Curtis Sittenfeld didn’t think a short story collection was a likely addition to her oeuvre. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum is the author of five novels, including “Prep,” “American Wife,” and most recently “Eligible.” Nevertheless, her new book, “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” brings her storytelling prowess to 10 short stories.
“It’s almost to my own surprise that I wrote a collection,” she said over the phone while waiting for a flight to her next tour stop. “I’ve always liked reading stories, and I did write them a lot before I wrote novels. But I think writers get trapped a bit, and so once I’d had a first novel published it was natural that I would sign a contract and write additional novels, and I was happy to do so.”
Still, short story concepts would occasionally occur to her.
“My first novel (‘Prep’) came out in 2005 and in the decade after that, I would sometimes have an idea for a short story. I would think of a first line or I would think of a situation but it never felt like it was the right time to write it because I was usually on deadline. And then in the spring of 2016, I went on a book tour when my novel ‘Eligible’ was published. I don’t write when I’m traveling, and so when I returned home, I wanted to be writing again. I don’t feel like myself when I’m not writing fiction.”
Unable to convince herself to reengage with a work-in-progress she describes as a “messy novel” and not ready to start an entirely new novel, she gave herself permission to write a short story.
“I wrote the story ‘Gender Studies,’ which is the first story in the collection, and then I submitted it to the New Yorker and it got accepted. I had actually been trying to get a story in the New Yorker for 20 years and it finally worked, and so that, I think, only encouraged me. I feel it was like a dam bursting or something where once I had written that one story all these others came gushing out. Of the 10 stories in the collection, three were from the past, but seven of them I wrote in 2016 and early 2017.”
Two stories she’d written in the past at the request of editors — one that appeared in Slate set on the day of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration and one that appeared in Esquire focused on Hillary Clinton as she prepared to accept the Democratic nomination for president — are not in the collection. Those stories are of a piece with her novel “American Wife,” which is loosely based on the life of former first lady Laura Bush. For Sittenfeld, they didn’t feel quite right for the “You Think It, I’ll Say It.”
“I think that those felt a little bit tonally different from the other stories. I did look at them a little bit. I think you could look at the stories in the collection and you could say they’re sort of repetitive in their themes, but I actually like story collections that reveal the writer’s preoccupations and obsessions and sort of echo one another. And I think I wanted to do that... It felt like both of those stories would have required explanations of what they were, and I wouldn’t want to include an explanation because I wouldn’t want to take the reader out of the fictional experience.”
That is not to say that political figures and moments don’t continue to fascinate her.
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“I’m actually writing a novel about Hillary Clinton right now. The premise of the novel I’m writing is what if she had gone to Yale Law School, as she did in real life, and met and fell in love with Bill Clinton. And it really happened that he proposed to her repeatedly and she said no. And so the premise of my novel is what if she had definitively said no and gone off and made her own life separate from him.”
In addition to her interested in politics, Sittenfeld acknowledges an ongoing interest in prep schools as a setting for her work.
“There’s a part of me that thinks I’m 42, I’m about to go to my 25th boarding school reunion and I think, you know, is it slightly pathetic that I’m still writing fiction related to boarding school. There are two kind of boarding school adjacent stories in the collection. Neither of them is narrated by a current boarding school student... I don’t think I want to visit the same situation from the same perspective. I’ll go back to the setting from a different perspective or I’ll go back to same perspective in a different setting. Something has to be changed up. If I were going to be kind of sheepish about it, I would say, yeah, it is kind of embarrassing that I apparently still find the subject of boarding school interesting. If I were going to be clinical or dispassionate about it, I think I would probably say, well, it’s a very socioeconomically juicy setting that naturally makes for intriguing fiction. There’s this intersection of privilege and youth and emotions and hormones. So, like, who wouldn’t set their fiction there?”
Last year, Sittenfeld set a story in a graduate writing program. “Show Don’t Tell,” written too late for the collection, appeared in the New Yorker. The story captures the angst, competitiveness and confusion that infuses the world of aspiring writers. For her part, however, Sittenfeld has only positive things to say about her time in the Writers’ Workshop.
“I was a student 1999 to 2001 and then I stuck around for a year and worked at Prairie Lights part time and then came back in the fall of 2010 as a visiting professor for one semester. I loved living in Iowa City; I loved being in the Workshop. I was as happy as a clam. It was an incredibly positive experience. It’s not like I was skipping around gleefully all the time; I was a moody writer like most moody writers, but I formed very close friendships, I learned so much from my teachers, I loved being around other writers and having passionate conversations about the newest story in the New Yorker or about a new collection that had just been released. I just liked being in Iowa City, and I look back on that time so fondly. I arrived at Iowa and I had this feeling I’m among my people, but I also think that I’m a much better writer because I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.”