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Prep: A Novel

by

Prep: A Novel Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

A Conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld

Katie Bacon is an editor for The Atlantic Monthly. This interview originally

appeared on The Atlantic Online (www.theatlantic.com). (Copyright

© 2005 The Atlantic Monthly Group).

Katie Bacon: What has this experience been like for you? Did you

expect Prep to take off in the way it has? It’s really become a phenomenon

of sorts.

Curtis Sittenfeld: I would say the short answer is no, I didn’t expect

this. But at the same time, when I would talk to my editor and publicists

at Random House in the months before publication, they were always

really excited and enthusiastic. So I always thought that if it wasn’t

a bestseller they might be disappointed. I didn’t necessarily think it

would be, but I thought they kind of expected it. But then, as the book

started to sell well and did become a bestseller, they would say things

to me like, “Isn’t this great?” “Can you believe it?” “I can’t believe it.”

And I thought, You can’t believe it!? But didn’t you assume this would

happen, and didn’t you make it happen?

You used the word “phenomenon,” and I think that if I knew someone

who had written a book and then things had unfolded this way, I

would probably think, Oh, you must be so excited all the time! You must

be so swept up in everything. I do feel really lucky, but my life is not that

different. One big difference is obviously that in the past I’ve conducted

these interviews and now I’m giving one. But in a weird way, it

kind of takes up the same time. And because I’ve worked as a freelancer,

I’ve had the experience of going to a newsstand and buying a

paper or magazine and having my name in it. This is sort of a different

version of something that I’m familiar with. Probably a year from now

I’ll look back and think, Oh, that was exciting. But right now it’s not as

if I’m walking around winking at myself in mirrors.

KB: In coming up with these questions, I went back and looked at

some of your interviews just to see the types of things that you’d asked.

And I found a quote which I thought was funny, given the coverage

that you’ve gotten. In your interview with Tobias Wolff, you said,

“Among writers, it’s a faux pas to ask if a work of fiction is true, and it’s

also the first question that nonwriters ask. Does the question bother

you?” Could I ask you the same thing you asked Wolff?

CS: No, it doesn’t bother me. It certainly doesn’t offend me, because I

think it’s a really natural question, and it’s something I often wonder

when I read fiction. But there can be different subtexts to the question;

some of them are sort of flattering and some are sort of insulting. It can

mean something like, “I was so enthralled by this, and the characters

seemed so real—I just can’t believe that anyone could have made it

up.” That’s a compliment. Or, in my case specifically, it can mean

something like, “I know you went to boarding school in Massachusetts;

I know you’re from the Midwest. Clearly this is all true, you lack an

imagination, and you’re a lazy writer.” In my opinion, whether a novel

succeeds or fails doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s true.

It’s all in the execution. If you can get something down on the page

that’s interesting, it doesn’t matter how much you borrow from real life.

It’s not like the more you borrow, the less skilled you are.

I also think it’s a question that’s almost unanswerable, because in a

way whenever someone asks you how much is true, what they’re really

saying is, I assume a great deal of it is true. So your response doesn’t

really matter, and the more you say, the more defensive you sound.

KB: I’d like to talk a bit about literary fiction. Your book is considered

literary, yet it’s also a page-turner in a way that reminds me of some of

the books I’ve read that have no literary pretenses. Do you think there’s

a movement away from fiction that’s self-consciously literary toward

work that’s just more readable?

CS: One thing I learned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from Ethan

Canin, was how to think about structure. I consider plot above everything

else except character. There’s nothing I hate more than some

book that’s all just exquisite language. That’s so boring. I want there to

be forward momentum, so I take it as a really big compliment if someone

says Prep is a page-turner. Frank Conroy, at Iowa, would say, “Writing

fiction is this combination of knowing what you’re doing and not

knowing what you’re doing.” I very consciously think about plot and

say, I want there to be a twist here or I want there to be a surprise. In fiction

I love surprises that are genuinely surprising and that feel plausible,

too. I don’t know if I’m part of some larger movement. I doubt it. I

think it’s probably just something that some people think about and

some people don’t. But I know a lot of writers who seem to feel like

every word has to be a little gem and every paragraph has to be perfect

before they can move on to the next paragraph. I certainly revise a lot,

but I believe that the sum of the parts is what matters the most.

KB: Obviously the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had a big effect on you in

terms of your thoughts on plot and in giving you the space to write this

book, but did it change you as a writer? Would you have written this

book if you hadn’t gone there?

CS: I don’t know if I would have. I think while at Iowa I learned to be

harder on myself as a writer. When I arrived there, I would write a story

and if I finished it I would be glad. If it read well or read smoothly, and

if I’d thought of some clever turns of phrase, I would almost feel like,

Well, that’s enough. But you’re kind of discouraged from cleverness at

Iowa, thank God. I think that if you have a certain facility with language

it’s very tempting to show it off. But that can backfire in terms of

alienating the reader. There’s only so much cleverness that anyone can

take, and ultimately the reason someone wants to finish a book is because

that person feels invested in the characters and wants to know

what happens to them. I do feel that at Iowa I learned to write more sincerely

instead of preening on the page.

I’m very pro-MFA. I know other people have mixed feelings about

this type of program. But I think, among other things, that it puts you

on this path where writing can be the center of your life. Even if writing

isn’t the bulk of what you spend your time doing, getting an MFA

affirms writing as a really big priority for you. It can help you feel okay

about the fact that your income might be a lot lower than that of everyone

else you know. And if you choose to write a novel, I think that you

have more of a support structure in place and more patterns of how to

spend your time.

KB: You manage to make the minutiae of prep-school, adolescent life—

the obsession with who gets how many Valentine’s Day flowers, or how

the cool girls wear their hair—interesting to an adult audience. This is

no small feat, given that you’re writing about a time of life when people

tend to be self-centered, and that these adolescents populate a world

that’s more insular than most. Who were you imagining as your audience

for this? What are the challenges of writing about an adolescent’s

world in a way that would be gripping to an adult audience?

CS: Well, this might sound very self-centered, but in a way I think I’m

writing for myself. I’m writing the kind of book that I would like to

read. Also, not everyone picks up on the fact that the story is actually

told from Lee’s point of view when she’s in her late twenties. That’s because

I hate most books that are from a child’s point of view. I passionately

hate them. I know this is a very big generalization, but I just have

to make it. I hate when you can feel that the character is much less intelligent

than the author who created that character. In my own writing,

and I am sure I don’t always succeed, I am trying to avoid the

things I don’t like in books and include the things that I do. I always

like a little romance in a book. I like narrators who are at least a little

neurotic and who want things and are driven by their wants. And I sort

of assume that other people share my tastes.

KB: A friend happened to mention this quote to me the other day

while I was reading your book, and I was wondering what you would

think of it. It’s from a commencement address given by Meryl Streep.

She said, “You have been told that real life is not like college and you

have been correctly informed. Real life is more like high school.” Does

that hold any truth to you? How much does the Darwinian social structure

of high school carry over into the real world?

CS: For me, post–high school life has not been that much like high

school. The biggest thing that’s missing is the intensity. There’s this

trade-off where you think, Thank God everything doesn’t matter as

much to you as it did then. But then you also miss feeling that sense of

excitement. I think it’s sort of like having a crush, where you’re kind of

tormented but also entertained. All things considered, though, I prefer

adulthood. I’m not someone who yearns for high school. I just feel like

you have so little autonomy in terms of how you spend your time. I

don’t like being told what to do by other people.

KB: The fascination you were talking about with that time and the

drama of it, do you think that’s true of high school in general, or do you

think it’s specifically true of the kind of high school that you went to

and that you’re writing about in Prep?

CS: I think a lot of people had very intense feelings in high school—

more people than not. I think there are some people who might feel

like they weren’t intellectually stimulated in high school, and so they’re

happy to leave it behind. But at most boarding schools that intellectual

stimulation does exist. There’s no ingredient that’s needed to

make life engaging or exciting that is missing from an elite boarding

school. You’re in a beautiful place, you’re with tons of people your own

age, there are plenty of romantic prospects, you’re intellectually stimulated,

you’re physically active. And of course there’s a good chance

you’re miserable on top of all that. But you can sort of feel that your

happiness exists somewhere in the air. Maybe that’s what it is: that in

high school you can feel the potential of your happiness, whereas when

you’re an adult, your life is what it is.

KB: Lee is, at times, a complicated character to like—she’s so painfully

self-conscious, so cynical, and she always seems to be doing or saying

the wrong thing. Could you talk about writing a book with a main character

who is not always appealing? Did you worry about alienating the

reader?

CS: Well, I’ve always known that some readers aren’t crazy about her,

because I got that feedback very early on at Iowa. I’ve been very lucky

in terms of the quantity and the general tone of coverage for Prep, but

it certainly hasn’t been unequivocally positive. And some of it does

sting. At the same time, nobody has ever said anything that’s totally unfamiliar

to me. Every kind of feedback that I could get, I got for the first

time long ago, so I knew that people didn’t always find Lee likable, and

I didn’t try to change that. I feel that, one, she’s not really trying to present herself as likable,

and to me, having a character be honest actually makes up for a lot.

And two, when people say that she’s not always appealing, I think, My

God, who is? I don’t know anybody—except maybe my mother—who

is always perky and agreeable. So in that way, I think Lee is realistic. At

the same time, I don’t like to read a story, let alone an entire book,

where I really don’t like the main character. So if someone feels like

they hate Lee and can’t take it anymore, they should probably quit

reading. Reading Prep is not meant to be punishment.

I think probably the most loaded and severe criticism of Lee is that

she’s kind of racist. And I would say that’s true in the way of a white

fourteen-year-old who’s grown up in Indiana and just hasn’t met a ton

of people who are different from her, let alone lived closely with them.

But I think a lot of her biases are disproved while she’s at Ault. People

have asked me, Does she change? I think she does.

KB: I read somewhere that you didn’t let your parents read the book

until more than a year after it had sold. Why did it take you so long to

show it to them?

CS: Well, I just thought that it wouldn’t be my parents’ cup of tea. My

mother prefers biographies, and my father likes writing that I think is a

little schmaltzier. So I literally thought it wouldn’t be a book that they

would choose to read if it hadn’t been written by their daughter. And,

in my mind, the fact that I did write it would only make it more weird

and complicated for them. They would think, Is this true? Did this happen

to Curtis? This does seem like Curtis, but this doesn’t. I think it’s just

so loaded to read a book written by your own child. The parents in the

book are not my parents, though there are a few lines that the parents

say that my parents would say. But the funny thing was that when my

dad read it, he didn’t identify with the father at all. I thought—even

though I knew the father wasn’t based on him—that because I’m me

and I went to boarding school and he’s my father and there’s a father in

the book, it would be very natural for him to compare himself. But he

actually identified very strongly with Lee. I think it kind of stressed him

out to read the book, and he had to hurry through it because he felt so

anxious. But I don’t think my mother identified with Lee at all. My

mother thought—they both thought—it would have been a better

book without the last chapter. I think they thought the last chapter was

unnecessarily graphic.

KB: The sex scenes are fairly explicit. It must have been a hard thing to

know that your parents were going to read them.

CS: I think it’s one of those things that as you’re writing you can’t think

about. It would just be paralyzing. There are plenty of cases where if I

had known the level of scrutiny the book would receive I might have

done things differently. As I was writing the book, I knew people would

wonder, Is this true? But I didn’t want that to determine how I wrote it.

And I didn’t want to write the book in such a way that I hoped it would

reflect flatteringly on me. I didn’t want to write a book where my main

goal was to make people think that I, the author, was a charming person.

I wanted to do what I felt was in the book’s best interest, not in my

own best interest.

KB: In an article about you in The Washington Post, the author commented,

“Beyond the setting of Prep, the novel is more deeply about

the universal experience of being a teenager, and about learning to

let go of the weirdness, the damage of having been one.” Do you

get the sense that reading this book has been cathartic for people at

all?

CS: Yes, definitely. Probably the nicest part of having the book come

out is people saying, “I identify with this so strongly.” I’ve heard this

from people who are fifty and people who are still in high school, from

men and from women. Because Lee is the narrator of the book, the

reader gets to know her every neurosis. But if you went to school with

her, I think she would seem like a somewhat quiet, peripheral person.

I think a lot of people see themselves in her. During high school they

may have seemed perfectly normal from the outside, but so much was

whirling around in their heads.

KB: Years ago, in 1995, you worked at The Atlantic as an intern. Did

working here and reading so much of the fiction that comes in over the

transom have any effect on your own writing?

CS: Well, I started submitting fiction to magazines when I was still in

college, when I was in high school even. And sometimes I would feel

kind of apologetic about doing it, or I’d feel kind of embarrassed for myself,

especially after something was rejected. And, quite honestly, when

I interned at The Atlantic, reading some of the submissions made me

think, I have nothing to apologize for. There’s some stuff that’s really

good, and there’s a lot of stuff that falls in between, but there’s plenty of

stuff that is absolutely atrocious. And the people seem to feel no hesitation

about burdening you with it. This was important for me to learn,

because it helped me feel comfortable sending things out. I once

read an interview, I think it was with Kevin Smith—who made Clerks,

among other movies—and the interviewer asked, Why aren’t there

more young female filmmakers? And Smith basically said that men

don’t feel reluctant to learn publicly and make mistakes and make

flawed movies that then help them to make better movies. Whereas

women almost don’t want to burden people with a flawed product. And

I do feel like there’s something to be said for not protecting other

people too much from your imperfections. How else are you going to

learn? I don’t think that you can learn to write a book except by writing

a book. And then of course it’s going to be imperfect. I could look at

Prep and feel like there are a lot of things wrong with it. But, ideally, I

won’t make the same mistakes again.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Average customer rating based on 1 comment:

riskyme425, August 26, 2007 (view all comments by riskyme425)
I enjoyed reading Prep however i have to say that i disagree with the title. As a teenager the title Prep hits me as what anyone at school would identify as someone who dresses well "Preppy." A better title for the novel might of been something like "Surviving Ault" or "My Years at Ault." I believe that a title such as these would of supported the main theme of the novel.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781588364500
Subtitle:
A Novel
Publisher:
Random House
Author:
Sittenfeld, Curtis
Author:
Curtis Sittenfeld
Subject:
Fiction-General
Subject:
Fiction : General
Subject:
General
Subject:
Teenage girls
Subject:
Preparatory school students
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Audiobooks -- Fiction.
Subject:
Audio Books-Literature
Subject:
Foreign Languages-Italian
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
Foreign Languages-Spanish Literature
Subject:
main_subject
Subject:
all_subjects
Publication Date:
20050111
Binding:
ELECTRONIC
Language:
English
Pages:
406

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Coming of Age

Prep: A Novel
0 stars - 0 reviews
$ In Stock
Product details 406 pages Random House Publishing Group - English 9781588364500 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , During the late 1980s, fourteen-year-old Lee Fiora leaves behind her close-knit, middle-class Indiana family to enroll in an elite co-ed boarding school in Massachusetts, becoming a shrewd observer of, and eventually a participant in, their rituals and mores. A first novel. 30,000 first printing.
"Synopsis" by , Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, Prep, is an insightful, achingly funny coming-of-age story as well as a brilliant dissection of class, race, and gender in a hothouse of adolescent angst and ambition.

Lee Fiora is an intelligent, observant fourteen-year-old when her father drops her off in front of her dorm at the prestigious Ault School in Massachusetts. She leaves her animated, affectionate family in South Bend, Indiana, at least in part because of the boarding school’s glossy brochure, in which boys in sweaters chat in front of old brick buildings, girls in kilts hold lacrosse sticks on pristinely mown athletic fields, and everyone sings hymns in chapel.

As Lee soon learns, Ault is a cloistered world of jaded, attractive teenagers who spend summers on Nantucket and speak in their own clever shorthand. Both intimidated and fascinated by her classmates, Lee becomes a shrewd observer of–and, ultimately, a participant in–their rituals and mores. As a scholarship student, she constantly feels like an outsider and is both drawn to and repelled by other loners. By the time she’s a senior, Lee has created a hard-won place for herself at Ault. But when her behavior takes a self-destructive and highly public turn, her carefully crafted identity within the community is shattered.

Ultimately, Lee’s experiences–complicated relationships with teachers; intense friendships with other girls; an all-consuming preoccupation with a classmate who is less than a boyfriend and more than a crush; conflicts with her parents, from whom Lee feels increasingly distant, coalesce into a singular portrait of the painful and thrilling adolescence universal to us all.

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