How does an author face the daunting task of following up a debut novel that is a critical and commercial sensation? In the case of Prep author Curtis Sittenfeld, she avoids the sophomore slump by writing another beautifully crafted coming-of-age story that stands up to the original. In The Man of My Dreams, we follow Hannah Gavener from high school through college and into adulthood. Deeply introspective and haunted by a painful childhood, Hannah is convinced that happiness is out of her reach. When she moves to Boston for college, she enters a series of very different relationships that leave her wondering whether she'll ever find the perfect partner.
As a 30-year-old with one of the New York Times' 10 best books of 2005 and a movie option in her pocket, Sittenfeld knows about figuring out this thing called life. She answered some questions for BookPage about how it feels to be a best-selling author, and the path she took to get there.
You won the Seventeen magazine fiction contest when you were 16. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
From the time I learned to read and write, around kindergarten, I always loved to do both. My parents talk about how when I was two or three years old, I used to refuse to go to bed because I'd be sitting on the toilet holding a book upside down, and I'd tell them I was reading. Probably I, like a lot of people, became a writer sort of in imitation of or in homage to the books I enjoyed. When you're so captivated by something, you think, could I do that? Hmm, let me try.
You're still so young. How much did your own memories of being a teenager and a college student influence your books?
People who think my books are autobiographical, which they're not, credit me with having a much better memory than I do. I do, however, have a powerful imagination. It's never that hard for me to imagine what it must feel like to be someone else, whether it's an American teenage girl or a Japanese octogenarian man.
There's a great line in the book: She just hadn't expected that adulthood would seem so ordinary. How does your adulthood compare to your expectations?
Well, a typical night is: My boyfriend and I make stir-fry, we play Scrabble, I lose, he turns on baseball, I fall asleep on the couch at 9:45 p.m., and he wakes me up in time for The Daily Show. That probably falls under the definition of ordinary, right? But not in a bad way.
Hannah's cousin tells her, "You're not that funny no offense . . ." How funny are you in real life?
Let's see. I'm funnier than knock-knock jokes, Wings reruns and Dick Cheney . . . but less funny than Dick Cheney in heels and a feather boa.
As someone who's been compared to so many iconic writers, from Wally Lamb to Judy Blume to J.D. Salinger, which authors do you admire?
There are so many books I've loved, but my all-time most favorite writer is Alice Munro I just worship her. She's so smart and entertaining, and her writing doesn't draw attention to how good it is language-wise; instead it fully and perfectly evokes a particular scene, making you feel like you're present in it. Plus, she doesn't shy from depicting people's dark sides.
You took some criticism for a book review you wrote in the New York Times in which you seemed anti- chick lit. Set the record straight.
I've realized that there's no consensus on what the term chick lit means. Is it defined by subject matter (meaning any books about young women) or is it treatment (meaning books about young women that are willfully fluffy)? Many of my favorite books have young female protagonists, and part of the reason I enjoy Alice Munro so much is that she often writes about that demographic. But, undeniably, there are a lot of books about young women that just aren't very good. . . . [T]heir use of language is mediocre, their insights aren't actually insightful, their plot lines are predictable and boring. I'm not saying nobody should enjoy them, but I'm saying I don't.
If you could fast-forward right now, where do you see Hannah in 10 years?
I think she's realized by the end that she can't hang her happiness on a man which, as everyone who has ever read a women's magazine knows, means she will find happiness with a man immediately. But 10 years from now? By then, she's probably married and having an Updike-esque affair.
What will your next book be about?
Japanese octogenarian men. Just kidding.