The Backstory: Curtis Sittenfeld

It's been a year of bad news followed by worse news. Or as Curtis Sittenfeld put it when she first read the story about giant pandas mating during the pandemic: “It was the one headline that made me literally laugh out loud and I thought, Oh there’s no question. That’s definitely the one I want to write about.” And now it’s inspired an incredibly funny short story about panda love and what we can learn from it. More from Sittenfeld below on pandas, panda sex, and what fiction about now (even pandas now) can offer.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Interviewed by Ashley C. Ford. July 31, 2020. Minneapolis, Minnesota

Chronicles of Now: So I get the feeling that you didn’t stop with the news reports of pandas having pandemic sex. I am feeling like you went a little bit deeper, you did some serious research into panda sex. Am I correct?

Curtis Sittenfeld: Well, I assume you mean that as a great compliment, of course.

CON: I do. And I do.

CS: Well, okay, this is what I did. Of course I did research into panda sex, as any self-respecting fiction writer would. I started by buying a National Geographic book for kids about pandas, which I read. I often find books meant for kids to be a useful starting place for research in fiction because it sort of tells you the general information you need but doesn’t overwhelm you and it’s not like you lose five years of your life doing research. And then of course I also went into all the nooks and crannies of the internet and I learned quite a bit.

CON: So is it true that giant pandas have low libidos?

CS: It’s true that giant pandas have low libidos. Well, okay, these are some things I learned. One thing is that there’s some debate about do they have low libidos or is it that often there’s a male panda and a female panda who are partnered by a zoo and maybe they have absolutely nothing in common, maybe they have nothing more in common than any two random people set up by outsiders perhaps on a reality show or something else. So maybe it’s just that they’re not, they don’t get on board with the taste of the zoo, the matchmaking taste. So there’s that. But then there also is, supposedly in addition to low libidos, the male panda has an unusually small penis and weak hind legs, which make the physical act of sex challenging.

CON: Wow.

CS: That part I did not find in a children’s book, but I did find it online.

Fiction allows all of us to inhabit the kind of personal, individual experience of someone who is not ourselves or, in my case, an animal.

CON: I mean, useful information whenever it comes into your life, I feel personally.

CS: In case you ever have a panda libido emergency in your future, I think you’ll be well equipped to handle it.

CON: You don’t know, the world is a big and surprising place. Speaking of, with everything going on in the world, why this story? Why panda sex? Why now?

CS: I always longed for an interviewer to say to me, “Why panda sex? Why now?” No, well, so I’m not sure how great a level of detail I should get into, but I actually originally thought that I wanted to write a story based on a headline about the challenges of dating during a pandemic, especially like what if you had just started seeing someone and then maybe gone on one or two dates and then everything shuts down? And so I worked for a few days on that story and I just felt like it was kind of totally off. Maybe it’s because I’m about to turn 45 and it was from the perspective of a Millennial and I really felt my age. Almost like I was trying to be a cool mom and use the current lingo. So then I kind of thought you know maybe I’m just not going to do this project.

Then the editor of the Chronicles showed me his list of possible headline prompts. Headlines from the recent past are all so overwhelmingly sad and heartbreaking and frustrating in so many different ways—economically, in terms of health, in terms of race—and so this headline about these two pandas having mated for the first time voluntarily after all these years together, it was the one headline that made me literally laugh out loud and I thought, Oh there’s no question. That’s definitely the one I want to write about.

CON: It was like ding ding ding.

CS: Oh yeah. And I also I do have a soft spot for writing about crushes and romance and yes, sex. I mean I try to write about sex in an intentional way, where it serves the plot, but in some ways I also saw this as a really festive opportunity to make fun of myself and the people who make fun of me for writing sex scenes.

CON: Is there actually a red panda living next to the female panda’s enclosure? Or did you make that up?

CS: So I changed the zoo. There’s a zoo in Hong Kong inside an amusement park, and I did look at the layout of that zoo. So of course my computer now thinks I’m planning a vacation to Hong Kong and going to an amusement park, but the zoo in the story is sort of fictitious and I changed the pandas’ names to respect their privacy. So there actually was a red panda that escaped in 2016, and as I went down this particular rabbit hole apparently red pandas do often escape from their enclosures, and this is not the only time that it’s happened or the only zoo but that was, I felt like that was a real breakthrough for me in terms of constructing the plot.

CON: Your latest novel, Rodham, is about Hillary Clinton and there’s sex scenes in that book with Bill, and I’m wondering, which is more interesting and challenging to imagine—Hillary having sex with Bill or panda sex?

CS: They were both challenging yet rewarding in their own way.

CON: That’s the best possible answer for that question. Your Hillary sex scenes have gotten a lot of attention, a lot of commentary because you imagined the intimate life of a very famous public person. How do you think the panda community is going to react to the panda sex in this story?

The simplest story may be the likeliest one, but it is often not the most interesting one. I feel like I have to write stories that I myself am interested in. There have to be twists and surprises for me.

CS: Well, my impression of pandas is that they really enjoy and respect literary fiction and I think they’re fans of Chronicles of Now so I think this is . . .

CON: That’s what I’ve heard. We have strong downloads in the panda community, which is why I couldn’t let this go unaddressed. I definitely needed to ask the question if only to be respectful to our panda fans out there.

CS: Yeah, I think that’s very wise and thorough of you. 

CON: I agree. Your novels Rodham and American Wife took on the lives of real living people. What do you think writing fiction inspired by our current world, whether first ladies or pandas, offers that nonfiction can’t?

CS: I feel like this is such a foundational question for Chronicles. So I would say, I think that fiction kind of hits pause on a moment or elongates time and makes you think of it not as this mass event but often as this individual event, like the pandemic happens to individual people and their individually living in their apartments and houses or people who themselves are sick or who have relatives in the hospital. So I think it allows all of us to inhabit the kind of personal, individual experience of someone who is not ourselves or, in my case, an animal. And then really in that sort of granular way of thinking what is life like for a person whose experience is different from my own?

CON: I love that. I really do. You end with a note about forbidden love across species, sizes, enclosures—what can we humans learn from the female panda’s love affair?

CS: Well, I think that one thing that maybe, I don’t know if this is unsettling or reason for hope, is that she lives her life in her enclosure, and my research did reveal to me that giant pandas spend the majority of their time eating bamboo and napping and, to a lesser but still significant degree, pooping. But actually that appearance of the red panda is maybe a lesson that all of our lives can take surprising twists when we don’t expect it.

CON: Mmm. C’mon Curtis. Yes, bring that back around. So during this here pandemic, some of us have been looking for silver linings. I’m not one of them, but some of us have. Like, there’s less air pollution, there’s more time to spend with family. This panda story kind of fits into that because it was human visitors to the zoo that kept the pandas from getting it on, right? They needed their privacy, yet you torpedoed that notion in your story. That is not why it happened. Why did you do that?

CS: You know, it’s funny because I think that I don’t like to write a story in the most straightforward or expected way. So of course if we hear these pandas have lived together for years and years and they’ve never voluntarily mated and then there’s the shutdown and they mate, so of course the most simplistic explanation is well the humans were disrupting them or violating their privacy. But I just feel like, I don’t know, the simplest story may be the likeliest one, but it is often not the most interesting one. I feel like I have to write stories that I myself am interested in. There have to be twists and surprises for me. I don’t want to read a story where, I mean, sort of apropos of this whole project, I could read the headline and immediately know what the story’s going to be.

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