The Interview of My Dreams

Posted by Lizzie on 07/30/06

TMOMD Well, fuck Janet Maslin! We liked it! About a month ago, Curtis Sittenfeld was nice enough to sit down* to discuss her work and answer our 20 questions or, as she had it, “20 questions? oh my god, more like 60 with all the multiple questions embedded in one question!” We spoke of many things, including NYTBR coverage, facial coverage, and coverage of black people. Since the book actually launched some time ago, please replace all the “How do you think readers will…” with “How did you feel when readers said…” and it’ll be fine.

We’re also thrilled to report that we have FIVE COUNTEM FIVE spankin’ new hardcovers of the work to give away to the first five readers who send an email to theoldhag ATTAGIRL theoldhag DOTTORE (IL) com. Sorry, we’re fighting spam, among other things.

1. I know “Prep” wasn’t your title*. Did you have a different title for “The Man of My Dreams” too?

Nope, I came up with “The Man of My Dreams” and that’s what it’s always been. I know some people think it’s beyond cheesy, but I like the title a lot–I think it’s fun and accessible and rich in meaning.

2. “Prep”‘s Lee was certainly received as the universal angsty adolescent. How do you think readers are going to receive Hannah?

As the universal angsty twentysomething–but of course. No, in all honesty, some people who read “Prep” thought Lee was more freakish than universally relatable, and I assume the same will be true with Hannah–that readers will either painfully identify her or think she’s demented.

3. Along those lines, review-wise, “Prep” and Lee went over big with the old guys. Considering that “Prep”‘s object of desire was adorable and “The Man of My Dreams” has a procession of losers, how do you think the other gender will take Hannah?

I think TMOMD can be hard on some of its male characters, but no harder than it is on its female characters. I never create a character, male or female, whom I hate–I always see something about them as endearing. All that said, I suspect TMOMD will be bought and read much more by women than men. Given the title and cover, if, say, a 70-year-old man reads it, I hope he enjoys it, but I do think he’s entering at his own risk.

4. In “Prep,” Lee actually misreads other people, both in their views of her and in who they actually were–which is to say, to a certain extent, she makes her own bad luck. Do you think the same is true of Hannah? You let two characters–her sister and Fig–knock her on her ass for being so insecure eventually, but she also never catches a break with the boyfriends. Did you deliberately not throw her a bone?

I think Hannah and events conspire to create her bad luck–maybe the breakdown is 30% events, 70% Hannah. But I’m not sure I agree she never catches a break. Her boyfriends are flawed, for sure, but (see above) I think they have appealing qualities, too.

5. Along those lines, Hannah directs such a low-level, steady beam of hatred at herself–such a focus on the failures of minute, momentary instances in her life–that it’s actually quite painful for the reader. Is this something you’re aware of as you’re writing? Did Hannah’s difficulties with herself also make her a difficult character to put on the page?

Wait, you mean not everyone directs a low-level, steady beam of hatred at themselves? Who knew?!

6. You weren’t able to avoid the comparisons with “Prep”‘s Lee, and it seems inevitable that you’re going to have to answer to the “Is you or ain’t you” questions with Hannah too. Do you have your stock answer set yet? And ARE you Hannah? Tell Old Hag–only three people
will ever know.

If you promise to keep this quiet, I’ll confess: I’m actually the Chinese man on page 271 who delivers takeout to Hannah and her sister Allison in their motel room. I may appear from the outside to be a 30-year-old white woman, but inside I’m a middle-aged Asian man with a flourishing restaurant business in rural Indiana.

7. I know we did the teen panel at AWP, and there was a question at first over whether Prep was going to fall in the adult or YA category. Where do you see the Man of My Dreams–chick lit, lit lit, linked lit? Where do you want it to be?

I don’t have control over where it’s categorized–that’s something other people do–but I don’t worry about it very much. I would not consider it chick lit by my own definition (and I’ve realized that there’s no larger consensus about what the definition of chick lit is) but obviously, if my greatest fear was that people would see my book as chick lit, I wouldn’t have chosen this title. Basically, the book is what it is no matter what you call it or where you place it in the store. Also, I think this line of questions is very interesting to publishing insiders–of which, admittedly, I’m now one–and not at all interesting to general readers. They just want to read a book they like.

8. Each chapter of “The Man of My Dreams” is a standalone short story. Was this deliberate? How’d the book start and where did it go?

The first section I wrote was the chapter where Hannah is an intern at an ad agency and disastrously hooks up with a guy in the office. Then I thought, well, what was she like before this? What was she like after? I see the structure as being defined by Hannah’s desire to understand love and sex and men and relationships, and each chapter is an episode in her life in which that issue gets played out somehow.

9. I think you once told me you wrote “The Man of My Dreams” first. Am I totally misremembering this? Why did “Prep” get released first?

In graduate school, I worked on sections of both, and they were both messes. When I finished grad school, I looked at what I’d written for Prep, thought about what I had to do to complete it, and worked on no other fiction for the next two years. When Prep was done, I went back to the scraps of TMOMD, revising some but mostly writing entirely new sections.

10. Hannah’s a character from one of your earlier short stories. What made you pull her out for the novel? And, along those lines, is Lee the girl from your short-story winner in the “Seventeen” short story contest you won in college?

Regarding Hannah, see Question 8. Regarding Lee, I won Seventeen’s fiction contest in 1992, right before my senior year in high school, with a story about a character who has her wisdom teeth pulled and completely isn’t Lee. Subsequently, soon after graduating from college, I had another story in Seventeen with a Lee-like character (whose name, actually, was Leah). None of that story made it into Prep, but I think it’s natural for a story to evolve into a novel. You start writing and realize the characters and situations offer more material than you can fit into, say, 30 pages.

11. You spanked Melissa Banks pretty hard for “The Wonder Spot”, another singleton quest, in the NYTBR. “The Man of My Dreams”, plotwise, has a lot of parallels with her first book, “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing”. A) Do you agree? B) Do you care? and C) In the British tradition, do you think the NYTBR should assign you dueling reviews?

A) I can’t say I agree but B) I don’t particularly care in the sense that I don’t mind. I was not crazy about Melissa Bank’s second novel, and obviously I expressed that in my review. But I know lots of people love her writing, so I would not see being compared with her as insulting. As for C) I know it’s sort of fun and frothy to imagine literary feuds, but I don’t think every negative review comes from the reviewer’s malice. Sometimes a book just doesn’t speak to the individual. I realize it’s no fun to get bad reviews because I’ve gotten them, but I believe the reviewer’s obligation is to the general reader, not to the author or the publishing industry. There’s an excellent and fascinating essay by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia that ran in The Atlantic Monthly in 1991–it was called “Can Poetry Matter?”–in which he addressed some of these issues in a really smart way.

12. Considering the market, do you worry about writing another book that’s primarily about an ordinary twentysomething woman’s difficulties with men? Aren’t you supposed to throw a journalist overseas during an Eastern European coup somewhere in there? Some black people?

Lizzie, how did you miss the part where Hannah and the cast of “Drumline” travel to Estonia and smuggle out uranium? You need to read more carefully!

13. You switched author photos pretty quick–usually they wait until the decade’s out to update. Who made that call? Which one do you like better?

Well, after I used the royalties from Prep to get myself a nose job and fake boobs, I wanted my author photo to reflect my new acquisitions. Just kidding–I actually didn’t realize it was unusual to have a different photo for a different book. I think it was the publisher’s decision.

14. At the end of the book, Hannah’s last “man” is her student, an autistic adolescent at her school. Curtis, this is kind of bleak. Will you let the girl get laid?

No, no–right after the book ends, when she finishes writing the letter that’s the last chapter, she puts down her pen, goes out for a drink with her roommate, and meets a smolderingly hot man who sweeps her off her feet. Couldn’t you tell that I was totally hinting at that?

15. You wrote so much about the aftermath of “Prep”–at one point it seemed like the Times couldn’t hit the presses if there wasn’t at least one mention. A) Did your agent kinda make you do that? B) Now, you’re optioned all over the place. Are you going to write about the boom of “The Man of My Dreams”–or the filming of “Prep”? And, who do you think should play Lee in the movie, if it comes to fruition? Who should play her crush?

I described an article I was working on post-“Prep” to my 21-year-old brother, and he said, “Okay, so the assignment is a writer writing about writing for other writers?” And I had to admit that basically, it was. I am trying not to write as many of those articles because I do feel kind of sick of myself in that regard, but those articles are now what editors seem to want from me. And sometimes I accept the assignment because I think it would be fun to work with a particular editor or write for a particular publication.

As for movie stuff, I’d pick an unknown to play Lee, and someone who could be plausibly awkward instead of cutesily awkward. To play Cross Sugarman, my brother, father, and boyfriend have all generously volunteered.

16. How do you feel about the Toad**? Is your publisher going to give some away with the leftover Prep belts, too?

There aren’t any leftover Prep belts, sister! Those went like hotcakes. As for the toad, I think the cover is quite pretty. And you can have a toad of your very own, but it’s a rather pricey $200. Here’s an inside scoop for you: According to Limoges, the company who makes the porcelain boxes, The Frog Prince on the cover is actually…a Frog Princess. He’s a she! Kind of like the dog who played Lassie, except in reverse.

17. Momentary zeitgeist***: Kaavya–innocent? Guilty?

I feel compassion for her. It seems like she made some mistakes, but she’s still a teenager (the same age as some of my recent students). I think she should chill out for ten years, live her life, possibly change her name, and then write a novel on a topic of her choosing (not necessarily about this fiasco). I don’t think this episode should be life-defining for her.

18. How worried are you about sophomore slump?

Again, I can’t control how my book is received; all I can do is write it. Of course I’m aware the phenomenon exists, but the only guarantee I can see for avoiding it is not to write a second book. Obviously, that wasn’t the choice I made.

19. What’s your tour like this time? Have you moved up to Jon Stewart and Colbert territory?

I’ve appeared on TV just once, for a Swedish book program where the segment was filmed in my living room. The woman interviewing me and the camera man were both quite nice, but in the middle of the interview, the camera man started speaking urgently in Swedish and motioning at his nose, apparently distressed about the shininess of my face. So then the woman delicately asked if she could apply her own foundation to me. As she patted it on, she told me her makeup sponge had touched the skin of many distinguished writers.

20. Lindsay Lohan was really into James Frey. Which celebrity would you be most excited about to lurv you, and who would embarrass you beyond belief and make you question everything you’d ever done?

I’d be most excited about Catherine Keener; I’ve decided she’s my favorite actress. I wouldn’t be embarrassed by anyone–in some ways, I get the biggest kick out of the unlikelier readers–but if I heard that Ashton Kutcher was a fan, I’d be pretty shocked.

* If by “sit down” you mean “refuse all requests to use googlechat with avatars and answer questions by email instead, because a certain someone does not have gmail.”
** We know, it’s a frog. As in, you have to kiss a lot of. Sorry.
*** Somewhere, it’s still zeitgeist.

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