Curtis Sittenfeld Interviews Susanna Daniel
Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, The Man of My Dreams, and American Wife, and Susanna Daniel, author of the debut novel Stiltsville, met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Here they talk about friendship and its role in—and beyond—novels.
Curtis Sittenfeld: One of the many things I love about Stiltsville is that it starts with the main character, Frances, making a new friend, Marse, and then pretty much immediately falling for the guy Marse likes. Yet these two women become very close, even though only one of them can get the guy. Were you consciously defying stereotypes about female friendship, or did this just feel like the organic way to depict these characters?
Susanna Daniel: There's a lot of bad press out there regarding female friendships, which are so much more nuanced than stereotypes would have us believe. When Frances meets Dennis, her friendship with Marse is just beginning, but already they both know there's potential. Neither woman wants to throw that away. There's a moment when Frances tells Marse that it's not like her to flirt with -- not to mention steal -- another woman's guy, and their future pretty much hinges on Marse believing her. Which she does. To grant your friend permission to pursue what might turn out to be the love of her life -- that's a sign of trust and humility, which Marse is strong enough to give.
CS: So much of Stiltsville is about Frances' marriage to Dennis. I'm wondering how you think getting married and having children -- or not getting married and not having children when the people around you are -- changes the nature of women's friendships.
SD: I think there's a lot of truth to the idiom that it takes a village -- not only to raise a child, but to support a marriage. Because their lives take such different paths, Frances and Marse must make exceptions for each other that they might not make for other friends. Their differences might have divided them, but instead, Marse becomes a member of Frances' family in a way that a married friend could never be. Late in the book, Frances says that Marse had been almost like a second wife to Dennis in some ways, over the years. But she loves and trusts Marse like a sister, and when Marse's life changes unexpectedly, Frances must look outside her own troubles to support her friend the way she's been supported for so long.
CS: Two of Frances' best friends are her daughter, Margo, and her sister-in-law, Bette. What are the particular pleasures and complications of friendships with family members?
SD: Bette, Dennis's sister, is one of the most complicated characters of the book. In order to forge a friendship early on, Frances must become a confidante of Bette's, which isn't an easy thing to do. Unlike Marse, who remains in Frances' daily life until the end, Bette has to choose between family and love partway through the book -- and the choice she makes breaks Frances' heart. But later, Frances has to make a similar choice with regards to Margo. Moving away from family, in Stiltsville, is not a choice made lightly or without a lot of heartache, but sometimes it's the only way for a character to grow.
CS: You and I met in 1999, on our first day as graduate students at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, when we were the only two women in a class of eight. One of the most frequent questions I get about having attended the Workshop is whether it's competitive and back-stabbing. How do you answer this question?
SD: The program is definitely competitive in nature, though not back-stabbing. Writing isn't a team sport -- ultimately it's all about you and what you produce. No one can undermine you if you're focused and ambitious. That said, workshopping material is not for the faint of heart -- not because people are back-stabbing but because they are bright, experienced readers, and devastatingly honest. At the same time, I'm grateful for the Workshop for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's where I met the woman who continues to be my great reader, advocate, and friend: you.
CS: You're the friend I've learned the most from because you're so smart and opinionated, and you also see the world in a really different way than I do. But now that we're publicly exposing our friendship, do you think it will go the way of Gwyneth and Winona's? Also, in this scenario, which of us will end up shoplifting from Saks and which of us will dispense frittata recipes on a lifestyle website?
SD: I think I'm the boring domestic of the two of us, so it might be me with the web site (I think you probably disagree with this assessment). But then again, you're staunchly ethical, so I can't see you going the way of Winona. I think a better model for our friendship, which I'm proud to publish, is that of Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken, two writers who for decades have read for each other and supported each other while living in different cities. What I hope is that we continue to enjoy the differences between us -- as writers, mothers, wives, friends -- and never let them distance us. When we met, we hadn't yet made the decisions that would root our lives, as we have now. I look forward to a future when maybe we don't live so far apart, and maybe our kids play independently together while we kick back and read magazines and talk about what Winona and Gwyneth are up to these days. Because who even remembers that they were friends once, except the two of us?
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.