Curtis Sittenfeld: How I Write

The author of the new novel Sisterland talks about neurotic protagonists, writer’s block, and Judy Blume.

06.26.13 8:45 AM ET

You write magazine articles as well as novels. Does your approach differ depending on the format? Does one come more easily to you than others?

The gratification is faster with articles, because potentially you can write them in a day or a few days. And doing reporting for articles involves going out into the world, whereas for me writing fiction mostly involves retreating into my own head. I like both, although I have to be very selective about what articles I write because of time constraints, and because writing fiction is easier if you’re doing it every day than if you’re frequently interrupting yourself.

You’ve interviewed Michelle Obama. Is she cool?

She’s dazzling. I’m not sure she wants to, but I’m confident she could be president.

Please recommend three books to your readers.

The Girl Below by Bianca Zander: neurotic displaced English woman returns to London after a decade in New Zealand. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth: neurotic gay girl in Montana gets sent to degaying boarding school. Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller: neurotic 30-something man tries to get his life together after his dad dies and his wife cheats on him. All these books are really smart and well written. Also, did I mention they feature (endearingly) neurotic protagonists?

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

If a subject or premise seems very juicy to me, but not necessarily that juicy to others, it’s a good sign. A novel can be the way you explain or justify your own obsessions (e.g., Laura Bush).

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I set the timer on my iPhone so that it goes off when I need to stop writing and attend to something else. On good days, I can lose myself in work, even for only an hour or two, without having to constantly emerge from writing to check the time.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? What do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your workspace?

As of pretty recently, I use a desktop computer to write fiction and a laptop computer, at a different desk in the same room, to access the Internet. Of my various attempts to save me from myself, this one seems to work well.

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What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

I don’t completely believe in writer’s block (I think plenty of people aren’t in the mood to do certain things at certain times), but if I’m struggling with a particular scene, occasionally I just move on to the next one. When I go back to the one I was struggling with and something beyond that exists, then it feels easier to write a kind of connecting bridge, instead of the scene I’m struggling with being the only road forward.

Describe your evening routine.

There are about an hour and 15 minutes between when my children are asleep and when I myself am asleep, so I try to use the time wisely. Usually I fail. Often I spend the time doing some combination of folding laundry, talking to a family member on the phone, and watching a sitcom that my husband recorded for us four months before and we never got around to. If I get online, the time vanishes fastest and leaves me with the least to show for it. When we’re really feeling wild, we eat these insanely delicious Key lime graham-cracker ice cream sandwiches that are Ciao Bella brand from Whole Foods. I do realize this response makes me seem two-thirds boring and one-third yuppie, proportions that are, alas, accurate.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

Louis C.K. describing his gastrointestinal distress.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

The Olympics. Procter & Gamble commercials that air during the Olympics.

What is something you always carry with you?

An EpiPen, because one of my children has allergies.

What is your favorite snack?

Apples. I try not to let more than four or five moldy cores accumulate in my car at a time.

What phrase do you overuse?

“To be honest.” I’ve heard that this is a sign that you’re an overcompensating liar.

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

Fourteen out of 15 publishers turned Prep down. Random House bought it for $40,000 in 2003. I had a great editor and publicists, and it became a bestseller.

What would you do for work, if you were not a writer?

As I know from experience, I could definitely be happy as a high school English teacher.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Don’t do it if you don’t in some way enjoy writing, because you don’t have control over the rest of it.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

Judy Blume tweeted that she likes my books.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“Judy Blume liked her books.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.