Ask an Author: Curtis Sittenfeld

The Eligible author on Jane Austen, modern romance and what has (and hasn’t) changed since Regency-era England.

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Curtis Sittenfeld - Eligible
Photo, Josephine Sittenfeld.

In Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the blockbuster coming-of-age novel Prep, recreates Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in modern-day Cincinnati. She uses the classic book as a vehicle to explore IVF, reality TV, trans discrimination and more.

From Clueless to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, we love to revisit Austen. Why?
I think the things Austen was interested in are things people are still interested in. Will I fall in love? Will the person I fall in love with reciprocate my feelings? Will I find economic stability? And why are my sisters so annoying? Those questions transcend time. And there are also many entry points into Austen: the romance, the time period, the plot.

What were the criteria you set for yourself in writing Eligible?
I tried to stay true to the emotions of the characters above all because the emotions are what bring the book alive. For instance, if someone feels scandalized in Pride and Prejudice, I want the parallel character in Eligible to feel scandalized — but of course the definition of “scandalous” has changed dramatically in 200 years. So now, in order for it to seem at all realistic for Mrs. Bennet to be panicking because her daughters aren’t married, Jane is on the cusp of turning 40 and Elizabeth is 38.

Austen’s novels are romantic, but ultra chaste — some say to a fault. How did you approach sex?
To be respectful to Jane Austen, my rule was that I would not use the word “erection” or any synonym. If I did, that would mean I was being too graphic. And by the way, I used the word erection. I think the  plot has some twists and turns that might raise a few eyebrows, but I never tried to be controversial. I just did what’s in the service of the plot.

The central tension in Pride and Prejudice is whether the Bennet girls will lock in on love and money before the metaphorical bloom is off the rose. How does this tension still play out today?
I was consciously trying to write a feminist Pride and Prejudice in the most festive, positive way. The subtext of Eligible is that marrying a man and then popping out babies with him is not the only path to a successful, happy life. The book says a lot about modern relationships, but I think what it says is ambiguous and subjective and I’m not only okay with that, I want that.

CHE0516_Books02_WEBEligible, Curtis Sittenfeld, $32.

Related: 

Jane Austen’s guide to a successful marriage
Book Review: The Jane Austen Marriage Manual by Kim Izzo
Pride and Prejudice drama in the servants’ quarters