Curtis Sittenfeld made a splash in 2005, when her debut, Prep, hit the stands. The scandalous novel, about a teen’s exploits at boarding school, was only the first in a string of best-sellers. She moved to St. Louis in 2007, and recently released her fourth book, Sisterland. We recently caught up with the author to chat about St. Louis, writing and her upcoming book.
St. Louis isn’t known as a writer’s town. Is there a welcoming community of writers here?
The funny thing is, there are more writers than someone might think at first glance. I think that writers have a way of finding each other, and there a lot of writers affiliated with Washington University. Anton DiSclafani went to the MFA program at Washington University and now she teaches there; Marshall Klimasewiski, Ridley Pearson and Nick Redding (a nonfiction writer), are all here—and those are just the ones off the top of my head. I’ve crossed paths with most of the writers in St. Louis at some point, but most of my friends are not writers, which is fine. Most St. Louisans get a kick out of it: Because writing is a relatively unusual profession here, I think people are tickled by it.
Many people have asked you if Prep was based on real-life experiences. How do you think you achieved that level of realism?
I revise a lot and I really try to make my dialogue seem realistic. I try to make people’s behavior seem plausible, and keep things very grounded in details that will seem persuasive.
How would you describe your writing process? Is it very structured?
I make outlines—a lot of novelists don’t, but I do. I definitely don’t always stick to them, but they give me a path forward. I’m working on the fifth novel now, I’m trying to write the whole thing before revising it. Prep has eight long chapters; so for that, I would write a chapter and then revise it. I don’t write a sentence and then revise it, it doesn’t seem like it helps unless you have a certain quantity of material to work with. If I’m writing a novel that’s several hundred pages, I could spend lots of time fixing something on page 40. And by the time I get to the end, I know that whole section doesn’t belong there; so to me, it’s a waste to revise until you have a sense of the whole shape of the story.
I understand much of your latest book, Sisterland, takes place in St. Louis. What made it a good location for the story?
The inspiration for the story came from events that happened here in 1990. There was a self-described climatologist named Ivan Browning, who predicted an earthquake would happen in December 1990. I thought it would be an interesting premise for an earthquake to happen in St. Louis. The real earthquake didn’t happen, but part of the reason people got wound up is because we don’t really live with the daily threat of earthquakes, but the local history made it sound plausible to some people.
Sisterland takes place in 2009, and it’s definitely very different from the Ivan Browning story. It’s about two sisters who have psychic abilities. I didn’t want to make my character a scientist or pseudo-scientist, so I made her a psychic. But most of the novel is about buying groceries at Schnucks—it’s about marriage and motherhood and the suburbs.
What can you tell us about your next book?
Usually I’ve been sort of secretive about the topic of my novel in progress, but this time I’m doing something different. The British division of Harper Collins is commissioning six writers to retell contemporary versions of each of Jane Austen’s novels, and I’m working on a contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice. It’s really different from what I’ve done, so it forces me to use my brain in a different way.
There have been lots of other updates of Austen’s work—does that add to the challenge?
Jane Austen is sort of this bottomless well, bless her. It’s a testament to the power of her storytelling that she’s inspired so many writers; and 200 years later, we can still draw from the work that she did.
Sisterland is actually a pretty dark book—a dark book about shopping at Schnucks. So, this is a change of pace. Austen wrote about serious issues of class and gender, but also some fun stuff about romance and parties—and it’s nice to be writing about that.