Curtis Sittenfeld's novel takes off into a wild, witty, provocative mishmash of history, real and imagined

By Mary Pols
May 20, 2020 09:00 AM
Hillary Clinton
| Credit: Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Gett

Curtis Sittenfeld says she wrote her novel Rodham primarily for women, including ones like herself who were heartbroken when Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in 2016.

Rodham starts with Yale Law School students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton meeting and falling in love (and into bed, a lot). For good reasons, Sittenfeld’s Hillary decides not to marry him. That’s where the novel takes off into a wild, witty, provocative mishmash of history, real and imagined, that examines Clinton, and the plight of a female presidential candidate, through a whole new lens.

PEOPLE: In your 2008 novel American Wife you imagined the life of a woman a lot like Laura Bush. In 2016 you published a short story, "The Nominee," about Hillary Clinton’s encounters with a journalist. How did you make the leap to Rodham?

SITTENFELD: The story is supposed to be from the point of view of real Hillary Clinton and Rodham is from the point of view of a parallel-universe Hillary. It wasn’t until after the election that I had this realization that school children who knew who Hillary was literally did not necessarily know that Bill Clinton existed, and that was the piece clicking into place that made me think I need to write this novel.

Earl Gibson III/WireImage
| Credit: Hillary and Bill Clinton

PEOPLE: Why did you want to imagine her without him?

SITTENFELD: More than detaching her from Bill per se, I was interested in exploring issues of fate versus free will and whether we all have alternate lives. Do all of us have alternate lives that we could have lived? Or are there sort of small moments that redirected our paths? I also knew she had turned down the first two of his three proposals [so] her not marrying him didn't seem so farfetched.

PEOPLE: Before they break up, there’s a lot of sex. Why?

SITTENFELD: Because in part it is a novel of courtship and falling in love, and that seemed like a really natural part to include to make it believable and vivid. Honestly, there is sex in all my fiction, but I understand how it is distracting when it is like, the former president and a former secretary of state and senator and first lady. Once the novel existed and it was polished, I could have just extracted like maybe six paragraphs of sex and kind of spared myself some blushing, but I felt like it was important for plot and character.

PEOPLE: Was the aim to make it clear what a loss this was for the fictional Hillary?

SITTENFELD: Exactly. Because I feel like it is special to feel like you have physical chemistry with another person. And I didn’t want to write a novel where it was like, completely clear that she shouldn’t marry him. It is much more interesting if it is confusing.

Curtis Sittenfeld
| Credit: © Josephine Sittenfeld

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PEOPLE: To capture her voice, you read more than a dozen books about her and listened to countless podcasts. Have you ever been in the same room with Hillary Clinton?

SITTENFELD: I was a senior at Stanford when Chelsea came to tour. I worked for the school newspaper and we heard that Hillary and Chelsea were touring. I went outside and pretended to hold a meeting because the tour would pass by the outside of the newspaper office. So I have been physically just a few feet from her. And then I have heard her speak in gigantic auditoriums, but I have never met her. I am unequivocally an admirer of Hillary’s.

PEOPLE: Do you worry about her reading it?

SITTENFELD: I do not think that she will read this book because she is so incredibly famous that I think she is used to being the subject of all kinds of attention and she is used to tuning it out. I think probably at least one person who knows her will read it. But I wrote the book that was the best book I could write and not the book that would most endear me to Hillary Clinton.

PEOPLE: How do you hope people see the real Hillary after reading the book?

SITTENFELD: She is smart, she’s funny, she’s tough, she’s successful, she’s a trailblazer and yet there is so much kind of weird baggage around her identity in American culture that says so much more about voters than about Hillary herself. By what yardstick is she not incredibly impressive? I can’t think of it.