When Curtis Sittenfeld’s daughter was in kindergarten, she asked the author if she ever played with dolls. Sittenfeld told her she didn’t, but that she had “when I was your age.” But wait, she thought, Do I play with dolls in the abstract? How was writing fiction so different? “Being like, Here's a man walking down the hall. And this is what he says. And then he runs into his friend, and his friend says…’” Sittenfeld recalls over lunch at Lodi, an Italian cafe in the shadow of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the headquarters of NBC Studios.
In Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Romantic Comedy — which was published last week and is already a book club hit — the dolls are named Sally Milz and Noah Brewster. Sally writes feminist sketches for a Saturday night comedy show that looks and feels a lot like Saturday Night Live. Noah is an early-aughts pop star who’s guest-hosting the show. Sally wants to write a sketch about her male coworkers who date (and marry) female celebrity hosts. But then she has a very productive late-night writing session with Noah, and the plot shifts from workplace romp about the romance of comedy to a romantic comedy in earnest.
To capture the nitty-gritty of a late-night sketch show, Sittenfeld read the 750-page SNL history book Live from New York, along with the memoirs of current and former cast members Colin Jost, Jay Mohr, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Tracy Morgan, Molly Shannon, and Sarah Silverman. She wanted to know, for example, where her characters would stand during the live airing, which ones would have walkie-talkies, and whether an actor would be summoned to the main stage by a production assistant or some kind of loudspeaker.
During the early days of Covid, while watching Saturday Night Live with her family, Sittenfeld had a throwaway idea about a female comedy writer who rolls her eyes at the double-standard of male writers dating female celebrities, before proceeding to hit it off with a celebrity herself. “It took me a few months to think, It should be a novel, and I’m the one who should write it,” she says. Two women sit down next to us for a spirited catch-up, and I’m charmed by how many times Sittenfeld glances down at my tape recorder to make sure they’re not drowning us out. (As a former freelance writer herself, she feels “proxy anxiety about functioning reporting devices,” she says.)
Thanks to her voracious pop culture consumption, she was already fluent in the language of “cryptic” breakup Instagram posts and the like; since deleting the Twitter app from her phone, she says, “my go-to form of procrastination is to look at People.com. I look at it all the time.” There is a certain cohort of celebrities whose work she does not follow, “but I know they just had a baby.” When I ask who she means, she rattles off the names of a reality TV family I’ve never heard of, one of whom — she adds in a low voice — “just wore a revenge dress.”
Despite borrowing the setting and some social dynamics from SNL, there are no 1:1 stand-ins for real people in the book. Sally’s co-worker Danny Horst is no Pete Davidson, but I point out that the book draws from SNL the way Rodham drew from Hillary Clinton’s origin story, Eligible drew from Pride and Prejudice, and American Wife drew from Laura Bush’s life. “It’s to my own surprise that I've had this pattern,” Sittenfeld says. But it does make sense: she is drawn to writing about subjects that confuse and baffle her, and follows the same cultural storylines as much of the population. “Writing fiction is like having a conversation with my friends,” she says; if two friends share a reference point, they’ll have a “much richer, juicy or more detailed conversation.” So these topics are “points of departure” from which her books “can fulfill some of your expectations and defy some of your expectations.”
Sittenfeld didn’t grow up with a novel-writing career in mind. “I definitely am aware of what an incredible privilege it is,” she says. In high school, she claims, she “wasn’t that good” at other subjects and became an English major almost by default. She attended the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop in her mid-twenties, an experience she fictionalized in the New Yorker story “Show Don’t Tell,” and which may have influenced the world of Romantic Comedy. Like the Iowa Writers Workshop, the sketch show is staffed by “super talented people who gain entry to this rarefied subculture,” she says. “The position they're in has status to the outside world, but if you work there, everyone else you know works there.” Both environments are crucibles of talent, ambition, ego, conflicting intentions, and “luck falling unevenly,” she explains. “It can be this beautiful community for some people, and it can be a debilitating mindfuck for other people.” Perhaps Sally’s experience is “a little more positive than the average writer’s,” she ventures. “It seems like the experience of submitting sketches at SNL can be borderline traumatizing.”
Sittenfeld was 29 years old when her debut novel, Prep, was published in 2005. It took three years to write, and she was paid $40,000 for it. While the unexpected bestseller set her up for a full-time writing career, it also offered “an early glimpse into — I don't know if this is too, like, philosophical — but into what public recognition can and can't do for you.” The dialogue around Romantic Comedy reminds her of Prep, in the sense that both protagonists have elicited strong reactions from readers: “People are saying to me, ‘I so strongly identify with Sally,’ and/or they're saying, ‘I found her really frustrating.’” To me, the contradiction is what makes the character interesting. Sittenfeld, too: “I love writing about intelligent, self-aware people who are incorrect in their views of themselves, and of the world,” she says. “That just seems like the definition of being human.”
Romantic Comedy arrives during a season in which romance, as a genre, is having a moment. “The thing that motivated me to write this book is the same thing propelling the popularity of romance: I wanted to exist in a happier space,” Sittenfield says. Yet the pandemic figures prominently. “It’s actually an act of optimism to show them getting through it instead of sidestepping it as a topic.” Everyone I know who has read Romantic Comedy has devoured it in less than 48 hours; I myself pulled an all-nighter. The novelist Brandon Taylor live-tweeted his reading experience, culminating in a front-facing camera video expressing his frustration with the protagonist.
Sittenfeld concurs that Sally is her own worst enemy: “She almost misses out on this relationship because she can't believe that he exists.” But is Noah too good to be true? Is he simply too dreamy? Sittenfeld considers this. Noah has struggled with disordered eating. He is sober, with a history of substance issues. He’s haunted by a tragic accident. And he has a fairly bad relationship with his parents. “Some of his challenges or flaws have led to him being more thoughtful. And that's a real thing, especially as you get older,” she says. “I think there are real people — non-celebrity men — who are all the things heterosexual rom-coms want them to be. Those men are unusual, but super-awesome women are also unusual. The good thing is we all define super-awesome differently.”