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Photograph by Josephine Sittenfeld
Sittenfeld’s fourth novel will hit shelves June 25, but has already landed rave reviews from Entertainment Weekly, the New York Post, Publishers Weekly and TIME. In Sisterland, the narrator, Kate, and her twin sister, Vi, were born with a special gift for predicting the future. After becoming a mother of two, Kate abandons her power, only to be reeled into the media frenzy following Vi, who has just predicted an imminent earthquake that could devastate St. Louis.
With Sisterland, you’ve tied together relationships, motherhood, love and the paranormal. What inspired you to write this book?
In 1990, someone named Iben Browning predicted that there would be an earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. He was a self-described climatologist, not a psychic. I’m not from St. Louis, but a friend of mine who grew up outside of Jefferson City told me about this prediction a few years ago. As soon as my friend told me about it, I thought it was intriguing as a possible premise for a novel because if someone makes a prediction about something occurring, it either has to occur or not occur, especially it it’s a deadline. Then I thought it’d be interesting to tell it from the perspective not of someone who makes the prediction, but of someone close to that person.
Which would you consider the dominant theme of the novel?
I would say it’s primarily about sisterhood, motherhood and marriage. It’s really a family novel set in St. Louis.
The narrator, Kate, is a stay-at-home mother who’s sort of a nervous Nellie, while her twin sister, Violet, is more of a free-spirited hippie chick—do you identify with one more than the other?
What my husband said when he read the book was that I have the anxiety of Kate mixed with the foul mouth of Vi. I don’t see either character as being based on me, and I don’t see the novel as being autobiographical. Of course, there are elements of me, not just in the sisters, but in all of the characters. I wrote all the sentences in the book, all the dialogue for all the characters, so it would be inevitable that elements of my personality work their way in.
What made you want to set the story in St. Louis?
Because that original prediction occurred around here… I do think that St. Louis has a lot of rich possibilities for novels. Obviously, this is not the first St. Louis novel, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. This is a typical midsized city, but there are lots of interesting tensions under the surface. I don’t know if that’s good for daily life, but it’s good for a novel.
You recently wrote a column that was published in the New York Times ("Loving the Midwest," June 9, 2013) that described your struggle in finding “a place” in St. Louis, but you warmed up to it in the end. Did you find those first impressions to be false, or have you just accepted them?
Well, I will say that some of the criticisms that my husband and I had early on were really pretty minor. I mean, I still don’t like Provel cheese. And as recently as a week ago, my husband picked me up from the airport and he was like, “All the drivers are in the right-hand lane on the highway!” So I stand by my initial impressions, but it has become clear to me that the positive qualities of St. Louis far outweigh the negative qualities. And that article is definitely a little bit self-mocking or tongue-in-cheek. Obviously, there are people struggling with serious problems in St. Louis and those problems are not related to Provel.
What now makes St. Louis home?
The people. We eventually did make good friends. And a lot of important life events have happened for me here—my husband and I got married in St. Louis, we were married in the library of the (Saint Louis University) campus, and both of our children were born in St. Louis, I delivered them at St. Mary’s (Health Center). We have created our family here, and there are a lot of things we really appreciate. We like the children’s school and the pediatrician’s office, we like the parks and certain restaurants. I think the daily quality of life here is high.
Where do you prefer to write?
I have an office at home where I write. I’ve never been someone who works at coffeehouses. People sometimes say to me, “I’d go crazy if I worked all day at home,” or “I think I would get so distracted and I would do laundry,” which I sometimes do, but I think it’s not a crime to get up from your desk and go to the basement.
Describe a typical day of writing for you.
I write during the hours I have childcare. I usually am my most focused and efficient in the morning, so I try to sit down at my desk around 9:30 and not to get online. Then, a lot of times, if I write for a few hours, in the afternoon, I might do other things, like revising, working on a freelance article or returning phone calls. I lead a pretty unexciting life, and I am grateful for my unexciting life.
You have written some nonfiction for the New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic Monthly and Glamour—do you have a preference between writing fiction and nonfiction?
Fiction is definitely closer to my heart, but they both have their place. I really enjoy working with magazine and newspaper editors, and if I do reporting or interviews for nonfiction, it’s fun going out into the world. Writing fiction can be solitary. But I also find it satisfying in a long-term way.
With four novels under your belt, how would you describe your identity as a writer?
At a reading that I recently gave, an audience member said he thought my books are subversive. That’s not a word that ever occurred to me to apply to my books, but I agree with that assessment.
Curtis Sittenfeld appears at the St. Louis Library’s Central Branch (1301 Olive) on June 24 at 7 p.m. for Left Bank Book’s publication party for Sisterland. For more information, contact Left Bank Books at 314- 367-6731 or visit their website.