But Rodham is very different. Sittenfeld, who was a participant in the Wheeler Centre’s Broadside feminist ideas festival last November, has long admired Hillary. She was 17 when Clinton was elected president and had a favourable view embracing the couple that gradually lost its lustre because of the scandals associated with Bill’s administration.
But then she wondered whether it was fair to conflate both the Clintons and ‘‘whether I had bought into some kind of sexist hype or innuendo’’.
In the 2016 election it dawned on Sittenfeld that school-age Americans following the election would know about Hillary but might have little idea about her husband given that his term in office ended in 2001.
‘‘It was fascinating to me to take that and think, what if adults also thought of Hillary as completely separate from Bill? That adults didn’t know that Bill existed when they wondered whether to vote for Hillary.’’
She couldn’t ignore Clinton, though: his charisma, his ambition and, for Hillary, his sex appeal.
As we talk over Skype – she from her writing room in her home in Minneapolis – she expected to be asked about the sex scenes she has imagined. She had considered cutting them, wondered whether it would make for a better novel – ‘‘less cringe inducing’’ – but felt they reflected a couple in their early 20s ‘‘who are powerfully drawn to each other intellectually, passionately and here they are in real life still married all this time later’’.
‘‘I knew that I was opening myself up to mockery, but to write those scenes I don’t feel like I am looking in a window watching this couple having sex. I am trying to imagine what it feels like to be really passionately in love with someone and really excited about them and wondering if you’re going to join your lives together.’’
When Joyce Carol Oates reviewed American Wife in The New York Times she said as a portraitist in prose, Sittenfeld never deviated from sympathetic respect for her subject: ‘‘She is not Francis Bacon but rather more Norman Rockwell.’’ It may sound like being damned with faint praise, but Carol Oates’ assessment of Sittenfeld’s methodology chimes with her own when I ask whether there were any particular responsibilities on her writing fiction about a real person.
A fair but difficult question to answer, she says. She would never try to embarrass a living person. To put yourself in another person’s shoes and to imagine what the world looks like from their point of view, she believes, is essentially compassionate. ‘‘I feel my real responsibility is to be respectful. But I also recognise that some people will say you’ve got to be kidding me, Curtis; yeah, that’s so respectful to imagine them having sex.’’
But Rodham is a novel, so surely she can really do whatever she wants, can’t she?
‘‘Absolutely,’’ she replies. ‘‘I think a novel can be a place to think about the feelings we all feel and how much we have in common, a lot of which is undignified. I have always been fascinated by the discrepancy between public and private selves.’’
So did she think of her Hillary as just a character in a novel she was writing as distinct from the real Hillary Rodham Clinton? She found that it wasn’t necessary for her to continually make that distinction.
‘‘If somebody says I want to know who Hillary Clinton really is, I would says don’t read Rodham’’ – she laughs at this. ‘‘There is a real accounting of her life and I did not write that. It’s like a flight of fancy or a parallel universe.’’
While she tried hard to capture Hillary’s voice – those of Clinton and Donald Trump, who has a small but significant part in the book, were much easier to capture – and to think what she might have done had she not married Clinton, Rodham is not an exercise in realism. ‘‘Without spoiling too much, I couldn’t say instead of marrying Bill she lives in the suburbs of Washington DC, becomes a lawyer, has two kids and leads a kind of anonymous life. That’s not the most interesting novel.’’
Instead, Rodham begins with Hillary’s actual speech at her graduation from Wellesley College in which she described politics ‘‘as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible’’.
Then at Yale Law School, she meets Clinton, ‘‘a person who took up more than his share of oxygen’’, as Sittenfeld puts it. Forty-five years later Hillary wonders whether ‘‘his smile may have ruined my life’’. Did it? You need to read the book to find out.
Sittenfeld had already read Hillary’s memoir Living History as research for American Wife. She read Clinton’s 1000-page memoir, My Life, as far as their marriage, and Carl Bernstein’s biography, A Woman in Charge. And she relied heavily on New York Times reporter Amy Chozick’s Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling, which, among other things, captured Hillary’s dismal relationship with the press.
Feeling creatively at home in the voice of ‘‘the real’’ Hillary was essential and a podcast made in 2016 by Hillary’s campaign, With Her, was crucial. It consisted of interviews with a variety of people – husband, daughter, campaign staff. ‘‘Of course it was going to be positive, but she is really relaxed in these conversations and it allowed me to hear her voice in an unfiltered way, which I hadn’t heard before. Because so often there is this real scepticism that journalists address her with or interview her with.’’
Sittenfeld says doing the research and writing Rodham reinforced the positive view she had of Hillary. ‘‘I will say – this is a little bit silly – but I think it made me feel emotionally close to her, which I am compelled to say I recognise is not mutual.’’
But it does beg the question, does she think Hillary will read the book? After all, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that she might have read American Wife thinking there but for the grace of God go I. But Sittenfeld doesn’t expect her to read Rodham. So much has been written about Hillary and so much said about her ‘‘then who cares about a novel?’’
Given that Sittenfeld is an self-confessed admirer, I wondered whether had Hillary been running for the president again, would she have published Rodham now? (And it’s worth bearing in mind that in many oddsmakers’ minds she is second favourite to get the nomination after former vice-president Joe Biden, who gets only a fleeting and slightly disparaging mention in Rodham.)
‘‘That’s an interesting question. I don’t think that I ever realistically did think she would run. But there is still speculation maybe she still would run. But if you said to me she is going to run in 2020 and this will hurt her, I think I would have said OK, I won’t write it.’’
Rodham is published by Doubleday at $32.99. Curtis Sittenfeld is in a Zoom conversation on May 26. www.trybooking.com
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald