LESLEY: I’m happy to introduce Curtis Sittenfeld to our audience at wOw, author of a new novel called American Wife. It’s a roman à clef about the First Lady, Laura Bush. So, Curtis, welcome. And please start telling us what gave you idea of writing a novel from inside Laura Bush’s head.
CURTIS: Well, I mean, of course I do have to preface everything by saying it is a novel; it is fiction. And it was definitely inspired by Laura Bush. But I sort of used her as the point of departure and then invented things and made things up. The bulk of the book is not true. So I do need to establish that. But in terms of where the idea came from, when George Bush was elected and when he took office in 2001, I just read different articles about Laura Bush that made her seem different from what I would have initially thought. And, among other things, it made a big impression on me that apparently as First Lady of Texas, and then as First Lady of the United States, she would invite writers to events at the Governor’s Mansion and then at the White House, and these writers would be people who had publicly disagreed with her husband’s policies, or had criticized her husband. And the writers would assume that she was unfamiliar with their work and that she was sort of pretending to be literary of intellectual, but really kind of had no idea what she was doing. And then they would show up and find out that, in fact, she was completely familiar with their work. So just the fact that she’s an intellectually curious, open-minded person, made me respect her a lot more, and it made me a lot more interested in her.
LESLEY: And like her. You know, in reading the book, which I did love and I think all the women on wOw will be intrigued by it, to say the least, when they read it. I, of course, also having read a lot about Laura Bush, remember having the same feeling you did when I also read about those writers. But even more so, when I discovered that when she was a teenager she was driving a car, and sped through an intersection, she hit another car in which a very close friend of hers was killed. Some say it was her boyfriend, but that’s unclear. She was blamed for the accident. Now if ever there was grist for a novelist it’s the question — and I’ve often wondered this myself — how that seminal tragic incident in her life when she was quite young sort of has shaped her.
CURTIS: Yes. I think that, to me, is a very natural question and it’s one that I, too, have wondered because, you know, it’s such a horrible, horrible thing to have happen. And, you know, presumably you’d feel such a sense of guilt, even though it was an accident. And how do you kind of move forward from that, especially if it happens when you’re 17? I do think that that could be sort of defining in terms of your personality and your outlook.
LESLEY: Well, I know you told us that it’s fiction. But isn’t it funny that your character, who becomes First Lady, whose name is Alice, also was driving a car through an intersection when she was a teenager and kills a boy that she’s kind of crazy about. And your character — obviously it’s the pivot point of her life, and there’s the haunting guilt forever and ever. Is this the way you see the First Lady? Do you think that Laura Bush is — and I would expect she would be — but do you think that she is forever haunted by this?