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Vox

“It’s kind of flabbergasting how disrespectfully Hillary Clinton has been treated.”

The Vox Book Club is linking to Bookshop.org to support local and independent booksellers.

Last week, the Vox Book Club met in person on Zoom for our final conversation about Rodham, the novel that imagines what would have happened if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton. Joining us was none other than Rodham author herself Curtis Sittenfeld, who delightfully began multiple sentences with the phrase “I probably shouldn’t say this, but.” (Every journalist’s favorite collection of words!) Together, we hashed out what it means to write in Hillary Clinton’s voice and how to think about politics in a juicy alternate history novel. Plus, Sittenfeld gave us the skinny on a possible TV adaptation of her beloved debut novel, Prep.

Highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, are below. Once you finish up here, you can get ready for our August coverage of Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half, a rich and beautiful novel about race, passing, sisterhood, and escape. And to make sure you don’t miss anything, sign up for our newsletter.

How to talk like Hillary Clinton

Constance Grady

One of my favorite things in reading this book, and what struck me so immediately, is how spot-on of a match it is for Hillary Clinton’s actual voice. So what did you do to develop that match? And what do you think are the defining elements of Hillary Clinton’s voice?

Curtis Sittenfeld

Her voice was actually more challenging for me to hear in my head, or just sort of summon in my inner ear, than, for example, Bill Clinton’s voice is. I actually think that I had a breakthrough when I listened to a podcast that had been created by the Clinton Foundation. It was a campaign tool called With Her, and it was created in the fall of 2016.

She’s talking with the host of it, a man named Max Linsky, and there’s no pretense that it’s not completely pro-Hillary. She’s on board with it, and she’s very relaxed. Some of it is interviews with her, and then some of it’s Bill or a senior campaign staffer or Chelsea. And actually, it was almost disorienting in the first few minutes because I felt like I heard her voice in a way I’d never quite heard it. Which actually made me think about how there’s almost always, in her conversations with most reporters, this sort of adversarial undertone or this skepticism on the part of the journalist, which I think she, of course, perceives and responds to. And it just felt like her voice was — I mean, again, it’s meant for public consumption, the podcast is — but it felt like it was closer to being her unfiltered voice.

Constance Grady

So what do you think are the defining elements of her voice? There’s a great passage [in Rodham] where she’s texting her brothers and she corrects her sentence so that it ends with the positive instead of the negative. Is it that sort of careful thinking through all the angles? Do you think of that as being what makes a voice a Hillary voice?

Curtis Sittenfeld

So my first novel came out 15 years ago. That’s something nobody ever told me. But I learned that from observing a particular book publicist who would do that in a very shrewd way.

There’s tons of stuff in the book that’s either from my life, my friends’ lives, totally fictitious. At one point Hillary in the book is told by a friend’s father that she’s “awfully opinionated for a girl.” My British publishers love this line. It’s plastered on the book. They made tote bags, they made little pins.

Constance Grady

Very “yet she persisted.”

Curtis Sittenfeld

Yeah! Okay, so that line is from my friend Susanna. When she was a child, an adult man said to her, “You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.” Susanna and I went to grad school together, and for years we’ve said to each other, “Oh, aren’t you opinionated for a girl?” Of course, we mean it as a compliment.

I feel like my number one responsibility as a novelist is to write a juicy novel or something that holds together as a novel. I want it to be politically realistic or compelling or have social commentary, but you have to tell a story and it has to have all these personal and, like, lively details.

To actually answer your question about Hillary’s speech patterns, one habit or tic she has is that she often starts sentences, “You know,” and then uses the person’s name. Like, “You know, Constance.”

I think that she actually speaks in a pretty intelligent, precise way. I think she tries to be clear, she probably tries not to be overly complex and certainly not pretentious, but I’m of the opinion that she is often more intelligent than the people that she’s speaking to or who are listening to her. I think that sometimes she seems to people like she is pretentious or elitist or something, but I think she’s actually trying to be as precise as possible.

Constance Grady

And using sometimes a technical vocabulary, which sometimes is the most precise vocabulary for these concepts.

Curtis Sittenfeld

There’s one thing I really love. There was some article, I think in Politico — I hope that’s not bad to mention Politico at Vox —

Constance Grady

I think we’ll allow it.

Curtis Sittenfeld

I hope It’s not against the law! One of her campaign staffers joked that — you know how a lot of times, if you’re in a big public place like an airport or a bus station, it says, “If you see something, say something?” They joked that if she had written that slogan, she would have said, “If you see something, report it to the proper authorities.”

One time my editor actually expressed to me that maybe in places the language was too stiff, and I sent her that. I almost wanted to get her a pillow where it was needlepointed: “If you see something, alert the proper authority.”

Constance Grady

Oh, that’s such a Hillary line. I love that, too.

Was it ever nerve-racking for you to try to enter so intimately into the head of someone who is still alive? With American Wife, your previous book about Laura Bush, you weren’t using her name. But with Rodham, it’s right there on the cover.

Curtis Sittenfeld

I felt like I wanted to do a good job. I didn’t want to write a book that would get attention because it had a provocative premise. And, of course, it’s super subjective. So I feel like I pulled off what I was trying to achieve. I’m sure that there are some people who think, like, “Oh, this is so cheap.” But I think that what I’m doing is so clearly — the premise of the book is, “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?” It’s so clear that in real life she did, and that this is a creative, imaginative, artistic project, that it almost seems akin to a Saturday Night Live skit. Would someone say to Kate McKinnon, “Was it daunting to play Hillary Clinton?”

You know that you’re doing something that’s sort of sideways or strange. If you said to me, “Curtis, you need to deliver the State of the Union,” or, “You are going to be secretary of state,” or something like that, that would be daunting, but I’m writing a book. This is the thing that I actually know how to do, is write a novel. It’s a creative act. It’s not really being Hillary Clinton. It’s pretending to be her. And I love to pretend.

Constance Grady

One of the details of your fictional Hillary that feels immediately right, and that is so specific, is the nest that she builds every night to do her paperwork in. How did that image develop?

Curtis Sittenfeld

That’s not a biographical detail of Hillary Clinton, as far as I know. I think that I have an almost romantic idea of or belief in hard work. And I think a lot of people who are very successful — and I would certainly characterize Hillary as being very successful — there’s some point when they have to put in the time to be good at the thing they’re good at. And she’s very good at being prepared about policy. At some point, you have to study that! You don’t accidentally know that or know it by osmosis … it’s like foreign policy or health care education. And so it seemed really natural that I had to show, like, how does a smart, prepared person become a smart, prepared person?

Obviously you and I are both writers, and at some point, almost anyone who is a good writer — this sounds like a sort of absurd thing to say — spends a lot of time writing. I mean, there are famous geniuses who can crank something out really fast, and it’s actually good. But that’s not most people.

Constance Grady

There’s this writer who once said that when she writes, she’s just taking dictation from God. I can’t remember who that person is, which is a good thing, because I hate her for that line.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Yeah, I don’t know who said that. But yeah, I think in some ways, the nest is just me trying to think, “Well, when does she privately do the stuff that makes her so smart?”

How to handle politics in a novel about alternate history

Constance Grady

I think one of the things that’s really rich in this book is it feels affectionate toward Hillary, but it’s very careful to not be blindly on her side about everything. Could you tell me about the role of Carol Moseley Braun in this book?

Curtis Sittenfeld

I think this is not too much of a spoiler. In my version of Hillary, as in real life, Bill Clinton proposes twice, and she says no. In real life, he proposed a third time and she said yes. In Rodham, he proposes a third time and she says no. She leaves Arkansas.

She becomes a law professor in Chicago at Northwestern, and she ultimately enters the race for US Senate in 1992 and runs against Carol Moseley Braun in the primary. At some point, she recognizes that for Carol Moseley Braun to be the first Black female senator would be this milestone, especially coming after Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing, in which Anita Hill testified that he’d sexually harassed her. But there’s a conversation Hillary’s having with another white woman where they agree Carol Moseley Braun is not electable. And obviously, I’m sure any Vox reader knows that Carol Moseley Braun was electable because she was elected.

There’s this long history of white feminists failing Black feminists, and it is supposed to be an instance where my fictional Hillary is not exercising perfect judgment or thinks something that’s clearly wrong. It doesn’t reflect very well on her.

What you were saying before about how the book is affectionate? But if my fictional Hillary were perfect, I think she would be not very interesting and not at all realistic. I think that all of us, and I would certainly think any politician, has made personal and professional mistakes. And you might not get those in a memoir, but that’s what you read a novel for. It’s not just the highlights or the best moments, but the times that you did make questionable judgments. And I think one of the rewards or satisfactions for me of writing the novel is it takes place over so many decades that her own judgment of that incident or that moment shifts. In some ways, I feel like as a writer, I kind of get to have it both ways, where she does make the mistake, and she later recognizes it as a mistake. But also a mistake that, weirdly, her political career is built on.

Constance Grady

Right, it sort of becomes the original sin of this Hillary.

So one of the criticisms the book has faced is some people have argued that it’s not very specific about Hillary’s politics, and that the fictional Hillary Rodham kind of blurs into Elizabeth Warren or into Amy Klobuchar territory, who are both obviously very different politicians. What do you see the role of politics as being in this book? That’s a very vague question, but Rodham is not supposed to be a documentary or, like, a historical discussion of every political decision over the past 30 years. So what role do you see it playing in this novel?

Curtis Sittenfeld

I knew that from the outset, my premise was, “How would history and how would Hillary’s life have been different if she hadn’t married Bill?” I interpreted that in partly a historical/political way, and also certainly an emotional way. I was very interested in the idea of, “What if you feel like you’ve met your soul mate, but there are reasons that you shouldn’t be in each other’s lives? How does that affect you in the short term? How does that affect you in the long term?”

But certainly if a publishing house said to 10 writers, “Here’s the premise, go in whatever direction you want,” I think there are certainly writers who would take it as an opportunity to maybe get really nitty-gritty with various Supreme Court decisions. And who am I to say that wouldn’t work as a novel? I feel pretty confident, though.

People will say, “Twitter is not representative of the country.” I respect Vox, but I think Vox is probably not reflective of novel readers. To say there wasn’t enough about her policies is a sort of endearingly hilarious criticism to me. I feel like if you walk down the street, most streets in America, including streets where people are liberal and including streets where people are educated, and you said, “Let’s talk about Hillary’s 2016 platform, let’s talk about her education policies, let’s talk about health care, let’s talk about anything,” I think that you’d have a very challenging time finding Americans who could talk with any degree of specificity. I mean, again, I realize in the Vox office, you probably wouldn’t at all. Do you do disagree?

Constance Grady

Oh, no, not at all. I think this is a really strong and excellent point. I’m thinking mostly of a review by Andrea Long Chu that came out a few weeks ago, which was very concerned about not having a political platform laid out for fictional Hillary Rodham.

Curtis Sittenfeld

I think it’s kind of undignified to read your own reviews, and I do it. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to: I read that review. It’s super negative. I almost wanted to send a message to Andrea Long Chu, who I don’t know, and I wanted to say, “I think you’re too talented of a writer to be wasting your time writing takedowns of novels.”

I think that she’s very talented. Sometimes there can be a phenomenon of the scathing review. I don’t know that it’s a good long-term strategy for a career. But I’m always willing to be wrong. And maybe for some people it has been!

Any novel can be wonderful to someone, and it can hideously rub them the wrong way. It happens that I’m the author of that novel sometimes. And so sometimes it’s just a mismatch.

Constance Grady

There’s always the question of which book is right for which reader. And I think with figures as iconic and important as the Clintons, there are a lot of people who are interested who are maybe not the readers, necessarily.

Curtis Sittenfeld

In some ways, a reader is the person who picks up the book. If somebody said, “Well, I never read novels, but I’m going to read this because I love politics,” I would think, “Well, I hope you like it, who knows?” But it’s certainly true that sometimes when there have been articles about Rodham, and if I’m tagged on social media or something, my social media account will fill up with people expressing their feelings about Hillary. Not expressing their feelings about fiction in general, about Rodham or about me, but certainly expressing their feelings about Hillary Clinton.

Constance Grady

And I think we’ve learned over the past few years that a lot of people have attached a lot of feelings to both Clintons over their time in the public eye. And actually speaking of that, I wanted to talk a little about the portrait of Bill in this book, which is very specific and really struck me. It’s almost the thing that I’ll remember most from it, I think.

You have Bill Clinton starting out as this incredibly charming, charismatic figure, where you’re like, “Oh, I get why she’s so taken with him and why it’s so hard for her to leave him,” and then he eventually sort of evolves into kind of a quasi-villain. Which struck me as a real turn, and reflective of the way over the course of my lifetime the conversation around Bill Clinton has really evolved. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal happened, the feminist conversation was really not focused on the idea of Clinton as a potential sexual predator. It was focused on him just as a wronged and embattled president who needed to be defended by the team rallying around him. And that conversation has really, really shifted over the past few years, even. So how did you think about Bill as you went into this book?

Curtis Sittenfeld

Again, the book is written in the first person, from fictional Hillary’s point of view. I always feel like I need to mention I’ve never met her. And I don’t anticipate that I will, even though I’m a fan. But I also, although I’m a fan, think that the reader needed to feel or sense or know that my loyalty lies with the novel and not with Hillary, the real person. This isn’t a book that’s written in the hope that I’ll be invited to have lunch with her someday, you know what I mean?

I think a novel has to be more than one thing. It has to be many things to be interesting. And among other things, this is supposed to be a love story, and it’s supposed to capture being in your 20s, or just feeling overwhelmingly excited about another person. And so I really tried to be in that mindset.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but the fictional version of her feels like maybe people respect her mind, but men don’t necessarily fall in love with her. And then here’s this man who falls in love with her in part for her mind. And he’s smart and he’s dashing and he’s charismatic, and he’s super into her. I wanted it almost like with a romantic comedy, where you have to invest in the couple’s attraction in order to care if there are obstacles that they end up facing. So it was important that the young Hillary has this perspective.

And then I also think it’s very interesting just as a sort of psychological habit or viewpoint, we become invested in the decisions that we make and we have to almost believe in our own correctness or maybe go a little crazy. And so of course she needs to have a different viewpoint. If she still believes that he’s this fabulous person, then how can she go through the decades and feel like she made the right choice not marrying him? So in some ways, her shifting opinion of him had to serve the plot, or match the plot.

And the book also is supposed to feel plausible or realistic, but also be entertaining. So again, you know, he moves to Silicon Valley and becomes a tech billionaire —

Constance Grady

I love tech billionaire Bill Clinton. That was so fun.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Well, it was funny, because I wrote it before I knew who all the presidential candidates would be in 2020. And then it did seem to be like every other billionaire just feels like, “Man, I guess I might run for president!” And he turns out to be that kind of billionaire too, because he’s not elected in ’92, spoiler.

Constance Grady

He crashes and burns after that 60 Minutes interview without Hillary at his side. I’ve been going back and watching that 60 Minutes so many times over the course of this month, just trying to see the moment at which the political history changes. It was a really fascinating interview. She’s so staunch and firm in what she’s doing.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Several people who’ve read the book have told me that they’ve watched the interview. And two separate people after reading the book sent me [some additional] footage. This was in early in 1992, at the end of January 1992. It was after the Super Bowl that this interview was airing, and the Jennifer Flowers accusations had come out maybe a week before or something. They were being filmed in a hotel room in New Hampshire, and while they were filming — this part isn’t included in the 60 Minutes — the very big, bright, hot, heavy lights over the cameras fall onto them.

And she is very interesting. She says, like, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” which, I think a lot of people feel like in that moment, they would say something like maybe even more colorful. But he in this very very protective way, shields her and puts his arms around her. It feels very, like instinctive and unscripted and protective. And you can find it, of course, in the year 2020, on the internet. But it’s a very interesting moment. Like, just as a side note in terms of Bill being a quasi-villain in the book.

One thing is that I definitely feel like if it were 1974 and Bill Clinton wanted me to move to Arkansas and marry him, I would. And two, I certainly believe that they definitely love each other to this day and respect each other and get a lot from each other.

Constance Grady

There’s an interesting quote that came out around the 2016 election, I think, which was just saying, “Bill and Hillary really do care about each other. They’re the only people who can understand what they have each gone through.” Which is really fascinating to me, the shared bonding of the trauma of fame.

Curtis Sittenfeld

In that Hulu documentary, one of their law school classmates says something like, “Oh, they definitely really love each other. It would have been so much easier if they didn’t.” Which I did think like, “Oh, my God, if I’d heard you say that, before I’d written the novel, I would have stolen it.”

Bringing Rodham to the screen

Constance Grady

Speaking of Hulu, it was recently announced that Rodham is going to become a Hulu series. That’s so exciting. Congratulations! Is there anything you can tell us about the show?

Curtis Sittenfeld

My fingers are very tightly crossed. It’s in development, which doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed and doesn’t mean, like, turn on your television. Of the people who are involved, one of them is Sarah Treem, who’s the creator and showrunner of The Affair, and then she also worked on In Treatment for HBO and House of Cards. And this is not, like, a requirement, but she did go to Yale. So I feel like she has, you know, whatever flavor of the Clintons about her. And she’s super smart. I think that she’s a great person to do it. And then there’s also someone named Warren Littlefield, who I think is involved with The Handmaid’s Tale. So I think there’s really great people behind it. And I’m cautiously optimistic.

Some of my other books have been optioned, and I’ve been very, very peripherally involved. I live in Minnesota. I have not ever been in a writers’ room or anything like that. But we’ll see.

Constance Grady

Do you have any ideas on the cast? Do you have a dream Young Hillary?

Curtis Sittenfeld

Someone on social media said Florence Pugh.

Constance Grady

Oh, she’d be great.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Yeah, wouldn’t she be great? It’s so funny because I think when my first book came out, I gave more thought to all this stuff. It would be an overstatement to say I’ve had my heart broken by Hollywood, but I would say things have not come to fruition. So I tend to channel my energy more into my own fiction, which I’m in control of.

Constance Grady

That is very wise, although whoever has the TV rights to Prep needs to get on that, because I would die for a Prep show.

Curtis Sittenfeld

It’s been optioned more than once. I think it’s on its third iteration. There are these incredibly, incredibly talented writers who — I’m probably not supposed to talk about this, but there’s these two really talented people who separately pitched to be the writers on it. They didn’t know each other. And the people who had optioned Prep this time liked both of them, and they just kind of paired them. And they sent me the material they used to pitch with. One of them went to a different boarding school. And it was weirdly almost like reading Prep as if it had been written by somebody else. There were all these incredibly juicy details about a boarding school that I hadn’t written, and I loved it.

Constance Grady

I love that they got matched together. It’s like the One Direction origin story.

How to build an alternate history

Constance Grady

Let’s move on to some questions about Rodham from members of the Vox Book Club. Linda says, “Do you have a particular hope for what your book might produce? What would people come away with if your ideal message was received?”

Curtis Sittenfeld

I feel like if I had one very clear, succinct argument, I probably would write an editorial or perhaps a creative bumper sticker and not write 400 pages of a novel. I think that novels can do this very special thing, which is put us in someone else’s shoes. Especially when the novel is in the first person, which I have a particular fondness for. And just think about kind of the daily texture of someone else’s life and the small moments and the range of emotions.

And even though I know that some people think, like, “Oh, it’s intrusive to write a book like this,” or even, “It’s disrespectful,” I actually feel it’s kind of flabbergasting how disrespectfully Hillary Clinton has been treated for how long by how many people. And I welcome the opportunity to think of her as a real person who has feelings and is complicated and has a lot of strength. And she’s not some feminist punching bag. She’s not a punchline either. She’s also this incredible trailblazer. She’s complicated and she’s, I think, admirable.

Constance Grady

Wendy asks, “Being a mom and grandmother is clearly a big part of the real Hillary’s identity. Can you talk about your choice to make your Hillary childless?”

Curtis Sittenfeld

So I think there’s two things I would say about that. One, and I think that we touched on this before, is that the book is trying to strike a balance between being realistic and being entertaining. In some ways, I think there’s overlap between those two things. But it’s very plausible to me that if Hillary and Bill hadn’t gotten married, I think she probably would have married someone else, might have had a few children, might have worked for a law firm, as she did for the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. Or maybe lead a nonprofit, or maybe be a university president or something like that. I think she would have been professionally successful person who might not have been a public figure.

But at some point, if I wrote a novel where Hillary doesn’t marry Bill, and then she moves to the suburbs of Milwaukee and has three children and works at a law firm, that’s not really a book about Hillary Clinton. There has to be some relationship to reality and history to create a tension that’s interesting instead of just being about a woman of her generation. And so, for those reasons, I felt that my fictional character did have to go into politics. And the greatest contrast was in not getting married and not having children.

I do think sometimes I look at certain professionally successful women like Sonia Sotomayor, who was married but I think briefly and didn’t have kids, or Elena Kagan or Condoleezza Rice, who are single. I think there is a certain type of professionally successful trailblazing woman who doesn’t have a family, and probably is helped just sheerly in terms of how much time she has in a day by not having a family.

Constance Grady

Yeah, I think that really comes through in the book. And then you have Hillary’s pseudo-family with her best friend and her kids who she gets to be an aunt to, which is very sweet.

Jan says, “Are any of the slate of Democratic VPs appealing to you as characters in a future novel?”

Curtis Sittenfeld

With social media, people will sometimes be like, “Curtis! Would you mind writing me a story about Pete Buttigieg?” Or Ivanka [Trump] or something. But I think there’s one other first lady — who I’ll decline to specify, she’s no longer living — who I can imagine writing a novel about.

But I really admire and am interested in a lot of the possible VP candidates. In order to write Rodham, I read the memoirs by the female senators who ran for president, like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar, my own senator. I’d read Claire McCaskill; I used to live in Missouri.

I think that Stacey Abrams is wonderful, and I’m really fascinated by her. She’s kind of an example of what we were just discussing, where she doesn’t have a family. Has that contributed to her productivity? I don’t know. She’s also written several books. I’m sort of curious to read one of her romance novels; I haven’t. In terms of her voting rights work, I think she’s amazing. I’m pretty open about the VP pick, but I do like her a lot.

But at this point, I do not anticipate writing a novel about any of the VP candidates.

Constance Grady

Michael says, “Were there any other scenarios for the breakup between Hillary and Bill that you considered? How critical was it that they each have agency in that decision?”

Curtis Sittenfeld

I knew that they had to break up in this novel. Because I knew in real life that he had proposed twice and she had said no, it does feel sort of tantalizing. I think that she had probably, in those instances, said no for logistical reasons rather than emotional reasons, but none of us were there.

But one of the things that made me write this book is, around the time of the 2016 election, I realized that schoolchildren who knew Hillary was running almost literally didn’t know that Bill existed. And so it made me think, how would the outcome of the 2016 election be different if adults didn’t see Bill and Hillary as a package deal? So of course in this book, they were going to break up. That was the premise all along.

Constance Grady

Jeanie wants to know about the character of James, who is the professor at Northwestern who Hillary holds hands with briefly. Jeanie asks, “Why did you decide for Hillary not to pursue an affair with him?”

Curtis Sittenfeld

I think there can be these ambiguous relationships in people’s lives, that I think plenty of adults have had. One thing that’s interesting to me is that my fictional Hillary is thinking of running for public office, so she’s thinking of going from a private person to a public person as she’s having this burgeoning, kind of prim but kind of inappropriate relationship with a coworker. It’s almost like she’s moderating her emotions through that filter, through those possibilities of the future.

I’m also very interested in how, if we have to use words to describe something, it can really change your feeling about the thing that is being described. Sometimes people will say, “Oh, my god, the sex is so graphic!” And I’ll think to myself, if you watched The Crown, or if you watched Vice, the Dick Cheney movie, you could watch two characters doing the sexual stuff that I describe. It’s politicians, and it’s real people. But somehow, when words are not attached to it, or it’s not described in words, it’s somehow less eyebrow-raising.

So I think I’m toying with some of those things. A lot of human behavior is quirky, and it’s hard to describe, and for me as a writer, that’s an interesting challenge. It’s like, “What is that relationship that fictional Hillary is having?” And I don’t think she even knows, but she wonders. And that ambiguity is super interesting to me.


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Author: Constance Grady

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