Emily Jeanne Miller and Curtis Sittenfeld to talk friendship and fiction at Aspen Winter Words
IF YOU GO …
Who: Emily Jeanne Miller & Curtis Sittenfeld
Where: Winter Words at Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, Jan. 29, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
Novelists Curtis Sittenfeld and Emily Jeanne Miller have been friends since childhood and “writer friends” since each started writing fiction as young adults.
At the Winter Words author series in Aspen today, the pair will discuss how they lean on each other for writerly advice and how their relationship has shaped their careers.
Sittenfeld, in a phone interview from Minneapolis on Friday, described the event as “a combination of talking about writing and friendship and the intersection — the nitty-gritty of how we give each other feedback on our work and more abstract questions of how writer friendships are different from other friendships.”
A “writer friendship” isn’t a standard social bond, she explained, and also is unlike collegial professional-author relationships and unlike the often-barbed frenemy status of workshop mates in graduate writing programs.
“We both want each other to be as successful as possible and produce our best work,” Sittenfeld said. “It goes without saying that all the feedback we give each other is coming from a place of affection and respect.”
Sittenfeld dedicated her newest book, the 2018 short story collection “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” to Miller and a pair of other “writers and confidantes.”
Their fathers went to college together in the 1960s and are close friends today. Both Miller — author of “The News from the End of the World” and “Brand New Human Being” — and Sittenfeld went through MFA programs and settled in Washington, D.C., as they began their fiction-writing careers in the early 2000s.
“We were in a writing group and we became close friends as we were working on our first novels,” she explained. “So we were friends, we were writers and we were writer-friends.”
Knowing one another so well, and understanding each other’s work so intimately, Sittenfeld said, allows the pair to critique manuscripts, offer suggestions and convince one another to kill their darlings in a way that an editor or another reader could not.
As an example, Sittenfeld pointed to a section of her 2016 novel “Eligible” — a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” — in which a college student breaks into his professor’s office and urinates on her desk. Originally, Sittenfeld explained through laughter, she had the character defecating on the desk. Her editor had recommended cutting the bit all together. Miller had a more sensible suggestion.
“Emily said, ‘Well, you could just split the difference and have him pee on the desk,’” Sittenfeld explained. “In a weird way, it’s a good example of how she speaks to me on my terms. She understood that I was trying to do something gross, but she was saving me from myself.”
She is currently working on a novel about Hillary Clinton, based in an alternate history where the young Yale law student Hillary Rodham declined classmate Bill Clinton’s marriage proposal (in fact, Sittenfeld noted, Clinton proposed three times before the future first lady and secretary of state said “yes”).
“It’s like, ‘What if you went back in time and changed this fact, how would everything else change after that?’” Sittenfeld explained.
The project continues a strain of Sittenfeld’s work that reflects on current events and American politics. In the social media age, the novel form isn’t expected to deliver cultural news the way it did a generation ago. The gestation period to write and publish is just too long to keep up with the pace of contemporary life. But Sittenfeld has managed to do it. From her bestselling 2005 debut “Prep” about a class-conscious young woman navigating life in an elite boarding school to her 2008 fictionalized portrait of first lady Laura Bush in “American Wife,” she often writes fiction about the way we live now and that is in conversation with current events.
“You wouldn’t know it, but I feel an aversion to engaging with current events,” she explained. “It feels like things happen so rapidly that if you try to write a story that engages with the current moment, there is such a good chance that the story will feel stale very quickly.”
Still, she manages to pull it off in many of the 10 stories in “You Think It, I’ll Say It.” In “The Prairie Wife,” she builds two characters around the still-new phenomenon of social media stardom and lifestyle branding. The cataclysmic 2016 presidential election is the backdrop of the story “Gender Studies” and in “The Do-Over” it’s the catalyst for a man to attempt making amends to an old high school political foe. Sittenfeld doesn’t have much of a choice, she said, when it comes to incorporating President Trump’s election into her work: “The 2016 election felt — and continues to feel — so huge and so consuming that it’s hard to think about anything else.”
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.