The new novel by New York Times bestselling author and Cincinnati native Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham, imagines what would have happened if Hillary Rodham hadn’t married Bill Clinton. Sittenfeld discusses how her Cincinnati connections helped her gain insight into the world of politics and campaigning and how the pandemic has impacted her writing habits.
What inspired you to write Rodham?
There were two sources of inspiration that blended. First, in early 2016, an editor at Esquire asked if I’d like to write a short story from the perspective of Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic nomination for president. I’d previously declined invitations to write essays about Hillary, because I didn’t think I had anything to add to the analysis of her that’s been underway for almost 30 years. I wasn’t interested in examining what the American people think of Hillary. But, to my surprise, I was very interested in examining what Hillary thinks of the American people.
The second factor was a dawning realization that grade school kids in 2016 knew Hillary was running for president but didn’t necessarily know that Bill Clinton existed, let alone that he was a former president with all sorts of political baggage attached to him. I began wondering how the election might have played out differently if adults also viewed Hillary as independent from Bill.
Did your brother, Cincinnati City Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld, help you get some of the finer points of what happens on the campaign trail?
I texted P.G. many, many times during the three years I was writing to ask him big and small questions. For instance: If a senator attended a fancy political/cultural forum or festival in 1996-ish, which staff would go along? His response: Could be their government chief of staff or a younger traveling aide, or it could be a fund-raiser from their political operation—the person who whispers in your ear, That’s Mrs. Jones, billionaire oil heir, etc.
You’ve done some campaigning for Kate Schroder, who will face off against Rep. Steve Chabot in November for Ohio’s 1st Congressional District. Did writing Rodham change your view of campaigning or what female candidates face?
Doing research for Rodham helped me see patterns in female candidates’ experiences rather than viewing certain moments or stories as isolated or singular. For instance, in Rebecca Traister’s book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, she points out that female candidates are often shown in photos with their mouths open, as if they’re yelling. Or there’s a widely reported story about Hillary once being told to cover her cleavage on the Senate floor, but according to Amy Klobuchar’s memoir The Senator Next Door, almost all female senators have been chided in this way. I could give about 100 other examples, but instead I’ll take this moment to say, Isn’t Kate Schroder great? I initially became aware of her because people think we look alike, but all my narcissism aside, I’m impressed by her intelligence and commitment. And she’s a public health expert to boot!
Rodham feels like it’s in conversation with GenX women who came of age in the early 1990s and remember Anita Hill and the 60 Minutes interview with the Clintons and the “baking cookies” remark that Hillary Clinton made, but weren’t quite old enough to completely know what to think. Did writing the book make you return to these moments and really think about them, given what you know now?
I was a junior in high school when Bill Clinton announced he was running for president, and a senior when he took office. So the Clintons have been in the public eye for my entire adult life, and certainly my views on them as individuals and as a couple have changed over time more than once. In addition to being fascinated by politics, I’m also fascinated by the passage of time and how that’s a kind of plot point in all our lives whether or not we want it to be.
What has life been like for you during this pandemic? Are you writing another book right now?
I’ve heard a lot of writers say it turns out they’ve been unwittingly social distancing for years, and I fall into this camp. Of course, it’s really different to hide out at home and try to work when it’s a choice versus when it’s mandated or encouraged as a way to reduce deaths in a pandemic. Like many people, I feel some combination of grateful to be with my family, anxious, and stir-crazy. I’ve been writing essays more than fiction and getting distracted more than writing anything, but I always eventually return to fiction.
How will you connect, or how are you already connecting, with readers without being able to go on a book tour?
Through social media, of which Twitter is my preferred method, and then my publisher is organizing virtual events—conversations I’ll have with other writers, an online book club, that sort of thing. In fact, I’ll be doing a book event soon with P.G. at the Mercantile Library. (The free virtual conversation is rescheduled to June 22 at 7 p.m.; register here.)