"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Curtis Sittenfeld’s third novel, “American Wife,” was published, smartly, smack in the middle of last week’s Republican convention.
What this meant, in addition to politically plumped coverage, was that rabid fans of Sittenfeld’s first two novels (the debut smash “Prep” and its follow-up, “The Man of My Dreams”) who rushed out and bought “American Wife” probably found themselves experiencing an unwelcome familiarity last Tuesday night. That’s when George and Barbara Bush (whose unchanging heft and visage make her look like a carved stone monument to imperious matriarchy) took their seats at the Xcel center to watch daughter-in-law Laura introduce the ignominious, boo-proof video feed of her husband slurking through a brief speech from the Oval Office.
The awkward dynastic tableau seemed to spring directly from the pages of Sittenfeld’s novel, which makes perfect circular sense, since “American Wife” itself sprang from the Bush dynasty. It is the story of Alice Lindgren, a Wisconsin bookworm who grows up to be an independent-minded librarian before falling in love with the ambling, dopey scion of a powerful political family, eventually finding herself the helpless wife of an unpopular and inept president.
Sittenfeld gave herself the idea for “American Wife” when she wrote a story for Salon in 2004 about her secret, shameful admiration for First Lady Laura Bush. In that story, she wrote that “Laura Bush’s own life resembles a great novel.” Two and a half years later, Sittenfeld said from her home in St. Louis, where she lives with her new husband, she smacked her head and thought, “Wait, is it the novel I should write? Oh my God!” She realized she had only two years to get it out before the Bush administration came to its long-awaited close, and so she chained herself to her desk, “working feverishly, in a way I’ve never worked before and never plan to work again.”
The result is a big, thick, juicy steak of a book, a page-turner that received early (scandalized!) attention for its sex scenes. Sex with George W. Bush? Ew! But it is a testament to the delicacy with which Sittenfeld treats her characters that the W. stand-in, Charlie Blackwell, is so adoring and puppy-doggish a husband — even while remaining so detestable a politician — that the sex actually isn’t so hard to stomach. It’s also a shame to consider “American Wife” solely on the basis of its dirty bits. In fact, it is a moving and often powerful imaginative experiment, taking as its structure four distinct periods of Alice’s life: her teenage years, in which she kills the young man of her dreams in a car accident; her single librarian days, in which she tastes the personal and ideological freedoms she will spend the rest of her life surrendering; her days as a housewife and mother, in which her husband battles the growing realization of his own shortcomings with booze, and then battles booze by buying a baseball team and finding Jesus; and finally, the Blackwells’ misbegotten occupation of the White House.
In Sittenfeld’s hands, it is a diverting, compulsively readable story, though a reader cannot help wanting to stop the clock on Alice’s narrative before she gets to Washington, to change the fictional ending because we can’t change the reality. In taking as its topic a relatively unimaginable premise — being the person who is married to George W. Bush — “American Wife” pulls us by our bellies through its imaginary peephole, and allows Sittenfeld and her readers to project a thousand pop-psych analyses and hypotheticals: what if she had an abortion, what if her grandmother were a lesbian, what if she always pined for the boy she killed so early in life, what if she really, truly loves her husband. Wiggling her way under Alice’s skin affords us a disconcerting view, of what a flawed, and widely hated, man might look like to a smart woman who loves him. As Alice says at the end of the book, just after she reveals that she did not vote for her husband for president, “All I did is marry him. You are the ones who gave him power.”
But apart from its invented insights into the lives and loves of the real people on whom it is based, “American Wife” tells a broader and more terrible American story. It’s about what it means to be a woman and become a wife, to be present and conscious as the world, or perhaps just your family, moves in sickening directions. It explores what happens when we fill voids in our lives and in our government with booze and power and love and religion. The book wonders what it means to be responsible for, and responsible to, another person. Most searingly, especially after this week of terrifying headlines and the unexpected arrival of Sarah Palin on a presidential ticket, it is a meditation on how accidents — the kind you have in cars and the kind you have in elections — happen quickly, sometimes almost noiselessly.
Legally, what can you say about the idea behind this book?
I can say it’s loosely inspired by Laura Bush and that Laura Bush’s life is a point of departure. This is a thing that is weirdly fascinating to me: If a book is presented as true, there is great public enthusiasm for proving that some or all of it is made up. The inverse is that if I say that this book is fiction, people are obsessed with saying, “No, this is true and this is true.” But if I were to say “This is Laura Bush’s memoir” people would say, “You’re a liar! You made this up from your imagination!”
Well, when I read some of the details of Alice’s life, about her car accident, or her librarian days, and recognize them from the little I know about Laura Bush’s life, it’s hard to resist the impulse to wonder whether you knew things about Laura that I didn’t …
If you don’t know if something in the book has some real life parallel to the Bushes, then you should assume it’s made up.
How much research did you do for this novel?
People might disagree, but I feel like 85 percent of this book is made up. For the Salon article I wrote, I read the biography “The Perfect Wife” by Ann Gerhart. I just started writing based on what I recalled from that. I’m obsessed with structure in writing, so I conceived of this book as having four sections, each one built around a major real-life event that happened to Laura Bush. Everything else is made up. So I felt that I was creating a character, and didn’t need to research Laura Bush’s soul.
As I wrote, I started to do more and more research, the bulk of it about the White House. There are books I acknowledge: the Gerhart, which if anyone feels curious about Laura Bush is the book I recommend. Then there was “Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait” by Ronald Kessler, “Ambling Into History” by Frank Bruni, “Living History” by Hillary Clinton and “For Love of Politics” by Sally Bedell Smith.
What I like most about the book, though, is that you take the history stuff, the White House stuff, the first lady stuff, and break it down to incredibly detailed personal moments that almost have nothing to do with the broader public picture.
I’m very intrigued by the fact that when we talk about public figures we always analyze them and talk about our view of them and their symbolism, but we never think about how we look to them. Everyone is a person, and everyone has an internal life. I remember hearing the story, and I know it’s a controversial story, about when Bush choked on a pretzel while watching sports with only his dogs. And I remember being really shocked that he’s in a room by himself under any circumstances. But every individual has to deal with himself or herself at some point, even if you’re famous. We think famous people only exist when their pictures are being taken, but they eat meals and go to the bathroom and sleep; there are certain things that are sort of obligatory.
Were you surprised to wake up and find a Maureen Dowd column dedicated to the book?
This was one of the great shocks of my life. I literally gasped four times when my husband brought in the paper. My little sister said, “I can’t believe Maureen Dowd did research on you!” I think she felt the world had turned upside down. Her column was a really wonderful surprise following a few days of online discussions of the book that I felt were misrepresentative.
What kind of stuff was online?
Radar published a few paragraphs of sex scenes totally by themselves, out of context, and [they] got picked up. I think that’s the world we live in. I didn’t write those scenes to be read by themselves, but I did write them and I have to take responsibility. But I felt it was a shame because if the book was going to be misrepresented, I wanted it to be out and for sales to counteract the misrepresentation.
I think it’s hilarious, and deliciously Christian conservative, of people to leap to the defense of Laura Bush because you depict her having sex rather than that you depict her disagreeing with her husband’s policy, or voting against him!
I should say that I certainly assume that Laura Bush voted for her husband! I made that up. But people who haven’t read this book seem to imagine that it’s more of a political hatchet job than it is. I think Democrats are as likely to find it too sympathetic as Republicans are likely to find it too unsympathetic.
What does Alice have in common with your previous two heroines?
Not much. There was a time, in the first section about Alice’s teenage years, when I realized that this protagonist is not a sarcastic person and doesn’t make harsh observations about other people and I thought, “I don’t think I’m playing to my strengths as a writer.” But it was good for me to push myself to write from the perspective of an optimistic and agreeable person. She’s someone who has doubts about her life, but she has an essential confidence and calmness that both of my previous narrators lacked.
Do you have any affection for Jenna or Barbara Bush?
I don’t really have strong feelings about them one way or another. They’re very pretty, poised, privileged. I’m a little bit curious because I saw Jenna’s interview with Diane Sawyer and I do wonder about her political leanings. And did you see her on Ellen DeGeneres?
When Ellen made her call her parents and she was so nervous she’d get in trouble?
Yes! It was so awkward that I couldn’t help believing that it was real. If you listen to that clip the thing that is striking, and almost breaks my heart, is that Laura Bush’s voice is so kind and loving. It’s very touching and it does seem like a real, unrehearsed moment.
In the book, there’s sex and abortion and lesbianism and boyfriend stealing. Do you see Laura Bush as an innately juicy character, or did you have to work to gin it up?
After Bush took office in 2001, I read articles about her that made me think she was different from what I expected. She shopped at Wal-Mart, flew Southwest. She just seemed much more unpretentious and down to earth than I would have expected. My impression of her is that she is very sincere and very kind — and those are qualities you don’t find that much in public figures, because whatever compels people to become a public figure is not kindness and sincerity. But she herself wasn’t compelled to become a public figure.
But first ladies by definition are the accidental hangers-on of those who seek the spotlight. Have you been fascinated by other first ladies?
Not to this extent. There is conflicting information about George W. Bush out there. Some people will say he was the charismatic son of a president and it’s not shocking that he became president. Other people will say it’s flabbergasting he became president and that if you’d met him in the ’70s and ’80s you could never have predicted it. If you subscribe to the latter view, then Laura might be more unusual than other first ladies. Most people who become president, their ambition is pretty obvious early on, before you marry them. Maybe you don’t know what heights you’ll follow your spouse to, but you know something big is coming.
Becoming first lady would have been an unlikely future for Michelle Obama when she married Barack.
I don’t know. Does it seem completely unlikely? I think it’s clear that Barack Obama was ambitious from the time they met.
But until four years ago it was almost unimaginable that we could have a black president anytime soon.
Right. She didn’t know he’d be the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. I have a positive view of her and I admire her. She seems strong and smart. Those are very attractive, admirable qualities that get turned around by her critics. Again there’s the sense of being in an upside-down world; when both Obamas get discussed, people pretend to be talking about something else when they’re really being racist: There’s talk of “exoticism” or how she’s “very opinionated” and stuff like that. But I think she seems cool. In a way you have to wonder if any first lady wants her husband to be elected president. Sounds pretty dreadful to me.
Do you have any interest in Cindy McCain?
I know a little bit about her. I think her life is definitely worthy of a novel, and it’s not one I ever plan to write.
Your affection for Laura Bush is documented, and you clearly have affection for your heroine, Alice. In writing about Alice’s clear love for Charlie, the W. character, did you find yourself cultivating any affection for the president whose politics you reject?
I see Bush as a president and as a person separately. I’ve seen him this way for most of his presidency. I understand that there are people out there who either can’t or don’t want to make that distinction. I don’t think George Bush is equipped to be president, and I think it’s very unfortunate that he was elected. But I think that if he were not president and let’s say I randomly were seated next to him at some preppy wedding, he would be a pretty enjoyable dinner companion; he’d be funny and a little outrageous and also seem perfectly intelligent. I don’t think he seems like he has a powerful intellect that you would hope a president had. But I don’t think he’s a moron.
That said, based on what I’ve read, I sincerely don’t believe he understands the consequences of his choices in terms of how they affect real people. There is this touching story in the Bruni book where Frank Bruni goes down to Crawford. I believe Bush has been declared the winner of the 2000 election, but not inaugurated. And he’s showing reporters the ranch in some sort of open-air vehicle. And he’s really worried that Bruni and the other guy are going to be cold, and he wants to lend them his jacket. Again, I think he’s been an awful president, but I don’t think he’s completely evil.
But there are people who believe that the consequences of his awful presidency, including the war, are completely evil, and that Laura Bush is complicit in them. They would say that she doesn’t deserve our imaginative interest, that she supported him and, by doing that, supported the deaths of thousands of people.
Well, that raises a huge question about any first lady and for people in general: How much are we responsible for the behavior of people close to us? Another question, which Ann Gerhart raises, is: What should the role of first lady be, given that it’s not an elected position? So many people think Hillary Clinton overstepped boundaries by getting too involved, and that Laura Bush has been much too passive. It’s very tough to strike a balance. People do say that Laura has been complicit in the deaths of all these Iraqis. That’s an easy thing to say. But let’s say you know your husband’s a really reckless driver — do you forbid him from driving? Do you steal his keys? Do you divorce him? I think that in life it often seems clearer what other people should do about their problems than what you should do about your problems.
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)