What if Hillary Clinton never was? If the romance between Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton dissolved early in their lives and each pursued their own distinct path? If we were first introduced to her not as a wife but as a lawyer and politician? It’s something Curtis Sittenfeld started wondering about in late 2016.
“I was very disappointed and upset after the election,” she says. “Something that I thought about in the next few months was, I have kids and I know that for kids—for grade school children—a lot of them were aware of the 2016 election, aware of who Hillary was, but had no idea that Bill Clinton existed or had been president or was Hillary’s husband.” It was a fascinating notion for Sittenfeld, who had written an Esquire piece from the point of view of Clinton earlier that year. “I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that would be an interesting premise for a novel.'”
Sittenfeld spent a long (for her) three years on Rodham, her seventh book. While at home in Minnesota, she spoke with ELLE.com about loving and hating Hillary, whether she thinks the politician will read it, and why writing a novel about a real-life figure can be a sign of respect.
Do you have any visceral memories or images of Hilary from when she first came into public focus?
The first time I ever heard of her was either in late 1991 or early 1992. Bill had declared he was running for president and I remember being a junior in my boarding school dorm reading an article, that I’m 99 percent sure was in TIME magazine, about Hillary and her work as a lawyer and I thought she seemed really cool. Then a year later, watching the inauguration in the common room of the dorm I lived in as a senior, I remember feeling like they were this really impressive, appealing couple, and liking the fact that she was smart and ambitious just like he was.
During the years he was in the White House, it’s safe to say that I came to see them in a less idealistic way. Both of them. In 2007 I read Hillary’s memoir Living History as research for my novel American Wife, which was very loosely based on Laura Bush. That book made me pause and reconsider why my view of Hillary had become more negative over the years. Was it because of things she had actually done, or was it more because of rumors and accusations?
How did that thinking lead to the book?
I had this personal reconsideration of Hillary and I admired her again. I thought, whether it’s Whitewater [or] her headbands, a lot of the criticism of her is not grounded in reality. I also think a lot of people who have an intensely negative or vaguely negative view of Hillary, if you said to them, walk me through her biography, or talk to me about the issues she’s been most focused on over the course of her career, a lot of people who are critical of her would not be able to accurately respond to that. Some would, definitely, but [for] a lot of people, it’s more like they have a vague feeling that they’re not crazy about her.
I would say I was a born-again Hillary fan at that point, and that’s never gone away. I was excited to vote for her in the primary in 2008. I was excited to vote for her in 2016. I respect her a lot, even though I know not everyone shows their respect by writing a novel. But some of us do.
How was this different than the way that you came to an understanding of Laura Bush for American Wife?
There is overlap, but for me the books are pretty different because American Wife, the names are changed and the geography is changed so it’s very loosely borrowing some of the architecture of Laura Bush’s life. I wasn’t really trying to capture the essence of Laura Bush. I think here, it’s very much fiction and if someone says, I want to have an accurate understanding of who Hillary Clinton really is, I would not say read Rodham. I would say watch the new Hulu documentary or read Living History or read What Happened. But I am trying to lay out a plausible alternate history so it’s supposed to seem entertaining and possibly realistic but not true.
Have you spoken with anyone who knows her? Did you look into anything like that to get a sense of her thinking?
The short answer is no. I have met some people who have met her but I did not do any research where I was accessing information that’s not publicly available. For instance, I read a really interesting book by the New York Times reporter Amy Chozick called Chasing Hillary about covering Hillary on and off for 10 years, including when she ran for president in 2016. There’s lots of great material in there. I read Carl Bernstein’s biography of Hillary, which is called A Woman in Charge.
Something that was very touching to me is that several women of different ages who had gone to Wellesley separately reached out to me to offer assistance and help me get details right. In all cases, they did it because they respect Hillary and I think they wanted to make sure the book did right by her. There’s only a little bit of the book that takes place at Wellesley, but that was a very sweet phenomenon I experienced over a few years.
Did you have any hesitations about taking on such a big figure, powerful figure?
Of course. I think a lot of times when I’m writing fiction, I think to myself, I’ll try this and I’ll see if it works, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll hide it. It’s a little more complicated than that, but I didn’t want to write a sloppy version of this book. I wanted to be really careful and it took me a little longer than I might have wished. It took me three years, so it wasn’t a shocking amount of time.
Have you or the publisher heard from the Hillary camp or was there any interaction with them? Any legal communications?
No. I think the funny thing about being Hillary Clinton is that she’s been subjected to so much scrutiny. I don’t think Kate McKinnon would check in with her before she portrayed her on Saturday Night Live. She’s part of public life in America. Sometimes people will say to me, “Do you think she’ll read it?” I would guess no because I think, if I wrote a novel about my friend, I think my friend would probably feel like it was irresistible. But so much has been written about Hillary for so long she’s probably developed an ability to tune out what she feels is irrelevant.
I do think there’s something different about this. I would be really interested if somebody had this idea of what my life would’ve looked like had it taken an alternate direction. I’d be dying to read that.
On the one hand, I kind of agree. If I were Hillary and someone described the book to me, I would think, yeah, I’m going to pass on that. But, if I knew how careful I had been and how much I admire her, I would find it irresistible if I were her. The one sentence summary of it would sound gimmicky, but if you said this person tried to be really careful and really thorough—in a weird way, we can only live one life, so if someone said, “For several years I will work on imagining your alternate life,” yeah, I would maybe be tempted.
The cover design is so captivating. Where did that imagery came from?
It was actually my British publisher who came up with it. My British editor sent me the image and I thought, Oh my god, I love it. It’s such a poignant picture because she’s so recognizable and she’s so young and full of promise. I think they did a great job with the cover.
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