Curtis Sittenfeld, 30-year-old author of New York Times bestseller "Prep," talked to The Daily Princetonian about the intersection of her life and work, influential authors and her upcoming book "The Man of My Dreams." She will be reading excerpts from "Prep" today in McCosh 10 at 7:30 p.m., sponsored by The Nassau Literary Review and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students. Sittenfeld, whose comes from Cincinnati, Ohio, attended the Groton School near Boston and received her undergraduate degree from Stanford in 1997. The following is an edited transcript of her interview with the 'Prince.'
Daily Princetonian:Although you've often denied critics' claims that Prep was based primarily on your experiences as a student at Groton, how much of the specific details of boarding school life, the details that really bring the story to life — such as the lack of locks in the dorms, the unveiling of the green jacket for special holiday, the popularity of phrases "therein lies the paradox" and "patina" — how much of it is stylistic license and how much is influenced by reality? Did you do it intentionally, or was it just too difficult to avoid integrating your experiences into Prep? Did you expect readers to be so quick to draw parallels between Groton and Ault?
Curtis Sittenfeld:The physical setting of the book is definitely Groton and the schedule of the day is Groton. Having chapel and roll call and the green jacket, all that is Groton. The characters, the conversation and the plot I've made up. I've definitely borrowed from Groton, but I've mostly just borrowed background.
In a weird way, the more specific you are with the details, the more universal it is. For example, at every school, there is a most popular girl in the class, so by providing the specific details about the most popular girl, people are able to draw similarities and are able to compare. So many people from boarding schools have come up and said, 'that's exactly like my school'.
Truthfully, I didn't care that much about how similar Ault or Groton were. If you aren't familiar with Groton, you'd have no idea how similar Groton was to Ault, or how accurate the details were. It's almost irrelevant. The question you're asking — how accurate the details are — is only interesting to those who did go to Groton and not interesting at all to the rest of the world.
Say you wrote a story about your family. It doesn't matter if the details are real or made up, it only matters if it works on the page.
DP:How influential was your position as an instructor at St. Alban's when writing Prep? Did teaching at an all-boy's school in DC influence at all your portrayal of a coed boarding school in Massachusetts?
Sittenfeld:I did borrow a few little details from St. Alban's. But by the time I had arrived at St. Alban's, Prep was already 75 percent done. But there are some details, like there's a part of the book were they are all eating chicken nuggets, and when I had come to St. Alban's everyone was always eating chicken nuggets. But otherwise, St. Alban's didn't really influence me.
You know how there are researchers who say there is a certain ape with almost 97 percent similar DNA to humans or something like that? Boarding schools are kind of like that — all boarding schools have 96 percent similar DNA to each other. What's Alban's-ish is Groton-ish is Exeter-ish.
DP:Prep is filled with numerous seeming commentaries on the minority influence — or lack thereof — in elite boarding schools. Little Washington, who is a black basketball player who steals from the girls in the dorm, Darden who is the "popular black guy" at school, the many Hispanics, even Sin-Jun, the international student who attempts suicide — what effect were you attempting with these many minority characters? How much of their portrayal was based on real life, and how much on fiction?
Sittenfeld:There can be a fair amount of ethnic diversity at boarding schools. I'm never trying to make any particular commentary-that's what nonfiction is for. I think that fiction that has an agenda-a political agenda-doesn't really succeed.
I wasn't trying to make any point. I was trying to depict certain aspects of boarding school life. The characters are made up — it's fiction.
DP:Many critics have likened Prep as the girl's version of Catcher in the Rye, and Lee Fiora a female Holden Caulfield. Do you think such a comparison holds? What influence, if any, did Salinger have on your writing?
Sittenfeld:I read Catcher in the Rye maybe twice-once summer after 8th grader and once in 12th grade. Either way, I haven't read it in 12 years. To answer your question, no. That's an easy comparison people often make — because of its setting and general topic. I like Salinger, but I don't think I tried to model Prep on Catcher in the Rye. I just hadn't read it in so long. Most of Catcher in the Rye doesn't even take place in a boarding school.
I don't mind the comparison, it doesn't offend me — it's just that the similarities are mostly superficial.
DP:Lee seems obsessed with class and money. In fact, most of Prep seems to be a commentary on the rich and their ways. Was this intentional? Did F. Scott Fitzgerald's (Princeton '19) writing — which often demonstrated a healthy obsession with the wealthy — have an influence on your work at all?
Sittenfeld:The focus on money and class is just a byproduct of the setting. Given where she is, and she's obsessed with the difference between her and other people — it just naturally rises to the surface.
I read some Fitzgerald in college. His writing is so beautiful, but again, when someone says 'this is so reminiscent of this author' all I can say is 'thank you'.
Last time I read This Side of Paradise, I think, was so long ago — in high school maybe.
DP:So are there any authors who've influenced you?
Sittenfeld:Alice Munroe, the short story writer, she's been a major influence on my writing. Some of the things she does in her work — like, she really flows down her writing, in the sense that she keeps the reader in the moment, in the character. She doesn't make language beautiful in a flowery way — her language is not really beautiful in itself, but just extremely precise and evocative.
It's the difference between writing 'I felt really embarrassed' and writing a paragraph, like in Prep, that scene in the Cipher chapter where Lee won't read her essay, and I try to show how she feels in the moment, and dwell in the moment. Dwell in the moment of the most intense feeling.
DP:The Washington Post, in an interview with you, cited a quote you made in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about your not being a scholarship student yourself at Groton. What perspective did you have to want to write a book about a poor girl in a rich man's school? How did you work to ensure that your characterization of the "scholarship kids" would stay on-target?
Sittenfeld:That's kind of what writers do, right? I don't think that Joyce Carol Oates experienced firsthand what she writes about. It's the prerequisite of being a fiction writer to be able to write what it feels like to be in other people's shoes. If you can't imagine what it feels like to be anyone but you, you can't possibly write good fiction.
DP:The publication of Prep seemed to coincide quite nicely with the revival of popular fascination with prep school culture and its fashion and mannerisms — the pink and green tie belt on the cover of the hardcover edition seems a nod in that direction, not to mention the title of the book. Was the title of the book and the cover an attempt at capitalizing on this popular sentiment, or was it just a happy coincidence?
Sittenfeld:Luck. It was a totally lucky coincidence. I remember reading an article in the New York Times a year ago, right before Prep was published, about how preppy fashion was in — and when I read it, I was really like 'hooray'. In fact, with the tie belt cover, I was worried more that by the time it was published, it would have been more like a relic.
DP:Do you think Prep has contributed to the influence of prep culture?
Sittenfeld:Not particularly, not much. I'd think the effect of Prep is more like one millionth of the influence of one Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement. The scope of it is different.
DP:Does Paramount still have an option on Prep's film rights? Do you have any preferences on who you want to play Lee? Cross Sugarman? Do you think that Prep the movie would be more of a drama or a comedy? Do you have a preference?
Sittenfeld:Yes, Paramount has an option for eighteen months-and it didn't officially start until May 2005. So, basically within the next twelve or so months, only they can make the decision if they want to develop Prep into a movie. Once they make that decision, though, it's a whole different contract.
Basically, I'll have no say whatsoever on anything. If the movie ever does finally come out, Lee would probably be Dakota Fanning or something. I really don't know.
I would think the movie of Prep would probably be a drama. But I still think that anything that's true to life is often funny. I think people are unintentionally forced to hate something if it has no sense of humor.
DP:Your next book, The Man of My Dreams, is scheduled to be published May 2006. How is this book similar to Prep? Did you begin writing it before or after the printing of Prep? Did the success of your first novel influence the writing process for The Man of My Dreams at all?
Sittenfeld:I began writing Man of My Dreams well before Prep was published. Random House bought Prep in January 2003 and it wasn't published until January 2005, and by then it was pretty much finished.
Man of My Dreams is in the third person instead of the first person, it covers 14 years while Prep is only four years. None of Man of My Dreams takes place in a high school, let alone a boarding school. The main character is named Hannah, but Man of my Dreams is more about her family and the guys she's involved with. Hannah is not the same as Lee — she's definitely not 100% Lee, but she definitely does reflect some of Lee. Like Lee, she sometimes acts against her own self-interests — also a common human trait.
DP:One last question — why the name Cross Sugarman for Lee Fiora's love interest?
Sittenfeld:I think all the names in Prep are realistic boarding school names. Those who go to boarding school realize that. It's kind of funny — well, I am a woman named Curtis. I shouldn't throw stones.
A lot of the decisions you make as a writer are hard to explain. You do them because they feel right or they fit in. Like, with Man of My Dreams and how it's in the 3rd person — I just started writing it that way and didn't feel the need to change it.