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What if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton? A new novel imagines the results

We chat to its author, bestselling writer Curtis Sittenfeld.

Image: Brian Cahn

THERE’S A JOY in imagining things: alternate worlds, different realities. 

But some things can never be changed, and reality never altered. That’s where fiction comes in. It allows writers to conjure up times and places that never existed, or relationships that take different forks in the road.

There’s a risk, however, in turning that fictional lens on someone who’s globally famous. Could an audience believe it if you re-write a famous person’s story? Should you even bother?

These questions didn’t trouble US author Curtis Sittenfeld much when she sat down to write her latest novel, Rodham. In it, she takes the real-life relationship between Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton, and tears it in two with tweezers. Or maybe it’s a more like a hatchet.

The pair met in real-life in college in the early 1970s, and Sittenfeld permits them in her novel to do that too. But a few years into their love affair, she prises them apart. 

Then, she goes on to imagine the life the now 72-year-old Rodham would have had without Bill (who she married in 1975) by her side. Her imagined life sees her reaching heights she still hasn’t reached, political heights she would love to get to. Sittenfeld situates the story firmly in the now, in reality (there are no wild flights of fancy), so what happens in Rodham feels utterly possible. 

We read as Hillary grows up a strong, intelligent and opinionated young woman in a Chicago suburb (in fact, she’s called “awfully opinionated for a girl” by those around her). She’s studious and diligent, but people judge her on her looks, finding her plain. She goes on to college and then Yale Law school, where her intellect sees her becoming a leader. That’s when she catches the charismatic Bill Clinton’s eye. They have an instant connection (and some may find the sex scenes a little unexpected).

Sittenfeld (44)  drew on actual events for a lot of the book. That grounding in reality is what really makes it work – you don’t find yourself stopping to question ‘could this really happen?’, except – for this reader anyway – when Donald Trump makes an appearance in the final section.

It’s no spoiler to say that when Clinton proposes to Rodham, she says no. And it’s then that things get interesting for her, though arguably some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are when we get an imagined insight into Clinton and Rodham’s relationship. Perhaps it’s that voyeuristic side of us that wants to know what they do in bed and how they conduct themselves in private. Sittenfeld indulges us in this. 

Wish fulfillment?

rodham-writer-curtis-sittenfeld-talks-hillary Curtis Sittenfeld Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The novel is wish fulfillment for those who want to see Hillary Rodham Clinton achieve her aim to become the US President. In the real world, she’s tried twice, and lost twice.

The last time, she looked so close that women were preemptively imagining their changed country with her at the helm. We all know what happened there. The impact of reading a more positive take is something that Sittenfeld has been hearing about from her readers. 

“Something that’s been striking is that a lot of people say, ‘I finished the book and I was crying’. I think it’s good tears, not bad tears. I think a lot of people obviously wish that the 2016 election had turned out differently,” says Sittenfeld, who’s author of five novels. When we speak, she’s in her midwestern home, making life work during the Covid-19 pandemic (which isn’t too different to usual given she’s an author who works from home). 

Was she affected by the emotion of it all while writing it? “I feel kind of conscious of being responsible for all the technical parts of the novel as I’m writing. So it’s like I’m trying to push a scene forward or I’m trying to make sure that dialogue is convincing. And I think that does make me less caught up in the emotions of a scene,” she says. “But I still have the ability to be affected by the material and certainly as I was doing research, you know there were different articles I would read or clips from TV that I would watch that would affect me.”

If anything, what affected her was the contrast between what she was writing – about a powerful woman with her eyes on the White House – and what the reality has been in the US since 2016.

Sittenfeld is no stranger to writing about those near the seat of power (her major breakthrough was American Wife, loosely based on the life of First Lady Laura Bush). As a feminist, she has an avowed interest in where women get in the corridors of power. Was she writing this alternative history as an attempt to find catharsis, maybe?

“Sometimes people asked me if writing the book was cathartic, and I certainly have readers who have said that reading it is cathartic. But I feel like it was artistically cathartic to write it,” she says. “But it was not politically cathartic in the sense that, you know, like, Trump is in the White House, and that has very real concrete consequences for the country, including, you know, for the people who are most vulnerable.

“I do not feel like writing this novel gave me the last laugh. Like – I’m still an American citizen, and Trump is still president.”

One scandal after another

You’d imagine that to write a book like this, Sittenfeld would have to be an intense fan of Hillary Clinton, someone who’s stuck with her through thick and thin. That’s not the case, but it’s interesting how she describes how her thoughts around her have evolved.

“I have admired her for a long time,” says Sittenfeld, who was in her last year of high school when Bill Clinton became president. “And I really liked both of them. And then during the eight years that they were in the White House, I think that my enthusiasm for both of them decreased where it just felt like, you know, there’s one scandal after another.”

The Clintons have been caught up in various scandals – including 1992′s Whitewater real estate controversy (which dated back to when Bill was governor of Arkansas) and the explosive Monica Lewinsky situation in 1998.

After the White House term, Rodham Clinton left to become a US senator. In 2007, while researching for American Wife, Sittenfeld read Hillary’s memoir about her time as First Lady.

“Reading that book made me rethink my mixed feelings towards Hillary and it made me basically think that you know, most of the reasons that my opinion of her had become more negative actually had to do with him,” says Sittenfeld. “And I felt like that was sexist on my part and that lumping them together… I mean, on the one hand, I think it’s like human nature to, you know, sort of see a married couple as being intertwined. But I’m not sure that it’s totally fair either.”

Sittenfeld realised that “so much of the conversation about Hillary Clinton that Americans have been having for 30 years is not about the concrete facts of her life and the work that she’s done”.

Rather than being about Hillary’s advocacy work or the policy that she’s pushed for, “it’s about things like her hairstyle, or her tone of voice”.

It’s very superficial or like, weird rumours about her that are sort of persistent without being grounded in reality. And so it kind of made me think about the facts of her life and what a trailblazer she is and I feel like at that point, I think I again became a strong admirer of hers. And that has been true ever since.

Did she want Hillary Rodham Clinton to become president in 2016? “I really wanted her to become president. I see her as a strong, tough person who, you know, has tried to be a force for good over many decades,” says Sittenfeld. “And I think that there’s some things that I read, that sort of, you know, kind of made me see her in a slightly different way. But overall, I think I have a pretty consistent view of her.”

Fate and free will 

The book may be about what could have been for Hillary, but it’s also about what could have been for all of us.

What directions could your life have turned had you not made a romantic decision, or even a family or career one? 

news-hillary-clinton-hulu-docuseries Hillary Rodham Clinton Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“One of the things I was thinking about with this book is the idea of fate versus free will,” explains Sittenfeld. “Is there a life path that’s laid out for all of us and maybe there could have been slight deviations, or do we all have an infinite number of paths that we could have taken and maybe we see the one that we chose as inevitable?”

She says it was interesting for her to ask – if you just changed a few circumstances, can the same person play a really different role in your life? Could Bill Clinton still have been important to Hillary Rodham if they pair had not exchanged wedding vows?

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Sittenfeld has a short story collection called You Think It, I’ll Say It. It’s a phrase that applies to Sittenfeld’s style – she writes about elements of people’s lives and how they think that’s very intimate.

We get to know her imagined Hillary Rodham’s toilet habits and her inner thoughts about sex and men, as well as her beliefs about power and the tightrope she has to walk between moral goodness and political achievement.  

“I think that my interest in what the world looks like to other people is is one of the biggest reasons that I’m a novelist,” says Sittenfeld. “I feel like, how can you be a novelist and not be able to put yourself in someone else’s head or in someone else’s shoes? I mean, I guess maybe some novelists can’t or don’t, but it almost seems like a basic job requirement to me.”

Rodham maybe ostensibly a novel about one woman, but it’s a novel that’s also about the notions of power and privilege – who gets to hold power and the price they have to pay for it. Hillary Rodham, in the novel, makes decisions that are influenced by her unconscious thoughts about race, and she has to reckon with that.

Discussions around race and gender have long been happening, but the last five years have seen a big swell in the public discussion, particularly online. In the US alone we’ve seen powerful Hollywood men taken down because of their sexual inappropriateness, sexism or sex crimes, while recently the publishing world itself has had the light shone on its latent – or not so latent – sexism and racism. Does it feel like there is a reckoning happening? 

“I think it’s very accurate to say that a reckoning is happening and and I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s painful and uncomfortable in ways, but also promising. And I think it’s happening in publishing, it’s happening in media, it’s happening at a lot of major corporations,” says Sittenfeld.

She found the recent hashtag #publishingpaidme, where authors – as the hashtag suggests – outlined what they were paid by publishing houses, to be particularly eye-opening. 

“I think I think the most shocking part, I think for a lot of people, including me, was specifically that [African American authors] Jessamyn Ward and Roxane Gay were not paid more after they’d had very successful books,” she says. “To me, it’s indisputable that they were underpaid.”

Sittenfeld says that the publishing industry is “without a doubt” racist, “because I think that every industry in the United States is racist and… ragically, racism was baked into the foundation of the United States in a very literal way.”

She’s careful around how she discusses whether the current wave of activism will have an impact on things going forward.

“I mean, on the one hand, I would say yes. On the other hand, I have to say that in some ways, I think that maybe that question could probably be more thoroughly answered by an activist than by me. Because, I mean, this moment does seem different from other moments.

“I know that there’s data showing that, I think that there are the highest numbers of white people in the United States ever, who feel that racism is a major problem. But, you know, I don’t know what will happen. I hope things will change. I mean, also it’s like, you know, I think that change has to happen in a lot of very big and small ways. You know, it’s not it’s not like one law will change everything.”

‘That’s all I can control’ 

As the conversation comes to a close, we turn to what it’s like to have a book out – a book that might be loved in some quarters, and not understood in others. It’s all out of her hands, but she’s at peace with that.  

“Once publication occurs, there’s the pressure of reviews … the question I really ask myself is, did I write the novel that I meant to write and would I enjoy this if someone else had written it? And I think the answer is definitely yes, for both of those questions with Rodham. And in the end, that’s almost all I can control.

“I really ultimately can’t control the sales. I can’t control the reviews. I can’t control what’s going on in the world. But I can control the writing and and I do, I feel simultaneously like this is a weird novel and it’s the novel that I intended to write.”

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is out now.

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