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.

marilynmonroe Mon 05-May-14 19:27:56

Thank you for my copy! I've finally finished it. I enjoyed the book and enjoyed the differences between the sisters although the ending was a bit of a disappointment.

My favourite is the American wife. Would defo recommend that to everyone!

areyoutheregoditsmemargaret Thu 06-Mar-14 11:19:24

Thank you for answering my question, Curtis. Look forward to the next book very much.

SummerDaisy Tue 04-Mar-14 23:53:41

Absolutely adored America Wife so very excited to read the new book

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 22:02:30

TillyBookClub

Damn, we're running out of time.

Thank you to everyone who posted their thoughts and questions. It has been such an illuminating and interesting discussion this month.

Curtis, thank you very very much indeed for joining us tonight and providing such thoughtful and generous answers. I still have so many things I want to ask you, so please will you come back again when you have finished your next book (and can I squeeze in one last question and ask what you are working on at the moment?)

Good luck with the next project and many thanks once again for a very enjoyable evening.

I'm now writing a present-day Pride & Prejudice set in the U.S., part of HarperCollins' larger Austen project. Yes, really! Stay tuned...

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 22:01:11

I think maybe our time together is wrapping up. Thank you all so much for the great feedback, zesty opinions, and fun questions. From one mother to another, hope you all get a good night's sleep!

Damn, we're running out of time.

Thank you to everyone who posted their thoughts and questions. It has been such an illuminating and interesting discussion this month.

Curtis, thank you very very much indeed for joining us tonight and providing such thoughtful and generous answers. I still have so many things I want to ask you, so please will you come back again when you have finished your next book (and can I squeeze in one last question and ask what you are working on at the moment?)

Good luck with the next project and many thanks once again for a very enjoyable evening.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:59:55

TillyBookClub

I love reading everyone's reactions to the sisters, and who identifies with who.

I see Kate partly as an allegorical figure (to join the allegorical earthquake) - she ignores her psychic powers and therefore also ignores the most important feelings inside her, which leads her to make a bad decision and sleep with Hank.

I felt that both sisters constructed their own worlds to the extent of blocking out any others - Vi with her 'outsider' persona, and Kate with her domestic routine. The whole book seemed to me to be about how each of us creates their own reality, although some are accepted as 'real' and some are not.

I have to say I'm a Vi fan, and not so fond of Kate, although I understand why she acts as she does.

Curtis, do you have a favourite out of the two?

I don't think I'd ever write a book whose primary characters I didn't feel affection for--after all, I have to spend time with these people day in and day out for years. I like both Vi and Kate. Of course, through out the book I know that Kate is going to make a huge mistake so I don't resent her "perfection" or what others perceive as self-righteousness in her. I also get a kick out of Vi, as in real life I often get a kick out of people, especially women, with "big personalities." I like people who talk a lot, assuming they're at least slightly interesting, and who are irreverent. Life is so much more fun when people say inappropriate things. (Hmm, can you tell it's been a long time since I've worked in an office?!)

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:56:04

Calypso2

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

Of course! I really admire Tessa Hadley a lot. I think she's quite similar to Alice Munro, who's my all-time favorite writer. There's a piece by Tessa Hadley that's either a story or novel excerpt (I read it in The New Yorker and can't remember which) about a young woman who's in love with her professor and dreams he'll fall in love with her and in the mean time she hooks up with a bartender who looks like the professor. And then--spoiler alert--her professor DOES fall in love with him, they marry, and years later she basically pretends to herself while hooking up with her husband that he's the professor. It's excellent!

I like Rachel Cusk too--she's on the exact border of how much acidity I can and can't tolerate in writing.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:52:57

DottyDee

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?

Well, I think it's clear that this is a book that stops without every loose end being tied up, and I suppose it seems realistic to me that Kate's life will be filled with complications going forward. But perhaps if her son has senses, she will see her own in a new (more forgiving?) way. I do think having children who are and aren't similar to you gives you such a different perspective on your own identity.

CurtisSittenfeld Tue 04-Mar-14 21:49:37

MrsSquirrel

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

Definitely chocolate chip.

I love reading everyone's reactions to the sisters, and who identifies with who.

I see Kate partly as an allegorical figure (to join the allegorical earthquake) - she ignores her psychic powers and therefore also ignores the most important feelings inside her, which leads her to make a bad decision and sleep with Hank.

I felt that both sisters constructed their own worlds to the extent of blocking out any others - Vi with her 'outsider' persona, and Kate with her domestic routine. The whole book seemed to me to be about how each of us creates their own reality, although some are accepted as 'real' and some are not.

I have to say I'm a Vi fan, and not so fond of Kate, although I understand why she acts as she does.

Curtis, do you have a favourite out of the two?

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?

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?!

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).

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

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

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?

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.

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 21:39:02

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 21:36:21

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.

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 21:34:02

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.

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?

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?

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.

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