Curtis Sittenfeld's `Rodham' imagines a different `Hillary'
NEW YORK – Over the past few years, author Curtis Sittenfeld has gotten to know Hillary Clinton in a way uniquely suited for a novelist — by writing a work of fiction about her.
“I was definitely an admirer of Hillary before I started the book, but writing from her perspective made me feel closer to her,” Sittenfeld, whose “Rodham” comes out Tuesday, wrote to The Associated Press in an email. “I realize that closeness is NOT mutual — we’ve never met. But she feels very familiar to me now in terms of the trajectory of her life, her relationships, her syntax, so when I see clips of her or hear her voice, I think, ‘Oh, that’s my Hillary.’”
Sittenfeld's new book is her second imagined portrait of a famous woman: “American Wife,” based on the life of Laura Bush, was published in in 2008. But while “American Wife" tells of a high-profile marriage that remains intact despite the narrator's misgivings, Sittenfeld follows a different path in “Rodham." The “Hillary” in Sittenfeld's book breaks off from Bill early and remains Hillary Rodham, a decision which proves fortunate for her.
It's a premise that has been raised before, including by the author and journalist Rebecca Traister. In a 2015 story for The New Republic, entitled “The Best Thing Hillary Could Do for Her Campaign? Ditch Bill,” Traister wrote of how Hillary was endlessly “pulled back, into the shadow” of Bill Clinton and that he, not she, was the political beneficiary of their relationship.
"I’m pretty sure I’ve read every article Rebecca Traister has written about Hillary, and I read Traister’s book ‘Good and Mad’ while writing ‘Rodham,’ so it’s safe to assume I work under Traister’s influence, among others," Sittenfeld says.
Sittenfeld, now 44, caught on with critics and readers in 2005 with her first novel, “Prep,” a best-selling coming of-age narrative. Her other books include the novels “The Man of My Dreams” and “Eligible” and the story collection “You Think It, I'll Say It.” She also has written reviews, including one for Vanity Fair about Michelle Obama's “Becoming,” which Sittenfeld praised as “so surprisingly candid, richly emotional, and granularly detailed that it allows readers to feel exactly what Michelle herself felt at various moments in her life.”
The kind of memoir, in other words, that has the power of a novel.
Other highlights from the recent interview with Sittenfeld:
On why she wrote “Rodham”:
Two things made me write this book. First, in early 2016, an editor at Esquire asked if I’d like to write a short story from Hillary’s perspective as she accepted the Democratic nomination for president. I had declined to write essays about Hillary — I didn’t feel I had any new analysis to contribute — but fiction gave me the chance to ask not “What do the American people think of Hillary?” but “What does Hillary think of the American people?”
I also realized around the 2016 election, which I was devastated by, that schoolchildren who knew Hillary was running for president often literally didn’t know that Bill Clinton existed. I wondered if the outcome of the election would have been different if adults were similarly able to see her as independent from him.
On whether “Rodham” is how she wishes Clinton's life had turned out:
“Rodham” is definitely without question a novel — the great majority of events in it are made-up. I feel that it’s important for me to say that if anyone wants to read a definitive account of Hillary’s life, they should read either of her two memoirs or perhaps the non-fiction accounts “A Woman in Charge” by Carl Bernstein or “Chasing Hillary” by Amy Chozick. “Rodham” is an act of imagination, creativity, and, yes, to some extent wishful thinking.
On political memoirs, including Bill Clinton's “My Life” and Hillary Clinton's “Living History":
I confess that I read only the first 25% of “My Life,” up until the point when Bill and Hillary get married, but I enjoyed both those books. Political memoirs are criticized for being anodyne or else campaign tools masquerading as literature, but I’m often surprised by how revealing and colorful they are. I read memoirs by all the female senators running for president in 2020, and I especially enjoyed hearing about the candidates’ families and upbringings. (For instance, Amy Klobuchar, who’s my senator, went on spring break in high school with three friends. Their friend group was named Amy, Amy, Amy, and Heidi, and they rode the Greyhound from Minnesota to Florida, where they pretended to be college students and met a group of high school boys pretending the same, while wearing fake mustaches.)
On whether she hopes Hillary Clinton reads “Rodham":
“If Hillary wants to read the book, she’s very welcome to and I’d be happy to hear her feedback (even if she thinks parts of it are preposterous), and if she doesn’t want to, I don’t blame her.”
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