Book Article

Curtis Sittenfeld taps into the psychic-twins network

The best-selling author of ''Prep'' and ''American Wife'' shifts focus, to a pair of paranormal siblings, in ''Sisterland''

You've written from the perspective of a prep-school kid, a First Lady, and now a twin who can predict the future. Was Sisterland a big leap, since it's your first novel with a supernatural element?

You could describe the book by saying, ''It's about psychic twins,'' and it could sound very kooky — but it doesn't read as kooky. It's not fundamentally a paranormal book. Mostly, I felt a sister relationship was a potentially rich topic. In pop culture, there are portrayals of sisters being like, ''You're my best friend, I feel so close to you!'' But there's this other reality where sisters actually are best friends but half the time they're hugely on each other's nerves.

One of the sisters in the novel, Vi, makes a wild prediction about a disastrous earthquake on national television. Where did you get the idea for that?

A friend told me about this climatologist, Iben Browning, who predicted in 1990 that there'd be a massive earthquake in the Midwest on a specific date. There was a big media frenzy, the scientific community was appalled, and of course it didn't come true. There's an inherent tension in predicting something on a specific date, like those periodic end-of-the-world predictions. Even if you can see the future, is there any advantage in doing so? Maybe it's just unsettling.

Your novels are often talked about as being both literary and commercial — which basically means they're fun to read but you might even feel smart reading them.

If I sold many fewer books, I'd probably be considered literary without question. If I sold way more books, I'd probably be considered commercial without question. Some of it's in the eye of the beholder, but I do think I'm writing the kinds of books I enjoy reading, which have some plot, not just beautiful language. I don't want to read books where there's no spark of life and it's all just lovely metaphors. But at the same time, if there's only plot and the characters aren't fleshed out and the dialogue isn't realistic, that's not interesting to me either.

How do you feel about people trying to categorize your novels as ''women's fiction'' or ''chick lit''?

I've had male readers come up to me and say, ''I'm sure I'm the only man who's ever read Prep.'' And I'm like, ''No.'' They think they're doing something they're not supposed to, like wear panty hose — although any man who wants to can wear panty hose. It's 2013. But Sisterland, between the title and the cover, is definitely saying, ''Embrace me, ladies.'' If the cover just had the title in bold colors, would that make it seem more ''serious''? Maybe. But I don't think I care that much.

Originally posted May 24, 2013 Published in issue #1261-1262 May 31, 2013 Order article reprints
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