Write What You Like

Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of Prep, on literary page-turners and the problem with too much cleverness

By Katie Bacon
book cover

Prep
[Click the title
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by Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House
416 pages

Few of us yearn to relive our high school experiences—it's a time of life when social pressures are at their most Darwinian and insecurities are at their peak. Yet fictional accounts of those years seem to hold a perpetual fascination—think A Separate Peace or A Catcher in the Rye or, to take a more recent and less high-brow example, last year's film Mean Girls. The latest work in this genre is Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, which was published this winter by Random House and which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for the past nine weeks.

Sittenfeld's novel tells the tale of Lee Fiora, who leaves South Bend, Indiana, to spend four years at Ault, an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts. Coming from the Midwest, from a family with little money, Lee enters a world where money is something everyone has but no one talks about. At one point Lee comments about one of her classmates, "If she was rich, then she belonged at Ault. Being rich, in the end, counted for the most—for more, even, than being pretty." Lee—in her own mind neither rich enough nor pretty enough—feels profoundly awkward at Ault. She chooses to fade into the background and from there to observe the intricate world of boarding school life. From this perspective, Lee examines Ault as an anthropologist would—dissecting every social interaction and custom, looking for some sort of larger meaning. Many of her descriptions—including the one below, about the annual furor surrounding the delivery of Valentine's Day flowers—cast an amusing light on both the strange preoccupations of adolescence and on Lee herself.

The idea was that you'd have flowers awaiting you in the morning; the reality was that in most dorms, the flowers were pawed through by twelve-fifteen. Usually, they were pawed through by someone like Dede, a person unsure how many flowers she'd get, and unable to conceal this anxiety. A person like Aspeth, on the other hand, could stroll into the common room just before chapel the next morning to pick up her bounty, and it would be impossible to say whether she'd waited so long because she wanted everyone to see how many she'd received or because it really wasn't that big a deal to her. My freshman year, Aspeth had received—I feared these figures would remain with me long after I'd forgotten the date of the Battle of Waterloo or the boiling point of mercury—six pink carnations, eleven white carnations, and sixteen red roses, twelve of which were from a sophomore ... who had never before spoken to Aspeth.

But as skilled as Lee is at analyzing that world, she finds it difficult to navigate—not so much the academic side of it, although things do not come as effortlessly to her in that regard as they seem to for so many of her classmates, but more the everyday work of figuring out how to act and where she fits in. She overthinks everything, from where to sit in the dining hall, to what to say to the boy on whom she has a desperate crush, to whether she should say hello to someone she passes in a quiet hallway.

Walking through the empty schoolhouse and back to my dorm, I thought how exhausting Ault was, all the chatter and expressions you had to make: Attentive! Inquisitive! I let my face sag, but then I saw someone ten yards in front of me, emerging from the courtyard. ... I glanced at his eyes and saw that he wasn't looking at me, and then I looked down and then as we came closer to each other, I slid my backpack off one shoulder so it was in front of me ... and pretended to rummage in it. In this way ... I avoided saying hello.

Lee is adolescent angst taken to the extreme, but most people will recognize at least a bit of themselves in her.

One question that has come up again and again in all of the coverage that Prep has received is how much of Curtis Sittenfeld is reflected in the character of Lee. It's a natural thing to ask, given that as a teenager Sittenfeld came from the Midwest to spend four years at Groton, a small, prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts, and that many of the particulars of Ault are true of Groton as well—the waspy, wealthy students, the bucolic setting and Gothic architecture, the expectation that its graduates will attend Ivy League schools. Perhaps the most important trait that Sittenfeld shares with Lee—and the one that infuses Prep—is her penchant for keen observation, a skill that enables her to bring the painful dramas of high school experience to life in a way that not only rings true but—this time around—is bitingly funny.

Sittenfeld, who interned at The Atlantic while in college, graduated from Stanford University and received an M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is now teaching English part time at the St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and working on her second novel.

We spoke by phone on March 28.

Katie Bacon


Author photo
Photo credit

Curtis Sittenfeld

 

What has this experience been like for you? Did you expect Prep to take off in the way it has? It's really become a phenomenon of sorts.

I would say the short answer is no, I didn't expect this. But at the same time, when I would talk to my editor and publicists at Random House in the months before publication, they were always really excited and enthusiastic. So I always thought that if it wasn't a best seller they might be disappointed. I didn't necessarily think it would be, but I thought they kind of expected it. But then, as the book started to sell well and did become a best seller, they would say things to me like, "Isn't this great?" "Can you believe it?" "I can't believe it." And I thought, You can't believe it!? But didn't you assume this would happen, and didn't you make it happen?

You used the word "phenomenon," and I think that if I knew someone who had written a book and then things had unfolded this way, I would probably think, Oh, you must be so excited all the time! You must be so swept up in everything. I do feel really lucky, but my life is not that different. One big difference is obviously that in the past I've conducted these interviews and now I'm giving one. But in a weird way, it kind of takes up the same time. And because I've worked as a freelancer I've had the experience of going to a newsstand and buying a paper or magazine and having my name in it. This is sort of a different version of something that I'm familiar with. Probably a year from now I'll look back and think, Oh, that was exciting. But right now it's not as if I'm walking around winking at myself in mirrors.

Interviews by Curtis Sittenfeld:

"Stories to Break Our Hearts" (July 15, 2004)
Bret Anthony Johnston talks about the fiction of grief and loss, skateboarding, and choosing a hometown setting for his first collection of stories.

"The Writing Obsession" (November 12, 2003)
Tobias Wolff on his new novel, Old School, an examination of literary ambition gone awry.

"Caught Between Places" (April 2, 2003)
A conversation with John Murray, a doctor-turned-writer whose characters are often searching to reconcile their new lives with the ones they've left behind.

"Angles of Prose" (April 11, 2002)
Antonya Nelson, the author of Female Trouble, talks about her unsentimental take on the untidy worlds her characters inhabit.

In coming up with these questions, I went back and looked at some of your interviews just to see the types of things that you'd asked. And I found a quote which I thought was funny given the coverage that you've gotten. In your interview with Tobias Wolff you said, "Among writers, it's a faux pas to ask if a work of fiction is true, and it's also the first question that non-writers ask. Does the question bother you?" Could I ask you the same thing you asked Wolff?

No, it doesn't bother me. It certainly doesn't offend me, because I think it's a really natural question, and it's something I often wonder when I read fiction. But there can be different subtexts to the question; some of them are sort of flattering and some are sort of insulting. It can mean something like, "I was so enthralled by this and the characters seemed so real—I just can't believe that anyone could have made it up." That's a compliment. Or, in my case specifically, it can mean something like, "I know you went to boarding school in Massachusetts; I know you're from the Midwest. Clearly this is all true, you lack an imagination, and you're a lazy writer." In my opinion, whether a novel succeeds or fails doesn't have anything to do with whether it's true. It's all in the execution. If you can get something down on the page that's interesting, it doesn't matter how much you borrow from real life. It's not like the more you borrow, the less skilled you are.

I also think it's a question that's almost unanswerable, because in a way whenever someone asks you how much is true, what they're really saying is, I assume a great deal of it is true. So your response doesn't really matter, and the more you say, the more defensive you sound.

I'd like to talk a bit about literary fiction. Your book is considered literary, yet it's also a page-turner in a way that reminds me of some of the books I've read that have no literary pretenses. Do you think there's a movement away from fiction that's self-consciously literary toward work that's just more readable?

One thing I learned at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, from Ethan Canin, was how to think about structure. I consider plot above everything else except character. There's nothing I hate more than some book that's all just exquisite language. That's so boring. I want there to be forward momentum, so I take it as a really big compliment if someone says Prep is a page-turner. Frank Conroy at Iowa would say, "Writing fiction is this combination of knowing what you're doing and not knowing what you're doing." I very consciously think about plot and say, I want there to be a twist here or I want there to be a surprise. In fiction I love surprises that are genuinely surprising and that feel plausible, too. I don't know if I'm part of some larger movement. I doubt it. I think it's probably just something that some people think about and some people don't. But I know a lot of writers who seem to feel like every word has to be a little gem and every paragraph has to be perfect before they can move on to the next paragraph. I certainly revise a lot, but I believe that the sum of the parts is what matters the most.

Obviously the Iowa Writers' Workshop had a big effect on you in terms of your thoughts on plot and in giving you the space to write this book, but did it change you as a writer? Would you have written this book if you hadn't gone there?

I don't know if I would have. I think while at Iowa I learned to be harder on myself as a writer. When I arrived there, I would write a story and if I finished it I would be glad. If it read well or read smoothly, and if I'd thought of some clever turns of phrase, I would almost feel like, Well, that's enough. But you're kind of discouraged from cleverness at Iowa, thank God. I think that if you have a certain facility with language it's very tempting to show it off. But that can backfire in terms of alienating the reader. There's only so much cleverness that anyone can take, and ultimately the reason someone wants to finish a book is because that person feels invested in the characters and wants to know what happens to them. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker comes to mind when I think of someone whose cleverness maybe overshadows his writing (even though he doesn't write fiction). I do feel that at Iowa I learned to write more sincerely instead of preening on the page.

I'm very pro-MFA. I know other people have mixed feelings about this type of program. But I think, among other things, that it puts you on this path where writing can be the center of your life. Even if writing isn't the bulk of what you spend your time doing, getting an MFA affirms writing as a really big priority for you. It can help you feel okay about the fact that your income might be a lot lower than that of everyone else you know. And if you choose to write a novel, I think that you have more of a support structure in place and more patterns of how to spend your time.

You manage to make the minutiae of prep-school, adolescent life—the obsession with who gets how many Valentine's Day flowers, or how the cool girls wear their hair—interesting to an adult audience. This is no small feat, given that you're writing about a time of life when people tend to be self-centered, and that these adolescents populate a world that's more insular than most. Who were you imagining as your audience for this? What are the challenges about writing about an adolescent's world in a way that would be gripping to an adult audience?

Well, this might sound very self-centered, but in a way I think I'm writing for myself. I'm writing the kind of book that I would like to read. Also, not everyone picks up on the fact that the story is actually told from Lee's point of view when she's in her late twenties. That's because I hate reading books that are from a child's point of view. I passionately hate them. I know this is a very big generalization, but I just have to make it. I hate when you can feel that the character is much less intelligent than the author who created that character. In my own writing, and I am sure I don't always succeed, I am trying to avoid the things I don't like in books and include the things that I do. I always like a little romance in a book. I like narrators who are at least a little neurotic and who want things and are driven by their wants. And I sort of assume that other people share my tastes.

A friend happened to mention this quote to me the other day while I was reading your book, and I was wondering what you would think of it. It's from a commencement address given by Meryl Streep. She said, "You have been told that real life is not like college and you have been correctly informed. Real life is more like high school." Does that hold any truth to you? How much does the Darwinian social structure of high school carry over into the real world?

For me, post-high school life has not been that much like high school. The biggest thing that's missing is the intensity. There's this trade-off where you think, Thank God everything doesn't matter as much to you as it did then. But then you also miss feeling that sense of excitement. I think it's sort of like having a crush, where you're kind of tormented but also entertained. All things considered, though, I prefer adulthood. I'm not someone who yearns for high school. I just feel like you have so little autonomy in terms of how you spend your time. I don't like being told what to do by other people.

The fascination you were talking about with that time and the drama of it, do you think that's true of high school in general or do you think it's specifically true of the kind of high school that you went to and that you're writing about in Prep?

I think a lot of people had very intense feelings in high school—more people than not. I think there are some people who might feel like they weren't intellectually stimulated in high school, and so they're happy to leave it behind. But at most boarding schools that intellectual stimulation does exist. There's no ingredient that's needed to make life engaging or exciting that is missing from an elite boarding school. You're in a beautiful place, you're with tons of people your own age, there are plenty of romantic prospects, you're intellectually stimulated, you're physically active. And of course there's a good chance you're miserable on top of all that. But you can sort of feel that your happiness exists somewhere in the air. Maybe that's what it is: that in high school you can feel the potential of your happiness, whereas when you're an adult, your life is what it is.

Lee is at times a complicated character to like—she's so painfully self-conscious, so cynical, and she always seems to be doing or saying the wrong thing. Could you talk about writing a book with a main character who is not always appealing? Did you worry about alienating the reader?

Well, I've always known that some readers aren't crazy about her, because I got that feedback very early on at Iowa. I've been very lucky in terms of the quantity and the general tone of coverage for Prep, but it certainly hasn't been unequivocally positive. And some of it does sting. At the same time, nobody has ever said anything that's totally unfamiliar to me. Every kind of feedback that I could get, I got for the first time long ago, so I knew that people didn't always find Lee likeable, and I didn't try to change that.

I feel that, one, she's not really trying to present herself as likeable, and to me, having a character be honest actually makes up for a lot. And two, when people say that she's not always appealing, I think, My God, who is? I don't know anybody—except maybe my mother—who is always perky and agreeable. So in that way I think Lee is realistic. At the same time, I don't like to read a story, let alone an entire book, where I really don't like the main character. So if someone feels like they hate Lee and can't take it anymore, they should probably quit reading. Reading Prep is not meant to be punishment.

I think probably the most loaded and severe criticism of Lee is that she's kind of racist. And I would say that's true in the way of a white fourteen year old who's grown up in Indiana and just hasn't met a ton of people who are different from her, let alone lived closely with them. But I think a lot of her biases are disproved while she's at Ault. People have asked me, Does she change? I think she does.

I read somewhere that you didn't let your parents read the book until more than a year after it had sold. Why did it take you so long to show it to them?

Well, I just thought that it wouldn't be my parents' cup of tea. My mother prefers biographies, and my father likes writing that I think is a little schmaltzier. So I literally thought it wouldn't be a book that they would choose to read if it hadn't been written by their daughter. And in my mind, the fact that I did write it would only make it more weird and complicated for them. They would think, Is this true? Did this happen to Curtis? This does seem like Curtis, but this doesn't. I think it's just so loaded to read a book written by your own child. The parents in the book are not my parents, though there are a few lines that the parents say that my parents would say. But the funny thing was that when my dad read it, he didn't identify with the father at all. I thought—even though I knew the father wasn't based on him—that because I'm me and I went to boarding school and he's my father and there's a father in the book, it would be very natural for him to compare himself. But he actually identified very strongly with Lee. I think it kind of stressed him out to read the book and he had to hurry through it, because he felt so anxious. But I don't think my mother identified with Lee at all. My mother thought—they both thought—it would have been a better book without the last chapter. I think they thought the last chapter was unnecessarily graphic.

The sex scenes are fairly explicit. It must have been a hard thing to know that your parents were going to read them.

I think it's one of those things that as you're writing you can't think about. It would just be paralyzing. There are plenty of cases where if I had known the level of scrutiny the book would receive I might have done things differently. As I was writing the book, I knew people would wonder, Is this true? But I didn't want that to determine how I wrote it. And I didn't want to write the book in such a way that I hoped it would reflect flatteringly on me. I didn't want to write a book where my main goal was to make people think that I, the author, was a charming person. I wanted to do what I felt was in the book's best interest, not in my own best interest.

In an article about you in The Washington Post the author commented, "Beyond the setting of "Prep," the novel is more deeply about the universal experience of being a teenager, and about learning to let go of the weirdness, the damage of having been one." Do you get the sense that reading this book has been cathartic for people at all?

Yes, definitely. Probably the nicest part of having the book come out is people saying, "I identify with this so strongly." I've heard this from people who are fifty and people who are still in high school, from men and from women. Because Lee is the narrator of the book, the reader gets to know her every neuroses. But if you went to school with her, I think she would seem like a somewhat quiet, peripheral person. I think a lot of people see themselves in her. During high school they may have seemed perfectly normal from the outside, but so much was whirling around in their heads.

Years ago, in 1995, you worked at The Atlantic as an intern. Did working here and reading so much of the fiction that comes in over the transom have any effect on your own writing?

Well, I started submitting fiction to magazines when I was still in college, when I was in high school even. And sometimes I would feel kind of apologetic about doing it, or I'd feel kind of embarrassed for myself, especially after something was rejected. And, quite honestly, when I interned at The Atlantic, reading some of the submissions made me think, I have nothing to apologize for. There's some stuff that's really good, and there's a lot of stuff that falls in between, but there's plenty of stuff that is absolutely atrocious. And the people seem to feel no hesitation about burdening you with it. This was important for me to learn, because it helped me feel comfortable sending things out. I once read an interview, I think it was with Kevin Smith—who made Clerks among other movies—and the interviewer asked, Why aren't there more young female filmmakers? And Smith basically said that men don't feel reluctant to learn publicly and make mistakes and make flawed movies that then help them to make better movies. Whereas women almost don't want to burden people with a flawed product. And I do feel like there's something to be said for not protecting other people too much from your imperfections. How else are you going to learn? I don't think that you can learn to write a book except by writing a book. And then of course it's going to be imperfect. I could look at Prep and feel like there are a lot of things wrong with it. But, ideally, I won't make the same mistakes again.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/04/write-what-you-like/303949/