Curtis Sittenfeld

Every writer gets rejections, but Curtis Sittenfeld once received the most mind-messing of rejections. When her debut novel
Prep was up for grabs, one editor rang her agent to turn it down, only to sheepishly call back and say she wanted to do something she’d never done before and “un-turn it down”. Later, the editor backflipped again and rejected it for the final time.

Prep was rejected by 14 out of 15 editors, only to become a bestselling cult phenomenon. Sittenfeld wrote the book, which chronicles a young girl’s boarding school experiences, when she was 27. Published two years later, critics likened her laser-sharp portrayal of socially stratified adolescent life to the sulky smarts of J.D. Salinger and the class-observant Edith Wharton. Prep was praised by everyone from Vogue to The New York Times, which cited it as one of best books of 2005.

Readers also flocked to the novel. “I have gotten letters where you felt, if you ever got one letter like this in your whole life, it would mean your book is worth writing,” says Sittenfeld, now 30. “This girl said to me, “I read it twice in one day”, and I thought, how is that possible?! There’s not enough time.” (The book is over 400 pages.) Other readers have told her that they talk about the characters so intently that eavesdroppers would mistake their conversations as being about real people. The name Cross Sugarman (the novel’s resident spunk) soon became slang at one American fashion magazine for hot guy. The novel’s observations about the momentum (and humiliations) of adolescence crossed age demographics so well that at one book club, an 80 year old woman was dishing on her racy student adventures.

When
Prep was released, Sittenfeld was teaching at St Albans, a boys school in Washington. Did they know about the book? “Yes, they did read it,” she says. “Because they were boys, they were preoccupied with the sexual elements: they’d say, ‘oh, page 315, that’s the real dirty page’, and they’d tease me and I’d say, ‘that’s not appropriate in the classroom’. And they’d say, ‘well, it’s in your book! You wrote it!’”

“They weren’t endlessly fascinated by it, but they thought if they could waste class time by getting me to talk about it, they would try,” she adds wryly.

She did make two promises to her class regarding
Prep’s fate though – they’d get pizza if it made the bestseller list (it entered at number 11), and more jokingly, that she would take them to Hawaii if it became number one. (She told the Washington Post that she hoped it would peak at no 2). “Honestly, I knew it wouldn’t,” she says. “They got pizza. 10.30 in the morning, and they just wolfed it down. They practically ate the boxes.”

Prep has been quickly followed by Sittenfeld’s new novel, Man of My Dreams. Written around the same time as Prep, it’s about Hannah, an art history student who has an uneasy footing in the world of relationships. In the same way art is about interpreting an image, Hannah spends much time dissecting the impressions of the men in her life. Sometimes romance can be as deceptive as a Cubist perspective.

Sittenfeld’s mother is an art history teacher, was that an influence on Hannah’s character? “Not really,” admits the author. In fact, one exchange in the novel about a “luminous” Pierre Bonnard painting is actually snipped verbatim from her boyfriend’s conversation about his favourite works by the French artist. “I’m secretly lazy on the research front,” she jests.

“I took a year long art history class when I was in my first year in college. I don’t want to seem like I’m dismissing art at all because there are so many beautiful paintings and actually my little sister is a high school art teacher,” she adds. “But some art history leaves me cold. One time my mother was talking about this erotic lemon peel and I just thought, I don’t know how a lemon peel can be erotic [laughs], sorry.”

While the title alone,
Man of My Dreams, has the unfortunate fate of sounding like a Mills and Boon novel, it’s actually a smart, observant book which examines being on your relationship training wheels in a sympathetic way. So what attracted Sittenfeld to this emotional terrain?

“Human behaviour is endlessly fascinating. Relationships heighten all of that. People are extra self-interested and extra vulnerable and extra excitable. So, it’s interesting. Of course it’s interesting.”

Lee Tran Lam

The Big Issue, 2006