Come and chat to CURTIS SITTENFELD about SISTERLAND (and all her previous books), Tues 4 Mar 2014, 9-10pm

(111 Posts)

Following the international success of her two previous bestsellers PREP and AMERICAN WIFE, Curtis Sittenfeld has been called the new Donna Tartt, the new Anne Tyler, the new Alice Munro (her own favourite writer). Her latest novel, SISTERLAND, is about a pair of twins, Violet and Kate, who both have psychic visions, or ‘the senses’ as they call them. As they grow up in their suburban, dysfunctional household, it becomes clear that Violet is going to be Bad Twin (drops out of school, can’t maintain a relationship, embraces her ESP with relish) and Kate the Good Twin (gets married, has two children, completely denies her psychic powers in the hope of a ‘normal’ life). But when Vi predicts a giant earthquake will hit their town, the resulting publicity and fame forces both sisters to reconsider their attitudes. Vi is a brilliant character – funny, crazy, flaky. Kate’s struggle with the daily joys and anxieties of motherhood and marriage is expertly observed. And over all this runs the ticking time-bomb of Vi’s prediction and whether the earthquake will actually happen. A clever combination of the paranormal and the everyday ultra-normal, this is a wise, funny and highly enjoyable read from an author we might call the new Kate Atkinson…

You can find more on Curtis? highly informative website including her journalism.

Random House have 50 copies to give to Mumsnetters – to claim yours please fill in your details on the book of the month page. We’ll post here when all the copies have gone. If you’re not lucky enough to bag one of the free books, you can always get your paperback or Kindle version here.

We are thrilled that Curtis will be joining us and answering questions about SISTERLAND, her writing career and her previous novels on Tuesday 4 March, 9-10pm. ??So please feel free to discuss the book here throughout the month, pop up any advance questions and we will see you all here, Tue 4 March.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:12:52

DuchessofMalfi

I finished reading it this afternoon. Unfortunately I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would. The character of Kate annoyed me - it seemed all too easy for her to "forget about" her husband conveniently and sleep with Hank, her supposed friend. Why would she suddenly choose to do that? It seemed out of character.

All the way through I thought I didn't like Vi. Her alleged psychic powers made her appear odd. But by the end, I found myself liking her better - she was a strong character, answerable to no-one but herself, and not diminished by her perceived failed prophecy.

However, my thought about Vi's (and Kate's) prophecy of the earthquake was more to do with the upheavals in their own family.

So my question to Curtis Sittenfeld is - was the earthquake prophecy, to some extent, allegorical? Vi saw a disaster approaching, but it was personal to her sister. Kate, in choosing that particular date, had set herself on the path to self-destruction, and I wonder whether it would have happened anyway?

Yes, I think the earthquake can be seen as allegorical.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:13:48

EmLH

Thanks very much for my copy. I finished it last night at nearly midnight! Although it is not my usual choice of book I quite enjoyed it. I like Curtis' writing style and found it a comforting, easy read. It was quite a long book in terms of the plot panning out and I thought the characters developed quite slowly, but I didn't mind too much. I thought it was descriptive, but not in an annoying way, and I built up a good picture in my head of the twins and their surroundings.

*Spoiler**** the only disappointment to me was the ending. I quite liked Kate throughout the story (preferred Vi!), but when she chose not to tell Hank at the end, it really changed my opinion of her. I also felt Hank let go of his suspicions too easily and that Jeremy pretty much immediately accepted what she'd done and started planning their future, which was weird. It felt as if there was a massive build up to something that didn't happen and then they buggered off into the sunset pretty quickly. I think a more messy and protracted ending would've been more interesting. I also thought the daycare crash was hardly mentioned and really wanted Vi to have been right about something to validate her senses. I would've been happier if she'd had a second revelation that had come true publicly, for example.

One part of the book I did like was the bit where one second Kate was totally into shagging Hank and then when he started to take ages to come it immediately changed the situation and the way she was feeling. I thought that was very realistic and it made me feel sorry for her, as if that moment would have made her realise pretty quickly that the grass isn't always greener and fantasies should prob remain exactly that as the reality doesn't always match up.

As for a question for Curtis, for some reason, throughout the book I had Vi in my head as Melissa McCarthy! So I would be interested in who Curtis would visualise playing the characters should the book be turned into a film?

“Bugger Off Into the Sunset”—I suspect there’d be a large market for a book with that title. Who wants to write it?
By the way, I think Vi IS partly right about the earthquake prediction, about the huge, devastating one that takes place outside St. Louis. As for Melissa McCarthy, she’d make a great Vi. I can see Reese Witherspoon as Kate. Do you think people would buy those two as sisters?!

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:14:31

RachelMumsnet

Hi Curtis, Can I sneak in a question about one of your other books? American Wife is one of my favourite books of all time and I'm really interested to know whether Laura Bush has read the book and what she thought of it?

When asked (not by me—we’ve never met), Laura Bush has said that she hasn’t read American Wife and I believe this. I wouldn’t read it if I were her—she’s used to being the focus of public attention, so I’m sure she’s learned to tune it out, plus frankly I assume she’d find the book misleading and annoying. It doesn’t pretend to be fact. The factual one is her memoir, Spoken From the Heart. She may not have read my Laura Bush book, but I have read and enjoyed hers!

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:15:23

MrsSquirrel

My question for Curtis is about St Louis. The setting of the story in St Louis is important for the book in many ways. I know nothing at all about St Louis, so all the detail about the neighbourhoods and the streets they drove on were lost on me. What made you decide to set the book there and what does St Louis mean to you?

Interestingly, prior to your question, whenever someone asked me why the book contained so many details about St. Louis, the person was a St. Louisan. And I felt this was a rather self-deprecating response, with locals wondering why they would possibly be of interest to a larger audience, though maybe their self-deprecation is well-founded. I personally like novels grounded in a particular place, with very granular details. It’s okay if I picture them differently than they actually are. An analogy I often think of is Junot Diaz’s work, which is sprinkled with Spanish phrases. I don’t speak Spanish, but I can infer meaning, and I feel that his use of language helps to create a particular atmosphere for his fiction.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:17:24

gailforce1

Thank you for my copy.
I did enjoy the book and have added Prep and American Wife to my TBR pile.
One of my questions is the same as MrsSquirrel about the setting, St Louis.
I would also like to ask Curtis which authors she enjoys reading and if she can recommend any up and coming American writers?
Looking forward to the chat tomorrow night.

Regarding up and coming American writers, I love If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous, Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel, Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead and Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani. There are so many more but those are popping into my head right now.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:19:00

MimsyBorogroves

I need to remember this is tomorrow.

Curtis - Prep is one of my all time favourite books. I absolutely loved it - it took me back to my love of Malory Towers but added a real grown up (and well written grin) element to it. I've recommended it to far too many people. I sort of want to beg you to write more Ault stories, but I know that's probably very irritating. So I will sit on my hands and reread Prep instead.

Ha--the funny thing is, I do think I have a Prep sequel in me, although it would likely not take place at Ault. And it's definitely still gestating. A novel is probably a bit like a party, however, in that it's better to end it with people still wanting more.

MrsSquirrel Tue 04-Mar-14 21:20:34

Thanks for answering my question Curtis.
About the biscuit thing -
A few years ago Mumsnet had the prime minister Gordon Brown in for a live webchat. Somebody asked what his favourite biscuit was. (Favourite biscuit = favorite cookie) He answered all the questions about childcare, education policty, etc, but dodged the biscuit question. It attracted a lot of media attention and became a running joke on Mumsnet.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:23:28

mum2jakie

Looking forward to tonight's web chat. I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Sisterland from the mums net book club too.

I enjoyed the book but did find the cover and blurb a little misleading as I was expecting quite a tense thriller style of read and instead found the book quite an accurate representation of modern parenting which was a little slow going in parts.

I actually quite liked Kate as a main character - Vi irritated me considerably and I found the amount of media attention that her prediction received was a little implausible really. (SPOILER: I was glad that the earthquake didn't happen though. It would have been far too neat and easy to have her proven correct. I also liked how easily she brushed it off and moved on with her life.)

One feature that did strike me was the representation of breastfeeding as this is never really mentioned in fiction (beyond the newborn days or as a chore in the comedy 'mum lit' style novels.) It was nice to see this mentioned as an everyday part of Kate's life and not in a patronising propaganda way. I was wondering whether that kind of detail was included for any specific purpose?

I included the breastfeeding to give the texture of everyday life rather than for political reasons. I think the reality is that some mothers are able to breastfeed, some aren't, and nearly every mom seems to do the best she can. Although I have plenty of opinions, political and otherwise, I write about them in articles rather than fiction. I feel that fiction is more appropriate for writing about people as they are and getting at what makes people tick. Some readers are frustrated that my characters aren't moral role models, but again, I'm not trying to instruct.

MissKate Tue 04-Mar-14 21:23:36

Hi Curtis,

Did you go and talk to people about their senses. Do you believe in ESP?

I enjoyed the book.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:25:29

brendarenda

I'm really looking forward to the chat tonight. I enjoyed the book very much.
Unlike some other book clubbers, I actually loved the minutiae of Kate's everyday life at home with the kids. A domestic life (or maybe any life) is one that can't be accurately told without dealing in the detail. I think it also serves a similar purpose to the unfolding back story of the twins' childhood and adolescence. Sharing the sisters' past and the detail of Kate's day-to-day with the reader somehow draws us in closer. In fact, it struck me that this is what family relationships are mostly made of - a shared history and 'what shall we have for tea?'. That pretty much sums up my relationship with my sister anyway. No detail is too trivial for us!
I'm probably a bit late for a question but would love to know more about the thinking behind Curtis's treatment of ESP in the novel. I think it probably occupies exactly the right amount of space but you can't help wanting more of it!

I wanted to treat the ESP or psychicness matter-of-factly rather than sensationally. Kate and Vi sincerely believe they're psychic, so they're not trying to prove it to the reader. I was very flattered when a psychic complimented me on the depiction--she said, yeah, that's what it's really like. You have a premonition, then you go and make yourself a bowl of cereal.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:28:09

teaandcustardcreams

Hi Curtis,

What are your own views on 'psychic abilities' and did you visit a psychic when researching the book? Enjoyed the book!

I had interviewed a psychic in the past, I interviewed another one while working on the book, I did a bunch of reading, and I visited a New Age bookstore--I told myself I was going on a research trip, then I unironically bought crystals. Being psychic doesn't seem to me impossible, and I'm generally interested in the idea of intuition (which of course sometimes can come from external cues we're not even aware of perceiving). Hank speaks for me when he says that there is so much that's weird and unexplained in the world that being psychic doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility.

minimuffin Tue 04-Mar-14 21:30:10

Ooh I love good tip offs about authors.

Someone said upthread that this book reminded them of the Virgin Suicides and I agree with that. Girls left to muddle through their small town teenage years with their parents (esp mothers) physically present yet totally absent emotionally. Interesting seeing how Vi & Kate reacted to that and I found it really poignant when Kate was looking at photos of Ben's family and felt that she had no place in that. It was as if she would somehow taint the happy family set up because she was tainted by her upbringing... so sad.

Calypso2 Tue 04-Mar-14 21:32:03

I really enjoyed Sisterland. I loved the details of everyday life and the fact all the characters were flawed (though I am a big fan of Vi).

I'm interested to know which contemporary authors you admire. Mumsnet had AM Homes as book of the month last year and I've read lots of her books since. I realise she's got a bit of a darker vision than you but do you like her work?

Can I ask about your MFA from Iowa Writer's Workshop - did you start the course with a novel in mind, and what do you think was the best aspect of taking a creative writing course?

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:34:02

minimuffin

I'm just posting now in case I can't join in the web chat tonight (pesky kids...!) but I will try.

I've enjoyed the book (thanks Mumsnet). I found it slow-going to begin with but by half way in I felt it was beautifully paced, with the alternation between the present and the past so well-balanced, like layers of paint being added to the character. I don't see Kate as submissive - I see her as someone who has made a really conscious decision about how she wants her life to play out and dedicates herself to it (until it all starts to unravel obviously). Vi was interesting whilst being annoying and in some ways their being twins reminded me a bit of the "Sliding Doors" film - this is how my life could have turned out. Like an alternative reality.

I found the depiction of family relationships in the book so so true - ageing parents and children, the sibling thing of them driving you to distraction but yet being able to understand them in a way no-one else can because of your shared childhood, and the ways that the demands of your own family (the one you've created) can clash with those of the family you came from. I found all the detail about motherhood very realistic and not too much - all rings very true. Even though I'm not nearly as rigorous as Kate about routine etc etc I know a lot of people who are. The bits about college life and that slightly rudderless feeling you can get when leaving university also brought back some memories - I really like your writing Curtis.

I didn't find the level of attention Vi got especially believable. I can't imagine that it would have got much further than the local press. But in a way it didn't matter, it was a way to build the story and make matters escalate out of the family's hands. The prediction and the idea of the senses a great one on lots of levels but I'd like to know where Curtis got the idea from. Was it something you read that set an idea running in your head, or were you looking for a device that would give a time pressure to the plot and take matters out of the hands of the immediate protagonists?

(Sorry this is all slightly garbled - typing between flipping pancakes. Hope to be back later!)

This is not garbled at all and is very thoughtful and eloquent. The inspiration for the earthquake prediction was a real person, Iben Browning, who predicted an earthquake in this area in December 1990. I went to a book club last night of some women who lived in St. Louis then and they themselves said they couldn't believe how anxious they'd been because, scientifically speaking, they should have known better and yet they got caught up in the panic. There was a lot of media attention, special drills in schools (hiding under your desk), and a woman I know said her mother made her come home from university so that the family could all sleep together on the first floor of their house.

EmLH Tue 04-Mar-14 21:35:34

Ha! Wishing I'd used slightly different wording now! Wasn't meant to be rude, I hope you know. I might be tempted by a buggered off into the sunset book, but fear there would be no suspense! As for Reese Witherspoon, yep, can see her as Kate.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:36:21

brendarenda

My question for Curtis is - you seem to tread a very careful line with your portrayal of ESP between scepticism and credibility. Is that deliberate? Was there ever a point when you were planning on having a real earthquake on the predicted date (instead of/as well as the domestic one)?

Well, there is a real earthquake, just not in St. Louis. But within the world of the book, I consider Vi more right than wrong, and Kate semi-right. They just use their skills together to come to the wrong conclusion. I'm not sure if I ever considered having the earthquake happen in St. Louis on that date...it seems like that would been, well, predictable.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:39:02

MissKate

Why did you want to write about Sisters and twins?

The earthquake prediction was the first part of the story that I decided to write about. And there aren't that many kind of people who make predictions, so that made a psychic a natural choice. I immediately thought that it would be more interesting to tell the story not from the point of view of the psychic herself but from the view of someone close to her, who feels embarrassed and implicated and worried all at once. So the narrator became her sister, and twins seem to me a slightly more dramatic version of regular sisters. I have two sisters and one brother, by the way--I'm Sibling #2.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:40:00

MrsSquirrel

Thanks for answering my question Curtis.
About the biscuit thing -
A few years ago Mumsnet had the prime minister Gordon Brown in for a live webchat. Somebody asked what his favourite biscuit was. (Favourite biscuit = favorite cookie) He answered all the questions about childcare, education policty, etc, but dodged the biscuit question. It attracted a lot of media attention and became a running joke on Mumsnet.

That's really funny. He must have very sordid taste in biscuits!

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:43:15

Calypso2

I really enjoyed Sisterland. I loved the details of everyday life and the fact all the characters were flawed (though I am a big fan of Vi).

I'm interested to know which contemporary authors you admire. Mumsnet had AM Homes as book of the month last year and I've read lots of her books since. I realise she's got a bit of a darker vision than you but do you like her work?

I read In A Country of Mothers a while back, but I haven't yet read May We Be Forgiven. I've heard that I need to! A recent book I just loved is "& Sons" by David Gilbert--it's fantastically great, about a JD Salinger-like author at the end of his life, and about New York and family and lots of other things. I just started (as in today) Mona Simpson's new book, which is called Casebook. I really love Mona Simpson's writing.

DottyDee Tue 04-Mar-14 21:43:56

Hi Curtis, I'm really enjoying reading your comments and loved the book. It's interesting that you hint at Kate's youngest boy being psychic. Why did you decide to do this? Was it to add symmetry,as Kate's father is also psychic?

MrsSquirrel Tue 04-Mar-14 21:44:46

My daughter wants to know if you have a favourite biscuit grin

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:47:57

TillyBookClub

Can I ask about your MFA from Iowa Writer's Workshop - did you start the course with a novel in mind, and what do you think was the best aspect of taking a creative writing course?

So the MFA program is two years. I entered on my 24th birthday (I was just a pup!). I started writing Prep, my first novel, while I was at Iowa, but I didn't really admit to myself that I was writing a novel--I pretended I was just writing different episodes about the life of the same girl at a boarding school. I had written a few hundred pages of the book before I acknowledged what I was doing, perhaps because it would have been too intimidating to acknowledge it from the start.

The best part was getting feedback from incredibly smart professors (themselves professional writers--Ethan Canin, Marilynne Robinson, Frank Conroy, Chris Offutt) and smart peers. It's a wonderful privilege to be surrounded by people who really care about writing. I learned a huge amount, but the number one thing I learned (from Ethan) was to focus on structure. I totally believe that a story, novel, etc. fails or succeeds based on structure above all else (other stuff matters but just not as much).

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:49:03

EmLH

Ha! Wishing I'd used slightly different wording now! Wasn't meant to be rude, I hope you know. I might be tempted by a buggered off into the sunset book, but fear there would be no suspense! As for Reese Witherspoon, yep, can see her as Kate.

I wasn't at all offended! After reading Sisterland, my husband told me I have the anxiety of Kate and the foul mouth of Vi. Isn't he a lucky man?!

Calypso2 Tue 04-Mar-14 21:49:08

Thanks for answering my question. I'll look out for David Gilbert and Mona Simpson. Do you read any British fiction?

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