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My Writing Life: interview with Curtis Sittenfeld


Curtis Sittenfeld, one of the judges on this year’s Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, shares details about her life as an author

“I try not to look at Twitter before or during writing time so as not to let current events or random bombast hijack my brain, and sometimes I succeed”

Why do you write? What prompted you to first sit down and tell a story in words?

I wrote from a very young age – about six – and, as with many writers, the impulse arose from the pleasure I took in reading. I loved stories, and I wanted to figure out how they were made by making some myself.

Where do you write? What’s your routine like, on a normal writing day?

I usually write in the morning, after my kids go to school (during the pandemic, “go” can have different meanings, of course). I have a small office in my house, which I feel very grateful for. I try not to look at Twitter before or during writing time so as not to let current events or random bombast hijack my brain, and sometimes I succeed.

What do you love most about writing? What keeps you returning to the page, even when it might all feel as if it’s going nowhere?

Something I appreciate more as I get older is how writing fiction occupies my brain in a relatively healthy way. If I’m working on a story or novel, this happens as much during the hours I’m not writing as the hours when I am. In the middle of the night, instead of fretting over any number of topics, I can think instead about plot twists. I also feel like I’m challenging my own mind and reconstituting life in ways that I hope are interesting.

Have you experienced any kind of “failure” in the world of writing?

I experience failure often. Sometimes I can feel myself writing a scene badly – the observations are shallow, or the dialogue is cloying. In that moment, I need to trust that writing a bad version will lead to revision, which will lead to a better version. But if I don’t write the bad version, I’ll have nothing. I also tend to get both very positive and very negative reviews from critics. It’s not fun to get negative reviews, but it’s also not surprising to me because the experience of reading fiction is incredibly subjective.

What words of encouragement might you offer to other writers, those at the start of their careers perhaps, or who are experiencing bumps along the way?

If you take some satisfaction in the process, keep going. I don’t think wanting to be a writer is a good reason for writing (though who am I to stop you?), but if you keep returning to the process, sometimes even in spite of yourself, then it probably matters a lot to you. Also, of course, every successful writer was once unpublished.

What’s next in terms of your own writing? What are your priorities for the next few years? Are there any curveballs on the horizon?

Ha, if I knew they were on the horizon, they wouldn’t be curveballs. I’m currently writing another novel and feeling as bewildered, discouraged, and excited as ever.

Has the pandemic impacted your writing in any way? Positive or negative?

It’s illustrated to me once again that I feel more balanced or composed when I’m writing. I’d actually love to be someone who has vigorously cleaned and organised my house during the pandemic, and I’m not. I’ve been able to write fiction not because I think being professionally productive is admirable or even important now, and not because I have superhuman powers of focusing. Instead, I do it because writing fiction helps me maintain personal equilibrium.

Are you enjoying the process of judging the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award? Have there been any surprises along the way?

I found it liberating to read the stories without knowing who the authors were – it felt refreshingly pure. And I just loved some of the stories and I really appreciated the exposure to other places and consciousnesses after a year when I haven’t encountered many of either. The stories transported me, even briefly, to other cities, towns, homes, personalities, and lives.

Finally, what’s your favourite short story of all time and why?

I really, really love the story The Albanian Virgin by Alice Munro. It’s so complicated and ambitious and also so emotionally rich in such an intimate, recognisable way.

Interview by Sophie Haydock

Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel, Rodham (Doubleday, £8.99), will be published in paperback in June


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