It’s late March and Curtis Sittenfeld is speaking via Skype from her Minneapolis home about the complexities of writing a novel inspired by the life of Hillary Clinton. Sittenfeld deeply admires Clinton, and that esteem fueled her desire to write Rodham (Random House, May), her sixth novel, which imagines Clinton’s life if she hadn’t married Bill.
But Sittenfeld says she had to keep those feelings in check for the project. Sitting at her desk in a black sweater and thick-framed eyeglasses, her straight brown hair cut in a no-nonsense shoulder-length style, she explains that to write a good novel she had to make decisions that served the story rather than ones that would please Clinton.
Still, she’s only human.
“If I got word that Hillary Clinton wanted to have lunch with me, I would be delighted,” Sittenfeld says. “I would start walking to New York. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I probably made narrative choices that I thought served the book but also ensured that that wouldn’t happen.”
Of course, at the moment no one is going anywhere. While, at the time of our conversation, the coronavirus outbreak had not yet hit Minnesota with the ferocity that it hit other states, Sittenfeld was already observing social distancing with her husband and two children. The kids were drawing and enjoying a little extra screen time during spring break, before online school started. Sittenfeld wasn’t particularly ambitious for herself, either. “Like a lot of people I’m mostly refreshing the New York Times,” she says. “That’s what I treat as my full-time job.”
Rodham is a counterfactual novel, a meditation on where we all might be if one woman had made a different decision decades ago. But Sittenfeld doesn’t seem particularly obsessed with what if and if only. Though yes, she would feel better if someone different was in the White House right now.
The idea for Rodham originated during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Sittenfeld received several requests to write essays about Clinton. In 2008, she published American Wife (Random House), a novel inspired by Laura Bush, and editors thought the deep thinking and research Sittenfeld did for that project made her a natural to write about Clinton. But Sittenfeld declined those requests. “I didn’t feel like I had anything to say about Hillary that hadn’t been said a thousand times before,” she recalls.
Then, on the eve of Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, an editor at Esquire asked Sittenfeld to write a short story from Clinton’s point of view. “I thought, I don’t really have anything to say from a nonfiction perspective, but I have a lot to say from a fictional perspective,” Sittenfeld says.
The story gives the nominee’s take on the journalist interviewing her—she appreciates the reporter’s intelligence, but not her sense of entitlement. In other words, Sittenfeld flipped the question nonfiction think pieces ask. “It wasn’t saying, ‘What does her existence or her role in our culture mean? What does she mean?’ ” she explains. “It was saying, ‘How do we look to her? What does she think of us?’ ”
Sittenfeld also realized that school-age children are old enough to know who Clinton is but don’t necessarily know much about her husband or his baggage. “I started to think, ‘What if that was true for adults, too? What if we perceived Hillary totally separately from Bill?’ ” she says.
The novel begins with events pulled from Clinton’s life. At her 1969 Wellesley College commencement speech, Hillary Rodham sparks controversy when she directly responds to the remarks of the U.S. senator who spoke before her, arguing against his plea for political restraint rather than protest. At Yale Law School, she falls in love with a wildly charismatic classmate named Bill Clinton. After graduation, she works in Washington, D.C., on the Watergate hearings before joining Bill in Arkansas and considering his multiple marriage proposals.
In Rodham, she says no. From that point, we see a protagonist who bears obvious resemblance to her real-life inspiration—she is brilliant, hardworking, and ambitious. But in the novel, we also see her conflicted inner life and the weaknesses and blind spots that shape some of her decisions. For example, Rodham becomes a U.S. senator from Illinois at the expense of Carol Moseley Braun—who, in real life, was the first woman of color elected to the Senate. Rodham’s justification for running, given to her deeply disappointed law school mentor, is that she doesn’t think Moseley Braun can defeat the Republican incumbent. The informed reader knows better.
“If I made her never make a questionable decision, the book would have seemed like a preposterous love letter,” Sittenfeld says. “I’m sure to some readers it will seem like a preposterous love letter anyway, but realistically I do not think Hillary Clinton is less moral than average. I actually think she’s probably more moral than average.”
Rodham’s decision to leave Bill has a tremendous impact on his career, and in this timeline other public figures behave differently too. For instance, Bernie Sanders does not run for president in 2016. Sittenfeld says she made decisions about what to change and keep on a case-by-case basis. “That’s the work of the book: to think, ‘Okay, this would still be true, but this wouldn’t be true, or this might have a little variation,’ ” she says.
Clinton has resided somewhere in Sittenfeld’s consciousness for her entire adult life. The author was a senior in high school when Bill Clinton was elected president. “I thought that Hillary seemed really interesting and impressive,” says Sittenfeld, who watched the first lady from the Massachusetts boarding school that inspired her breakout first novel, Prep (Random House, 2005).
But by the end of the ’90s, Sittenfeld had scandal fatigue, and her opinion of the couple dropped. By the time Clinton became a U.S. senator from New York, Sittenfeld was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the politician wasn’t on her mind.
When Clinton launched her first presidential campaign, Sittenfeld became intrigued again. While researching American Wife, she read Clinton’s 2003 memoir Living History. “I started reflecting on why my opinion of her had been lowered based on Bill’s choices,” Sittenfeld says. “Ever since, I’ve thought of her as a really complex, smart person.”
At 44, Sittenfeld is now the age that Clinton was when Bill announced his presidential bid in 1991. She has spent a lot of time contemplating Clinton and sometimes feels frustrated that the former secretary of state is still so misunderstood. “When she gave her concession speech in November 2016,” Sittenfeld says, “a lot of people asked, ‘Why didn’t she show this side of herself?’ Actually, she did, but we were blind to it.”
The intense vitriol of Clinton haters is well documented; her admirers are far less recognized. Like many, Sittenfeld finds this perplexing. “It’s such a weird thing,” she says. “A lot of people really like her. She’s incredibly inspiring to lots of people. That seems so ridiculous that I’m telling you that, but it’s something that we pretend is not really true, which is almost disrespectful to all the people for whom it is true.”
In another reality, Sittenfeld’s book tour might have been a place for those Clinton admirers to come together and steep themselves in the legacy of one of the most admired, and reviled, women in U.S. history. But that was before a virus from the other side of the world changed everything.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” Sittenfeld says. “Things that seemed normal last week are not anymore.”
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single (TarcherPerigee).