Curtis Sittenfeld, ROMANTIC COMEDY

Curtis Sittenfeld, ROMANTIC COMEDY

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld about Romantic Comedy, a hilarious and compelling meta-romance (and Reese’s Book Club pick!) about a comedy writer who has sworn off love, the comedy sketch she writes about the phenomenon of ordinary-looking men dating gorgeous female celebrities (and how the opposite just doesn’t happen), and the dreamy pop star that flips the script on all her assumptions. Curtis talks about her love of SNL, how much fun she had researching it, the real-life “dating-up” phenomenon, and the experience of writing mid-pandemic (and incorporating it into the story). She also talks about her impressive twenty-year career, her favorite writer, and the A++ book she read recently.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Curtis. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Romantic Comedy, your latest novel.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure. Romantic Comedy, so fun. I inhaled it basically in one sitting. I never knew how much I wanted to know about a place like Saturday Night Live until I started learning more and then could not get enough. Why don’t you start by just telling listeners a little bit about the inspiration for the book and what it’s about? I can summarize if you don’t feel like answering.

Curtis: I can answer. My family started watching a lot of Saturday Night Live during the pandemic. I thought to myself that it would be — what I actually originally thought was, someone should write a screenplay for a romantic comedy where a female writer for a show like SNL writes about the phenomenon of talented but ordinary-looking men from the show dating super gorgeous, super talented, super famous female celebrities and how the dating-up thing happens for men but not for women. Then there will be a host. Maybe this theory is disproven. Then a few months passed. I thought, oh, maybe that screenplay that someone should write, maybe that should be a novel. Maybe that someone should be me. Then I wrote it.

Zibby: I’m always like, someone should do this. Someone should do that. Who is the someone half the time?

Curtis: I know. Usually, I think it about changing rolls of toilet paper. I think, someone should change that roll of toilet paper. Then I think, oh, actually, I should. To replace the empty roll. This time, it was more fun.

Zibby: Novels as compared to toilet paper rolls for the first time. Here we go. I know you mentioned in your acknowledgments that you were watching so much Saturday Night Live. Have you been a fan forever? Do you remember watching it as a kid? When did you start?

Curtis: Yes, and yes. In the book, the main character, Sally, tells her love interest, Noah, that she and the fictional show, The Night Owls, are the same age. They were both born in 1981. In real life, SNL and I were both born in 1975. Obviously, I did not start watching it as a baby. I think I was ten. My friend Annie’s older brothers introduced me. It was the era of Dana Carvey, church lady type thing. I think when you’re that age, you often don’t even know exactly what the joke or the punchline is. You don’t know the original thing it’s mocking. You’re like, this is so fun and interesting. I want to know more. I watched off and on. I watched in high school, in college. When I had kids, I didn’t really watch. I sort of tuned in for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. Then I’ve definitely pretty comprehensively watched at least the five years. I don’t watch it on Saturday night. My family watches it at seven PM on Sunday night.

Zibby: That is smart. Now you don’t have to stay up. I was out in college. Of course, there, we would catch the end. Now I’m like, oh, I can’t stay up for that.

Curtis: Not at all. It’s also interesting because so many people, especially people who are in their twenties now or people who live in other countries, might have seen viral sketches, but they actually haven’t seen it in its entirety. It has such a fixed structure that I think there’s something really pleasing where you’re like, oh, it’s Weekend Update. It’s the first musical act. It’s the second musical act. I like it in its entirety.

Zibby: Totally, and the predictability of it all. So much changes, and yet we can go back to something.

Curtis: Exactly. The world changes. The focus of the sketches changes. The sketches themselves, because they’re live, there is always unpredictability. Then that intersects with the consistency of the structure in this way that I think is really satisfying.

Zibby: Tell me about the research needed. You decided someone should write this book. Then you realized that someone should be you. Then what happened?

Curtis: Actually, doing the research made me realize that — I feel like this is very immodest to say — that writing this book was a great idea because it was so fun to do the research. I like doing research for fiction anyway. I started writing this in the summer of 2021. I actually set aside a more dark, serious book. To live in this world where it was work for me to listen to comedians on podcasts interview one another — there’s tons of comedian — whether it’s Marc Maron, “WTF,” or Mike Birbiglia. There’s “Fly on the Wall,” which is actually Dana Carvey and David Spade interviewing tons of people from SNL. I read memoirs by current and former cast members. There’s an SNL YouTube, almost digital shorts that describe the way the different departments work, like the makeup department or wardrobe. It was a total joy to exist in that world. It was so much fun and such a good counterbalance to the pandemic.

Zibby: Then did you get to go watch in person? How many times did you go? I’m just curious now. It’s not even related to the book. I’m just like, tell me about this experience.

Curtis: It’s funny because a few people have been like, did you work for SNL? I’m so flattered. I’m like, in my dreams. I’ve barely been in the studio once. Actually, I was almost finished writing, and I went to a dress rehearsal, which is right before the live show. It’s actually a little longer because they end up cutting a few sketches. I was in full research nerd mode. I was by myself. I got the ticket at the last minute. I live in Minneapolis. I flew by myself for seventeen hours to New York. I was also a little nervous. Did I get anything wrong? A lot of people probably go and it’s like, you have some drinks with your friends. Have you ever been?

Zibby: I haven’t. I’ve always wanted to. I had some friends who knew someone. They used to go to the afterparties a lot.

Curtis: It’s so funny, too, because I feel like I know people who’ve been to afterparties, but I have not been within ten miles of an afterparty.

Zibby: Me neither. I’m more likely to be awake the next day when the afterparty is starting.

Curtis: I feel like if I’m awake during the afterparty, I’m lying in my bed having woken up after being asleep for five hours having an anxiety attack. I’m not at an afterparty.

Zibby: This is when I’m up reading because I’m so stressed out, I can’t sleep, not the partying. That’s so awesome. Talk about the whole — what was it? Not Danny Meyer. Danny…?

Curtis: Danny Horst.

Zibby: Sorry, Danny Horst effect. When you really delved into it, this whole notion of dating up, attraction-wise, and between men and women or vice versa or whatever, after you spent a lot of time on that, where did you come out on it in general?

Curtis: Everyone knows what I’m talking about. Obviously, it’s a real phenomenon at SNL. Again, these people are very talented. Colin Jost is married to Scarlett Johansson. Colin Jost is super smart, super talented. I think he’s very attractive. Scarlett Johansson is a household name. She’s a true movie star. Of course, Pete Davidson, whether it’s Ariana Grande or Kim Kardashian. Obviously, he’s dated many people that he did not meet directly through SNL. There is this phenomenon. Essentially, it’s extraordinarily unusual to see a woman dating a very attractive male celebrity unless the woman herself looks like a model, no matter what her profession is. For me, the weird thing about spending so much of my professional energy analyzing this was that the conclusion I came to — I actually thought, if I were Scarlett Johansson, I would totally want to be married to Colin Jost. If I were Kim Kardashian, yeah, sure, why wouldn’t I want to date Pete Davidson? The depressing part is that it doesn’t work in the opposite direction. It’s not that it’s weird that it works one way. It’s that it’s a bummer that it doesn’t work the other way. The exception that isn’t an exception that proves the rule is Keanu Reeves, who dates this woman, Alexandra Grant, who appears to have naturally whiteish/gray hair, which makes people just lose their shit. Are we allowed to swear on this podcast?

Zibby: We are now. We are.

Curtis: It makes people lose their minds. She’s very attractive, very successful, has a PhD, is an accomplished artist, I think is six to eight years younger than he is. It’s so weird that people are like, she’s almost a normal woman. It’s like, depends on your definition of normal. I was like, this is cause for celebration. She doesn’t dye her hair. Again, you can hardly think of examples of women very visibly dating — it’s also a little delicate to talk about because I don’t think I would ever, by name, insult someone’s appearance. Well, I hope I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t on the record. There are some examples where people will say, she’s his beard, or whatever. We don’t need to go down that path.

Zibby: No, we’ll stop. I’ll pivot the conversation before you get in trouble here. Oh, my goodness. I was surprised to find a whole epistolary section in the middle of the book. Tell me about that decision.

Curtis: It’s funny. When I conceived of this novel — again, I want it to be short and fun and fizzy and kind of doubly fun. I want it to be the fun of romance and falling in love and the fun of SNL and mash those up. I thought, it’s going to be ninety pages. It’s ultimately three hundred pages. I very clearly thought, I want the characters to meet and have a connection. Then things go off the rails. Then they email each other and get to know each other in this totally different way. It was super fun to me. Both my American editor and my British editor, who are incredibly smart and kind and supportive, they were both a little like, really? An all-email section? Huh, that’s interesting. I do think that a few people are sort of skeptical. Then sometimes people are skeptical and are like, that was my least-favorite section. A lot of people are like, that was actually my favorite. You get this direct window into the characters that’s not even — of course, it’s really filtered by me, the writer, but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s not them in a scene. It’s them speaking for themselves. I also thought it was fun that the reader has to kind of make the same decisions that the characters make. Was that a flirty comment or not a flirty comment? They’re not interacting, so they don’t have any additional information.

Zibby: I loved that section. I’ll just say that. I don’t know that I would feel comfortable saying I didn’t, but I happened to love it, which is why I brought it up. I love even whole books — have you read Love & Saffron by Kim Fay? It’s all letters.

Curtis: No. What year is it from?

Zibby: It was published in the last two years, maybe last year or two years ago.

Curtis: I’ll definitely look it up.

Zibby: It’s not related to your book at all, but it’s all letters back and forth. It takes place further back in time. In recent times, I feel like there are less and less letters or emails. That form is sort of dying down as communication is so rampant. We all read emails all day. Why put it in a book? I still think there’s such an immediacy to it. It’s hard not to stop reading other people’s emails. That’s what’s so delicious about it. It’s like, wait, I get to read all of this?

Curtis: You’re supposed to. Not only are you allowed to, but you have to to get to the next section.

Zibby: I know now that we’re out of the pandemic or whatever you want to call this phase of life, going back into it through the letters and what they were going through — sometimes people are going back before the pandemic. Oh, no, I don’t want to deal with that. I’m going to set it before. You’ve chosen to set it right during the middle. That’s what kept them apart. I hope I’m not giving — that’s not giving anything away.

Curtis: No, that’s okay.

Zibby: People know. It’s not a spoiler that the pandemic happened, but it happened in your book. Was that the natural way to separate them? Was it a good device? Just tell me about that decision, as I ramble.

Curtis: I’m sure you’ll have this conversation over and over with so many writers in the years to come. The pandemic happened. It’s a part of reality. If you write realistic fiction set in 2020 or after, you either very deliberately are writing a kind of parallel universe or you have to acknowledge it somehow. I think that different writers will make different choices about what to do. Partly, I think I included it because of what I was writing. I started it in 2021. I could’ve set the whole book before, like from 2014 to 2018. There were two things. One, I do think it made people kind of reevaluate their priorities in some cases. The pandemic relationship is a real thing. There are definitely people who got together, whether it was long distance or local. I’ve been thinking of you for years, or whatever. Then also, just the circumstances of my characters’ lives changed in this way that, even though the pandemic was this terrible thing, they find each other again in a way I don’t think they would have otherwise.

Zibby: I know you mentioned you had lost a parent. There’s parent loss in this book. Even the relationship between a stepparent when your uniting force is no longer there, I feel like you did such a good job with that too. I have a stepfather and a stepmother. My love for them is so — usually, they come on the phone after. The lynchpin is the other person, so what happens when the supporting beam of the relationship gets sort of knocked away? It was such an interesting exploration of that particular relationship.

Curtis: Thank you. Obviously, the pandemic is really painful. I think a lot of comedy comes from pain. A lot of comedians, I think they’re so funny, and I think they have pain in their upbringing. Maybe they have mental health challenges or something. It feels very not unusual. Even though this is essentially a light, fun story, it does acknowledge that the pandemic exists. It’s almost like, how can anyone be an adult and not have been through painful experiences? The book does acknowledge that.

Zibby: I was posting something the other day. I was like, who has not had something bad happen? I’m a year younger. Who hasn’t had something bad happen by now? This is life, so we might as well all just face up to it. You said that you put aside a darker other novel. Are you going back to it? Tell me about that one.

Curtis: I’m trying to figure it out. What really happened was there was this book that I probably started writing in the summer of 2020. My book Rodham, which is this alternate retelling of Hillary Clinton’s life, had come out in April 2020. Actually, maybe May. Anyway, I felt very proud of it. I felt like I had put a lot of myself into it. I also kind of felt like I was ready to pivot. If I was having a conversation like this, people would say, what are you going to do next? I would say, I want to write a book that’s short and fun. I worked on a book for eight months and was like, this is not short and also not fun. I think it’s interesting and has elements of anthropology. I’m actually trying to decide now if I should go back to it. I have this theory that if you’re going to go away from your own incomplete writing project, story or novel or whatever, whether it’s for days or weeks or months, it’s easiest to reenter the cleanest it is when you reenter. It’s almost better to spend a few days polishing it so it’s not this impenetrable jungle of markups and whatever. I did not do that with this book. I almost would maybe start over and just borrow the original plot or something. I’m so lucky that I get to decide the fictional world I live in. I want to be careful what I choose.

Zibby: Of course. How long did this book take? What does it look like when you’re writing? Where do you write?

Curtis: In this really super plain, tiny office.

Zibby: Do you?

Curtis: Yes, I do. Actually, this book took me about a year, a little bit less. The funny thing is, because of COVID — I started it right around the time — do you remember when it seemed like, we’ll get vaccines, and then we’ll be protected? In the summer of 2021, on Cape Cod, there were all these breakthrough infections. Rate were particularly high where I live. I didn’t travel and didn’t socialize very much for almost an entire year. I once went to visit my mom. Actually, an interesting part of that is, under normal circumstances — I feel like all our lives are so nitty-gritty logistics. Under normal circumstances, if I were to go visit a university and talk about my book, I would travel there. Then I would be there. Then I would travel home. Then I would have all my dirty laundry or whatever. It’s nice to be around other humans, but I’m interrupting myself, and so I was the most focused. I didn’t interrupt myself to travel, so I was writing almost every day. I didn’t interrupt myself, which I also sometimes do. I’m like, oh, I’ll just write a quick short story or something. I think I get bored with my novel. Because the subject of this novel was so fun and it was almost like going to SNL every day, I was like, I want to go back to that.

Zibby: That’s so great. You could just power your way through it.

Curtis: Yeah, it was a pleasure. It always sort of welcomed me back. I don’t think I ever had the experience of, oh, my god, who made this huge mess? How do I get back inside it?

Zibby: I love that. Did you ever feel, after the success of Prep, all this pressure to do it again or that it was only going to happen once? Did you ever feel any of that anxiety?

Curtis: I did wonder if I would only have a very successful book once. Prep came out in 2005. Especially after my second book came out, which some people don’t even know exists — it’s called The Man of My Dreams — I did still only have one very successful book. Then my third book was American Wife. That was, essentially, successful. This is an interesting question that there’s a lot of ways to answer. On the one hand — I read my reviews. I won’t pretend that I don’t care what anyone thinks of my writing except for me. I do care. There’s some criticism that really stings. Then there’s some that I actually don’t care about. It depends kind of on the source. One thing is that, actually, I’ve been extraordinarily privileged in the sense that my books have always gotten attention, but they’ve always gotten mixed reviews. It’s not this unanimous love fest. I’ve always been a writer during the time that people can seek you out online and say super nasty things. If you have bad willpower, which I sometimes do, you can seek out the nasty things that people are saying about you. It’s never felt like this pure love fest. It’s not like I won the Pulitzer or something when I was thirty or at any other point. I don’t know if other people realize how — I’ll always get a few scathingly bad reviews that it just feels like someone was licking their chops and having the best time. Sometimes it’s a talented writer who uses their writing talent to mock me. Also, I just think being a writer, it’s kind of a quiet identity to have. If I were a fourth-tier reality show contestant or whatever, I would have so much more recognition than I have as a writer. What you’re asking, I could have many sessions of therapy about this, but I think I’m able to keep it in perspective overall.

Zibby: I feel like it’s so upside down that writers are not identified on the street and photographed pumping gas and doing stuff. No, seriously. In my dream world, that’s what it would be because I care so much more about authors than I do about reality show — well, some reality show people are great. All to say, I feel like it’s all skewed. Then some people say maybe writers don’t want that attention.

Curtis: No, no, no. I would not want to be — first of all, especially if you’re a writer, you probably want to be observing other people. You don’t want other people observing you. No, I don’t wish that I had people approach. Probably, maybe three times a year, someone will approach me and say, “Are you Curtis?” or whatever. Actually, the funny thing is much more often, I’ll meet someone — say I meet my neighbor’s friend or something. Then six months later, they’ll be like, “Oh, did you write Prep? I read that,” or something. They almost know my book but don’t know me. I’m actually like, that’s perfect. Thank you.

Zibby: I am shocked, actually, that that would only happen to you three times a year. For me, I’ve read your books, it’s been almost twenty years of reading you. You don’t know the people you’re reading. In your head, you’re like, Curtis Sittenfeld, here’s another book, of course.

Curtis: Actually, really and truly, I think that — it took a while for this to happen. I think that that’s the nicest part of being a writer. Because my first book came out eighteen years ago, I now have people who will be like, “I read Prep in college. Then maybe I read Sisterland when I was in labor. Then I read Eligible when my mom was in the hospital,” or whatever. It’s so touching to feel like, oh, my god, we’ve grown up together. People who read Prep at the age of thirteen are now these awesome — they’ll be a human rights lawyer or a social worker. It feels like this incredible privilege to go through life with people over a period of years, even though we don’t necessarily know each other directly.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Really awesome. Are there writers that you really admire or somebody who, like me to you reading you for almost twenty years, you’re like, “Whatever this person puts out, I’ll read this next”?

Curtis: My favorite writer since high school has been Alice Munro. I don’t reread very much, including, honestly, I don’t reread that much of her or that often. I do sometimes reread one of her stories. If she was writing about women in their forties and I read it when I was nineteen, I do feel like now I’ll think, oh, my god. I thought it was insightful then. Now I’m blown away. Is this book on your radar? I just read this book. I was like, holy shit, this person is such a genius. I don’t know how to pronounce her name. I need to learn. It’s Cecilia Rabess, or Ray-bess or Raw-bess. R-A-B-E-S-S.

Zibby: Is it called Everything’s Fine?

Curtis: Yes, it’s called Everything’s Fine.

Zibby: I have it. I haven’t read it yet. I’m interviewing her.

Curtis: Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Do you know what it’s about?

Zibby: I did at one point because I looked at it, and I was like, I have to interview her. Now I can’t remember.

Curtis: You have to interview her. It’s a first novel. It’s about a Black woman and a white man who went to college together and then work together at Goldman Sachs and become close, which you can interpret as you wish. He’s politically conservative. She’s much more progressive. It starts in 2008 and goes to 2016. It is so good. The woman, Cecilia Rabess — I’ll find out after this how to pronounce her name — worked in real life at Goldman Sachs and now works at Google. I was like, how can someone be so good at so many things? If you were like, “I’ll pay you five million dollars,” I don’t think I could work at Goldman. I wouldn’t be capable. Or work at Google. I don’t think I could do anything besides — I could write emails. I could do predictive. I could be someone else’s predictive whatever, autofill. That book is coming out in June. I give it an A++. It was one of those books where I felt emotionally worked up even when I wasn’t reading it, which is like, oh, my god. That’s rare.

Zibby: I’m going to bump it up the que now. Did you tell her how much you love it?

Curtis: It’s so funny. I looked her up. I’m not on Instagram, but I’m on Twitter. I looked her up and didn’t find her on Twitter. Then I just tweeted about — I swear that the book — I’m sure that books are pouring down on your head. I think that I got the book without a letter. It was from the heavens or something. I impulsively took it on a plane. Sometimes when you do that, you like it. Sometimes you don’t. Then I was like, oh, my god. Anyway, I tweeted about liking it. Then she reached out to me. It was kind of fun to know nothing about her except this tiny bio on the back and then be like, oh, my god. It’s so exciting when there’s this voice that you fall in love with and then you’re like, oh, and this person, this is the beginning.

Zibby: That’s the best feeling, when you can’t put it down. Oh, my gosh, that’s really exciting. I will dig into that. I will ignore this stack here.

Curtis: I know. There’s always — actually, by the way, if I I’m not mistaken — this is not .

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How did you get Hedge? How did you even get that?

Curtis: I did an event with Jane a couple years ago. She sent it. I think it sounds excellent. I have not read it.

Zibby: That’s so exciting. I feel like I just saw my favorite stuffed animal on your bed or something.

Curtis: It’s like your little gnome in Paris or whatever. I know. I’m super excited. I hadn’t met Jane before we did the event together. She was lovely. I was so happy to get the book.

Zibby: It’s good. It’s really good. I hope you love it.

Curtis: I’m planning to.

Zibby: Good. Amazing. I could talk to you all day, but I better end the episode. Thank you so much. This has been so much fun.

Curtis: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thanks for the time and everything.

Curtis: Thank you for having me. Bye.

Curtis Sittenfeld, ROMANTIC COMEDY

ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld

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