Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of four bestselling novels: Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, and Sisterland. All of them are about disappointment in some way, which makes Eligible, her just-released retelling of Pride and Prejudice, a departure. Sittenfeld adds new varieties of prejudice to those that Jane Austen’s readers will know and love; we see the prejudice of conservative parents against a transgender person, for example. And instead of the old-hat pride of the landed gentry, we get Silicon-Valley pride, sister-of-a-reality-TV star pride, and I-perform-brain-surgery pride. But for all its contemporary trappings, the book is very faithful to Austen’s original. I spoke with Sittenfeld on the phone about making Pride and Prejudice plausible in a modern setting, reality TV, female-friendly book covers, and more.
Curtis Sittenfeld: A British publisher approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in participating in what they were calling the Austen Project, which is six contemporary novelists telling modern versions of each of Jane Austen’s novels. So the idea was not mine, but when the invitation was extended to me I couldn’t resist.
TM: Was it harder or easier to write this than your other novels?
CS: Yes. I would say both. It was harder and it was easier. Because at one point my dad said to me, Jane Austen did most of the work for you, didn’t she? What’s taking you so long? Which is true to some extent. So the structure existed, but once I started deviating from Austen’s structure, it was almost like a deviation that might make it look easier than it is. I thought, okay, each day I can sort of write my own version of each of her 61 chapters. But then I realized that once I create one new plot twist, it sets a series of other plot twists in motion, so I actually have to maintain her structure and create a new structure. It was a satisfying challenge, but it was a challenge.
TM: Did you plot it out beforehand?
CS: I did plot it. At first I made an outline of what happened in each of her chapters. I summarized what happened. So it was like having 61 bullet points — I often have thought that it’s a very high quality SparkNotes that I could sell on the Internet. I’m not planning to, but I could. And then I did my own separate outline. I always create an outline and I always end up changing my outline as I go along.
TM: Was it hard to plot a story that depends so heavily on misunderstandings when your characters have cell phones and internet access?
CS: The technology didn’t make me struggle particularly. I did incorporate it. I think that it would have been absurd, because the novel is set in 2013, to have characters not have cell phones or not text each other. But I did have to think about things like geography. Some of the coincidences in Pride and Prejudice seem more plausible in a smaller town. My Darcy is from the Bay Area, and Liz lives in New York, but she’s returned to Cincinnati because her father is sick. They’re going to run into each other outside of Cincinnati, where she’s visiting and he’s living. I thought, where are they going to run into each other and how can it be plausible? And you know, there is something kind of frothy about the book; it’s fun and over the top. I think that Pride and Prejudice is too, and I aspired to that in my version. But I also wanted it to seem plausible.
TM: Did you introduce the reality show, Eligible, for plausibility reasons?
CS: Yes. It’s a huge part of Pride and Prejudice that an eligible bachelor, Mr. Bingley, has just moved to town. And I thought, in a city the size of Cincinnati, how would everyone in the city know if some man moved to town and was single? It killed two birds with one stone if he had been on a show like The Bachelor. One, that makes him famous, or semi-famous. And two, that tells people he’s single. So it just seemed irresistibly convenient. Then I ended up interviewing a Bachelor producer very extensively, which was incredibly fun. I actually had never watched an entire season of The Bachelor, and I watched from start to finish, which was interesting too. Because I had sort of understood it and sort of not understood it when I saw little glimpses of it.
TM: Have you watched UnREAL?
CS: Yes. When I was watching The Bachelor, I was really interested when they would show something behind the scenes. One contestant would go where she wasn’t supposed to go off set. The camera would show her at the table where the producers are working. I would replay that part. And then I turned in my manuscript maybe three months before UnREAL came out. But I think that UnREAL could have given me so many of the behind-the-scenes technical details that I was looking for. And it’s funny, because I talked to two former Bachelor producers, and UnREAL was created by a former Bachelor producer, so it’s definitely drawing from the same well.
TM: The Bachelor itself is a kind of vulgar mockery of Pride and Prejudice. At least, it’s a marriage plot, but the stakes are so much more artificial. Aside from the fact that it’s TV, a woman is no longer doomed to spinsterhood if she’s not married by 30.
CS: More like by 23.
TM: Or by 23, right. So when you were writing Eligible, were you worried that the stakes are lower than they are in Pride and Prejudice? If Liz doesn’t get together with Darcy, it’s not the end of the world for her.
CS: That’s true, but the stakes in people’s lives always feel high to them. You’re right that it’s not equivalent to Austen’s world world where Liz might think, if I marry this man, I’ll be financially secure forever, and if I don’t, my future is very uncertain. But we all have an inflated enough sense of self that it matters hugely — like, does the person that I like like me back? That feels like an essential, very dramatic question even if the consequences of it don’t matter much. Sometimes when the real consequences are smaller, they’re perceived as if they’re actually bigger.
TM: That’s a really good point and, of course, it’s the premise fiction depends on. Okay, at the risk of asking a stupid question, is Eligible feminist?
CS: I would like it to be. It’s a member of NOW. I’m just kidding. Obviously, it’s an interesting cultural moment for feminism. I guess you could say it’s trendy, which is maybe encouraging and maybe incredibly weird. And I would never want to write an essay on what feminism is in 2016. I would read that essay, but I would not write that essay. To some extent, Eligible is exploring that question: what is present-day feminism? But I would never feel comfortable exploring that question in a nonfictional context.
TM: Some parts of the book are very feminist, but at the end of the day, it’s a marriage plot. And my first thought was that a marriage plot is inherently anti-feminist — but then I thought, what if it were a story about a man looking for love? That wouldn’t demean the man.
CS: Yeah, that’s an interesting point. Is a story about a man looking for love a universal story of romance, as opposed to a story about a woman looking for love? But I think those questions are better left unanswered by the writer herself. If you said to me, what are the themes of Eligible, of course I could name some of them, but that’s more a game for other people to play. What if someone said, what’s your personality like, David? You might be like, ask my wife, ask my sister. You don’t have a remotely unbiased view of yourself or your own book.
TM: Not so very long ago, you tweeted, “When a straight man enjoys one of my novels, I’m not sure if he’s more surprised or I am.” Does that mean that you’ve heard from straight men who don’t like your books, or just that you get more love from women and gay men?
CS: I get more love from women and gay men. I would assume that 90 percent of my readers, at least, must be women and gay men. And of the 90 percent, I think that 90 percent must be women. So overwhelmingly my readers are women. On the other hand, I’ve had many men come up to me and say something like, am I the first man who’s ever read Prep? Like being the first man on the moon. And I’m like, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you, but no you’re not. And of course, that has to do partly with the packaging of the book. The book looks more female-friendly, whatever that means.
TM: Does your sense of audience affect how you write?
CS: I don’t think so. The main thing I’m trying to do is write a book that I would enjoy if I hadn’t written it. So I’m trusting my own sensibility. I don’t think I’m trying to cater to any particular audience besides myself.
TM: Does it bother you that your books are packaged in a female-friendly way? Do you feel like it makes them seem less literary?
CS: It bothers me a tiny bit. It doesn’t keep me up at night. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t mind if my book covers were more gender neutral. I’ve had the same publisher since Prep came out, which is Random House, and I think Random House works very hard to come up with covers that will appeal to a broad audience. Sometimes I make suggestions of covers that are a little quirkier or weirder, and those do not end up appearing on the book. But it’s a decision by committee, and the cover is a complicated issue. Somebody who picks up a book and looks at it and says, “I like it” or “I don’t like it” or “It makes it feel lightweight” probably isn’t considering the conversation that went into the choice of cover. I respect the thought that Random House puts into it, and I think that Random House and I are basically aligned in terms of our goals. We want the books to seem enticing.
TM: Why did you decide to keep most of the names from Pride and Prejudice but change Wickham’s?
CS: Wickham is divided between two people, Jasper Wick and Ham Ryan, because in Pride and Prejudice that character serves so many roles. He’s Liz’s love interest; he’s Lydia’s love interest. He’s a villain. In my version, it just didn’t seem plausible that Lydia and Liz would be interested in the same person. But for the most part, I kept the same names for clarity. It seems like it would have been gratuitously confusing if I made the reader ask, all right, which one is Liz, which one is Jane? The pleasures of this novel are supposed to be in the reimagining and the updates, and not in figuring out who’s who.
TM: One of the effects of splitting Wickham is that he’s more forgivable. Jasper is an asshole, but he’s not a villain. And Willie is not such an irredeemable buffoon as Collins. I think you’re a more forgiving writer than Austen in some ways.
CS: That’s an interesting observation on your part. First of all, I have to say that Jane Austen can do no wrong. I’m never trying to improve upon what she did; I feel like Pride and Prejudice is essentially a perfect book. I’m more like a singer covering a song by another singer. What I’m doing is kind of like reinterpreting, but it is always an act of admiration. I’m not trying to fix anything, because I don’t think there are mistakes to fix. But in real life, I almost never meet someone who I feel is 100 percent unappealing. I feel like everyone has a combination of appealing and unappealing qualities.
TM: What are you most jealous of in Jane Austen’s writing?
CS: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think that she can make these incredibly wise, hilarious observations, and she seems like she’s not breaking a sweat. She’s just so smart and so devastating and so casual about it. I’m always feeling my own sweat break out. I’m aware of my own process. Even if there’s a scene that I ultimately feel good about, I know there were four versions of it that were ghastly. So it’s not effortless.
TM: Last question: what’s your least favorite interview question?
CS: You’re kidding. Well, since my first book was Prep, and it’s about a girl who grows up in the Midwest and goes to a New England boarding school, and I was a girl who had grown up in the Midwest and gone to a New England boarding school, there were a lot of questions and assumptions about how autobiographical it was. Prep was a lot less autobiographical than people assume. But the flip side is that I’ve written some what you might call high-concept novels such as American Wife and Eligible, and people assume that they’re totally non-autobiographical. Is American Wife completely inspired by Laura Bush? People assume it must be completely inspired by Laura Bush. Or they assume that if Eligible is at all inspired by Pride and Prejudice, it must be completely inspired by Pride and Prejudice. But I grew up in Cincinnati. I’m one of four siblings. The Bennet family is definitely not the Sittenfeld family, but there are moments in Eligible that are amusingly or horrifyingly recognizable to my family. So I don’t love being asked how autobiographical something is. But I also think it’s funny when readers don’t understand that to some extent every novel is autobiographical. Do you agree with that?
TM: Oh, definitely.
CS: Yeah. I mean, that’s my soul on the page.