Sisterland, the freshly minted fourth novel by Cincinnati native Curtis Sittenfeld, centers on twin sisters Kate and Violet, who have the unique psychic ability to see future events, among other less vital factoids. The narrative opens as Violet (Vi) predicts the specific day that a devastating earthquake will hit St. Louis, where the 34-year-old sisters were born and currently live — Kate with a husband and two young children; Vi with a new girlfriend and a burgeoning national profile due to her controversial prediction.
Sittenfeld has quite a national profile of her own, the result of two buzzed-about best-sellers: Prep, which The New York Times’ pimped as one of the best books of 2005, and 2008’s American Wife, which was loosely based on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. Sittenfeld, who probably not coincidentally also lives in St. Louis with a husband and two young children, recently spoke to CityBeat about the origins of Sisterland’s supernatural setup, the impact of growing up in Ohio and the proper way to use a Rob Lowe reference.
CityBeat: The central conceit of the book — whether or not the earthquake will occur — gives the narrative a built-in sense of anticipation and suspense. Did you know the outcome of Vi’s prediction before you started writing?
Curtis Sittenfeld: The origins of the novel are that in real life, a self-described climatologist named Iben Browning predicted that there would be a devastating earthquake in Missouri in December 1990 on a particular date. A friend of mine who had grown up in Missouri told me about this in 2008, and I was very intrigued for exactly the reasons that you’re describing: There is sort of an inherent suspense when at least one person believes something is supposed to happen on a certain date. There’s this kind of countdown and this suspense whether it happens or not. I just thought, “Oh, that’d be so interesting to have that be the premise of a novel.” And then to have the narrator of the novel not be the person who made the prediction but be somebody close to the person who makes the prediction and someone who feels simultaneously embarrassed and complicit but also worried that the prediction might be accurate.
CB: So you weren’t compelled to shift the perspective of the book back and forth between Kate and Vi?
CS: I think a lot of readers like the character of Vi, and they feel like she’s kind of irreverent and refreshing, but I suspect they might not find her quite as endearing if they spent the entire book in her head.
And because she’s pretty eccentric, it’s almost more interesting for her to be observed than for her to be the observer.
CB: It’s interesting that despite the book’s suspenseful, supernatural set-up, the narrative is actually more a detailed portrait of what’s it’s like to be a suburban mom.
CS: I agree. I have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. There is definitely a lot about having young children in the book, but my goal was to make those details be in service of the story and not to use a novel as a place to tell cute anecdotes about my own children. I feel like I can tell cute anecdotes about my children to my parents or my friends, but I don’t want to inflict those on the reader just for the sake of inflicting them. At the same time, the dynamic of having young children and going from being a professional person to being home with them is a common one, and I wanted to depict that in an accurate-seeming way.
CB: There are a number of pop cultural references that effectively evoke the period of the twins’ teenage years: Rob Lowe in Class; The Spin Doctors; the soap opera Santa Barbara; The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Are you ever concerned that readers who aren’t familiar with the references might be alienated or left out in some way?
CS: I actually go back and forth in my own head in terms of how much pop culture to refer to because I try not to refer to things that are really, really of the moment, because they might seem so dated so quickly. But now that decades have passed since the mid ’80s, I felt more comfortable referring to Billy Joel songs or Rob Lowe, for instance.
I think that readers can infer the meaning of something even if they don’t know the exact reference. I can read books and hear a reference to a song and be unfamiliar with the song but, if the writer is doing her job, I can tell what mood is being evoked or what reason the reference is in there. This is sort of a strange comparison, but I really like Junot Diaz’s writing, and I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m sure there are lots of things I miss because he has Spanish woven into the English. Yet I do feel like the big picture is usually clear to me.
CB: How do you think being from the Midwest, and Cincinnati in particular, has impacted your writing?
CS: Three of my four books have Midwestern protagonists, so I guess my default is to make my characters from the Midwest. There are some writers who think you should only set books in kind of inherently sexy places like Paris or San Francisco, and I guess being Midwestern I’m aware that there are all kinds of drama and people leading complicated lives in the Midwest. Although at the same time I would also say, and this might be more about my personality than my writing, but I think that if you’re from Ohio, when you go out into the world, some people don’t take you that seriously. But I don’t mind not being taken that seriously. I don’t think I take myself super-seriously. You also can’t get away with putting on airs if you’re from Ohio.
When I was writing Prep, which is about a girl from Indiana who’s at a boarding school in Massachusetts, a woman in my graduate writing program — which happened to be in Iowa but the woman was from New York — she said something like, “Your main character seems too sarcastic for someone from the Midwest.” And I just thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You think that there’s no sarcasm between like Pennsylvania and California?” It was just a ridiculous statement to me.
Curtis Sittenfeld will sign and discuss SISTERLAND Monday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. More info: josephbeth.com.