Curtis Sittenfeld on American Wife: ‘I thought Democrats wouldn’t read it because it was about a Republican’

一世 was in the shower, washing my hair. It was July 2006, and I was on holiday in Massachusetts, visiting family. In my regular life, I lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where my boyfriend was finishing graduate school. I was about to turn 31, and my first novel, 准备, about a diffident girl who attends a fancy boarding school, had been published in the United States in January 2005 and become a surprise bestseller, the kind of sensation that young writers tend to hope for without usually getting to experience. I’d quickly followed up with the May 2006 publication of a second novel, The Man of My Dreams. To call this novel, about a diffident girl who does not go to a fancy boarding school, a sophomore slump would probably be generous. It turned out that the part of 准备 most readers and reviewers had liked wasn’t the main character – it was the class commentary and elite setting.

All of which is to say that in the summer of 2006, I was feeling professional whiplash. In less than a year and a half, I’d gone from being a bit of a new literary darling to – maybe? – being a one-hit wonder. Though I’m not usually a self-conscious writer, when I futzed around with new ideas in my Philadelphia office, I felt the strange awareness of the eventual judgment that would greet whatever I now released into the world.

The idea of a fictionalised version of the life of Laura Bush, which is what American Wife 是, didn’t arrive out of nowhere that day in the shower. More than two years earlier, I’d written an essay for Salon magazine about being a Democrat who admired and was intrigued by the Republican first lady. I described my respect for her intelligence, compassion, unpretentiousness and voracious reading habit. I was fascinated by the apparent contradictions in her life – she’d been a Democrat wary of politics until she married George W Bush, when they both were in their early 30s and had known each other for just three months. She was an attention-averse person whose husband had become arguably the most famous man in the world. 什么, I wondered, was it like for her to live in the White House? What did she think of her husband’s policies, especially the Iraq war? “To an uncanny degree,” I wrote in the article, “Laura Bush’s own life resembles a great novel.”

I then – cluelessly – went on to outline it: the tragic accident when she was 17, in which the car she was driving hit a classmate and friend’s car and killed him; the fast and unlikely courtship with George W Bush; the challenges of his middle-aged alcoholism, when she supposedly gave him an ultimatum that made him stop drinking; his shocking but unsurprising elections as governor then president.

My hair-washing revelation was not that Laura Bush’s life could serve as the basis for a juicy novel; the revelatory part was that 一世 should write it. I liked that the idea was ambitious and complex, that it would challenge me in a way that The Man of My Dreams hadn’t, but also that my interest in the topic was totally sincere; this was not a cynical ploy for literary redemption. 实际上, it occurred to me that there would be almost no readership for such a novel: Democrats wouldn’t want to read it because it was about a Republican; Republicans wouldn’t want to read it because it was by a Democrat. That readers in other countries would embrace it seemed too fanciful to consider. And even if I wrote feverishly, which I did, in order for it to be published while the Bushes were still in the White House, they’d soon be out and wouldn’t it immediately seem stale?

I wrote American Wife anyway, because I really wanted to. I was childless then, and for some stretches I worked 10 or 12-hour days, seven days a week. I finished a first draft in 17 月, and it came out in September 2008, four months before the Bushes left the White House and the Obamas moved in. Thirteen years have passed, and I continue to hear regularly from readers coming to it for the first time, as well as devotees who reread it annually.

As tempting as it is to draw lessons from this experience – trust your obsessions, but be careful about accidentally announcing your creative intentions – the truth is that writing all my novels has been a kind of fever dream. 一阵子, they consume me, and then they let me go.

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