Interview From Dolley Madison to Hillary Clinton, White House first ladies have been some of history's most intriguing - and politically targeted - figures. Curtis Sittenfeld talks about her chronicle of a fictional American first wife.
Women of the House
When Michelle Obama becomes the American first lady on Jan 20, there will be much pondering and pontificating about her role as the first black woman to hold this unelected but integral post. Since America's inception, the public have been fascinated about the lives of these women; the tales of Dolley Madison saving the portrait of George Washington while a fire engulfed the White House in 1812 and Jackie Kennedy leading the nation in mourning after her husband's assassination in 1963 have helped create the legend of the first ladies. They are seen as pillars and symbols of American strength. So however Michelle Obama manages her position - she has said she will give up her high-paying law job to work with military spouses and help improve literacy rates - her life will be scrutinised like never before. Biographies will be written, childhood friends contacted and any kind of background details that could provide some kind of insight into her life will be broadcast for public consumption. It has been thus for all former first ladies and in this, Michelle Obama will not be unique.
Curtis Sittenfeld, for one, thinks Mrs Obama is up to the challenge of all that scrutiny. "She seems young and hip as first ladies go; she is really smart and she genuinely knows what it is like to balance work and family [because] it's something that she has dealt with very directly," Sittenfeld says during a phone interview from her home in St Louis, Missouri. It was Sittenfeld's fascination with Laura Bush, the current first lady, which led the 33-year-old bestselling author of Prep and The Man of My Dreams to write her latest novel, American Wife. Published in the US in the early autumn and the UK in October, the book is based loosely on the life of Mrs Bush and garnered some controversy because of steamy scenes that were first published on the internet. "There was a bit of a news vacuum in July when the scenes were posted and they were taken out of context," Sittenfeld says. "It was a mini scandal for a day and I thought, 'My gosh', but I don't think that it represents the book." There is nothing like a little drama to help book sales and so far American Wife has fared well, reaching No 3 on the New York Times best seller list.
Like Laura Bush herself, the protagonist Alice Blackwell is an only child who is doted upon by her parents and at 17 she accidentally kills the high school football star in a car crash. Alice then attends university, becomes a librarian and is happy in her quiet life until she meets jovial Charlie Blackwell, the son of Wisconsin's former governor and heir to a meat factory fortune. They seem an unlikely pairing but are happy in their life until Charlie's partying becomes such a problem that Alice threatens divorce unless he straightens up. Charlie becomes a born-again Christian, helps buy a major-league baseball team, becomes the governor of Wisconsin and is sworn in as the US president eight months before September 11. The book has received mixed reviews - a Time review says the book has "a fierce literary integrity" while Publisher's Weekly felt that the book "loses its panache" towards the end - but if anything, it is an interesting examination of a life and marriage in the weird goldfish bowl of Washington politics.
"I do not think this novel captures Laura Bush and I do not think it tries to, but what it does explore are questions about her that are interesting to me and [things] we will ever know the answers to," Sittenfeld says. Sittenfeld credits her fascination with Laura Bush as a result of reading Ann Gerhart's 2004 biography The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush. The book, which chronicles her traumatic car accident at 17 when she killed a fellow student and gives her credit for getting her husband to beat his addictions, helped make Sittenfeld a fan of the first lady. "I wrote an article about being a liberal Democrat who loved Laura Bush - a love that dare not speak its name - and in the article I said her life is like a great novel and here is the outline." She says that it was totally unwitting on her part - she is superstitious and hates to give away plots before they are written - and only two years later in 2006 did she take her own advice and begin work on the fictional tale.
Since the publication of American Wife, Sittenfeld has become a bit of a pundit when it comes to first ladies; during the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August she was asked by Time to follow Michelle Obama around. Her overall first impression of Obama was how tall and beautiful she was in person. "I think people are going to be fascinated by her because she is a really charismatic, striking person in pretty much all ways," Sittenfeld says. "I think she is going to be a great first lady." One of the main themes that American Wife helps drive home is that the role of the president's wife is a balancing act. In some senses, the women are beyond reproach, especially when they are involved in uncontroversial issues like breast cancer awareness or education issues. But if they veer even slightly into the political fray, they become fair targets. "I think [people are fascinated] with first ladies because so much of politics seems scripted and we see first ladies as giving us clues into the [personal and off camera] side of presidents."
Sittenfeld feels it was Hillary Clinton, who took much heat when she was appointed by her husband to chair a healthcare committee during his first term as president, who helped pave the way for future first ladies who want to be more actively involved in some of the political minefields in Washington. "She took more criticism [than first ladies] have in the past and that set a precedent," Sittenfeld says. Could that mean that Michelle Obama might set a precedent by following in the footsteps of women like Cherie Blair, who practised law the entire time her husband was the British prime minister? Or even Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who has continued with her singing career? "It seems unlikely, but not impossible," argues Sittenfeld. "I think being first lady is a full-time job and maybe future women could do something if it was not seen as political [but they couldn't] practice law like Michelle Obama does."
Mrs Obama is of course not the first first lady who has had to give up her successful law career; Hillary Clinton had been a lawyer in Arkansas before her husband became president and she used her role as the first lady as a springboard for her own political ambitions. Mrs Clinton will of course go down in history for not only being a controversial first lady, but also for coming close to securing the Democratic Party's nomination for president. The 2008 elections were a tremendous leap for women in American politics. Love her or hate her, Sarah Palin also played a fundamental role in the roller coaster that was the American presidential race this year. "Yes, I think this was a big year for women in politics," Sittenfeld says. "Some have said that with Sarah Palin we have reached true fairness because a mediocre woman can be as successful in politics as a mediocre man."
When asked who is her favourite first lady, Sittenfeld admits that though she admires Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush still remains her top candidate (though she says Michelle Obama is "neck and neck" with Bush). "I found Laura Bush more intriguing and more endearing than I had expected," she says. "Partly it seems like she is an ordinary person who has found herself in extraordinary circumstances." Sittenfeld says American Wife was the most consuming work she has ever done - she spent two years working solidly on the book and jokes that when she needed a new pair of jeans she decided she could wait it out another year and a half until she finished the manuscript. Though she is now under contract for two more books, Sittenfeld thinks it may be a while before she writes again because she is expecting her first child next spring. "I would not be surprised if I did not have a book for five more years," she says, laughing. Though she says she won't write about a first lady again, Michelle Obama's years in the White House might just prove too tempting.