A Conversation with Meg WolitzerBy Edra Ziesk
April 09, 2013
There’s an appealing sureness to Meg Wolitzer when she speaks. Her answers to questions are considered; she’s thought deeply about being a writer, a reader and the place of art in her life as well as in the “cultural conversation.”
Meg’s new book, The Interestings, is her ninth novel. It’s a bigger book than her previous ones – longer, deeper, taking place over a greater span of contemporary history – about a group of friends who meet at the age of 15 at a summer camp for the arts in the Berkshires and what happens to them and their relationships over time.
A self-described “writer of stories about women,” Meg’s earlier work has often dealt with crossroads – “junctures” is the word she would use – in the lives of women. The Uncoupling is an exploration of desire, looking at what happens to a group of women when sex – for better and for worse – is removed from the equation. The Ten Year Nap explores a group of friends who’ve taken time away from work to raise children, and what happens when the women are ready for work again.
“Explores” is the right word for Meg’s fiction: she is interested in “what would happen if,” and The Interestings is an exploration as well – of how talent develops, or doesn’t; of how friendships bridge time or don’t. In this book, though, she’s expanded her palette, taken her time to explore lifetimes – from adolescence through middle age – of a group that includes women and men.
Meg and I live a block away from each other in Manhattan, and the day we met to talk about questions of art, publishing, her new book, women in fiction, we ran into each other on the street, both of us headed for a little food shop we both like, she to pick up dinner, me to get mini-cupcakes to fortify us while we talked.
EZ: I’ve heard you talk about how your books don’t start with the picture of a character, but with an idea. What was the genesis of this book?
MW: In The Interestings I wanted to write about what happens to talent over time. In some people talent blooms, in others it falls away. And, relatedly, there are other ideas in here, like about the quiet envy people can have even for those they love and what happens to friendship over years and decades.
I’m surprised I hadn’t thought to do this book earlier, because my experience as an adolescent at “this” camp [a similar camp she went to in a similar setting at age 15] was the spark for so many things. There are junctures in life, times when things change. This was one for me.
In the novel you have characters with no real talent, characters with a little, characters who abandon their talent or neglect it and one – Ethan – with a singular, creative mind, a true gift. Ash, Ethan’s wife and a feminist who wants to expand opportunities for women in theatre, isn’t highly talented. Was this intentional?
I think of Ethan as a real creative thinker whose stuff originates with him and who has the ability to go very deeply with it. Ash has a talent, but it’s of a more familiar type. You can’t turn feminism plus a minor talent into a big thing. It’s painful for some of these characters to recognize the ceiling of their talent. If you have money plus a modest talent [as Ash does] and access – that can allow you all kinds of big things.
The book is set – or begins – in the 70s. Why? Could it have been set at another time?
It’s set in the 70s partly because I’m exactly the age of these characters. It’s easier for me to locate the characters in time, culturally. And I wanted to write about a changing New York City – the way artists were pushed out, the way Manhattan became unlivable for most people. That’s all gone. It’s bewildering.
I also wanted to move ahead into the 80s and write about AIDS, because there are still things to be said about that period of time, particularly late in the decade when everyone knew people who were dying. I was there then and saw some of this and felt that I wanted to put it in a novel. It’s a small piece of my book, but I was very moved thinking about it and about that time.
So, really, the book couldn’t be set in any other time period?
Culturally it could. You could write a book about people coming to NY in the 1950s, about the beat culture, but I wanted to give this book the flavor of its time. I wanted to use the 70s – which is when I came of age – and the 80s to enhance the characters. They are products of their time.
The Interestings is a long book (468 pages.) Was this an intentional response to critics who dismiss women as writers of “the short and soft?” Or was it the length the book needed to be?
The book was intended to be more expansive, time-wise. I wanted to track people and friendship over a long period. The Interestings is definitely the length the book needed to be. It would be disingenuous to say that writing a book at the length you want to write it isn’t something that’s important to me; to know that that’s something I’m allowed to do and can do. I just want to write the book I want to write.
As we’ve talked about before, I think men believe themselves to be uninterested in domestic life as portrayed in fiction; that they deem it “women’s territory” and don’t read – or review – it much. That the reason a ‘domestic’ novel by a man like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or Tom Perotta’s work is seen as revelatory is because it’s as if men are encountering the subject matter for the first time.
What matters in a big way is subject matter and men with very few exceptions, won’t read books about women. Something nebulous and thought-based – a book of ideas – people seem much more willing to have that from a man than a woman.
If you’ve written a powerful book about a woman and your publisher then puts a “feminine” image on the cover, it ‘types’ the book. Serious books with ‘dreamy’ covers – many with women in water, floating or swimming, as though what’s contained within is a kind of dreamy inessential thing – the covers themselves are off-putting. Very few men want to go into what appears to be this sort of dream world. I’m known as a writer of stories about women but I wanted to write a pretty co-ed book this time. With Ethan, I feel I know him as well as anyone.
Do you see a difference in the way men and women write?
It’s hard to generalize. Good writing is good writing, and I’m so happy when I read it. One thing I’ve noticed that’s a kind of disturbing trend is fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel “comfortable” around – what I call slumber party fiction – as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends. When I was younger, the books I liked to read were different from what I was writing. As I thought about that more vigorously, I found that I was often reading books that seemed kind of nervy, not hushed. I admired the authors’ freedom and access to sides of their own thinking that might in other people – well, in me – be more hidden and difficult to get to.
When I wrote The Interestings, I wanted to let time unspool, to give the book the feeling of time passing. I had to allow myself the freedom to move back and forth in time freely, and to trust that readers would accept this. And I wanted to show characters being vulnerable, grandiose, sexual, envious. I just wanted to write more freely.
You’ve said “It seems no coincidence that some of the most esteemed women writing today came to prominence when the women’s movement could be felt everywhere.” Your mother [the writer Hilma Wolitzer] came of age as a writer during that period. Was having a mother who’s also a writer a big influence on you?
It was very powerful, very positive, having a mother who’s a writer. She was a housewife who became a writer. She sold her first story to the Saturday Evening Post and bought a car, freeing her from our little suburban house. I had no illusions about what it felt like and looked like to be a writer. Sometimes I’d come home and it would be clear my mother had had a day of struggle with her work. But seeing that didn’t dissuade me, and she never said, ‘You should go to law school.’ If you have a kid who wants to do something – even if statistically they aren’t going to be ‘successful’ at it – it’s very important to encourage that.
Conversely – or relatedly – having a child changed me as a writer. Did becoming a mother change you?
Having children opened up a world of new possibilities. As a writer you treat motherhood with this intense anthropology and detail. The shock of motherhood, even the tedium of the ‘small animal care’ parts of it – those feelings are fully worth examining in fiction.
When children get older you sort of see the spectrum – the arc of their growth. I want novels to show the spectrum. I don’t want to feel the writer didn’t go there because he or she couldn’t. There’s no perfect way to live, and novels show the variety of imperfect ways you can live.
Why do people prefer memoir to fiction these days?
We’re in an era of fascination with what seems to be real and true. People want to read stories they think are true, even if the truth is a manufactured one. I don’t write much non-fiction. I just want to push the little fiction cart along. I’ve made myself a student of the novel. I like reading as many good novels as I can.
The internet has had an impact on fiction – on writing in general – in a lot of ways. For one thing, it’s easy for people to call themselves writers – just press “publish.” And research is much easier than it used to be.
Yes, there’s the taint of Wikipedia on fiction, the moments where everything in a novel stops, in order for the author to impart information. I don’t do too much research, it’s not a strength of mine, except on an ‘as needs’ basis.
I do, but the research can’t interfere with the book. I abandoned a book recently because the information took over, I couldn’t hear the character’s voice.
I abandoned a novel years ago based on Freud’s patient Dora. I went to Austria to do research, my publisher liked the idea, but I decided I couldn’t write it. I realized I would need to be faithful to too many external constraints – including what she actually sounded like. Every book is a juncture of character and writer, but I didn’t know how to include both those things in that book.
In the book, “the Interestings” is what the group of friends who meet at camp call themselves. How important is a title to you?
It’s a very important thing to me to have a title when I’m writing. Novels that don’t have titles while they’re being written, sometimes maybe it’s because the writer’s not sure what the book’s about, and that can be reflected in the work. You want to feel the reassurance of circling back to the title. The Interestings is meant to be an awkward title – that they would call themselves that, even as a joke. The book is so much about self-conscious irony. When the group decides to call themselves “the Interestings” it seemed to be the title.
Titles, for me, are an organic part of the work. I had to change the original title of my second novel because my editor felt it was too close to someone else’s title.
Some people told me they weren’t crazy about the title The Ten Year Nap before it came out; they said it seemed possibly snarky. But I meant it to reflect that time when your children are very small and you’re inside raising them, and then you emerge from that time, as if from a nap.
A well-known writer once said he could tell in the first sentence if a book was written by a man or a woman. Do you think that’s true?
No. What I look for in a novel is a kind of exciting engagement with the prose – muscularity. You long for a novel that fulfills your fantasy of what a novel should be – whatever that is. Some are by men and some are by women. I’m very equal opportunity when it comes to reading fiction.
If men don’t want to write about the domestic sphere, that’s their loss of a huge territory. As Gloria Steinem said, “Happy or unhappy, families are all mysterious. We have only to imagine how differently we would be described — and will be, after our deaths — by each of the family members who believe they know us.”
I am a man and I would love to discuss with Ms Wolitzer my deep love, appreciation and respect for a slew of female writers including Diane Johnson, Janet Malcolm, Marion Meade, Pauline Kael, Patricia Highsmith, Mary Shelley, Lillian Ross, Susan Sontag, Noel Riley Fitch, Amanda Vail, my wife Jayne and many more female writers that crowd my overstuffed bookshelves.
the discussion of big talent, small talent and no talent is somewhat disturbing to me. it’s harsh to think of anyone as having a “minor talent.” people are so complex and rich. at cost of sounding cliched, i’d like to state that everyone has talent, in one way or another, in something that is communally valued or something that isn’t.
this sentence in particular makes me cringe: “You can’t turn feminism plus a minor talent into a big thing.” you can turn ANYTHING into a big thing. and feminism IS a big thing.
i’ll read the book. thanks for the engaging interview.