 20, 2014 at 10:06 pm

I’ve been in new baby stupor for a bunch of months I think – at least as regards lots of the blog reading I love – but I’m checking in here now and wondering where your wonderful work is! Hoping all is well.

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