Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
“Pride and Prejudice” may be Jane Austen’s most beloved novel. Now it has gotten a 21st century makeover. The book is called “Eligible” and it’s written by Curtis Sittenfeld, the bestselling author of “Prep” and “American Wife.” The story transports the Bennet sisters from the English countryside to the affluent suburbs of Cincinnati. In this modern retelling, barbecues have replaced balls, and texting is the preferred form of written communication. Yet tensions over class and gender remain — along with the struggle to marry on one’s own terms — if at all. Curtis Sittenfeld on remaking a classic and the enduring appeal of Jane Austen.
- Curtis Sittenfeld Author of five novels, including "Prep," "American Wife," and "Eligible"
Read An Excerpt
From the book ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld. Copyright © 2016 by Curtis Sittenfeld. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Curtis Sittenfeld never intended to rewrite a Jane Austen novel. The idea came from the Austen Project, which pairs writers with the British novelist's books for modern retelling. But when they asked Sittenfeld to bring "Pride And Prejudice" into the 21st century, the bestselling author says she couldn't resist. The result is "Eligible," set in modern-day Cincinnati.
MS. DIANE REHMSittenfeld chronicles the lives and loves of the Bennet sisters. While staying true to her source material, the author of "Prep" and "American Wife" also infuses the story with more modern things, anorexia, racism, transgender identity, reality television. Curtis Sittenfeld is here in the studio to talk about all of it and throughout the hour, we'll be taking your calls and questions. Join us on 800-433-8850.
MS. DIANE REHMSend an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And it's good to have you here.
MS. CURTIS SITTENFELDThank you for having me.
REHMYou know, it's so funny, when I opened this book and read the Mark Twain quote, which says "when the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always 20 years behind the times," is that why you chose to set this book in Cincinnati?
SITTENFELDI guess partly. I mean, I'm from Cincinnati so that was a big part of the reason that it was sort of fun to set the story in a place where I had never set my fiction before, but I did have some familiarity with the city. But I also -- the truth is there's some question as to whether Mark Twain really said that, but it was so irresistible to me and the fact that this is a novel, I thought I could get away with putting it in there, even if it's not 100 percent certain.
REHMTell me what your reaction was when the Austen Project first approached you.
SITTENFELDWell, I was very intrigued immediately and I think I was also skeptical and I almost started to write an email saying, you know, thank you so much for thinking of me. I'm gonna pass. I was in the middle of writing another novel. But I actually thought, but, you know, it sounds like so much fun and how can someone be invited to do this and say no. And so I ended up -- it was around Christmas time in 2011 and I ended up rereading "Pride And Prejudice" over Christmas before I responded.
SITTENFELDAnd when I started rereading "Pride And Prejudice," I did think, oh, I have so many ideas. This would be such a delightful way to spend a few years.
REHMThat's great. So it took you how many years?
SITTENFELDSo when they approached me, I was in the middle of writing another novel, which I finished so it took me about two-ish years to write "Eligible."
REHMAll right. Why don't you read for us from the start so listeners can get a sense of what you've done here.
SITTENFELD"Well before his arrival in Cincinnati, everyone knew that Chip Bingley was looking for a wife. Two years earlier, Chip, graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School, Psion of the Pennsylvania Bingleys, who in the 20th century had made their fortune in plumbing fixtures, had a ostensibly, with some reluctance, appeared on the juggernaut reality television show, 'Eligible.' Over the course of eight weeks, in the fall of 2011, 25 single women had lived together in a mansion in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and vied for Chip's heart, accompanying him on dates to play blackjack in Las Vegas and taste wine at vineyards in Napa Valley, fighting with and besmirching one another in and out of his presence.
SITTENFELDAt the end of each episode, every woman received either a kiss on the lips from him, which meant she would continue to compete or kiss on the cheek, which meant she had to return home immediately. In the final episode, was only two women remaining, Kara, a wide-eyed blond ringleted 23-year-old former college cheerleader turned second grade teacher from Jackson, Mississippi, and Marcie, a duplicitous, yet alluring brunette, 28-year-old dental hygienist from Morristown, New Jersey.
SITTENFELDChip wept profusely and declined to propose marriage to either. They both were extraordinary, he declared, stunning and intelligent and sophisticated, but toward neither did he feel what he termed a soul connection. In compliance with FCC regulations, Marcie's subsequent tirade consisted primarily of bleeped out words that nevertheless did little to conceal her rage. 'It's not because he was on that silly show that I want him to meet our girls,' Mrs. Bennet told her husband over breakfast on a morning in late June.
SITTENFELDThe Bennets lived on Granden Road in a sprawling eight-bedroom Tudor in Cincinnati's Hyde Park neighborhood. 'I never even saw it, but he went to Harvard Medical School, you know.' 'So you've mentioned,' said Mr. Bennet. 'After all we've been through, I wouldn't mind a doctor in the family,' Mrs. Bennet said. 'Call that self-serving if you like, but I'd say it's smart.' 'Self-serving,' Mr. Bennet repeated, 'you?'
SITTENFELDFive weeks prior, Mr. Bennet had undergone emergency coronary artery bypass surgery. After a not inconsiderable recuperation, it was just in the last few days that his typically sardonic affect had returned. 'Chip Bingley didn't even want to be on 'Eligible,' but his sister nominated him,' Mrs. Bennet said. 'A reality show isn't unlike the Nobel Peace Prize then,' Mr. Bennet said, 'in that they both require nominations.' 'I wonder if Chip's renting or has bought a place,' Mrs. Bennet said, 'that would tell us something about how long he plans to stay in Cincinnati.'
SITTENFELDMr. Bennet sat down his slice of toast. 'Given that this man is a stranger to us, you see inordinately interested in the details of his life.' 'I'd scarcely say stranger,' Mrs. Bennet said. 'He's in the ER at Christ Hospital, which means Dick Lucas must know him. Chip's very well-spoken, not like those trashy young people who are usually on TV and he's very handsome, too.' 'I thought you'd never seen the show.'
SITTENFELD'I only caught a few minutes of it when the girls were watching.' Mrs. Bennet looked peevishly at her husband. 'You shouldn't quarrel with me. It's bad for your recovery. Anyway, Chip could've had a whole career on TV, but chose to return to medicine and you can tell that he's from a nice family. Fred, I really believe his moving here right when Jane and Liz are home is the silver lining to our troubles.'
SITTENFELDThe eldest and second eldest of the five Bennet sisters had lived in New York for the last decade and a half. It was due to their father's health scare that they had abruptly, if temporarily, returned to Cincinnati. 'My dear,' said Mr. Bennet, 'if a sock puppet with a trust fund and a Harvard medical degree moved here, you'd think he was meant to marry one of our girls.'"
REHMPoor Mr. Bennet. I just feel so bad for him surrounded by five daughters and a wife who is just determined to marry off her daughters to Harvard educated moneyed men and Mr. Bennet doesn't give a hoot.
SITTENFELDYeah, he sort of is on his own a little bit in the house.
REHMOn his own, but at the same time, worried about finances.
SITTENFELDOr should be worried about finances, yeah. So you learn early on that he's just had this major health scare and then, as you keep reading, you also learn that even though they're this upper class family, essentially, that he does not have health insurance. And so they're sort of -- they have the appearance of being affluent, but, you know, not the bank account.
REHMWell, the appearance of being affluent also because he, basically, inherited money from his family and then didn't do much with it.
SITTENFELDYes. Then, spent a lot of money on his children and did not encourage them to find jobs when they became adults. So basically, of the five Bennets, in my version of the story, of the five Bennet daughters, only the two oldest have jobs and only one of those jobs is really enough to support the person and that's Liz, as a magazine writer. Whereas Jane is a yoga instructor, which means that in Manhattan, she cannot pay her own rent so her father pays it for her, although she's pushing 40.
REHMDoes the father share the concerns about money?
SITTENFELDI think he shares the concerns about money much more than about matrimony. I mean, I think -- and I think he also just feels, in a sort of daily way, he feels like "I wish that my daughters would get out from under my roof."
REHMYeah, exactly. Exactly. But the point is that these five daughters, I must say, do love their dad and have come home because of his health scare. The question, though, Mrs. Bennet is focused on marriage. Tell me about the young man. You've got a Darcy in the book. You've got a Bingley in the book. You've got the Bennets. Really, names out of Austen's book.
SITTENFELDYeah, absolutely. So this is a modern retelling of "Pride And Prejudice" and, obviously, you know, as many other people have shown, there's all sorts of ways to up update or reinterpret or do spinoffs of "Pride And Prejudice" or of Austen's other novels. And my approach was to basically keep the plot or keep the architecture of the novel and also to keep the names because I didn't want readers to be distracted, thinking, well, who's who?
SITTENFELDAnd, like, I just feel that would've -- you almost would've had to keep a chart. So the names are all -- some of the names are a little bit -- like, you know, Mr. Bingley or Charles Bingley is Chip Bingley, but it's very close. But then, the situations that they find themselves in are much more contemporary.
REHMAnd that set me to wondering whether the Austen group that first approached you had any say in the kinds of circumstances that you brought to bear in the book. We'll talk about those circumstances after we take a short break. I mean, who would've thunk it back then, talking about transgender issues, homosexuality and all the rest? Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Curtis Sittenfeld is with me. She is the author of a brand new retelling of "Pride and Prejudice." Her new book is titled, "Eligible." And, of course, you know her as the author of five novels, including "Prep" and "American Wife." Curtis, talk about some of the challenges you faced. I found myself wondering, as I was reading this, whether you had to clear any of the situations you used with the Austen group or whether they gave you carte blanche?
SITTENFELDI did not have to clear any editorial choices -- I -- the -- it's the British division of the publisher HarperCollins who initiated the Austen project and assigned these books to various writers. But actually, because of, you know, copyright expiration, it's not -- it's not as if there's like an estate of Jane Austen that does or doesn't give its blessings to people who want to write, you know, spinoffs...
SITTENFELD...or derivations. And so there was nobody who could say, you're breaking the law by including that plotline. And actually -- so the publisher approached me in 2011, late 2011. I agreed to it. And then essentially I didn't have contact with them for several year -- I mean, every maybe 10 months, an editor would check in I think maybe just to know that I existed.
REHMHow are you doing? Yeah.
SITTENFELDBut -- and to have that kind of freedom, to me, as a writer, was wonderful. And it felt like -- I don't know if this is the reality -- but it felt like they trusted me, which is always flattering.
REHMSo what about the challenges you faced in trying to create this totally contemporary version?
SITTENFELDSo I thought of it -- I thought of the book in terms of the structure of it. And what I did was, I started by writing up a synopses of what happens in each of the 61 chapters in "Pride and Prejudice." And then, it was a few weeks or a few months later that I realized I needed to do my own outline for "Eligible." I could not go off the outline of "Pride and Prejudice" to write "Eligible." Because once I deviated from one storyline, I couldn't pick up and reenter. And I couldn't say, okay, this is "Pride and Prejudice's" chapter 11 and this will be my chapter 11.
SITTENFELDSo some of it -- some of the challenges was just sort of managing structure, which is a very technical writerly thing. But I -- in terms of the -- creating plot points, I almost tried to think about what emotions the plots or the encounters or whatever in "Pride and Prejudice" elicit in the characters. And then I tried to elicit those emotions in the characters in "Eligible." So if a character has some experience where she feels scandalized in "Pride and Prejudice," I wanted her to be scandalized in "Eligible." If she feels, you know, romantically awkward in "Pride and Prejudice," I want her to feel romantically awkward in "Eligible."
REHMThere is a scene early in the book where, of course, Mrs. Bennet succeeds in having the girls invited to a neighborhood barbeque. And Liz, one of the daughters, overhears Darcy say something snippy and not very nice. Talk about that.
SITTENFELDWell, you know, Austen fans or "Pride and Prejudice" fans will recognize that that's pretty similar to, you know, one of the opening chapters of "Pride and Prejudice," where Lizzie Bennet also overhears Darcy making disparaging remarks about her and about the setting. And so some of the most iconic moments in "Pride and Prejudice" I did try to recreate. Like there's the famous scene where, you know, Jane falls ill while visiting Bingley. And so Lizzie kind of goes through the elements. The weather is wild, but she goes through it to check on her sister. And I have a sort of equivalent, modern version of that.
SITTENFELDAnd there's, obviously, there's the famous beloved scene where Darcy proposes to Liz and Liz is like -- I call her Lizzie, as Austen calls her -- and of course I had to have that scene. So there were times when I was sitting with a copy of "Pride and Prejudice" open on my lap and sort of looking at, you know, the dialog and what gets said and what gets summarized and what are the motions. And then there are other scenes or chapters in "Eligible" which are greatly different from "Pride and Prejudice." They have no counterpart and they're just...
REHMGive me an example.
SITTENFELDWell, there's -- so, you know, there's this idea that -- in "Pride and Prejudice" there's this end-tale issue where, because it's all daughters in the Bennet family, they're in danger of losing their house.
SITTENFELDAnd so I totally -- there are also, as we discussed, financial problems in my Bennet family, but they're of a totally different variety and they're -- the house is sort of crumbling. They have a sort of, you know, pest control issue, it emerges. And the mother is a kind of overzealous catalog shopper. So there's lots of things where, you know -- one thing that's very different, Liz and Jane go on runs together and kind of have heart-to-hearts, they're -- and talk very frankly about their sister and about, you know, their love lives and their concerns. So that's one thing.
SITTENFELDAnd then there's also lots of -- I mean, there's just scenes of sisters painting their nails, watching television. You know, big -- sisters -- two of the youngest sisters are obsessed with CrossFit and, you know, Paleo diets and are scolding their family members for eating carbs. So I would say that those don't really have a counterpart in Austen.
REHMHere's a tweet from Shavon, who says, does Curtis Sittenfeld normally outline when she writes? Was this a new experience?
SITTENFELDI do outline. So some novelists do and some novelists don't. And I do because I think that it helps me not write myself into a corner. You know, it's almost like the difference between thinking through your day and thinking what you're going to do. And then, if you don't, if you're like me, it gets to be like 3:00 p.m. and you think, what did I do? What did I mean to do? Like I've just kind of lost control over everything. And so it just makes me feel like I have a clear view of what I'm writing toward. But my outline is subject to change because I...
REHMMaking sure that you put things on the calendar that you've got to do that day.
SITTENFELDYeah. That's what -- it is sort of like -- an outline is sort of like a calendar for your novel, I think.
REHMAll right. And let's talk about the television show, "Eligible."
SITTENFELDSo, it's funny, I didn't realize that reality TV would end up being this major plotline in "Eligible" originally. But there's the very famous opening line of "Pride and Prejudice" which I'm sure that many listeners know by heart. And when I was transplanting the "Pride and Prejudice" story to -- instead of being the early 1800s, an English village, it's a medium-sized Midwestern city in 2013. And I thought, how would the people in Cincinnati know that this attractive, youngish man has arrived in town? And how would they know that he's single? And if I made him a recent contestant on a reality dating show like "The Bachelor" that killed two birds with one stone.
SITTENFELDSo it was really like just sort of trying to think in terms of plausibility. But then once I had put that in there and made him this, you know, quasi-celebrity -- the further along I got in the book, the more I thought, how can I have this sort of reality TV richness, background, and not bring it into the present plot? Like, that would just be such a squandered opportunity because it's so -- it's so juicy and weird. And it's so much a part of our culture. And so, of course, you know, not to give too much away, but there is an element of the reality TV that plays out within the book itself.
REHMBut, of course, he's got to be so handsome and debonair to get onto this television program. How did he get picked in the first place? It was his sister who nominated him.
SITTENFELDYeah, so -- yes, Chip Bingley's sister. So -- because I feel like, you know, I actually did...
REHMAnd Chip, we must say, is a woman. She is Charlotte, is she not? Or am I confusing her with somebody else?
SITTENFELDYou might be confusing her with someone else. Well, so Chip -- not, so -- oh, Charlotte is Liz's best friend. Chip is the bachelor. He, sorry, he's not...
SITTENFELD...but he's Jane's love interest. But he's -- the way that he ended up on the show -- I know, well actually as a side note, I will say that as I wrote this there are characters named, I think, like, Charlotte, Caroline, Catherine, like I did think, oh, like people had much better attention spans in Austen's time. And she, I mean, like you can't get away with -- it's almost like now. Like I would think, oh, these names are too overlapping and similar and confusing.
SITTENFELDI would get confused myself. But anyway the -- Chip's sister Caroline nominated him to be on the show that's like "The Bachelor," that's called "Eligible." But so therefore he gets -- he sort of gets to have the kind of juicy experience of being on reality TV without the stigma attaching itself. Because it's almost like, oh, he was on it, but he was on it reluctantly.
REHMAnd what is his profession?
SITTENFELDSo he is an E.R. doctor. And he is friends with -- old friends, medical school friends with a neurosurgeon, Darcy. So Darcy does not have this, like, slightly sordid reality TV background. It's only Chip Bingley who does.
REHMAnd does Chip end up enjoying himself on this TV program?
SITTENFELDI think he does. I think some people want to believe that he doesn't. But I think he kind of likes having 25 women vie for his attention. I don't know. I don't know why.
REHMTwenty-five women and he eliminates them one after the other.
SITTENFELDYes. And, oh, sorry. Go ahead.
REHMHe was supposed to marry the finalist, but he says, I cannot do it.
SITTENFELDIt doesn't always end in a fairy tale. So I did, I watched two episodes of -- or two seasons of "The Bachelor." And I actually -- I feel a little bit like an actor who starts smoking for a role and then smokes for the next 50 years. Where, I mean, I really did not need to watch the second season to -- but I have new respect for how incredibly addictive that show is.
SITTENFELDOh, yeah. And I also interviewed a former "Bachelor" producer, where I said to him, I would love to talk to you for like half an hour. And literally two and a half hours later I got off the phone. I was like giddy with excitement and all his juicy details.
REHMSo tell me about watching that show and why you think it became addictive.
SITTENFELDWell, so they do a really good job of, for lack of a better phrase, character development. And I'm not saying they do a fair job of it to the contestants, but they sort of pigeonhole the contestants and then they show them behaving in ways that reinforce the way that they've been pigeonholed. And they also -- I mean, the thing is, if you -- if I had a camera on me 24 hours a day, or even just 12 hours a day, whatever, there were so many ridiculous, embarrassing things that I would say. And so it's -- I think it's not that hard. These people are probably mostly, fundamentally appealing. But they say ridiculous things.
SITTENFELDOr they just, I don't know, they -- and they also, I mean, something that this producer told me that I've heard elsewhere is, if you are a contestant on a reality TV show like "The Bachelor," you're living this very kind of weird, confined existence. You're cut off from your support system. You can't even listen to music. And so I do think...
SITTENFELDYeah, well because -- for two issues. One because of copyright or permission. But then, two, because if they're editing the scene, if the producers are editing the scene, they don't want this, you know, some background music playing a...
REHMSo what do they do? They hole them up in hotels and keep them totally apart?
SITTENFELDWell, no. So in "The Bachelor," they live together in a mansion. And literally, I think, what they do is drink. Like any chance there is to serve alcohol, they'd serve alcohol. They put on bikinis. I mean, they do sort of...
REHMAnd this one guy...
REHM...is sitting there watching it all?
SITTENFELDWell, but here's the thing that actually -- that I think I also have new respect for after watching these seasons. I think that the contestants feel real emotions. Like, that's the part that -- the more distant you are, the more fake it seems. But I think you're in this weird tunnel and you feel like you really want this person to love you back, even though you know he's, quote, unquote, "dating" 10 other women.
REHMCurtis Sittenfeld, her new book is titled, "Eligible." It is a modern retelling of "Pride and Prejudice." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have a caller in Baltimore, Md. Let's open the phones. Hi, Fran, you're on the air.
FRANHi, Diane. How are you today?
REHMI'm good, thanks. Go right ahead.
FRANWell, I'm a huge "Pride and Prejudice" fan. I've always loved the book. And especially the 1995 A&E adaptation with Colin Firth. And I believe, from that, there's a whole genre of fan fiction that has been going on that I know of personally since at least 2000. There's multiple websites and fan fiction sites that have taken that have taken that concept of "Pride and Prejudice" and set in all types of different settings across the globe from skiing in Utah, a family to an Argentinean horse farm.
FRANSo this is a huge phenomenon. And, you know, women love the story. But the fan fiction always looked at it from, you know, it took them all this time in that miniseries to get together. What happens after that kiss? So a lot of the fan fiction went on to describe, you know, the happily ever after and what happens after that -- and retelling of the actual story, just like your guest. And did she know about any of those sites?
SITTENFELDSo, it's interesting, because sometimes I will say that I think of "Eligible" as fan fiction. And I guess the truth is, I don't (word?) I've read, technically, what is other fan fiction. Although I've read other sort of spinoffs of like, for example, the caller might be familiar with, there's a novel called "Longbourn" by a British writer that imagines "Pride and Prejudice" from the servants perspective. It's fascinating. It's incredibly well-researched and insightful. Or there's a novel by a writer named Karen Joy Fowler, that's called "The Jane Austen Book Club," which was also made into a movie, where it's basically, you know, contemporary-ish people reading the books of Jane Austen. And then it goes into how the books parallel their own lives.
SITTENFELDSo the amazing thing -- there was a time when I put -- I think I put Jane Austen on Google Alert so that I would get, you know, whenever there's an article written about Jane Austen. But actually I had to stop the Google Alert because it was like there were, you know, eight alerts a day or 20 alerts a day. That, like, Jane Austen is in the air, in the water, she's everywhere.
REHMExactly. And, you know, quite a while back we had a member of The Jane Austen Society on the program. And I wonder how they react to all these retellings.
SITTENFELDWell, obviously -- I mean, I can't speak for Janeites, as they describe themselves or as they identify themselves. But I mean I think, you know, obviously the sort of basis of that identity is this enormous fondness for Jane Austen. And I imagine that, you know, different people like different iterations of "Pride and Prejudice" or of other stories.
REHMIt always keeps Jane Austen alive. And that's important. All right. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your calls, your comments. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. I've got a little frog in my throat, which I hope I can get rid of pretty quickly while we take call from John in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. You're on the air.
JOHNThank you very much. I enjoyed this show, and my wife is a published author, so I always enjoy hearing authors.
JOHNThere was so much I liked, but there was one thing that just brought back a memory. And my wife, I am a father of -- we have five daughters, and we were flying back from California two years ago, and I noticed when I got on the plane with my family and the girls, and they all got their seats, that they were just surrounded by gorgeous guys everywhere. And I was, like, okay, you know, I didn't know what to make of it. And then pretty much the six-hour flight, I didn't hear from any of them the whole time because I was...
REHMFrom your girls, they left you alone.
SITTENFELDYes, and they -- and my wife. And it turned out it was the cast of "The Bachelorette" all sitting in the back of the plane. And they were all sitting next to these hunks. And so my wife is next to one of them, and she's a romance writer, and he's talking to her and talking to her. So she ends up writing the poem for him that he sends to the girl on the show, you know, beseeching his love for her.
SITTENFELDAnd then she posts about it on her Facebook page, and all of a sudden she starts popping up on fan fiction websites. And then out of the blue, the young man's mother contacts her and says so happy that he's still on the show, and -- but it was just a funny experience, and I just, it just -- this show made me remember that.
REHMYeah, I'm glad you called. That is just hilarious.
SITTENFELDI know, that would be pretty exciting. I feel like I could've used some of that material, if only I had heard that anecdote, you know, a few years ago.
REHMAbsolutely. Here's a tweet from Joe, who says, how did your knowledge of the culture of upper-middle-class Cincinnati play into the plot structure of "Eligible"?
SITTENFELDIt's an interesting question. So I grew up in Cincinnati, as I said, and I actually went to boarding school at the age of 14. I went to boarding school in Massachusetts. And I have never really lived in Cincinnati as an adult since then. So in some ways, even though it's my hometown, I was doing research, and I was trying to make sure that, you know, if I have a couple going to a restaurant that it really is a restaurant that a couple in their late 30s would go to on a first date, or, you know, if -- I don't know. I think there are different -- there are different Cincinnatis, and I think that "Eligible," as this tweeter seems to know, in "Eligible" it definitely is a sort of affluent, upper-middle-class pocket of the city. It's not the universal Cincinnati.
SITTENFELDAnd so some of it was -- I mean, I live in St. Louis now, which is similar. Some of it is just having some handle on the way Midwestern cities like this function. Some of it is firsthand experience. Some of it is research.
REHMHow come you went to boarding school in Massachusetts?
SITTENFELDThat's a good question. It's so that I could write a novel about it in my adulthood. No, I don't know why I went. I mean there -- I actually -- I have three siblings. They all stayed in Cincinnati to go to school. And interestingly, I was academically the weakest. So I think some people think oh, you were extra-smart, so you had to go away, which I wish had been the case. That is not. I mean, I think I was just sort of curious, and I thought that boarding school seemed glamorous.
REHMSo you asked to go?
SITTENFELDI asked to go, although I had -- there was somebody from the boarding school I ultimately attended that was sort of doing a presentation about the school in Cincinnati, and my father arranged from my sister, one of my sisters and me, to attend that. And so I think that my father was sort of curious in the way that I was curious. I think that my mother, had it been entirely up to her, would definitely not have sent me to boarding school.
REHMBut at what age did you go?
SITTENFELDSo I was 13 when I was applying, and shortly after my 14th birthday I flew away.
REHMAnd you were ready to do that?
SITTENFELDWell, I mean, who knows? I did it, whether I was ready or not.
SITTENFELDI mean, and I should say I received an excellent education.
REHMWhere did you go?
SITTENFELDI went to Groton.
REHMYou went to Groton, and you enjoyed it. It was co-ed at the time.
SITTENFELDIt was co-ed, yes, it was co-ed, yes.
REHMSo that experience must have been rather different from your experience of living in Cincinnati.
SITTENFELDYes and no. I mean, I do -- I think that it was in some ways comparable to the experience that some people who go away to college have, where, you know, you're -- it was very exciting. Like of course I had a lot of very smart classmates. I had a lot of very privileged classmates. Not everyone who goes to boarding school is privileged, contrary to sort of stereotypes. There are a lot of very dedicated teachers.
SITTENFELDI mean, again, there are very good schools in Cincinnati. So it wasn't like an academic necessity for me to go. The funny thing is, so my first novel "Prep" is set at a Massachusetts boarding school, a sort of confused, Midwestern 14-year-old girl goes away to a boarding school in Massachusetts. And the funny thing is I think there have been times when I was maybe earlier in my career that I thought that if you felt confused about something, you could sort out your confusion by writing a novel about it, and that turns out to be 100 percent inaccurate. I still very confused about boarding school, and now I'm 40 years old.
REHMOh, that's wonderful. And let's go to Akron, Ohio, on that note. Mary, you're on the air.
MARYHi, I was just calling to say how much I loved "Prep." It's one of my favorite books. And I've never read anything else, a coming-of-age book, that really felt exactly how I felt at that age. It was like being in my own head.
SITTENFELDThat is lovely. Thank you, thank you. No, it's funny because I think that -- I've had people say to me that it's -- you know, it's this book or this novel about adolescence that actually does not make you wish you were an adolescent. It makes you sort of relieved to be a grownup, yeah, yeah, but thank you.
REHMMary, is that how you felt?
MARYYes, and I was new, as well, to school.
MARYSo being a new person, feeling out of your surroundings and your comfort zone.
REHMYeah, interesting. All right, thanks for calling. Let's go now to Mark in Orleans, Virginia. You're on the air.
MARKHi, good morning. I'm the father of two happily married daughters who have made me a grandfather several times over. But when they were teenagers, you know, the big question in my mind was how do I really prepare them for life and what to look for in a relationship with a young man. And if you lecture teenage girls, you'll get nowhere, and I thought about it. What I did was I (unintelligible) by Jane Austin and Thomas Hardy were two of the best authors and would play them when we would go away on long trips.
MARKAnd, you know, they both had a common denominator, and that was that real affection was based on deep respect and -- well, mutual respect and friendship. And if nothing else, from those novels, I think, really gave my children a good grounding in what to look for and what to avoid. You know, it was the basis for a lot of conversations, as well. I mean, how does this (unintelligible) my happiness, how does this one make (unintelligible) wife, so on and so forth.
MARKAnd I can't speak to the current author's work, but if it serves a similar purpose, it's certainly something that would be helpful to young women today.
SITTENFELDThat's so funny. You know, I don't know if a book exists that sort of like a how-to parenting guide, yeah, what Jane Austin sort of helped me teach my daughters. But I swear you might be able to get a book contract for that if it doesn't already exist. Yeah, find yourself an agent.
REHMBut, you know, in Jane Austin's time, it was that a woman was judged by not only how she married but if she married, and that's what you've taken and modernized here.
SITTENFELDWell, I think that one of the reactions among early readers that makes me happiest about "Eligible" is that I think people have said one the things I like is it shows that there are different ways to find your happily ever after. And if you're a woman today, you don't have to marry a man and pop out babies. You can not get married, you can marry a woman, you can pop out babies, you can not pop out babies. And, you know, there is still, I think, social pressure to marry if you're middle class, and, you know, maybe by the time you're 40, which is part of the reason that I aged up the Bennett sisters.
SITTENFELDIn my version, Lizzie and Jane are close to 40. But I think that that pressure is more symbolic than literal or financial today. And, you know, again you can -- there are many ways to make a happy, satisfying life for yourself.
REHMAbsolutely. Are you married?
SITTENFELDI am married.
REHMAnd how long have you been married?
SITTENFELDI've been married for eight years. So yeah, miraculously. No, just kidding.
REHMWhy do you say that?
SITTENFELDI meant more miraculously that someone voluntarily married me. I'm just, I'm kidding, I'm kidding. No, you know, I'm a neurotic writer. So that's not every man's cup of tea. But I enjoy being married. But again it's not -- just because I enjoy it, I don't feel like everyone, everyone else needs to embrace the -- you know, it's like I enjoy Brussels sprouts. That doesn't mean that everyone else needs to, too, right?
REHMHow did you and your husband meet?
SITTENFELDOh, that's so funny. So we actually met in DC. I can't -- nobody has ever asked me this, no journalist especially on live radio. My husband I met speed-dating. Not only did we meet -- do you know what speed-dating is?
REHMTell me what speed-dating is.
SITTENFELDOh my goodness, I don't know if we have enough time left in the hour. Okay, so okay, so I was actually -- I lived in D.C. at the time. I was writing an article for the Washington Post. And so people will say to me, oh, you were just speed-dating for that article, and I'll say, oh, no, I was just writing that article in order to speed-date.
SITTENFELDSo it's basically -- it's like in my -- I mean, there's all kinds of versions of this. But in -- when I did it, it's like 25 men and 25 women, and you talk for three minutes.
REHMWhere are you? Where are you?
SITTENFELDWe were at a bar.
SITTENFELDActually, we were at some super-cheesy bar, so we -- and we kind of think, oh, we should go back there on our 50th anniversary. But so you talk for three minutes, and then a whistle blows, and then you move -- the men -- in this night the men moved over. It's totally unromantic and anthropologically fascinating. And I can't believe I met my -- it's also -- I think it was kind of a fad 10 years ago, almost like the Macarena or something.
REHMSo what was it in that three minutes that drew you to this man?
SITTENFELDWell, I will say I don't think we looked at each other and thought, like, let's spend our lives -- I think it was almost like I would be willing to talk to you for, like, four minutes or five minutes. Well, there's two things. One, we happened to be across from each other when things were getting set up. So we talked for longer than three minutes. And we also realized that we knew someone in common, someone that he had gone to college with and I had gone to graduate school with.
SITTENFELDSo I think that we sort of -- we felt like, well, you might be, like, a creepy sociopath, but you're probably not because you also know James like I do.
REHMAnd what happened from there?
SITTENFELDIt was love. No, no, I mean, after that we just hung out, and I don't know. I was actually -- I have a friend who one time said to me that she -- she felt like she ended up with her wife because -- not because it was like this moment of feeling like oh, it's so clear, like I've been struck by a thunderbolt, and I should be with this person forever, but it was more like the absence of any huge warning signs.
SITTENFELDLike she said, I just didn't see any reason that we would break up. And I always thought that was, like, a really lovely sentiment.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Did you become friends before you fell in love?
SITTENFELDThis is literally -- I think this is the most personal interview, by which I mean congratulations. Did we? No, and actually I think that I had sort of had a bad habit of unsuccessfully blurring friendship and romance, where to the man it had been friendship, to me it had been romance, prior to that.
SITTENFELDBut my husband and I, we were always dating. By the way, I'm sure my husband is listening to this, and I can only imagine how much he's enjoying...
REHMHe's turning red. He's turning red.
SITTENFELDI know, as am I, as am I.
REHMBut you enjoyed each other.
REHMYou enjoyed being with each other. You had thing in common. You...
SITTENFELDYeah, oh yeah. I mean, he's -- it's funny because I think that sometimes people who know me a little bit or who know us -- I mean, my husband is very -- he's very smart, and he -- but I think they think, oh Curtis, Curtis is a novelist, she must be interesting. But I think people who really know us consider my husband to be, like, the much kind of funnier, more interesting part of the couple. They're sort of like at first blush it's Curtis, but then when you get to know them, like she's like the second-most interesting out of the two people.
REHMWhat does he do?
SITTENFELDHe is a professor.
SITTENFELDHe's a professor of communication. So -- which I think is nice because there's enough overlap in what we do and study, and sometimes he -- like he was writing his dissertation while I was writing my novel "American Wife." So one, we both worked a lot and sort of left each other alone to work. And also we could say, like, we're racing, and we're having a competition. But he's very familiar with my world, but he also, I would say he's very supportive, or he doesn't -- he can be purely happy if nice things happen in my career, and he doesn't need to feel -- I don't know, it's not -- he's not a fiction writer.
REHMDoes that relationship leave room for children?
SITTENFELDYes, we have two children.
REHMI'm glad, and how old are they?
SITTENFELDI feel like there's going to be nothing left by the end except, like, how much do I weigh, and, like, what's my Social Security. You're so good at this. There's a reason you're such a popular radio host. My children are five and seven.
REHMOh, that's lovely, but writing novels takes a lot of time. So how do you manage to do that and keep those children happy?
SITTENFELDSo I am very lucky because I'm a fulltime writer. I'm not teaching on the side.
SITTENFELDOr I'm not, you know, I write articles a little bit, but I'm certainly -- no one would mistake me for a journalist. So essentially, you know, I have some child care. They're at school some of the time. But it's not really different from if you said to someone who has kids who's, like, a lawyer, a teacher. It's -- I mean, and of course the truth is I do drop the ball, or like someone will see me at my kid's school and say, yeah, I just wanted to follow up on that email that I sent you, you know, two weeks ago.
SITTENFELDAnd so I would not say I'm the most organized person in the world, but it's the same balance that almost any other working parent is figuring out.
REHMWell, you have clearly figured out how to write novels. And I congratulate on your latest. It's titled "Eligible." It is a modern retelling of Jane Austin's "Pride and Prejudice." Curtis Sittenfeld, it's been a great pleasure to talk with you.
SITTENFELDThank you so much. It's been a pleasure for me, too.
REHMThank you, and to all of you, Jane Austin fans and otherwise, thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
Trump impeachment witness Fiona Hill on what her own background says about this political moment, and why she thinks the greatest threat to American democracy now comes from within.
Cities and states across the country are exploring reparations programs for Black Americans, but not all reparations advocates think it's the right approach. Diane talks to Mayor Daniel Biss of Evanston, Ill., and William Darity, Jr., and Kirsten Mullen, the co-authors of the book, "From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century”
The New Yorker's Evan Osnos traces the roots of divisions in the U.S. from 9/11 to January 6. His new book is "Wildland: The Making of America's Fury."