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Curtis Sittenfeld talks "Sisterland"

LiteratureThe Wall Street Journal

They're staples of sci-fi, fantasy and horror fiction, but psychic phenomena — extrasensory perception, channeling, communication with the dead and so on — rarely figure prominently in literary novels. In "Sisterland," however, best-selling author Curtis Sittenfeld ("American Wife," "Prep") uses clairvoyance as the premise for an entertaining, often probing look at sibling relationships, privacy, infidelity, conformity and other time-honored tropes of mainstream fiction.

"Sisterland" is the story of twin sisters, Kate and Violet, who have responded very differently to the fact that since they were small children, they've had premonitions that turn out to be true; they can also sense other people's secrets. While Violet has embraced her foreknowledge of events — whose source she identifies as a spirit named Guardian — Kate has suppressed her own in an attempt to forge a "normal" life in the suburbs with her husband and children. When Vi goes on local television to predict an imminent earthquake, Kate is appalled, even though her own private conduct is far less "normal" than she wants the world to know.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Sittenfeld — who attended Groton, Vassar, Stanford and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she earned an MFA in creative writing — for a phone interview from her home in St. Louis. Here's an edited transcript.

Q: Did you research psychic phenomena for the book?

A: I didn't do a staggering amount, but I did interview two psychics, and I went to a New Age bookstore in St. Louis that has a psychic fair on a monthly basis. And I read some books and websites and random articles.

Q: A psychic fair?

A: Yes. They have someone who does Tarot cards, someone who does something called Astrodice, they have energy sessions. The New Age world is varied, obviously. I don't think anyone in "Sisterland" gives an authoritative view on it, just as there's no one who's out of a seismology textbook. Kate, the main character telling the story, has tried to shut down her psychic abilities, because she doesn't want them to be real, so I didn't feel I had to go deep into that world. But I did feel I had to be conversant in some of the main aspects of it.

Q: What were your conversations with the two psychics like?

A: Well, I was interviewing them. I wasn't saying, "What do you see in my future?" or anything like that. It was more about the way they work, and the way information comes to them — things like that.

Q: Did either of them have a Guardian figure?

A: Neither of them had someone they called Guardian, but I would say that they felt like they were receiving information from a particular source. It's kind of funny because I'm not used to these ways of talking, but I'm not sure whether they considered the source of information to be human or something spiritual, I guess is the way to say it.

Q: Did they understand your purpose for interviewing them?

A: Oh, I would never interview someone under a false premise. That would be unethical. Now, when I went to the bookstore, I didn't announce to anyone, "I'm writing a novel about psychics." Of course, when you go to a bookstore, you don't announce yourself. When I wrote "American Wife," which was sort of a fictional version of Laura Bush, I probably could have interviewed people in the Bush administration and presented myself as this innocent former teacher or whatever. But I thought consciously to myself, "I don't want to interview someone who would regret having talked to me after the book came out." There are probably people who wonder how I can live with myself anyway, having written "American Wife." I can live with myself, of course, but there are roads I could have gone down that would have made me uncomfortable.

Q: In "Sisterland," you do present paranormal phenomena, in particular extrasensory perception and clairvoyance, as legitimate. Does that reflect your real-life belief?

A: I think I am open to the possibility of people having psychic abilities. I feel like there are lots of mysteries in the world, and people having premonitions does not seem implausible to me.

Q: One of your characters, Hank, says virtually that.

A: Yes, and I agree with Hank. (Laughs.) People always assume that things in my books are autobiographical, and that the main character is a mouthpiece for me. In this case, I identify with Hank in that view. Because Hank is a black man, I doubt that anyone will think he's based on me, but there are little parts of me in all of them.

Q: Have you ever had any paranormal experiences?

A: Um, you know, I did ask myself the very question you're asking when I was writing the book. And I had to confront the fact that I have had intuitions about things that came to pass. I've also had intuitions about things that haven't come to pass. I mean, I don't consider myself psychic, but I also don't yearn to be psychic, either. (Laughs.) The present is about all I can handle, seriously. I feel like I have to take life in little chunks.

Q: It's a blessing not to be psychic, then?

A: Well, for people who do consider themselves psychic, I think they mostly consider it a blessing. There are probably also some who consider themselves psychic and wish they weren't, and there are definitely some who aren't but wish they were.

Q: For some people, of course, the very idea of the paranormal is kind of nutty, and even taboo. I bring this up in relation to Kate, who, as you say, is pretty uncomfortable with it.

A: Sure. Certain religions, I think, frown on the paranormal, and people who refer to it matter-of-factly can be seen as kind of kooky or fringy.

Q: Kate wants to be seen as a "normal" person, and she's irritated with her sister Violet because she's open about her psychic abilities. Violet is also in a lesbian relationship, which is another way of being out of sync with "normality," as Kate sees it.

A: Right. I think in some ways the paranormal in the book is a metaphor for the ways you can draw wanted and unwanted attention to yourself. It can also be a metaphor for general anxiety and worry.

Q: What was the genesis of the book?

A: I live in St. Louis, and in the spring of 2008 there was an earthquake. It wasn't a huge earthquake, and the center of it was a bit north of here. A few months after that, I was talking to a friend who had grown up outside Jefferson City, Mo., where, in December 1990, a self-described "climatologist" named Iben Browning had predicted there would be an earthquake within a couple of days. A lot of people in the area didn't believe it, but it made them nervous anyway. They started thinking about buying earthquake insurance, and whether the schools should be closed, and so on. And there was something intriguing to me about this, to have this day on which something major is supposed to happen. There's a drama if it does happen, of course, but there's also a kind of drama if it doesn't. And I thought that instead of telling the story from the perspective of the person who makes the prediction, it would be more interesting to tell it from the perspective of someone close to that person, who simultaneously is embarrassed by this public exposure but also doesn't see it as totally implausible. From there, it wasn't difficult to think, "Oooh, it could be sisters — twin sisters." I myself have two sisters, and I feel like the sister relationship is very rich one, with lots of possibilities for fiction. You can be very close to your sisters, and yet even into adulthood you can fight with them in a way you can't really fight with your friends.

Q: Do you fight with your sisters?

A: (Laughs.) I think I bicker more than fight with my sisters, although that might be a semantic distinction. I consider myself close to my sisters, but we do get on each other's nerves at times.

Q: Over what?

A: Well, for example, we don't all live in the same place, and when the extended family gets together, we can annoy each other about logistics. One person says, "OK, I'm going to do a big grocery shopping run — give me your food list." And then it's like, "I've asked you three times! Tell me what your children need or I'm not going to get you anything!" It's really silly. With my older friends, I don't see them often enough to fight with them like that. With my newer friends, I don't feel confident enough in my relationship with them, so I just bite my tongue. (Laughs.)

Q: Well, you also can't really hide things from your siblings, because they know all your secrets, or most of them.

A: And they knew you before your adult self was formed, and so the adult disguise that you present to the world — they're like, "Oh, please. Maybe you're this elegant executive now, but I remember you when you were running around the house in a leotard eating Cheetos." 

Q: T.C. Boyle once said to me that most novelists don't know why they're attracted to their subject matter until much later in their careers, and then they realize that they've been working through certain concerns, maybe obsessive ones, all along. Is that what you're doing?

A: If you're asking whether there are certain themes in my work, I think the answer is yes. I guess all of my books deal with the balance between privacy and self-exposure. Kate and Violet in "Sisterland" kind of embody the two ends of that spectrum.

Q: Violet is about self-exposure, and Kate is the opposite.

A: Right. Kate sees very little to gain from having almost anyone know anything about her. Vi sees that she has little to lose in having everyone know everything about her. I think I'm also interested in choice and fate. We often feel like we're at the mercy of fate, and of course some people are, to a greater extent than others. But I also think a lot of us are complicit in our own misfortunes. Our, you know, undesirable twists and turns? We have had a hand in them. We don't always feel conscious of choosing, but to some extent we have. On the other hand, I have a lot of compassion for the mistakes, the unwise choices people make. Soon after "Prep" was published, I went to a book club and people were asking, "Why does the main character act the way she does?" And I just thought, like, to act against your own best interests is part of what makes you human. I mean, it's hard to be this ideal, bran-muffin-eating, nice-to-everyone role model all the time.

Q: You could say, in fact, that "Sisterland" is about Kate's gradual acceptance of her own imperfection.

A: I think that's true.

Q: It's a good lesson for all of us. Not that you yourself need to learn it.

A: No, right. Obviously I'm perfect, as everyone who's ever met me will attest.

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

"Sisterland"

By Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House, 397 pages, $27

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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