An Interview with Meg Wolitzer
I'm a little self-conscious walking to meet Meg Wolitzer at a café by Grand Central Terminal in New York, and it's entirely my fault. I'm wearing a short, black dress and four-inch heels -- my normal city uniform -- yet all I can think of is the article Wolitzer penned for the New York Times in April 2012, "The Second Shelf," in which she examined the space of so-called "women's fiction" and challenged how literary female authors could coexist with their male cohorts. Is my outfit giving off a vibe that I'm going to frame Wolitzer's new novel in the space of "women's fiction"? I actually had to scuttle the thought out of my head.
The Interestings, Wolitzer's newest novel, is anything but "women's fiction." (Even its cover suggests otherwise.) It's a sprawling opus of nearly five hundred pages, which follows the lives of a handful of characters who meet at Spirit-in-the-Woods, a hippie-esque arts camp in Massachusetts. At the camp, the group finds not only the identities they'll keep with them permanently, but forge relationships that define them for the rest of their existences -- lengthy paths Wolitzer narrates with grace, intimacy, and honesty that transcend a gendered label for reader or author.
I want to start with "The Second Shelf." You spoke a lot about the effect the physical appearance of a book can have on a reader -- and indeed The Interestings has a substantial one. My first thought when I saw it was that it's nearly 500 pages, and has a decidedly gender-neutral cover, as well as one of those typographic titles that marks it as "an event," as you speak of in the article. Did you think of that when you saw the cover designs?
Riverhead told the art department what I wanted in a cover, so they were very sensitive to that. I found it incredible, because not every publisher would be, but they were so good. They gave them a directive to do that -- you can't really make a book "an event" -- but I just feel there are so many books with women facing away or with women in water, which gives a cover a certain kind of seductive dreaminess. When I try to picture men carrying a cover with a woman who looks like a child swimming in a pond, I don't see it. It's not that men are the arbiters of everything, but what I talked about in the piece was a book entering a cultural conversation, and that needs to be a coed conversation.
Women are the buyers of fiction in this country, and we know that. I know writers who aren't concerned with this issue, because they know that their audience is women, and women love their work, and they're happy with that, and that's fine. I generally have women at my readings and I love these readers. But you have to ask yourself, Why will women read books about male characters and female characters, and men, with rare exception, won't? And that bothers me. So if your book looks like a women's and girls' book, even if it has something really startling in it, it's hard to get men to read it. What I feel about this cover -- I don't feel like it's a masculine cover. I feel like books should just look like a box of chocolate. You really want to be in that world. That is the point of cover art. Do you want to dip into what that world is? Of course, you may be totally wrong about what that world turns out to be, but in this case, it's oblique. What they tried to be true to is a certain kind of non-gendered cover, and also the spirit of youth and the seventies. They tried to be true to my intention and the certain things that bother me about jackets.
We're in so many different characters heads in the book -- in actuality, more main male characters than female characters. I wonder, in keeping with the discussion of "The Second Shelf," where do you think this novel falls on that spectrum of women's fiction? Is the information from Ethan, Dennis, and Jonah robust enough to keep the novel up and out of "women's"? Or are you forever there in virtue of the fact that you're Meg, the female who writes?
I try to not dwell on how I'm seen because it's just a killer. It makes you self-conscious. I didn't sit down to game the system. I did an interview with my editor on Slate on how we write, and we talked about this. I've been thinking about these issues for years. My mother's a writer, and I went to Breadloaf as a child -- I was a Breadloaf brat, like the equivalent of an Army brat, except you didn't have to move around and you went to Vermont -- and I saw the way with certain male writers that certain people would just fall at their feet. It was different for them. I really have witnessed it over the years. I took it in and let it marinate and by the time I wrote that essay... Maybe because I was thinking about it for so long, I was more aware that The time is now to write the book you want to write. Every book is the book you want to write, but with this book... I just sort of thought, I have no idea who will read my book. But I thought it was incumbent upon me to go into the world of men more, not to get more readers but because it was something I wanted to do to challenge myself. I thought that I had some male characters in my book who were men in soft clothing -- a manageable man or something. I didn't want to do that this time.
You just write the thing you're absorbed by. I was just absorbed by thinking about this gender stuff, so I'm sure that affected the writing.
When I was speaking to a close friend of mine who studied under you, she told me that your mantra in your classes is "write what interests you."
Yes! And you sort of can forget it. It's amazing that you can forget to write what absorbs you. What are you doing? I sometimes ask myself. I've always said to students who are writing novels to write eighty pages -- it's my eighty pages crackpot theory. If you write eighty pages of a book, then you can have a look and see what it is, because every book starts as a fantasy. I consider it a grandiose fantasy, and as you write it changes. If you get to eighty pages and you decide to put it down, it's not a tragedy, but if you get a lot more than that, you feel like you've invested so much of your life in that. At eighty pages, you can really have a look and say, What have I got? Am I really pushing myself? Is it really exciting me and making my muscles twitch? This is what I really look for. Some of my books feel like I was working out things that maybe weren't fully expressed, but they're all part of this chain. I can't believe it hadn't occurred to me to write this one earlier, because I'd thought about this subject so much, but it was so much in my mind I wasn't even thinking about it writing about it.
Would it have been too explicit, almost?
Almost. Though there's nothing in it plot-wise that's autobiographical, I truly came alive at a summer camp.
I'm fascinated by this notion of talent that permeates the novel. The children of the camp understand early that they're separated by differing levels of talent, and the main characters realize in adulthood that talent is what will make their lives harder or easier, and that their own children will go through the same cycle, too. Can you speak to this observation and its origins?
One character says late in the book, "Not everybody's talented -- what are they supposed to do, kill themselves?" We have this fetish with talent -- and it's gotten much, much worse today with children and the notion that everyone has to be gifted -- and this idea that everything that your child does you love so much. But what happens when you take it far ahead: you might feel that your child is a loser if your child was still just doing those talents. I was trying to understand through the book if you use the term "talent," it's something that's in you, but it's also sometimes used interchangeably with "product." Are you legitimately talented if you don't do the great work? Can you claim that mantle? Why do you have to prove it? I started thinking about all of that. To be a great therapist is to be talented, and things that the character Jules got at camp -- she certainly doesn't think she's a brilliant therapist, but she helps people. Is that a talent? Is it okay?
Did you come up in an environment where you felt pressure around the word "talent" because your mother was a novelist and because you were a writer?
Later on I did, like in college, but I grew up in the suburbs, and no one else's mother was a writer. I didn't live in the city. Until I got to summer camp, I didn't know anyone who went to private school. I didn't really know they existed.Where I lived, no one really expected that much. Talent was something that people were fairly free about until later when we got self-conscious as adolescents.
That relates to this idea of envy and jealousy, which are supposed to be emotions we outgrow. In the book, it becomes very clear that we don't transcend them at all. How have you seen envy manifesting in adults?
It really does. It happens with people's children -- someone says something about her child, and someone else looks depressed. You start to wonder, Are people really pitting themselves against each other all the time? And the answer is yes. We look for millions of ways to feel bad about ourselves. We gravitate toward that all the time. I don't know what purpose it serves. Yet, there are also friends who are free of that, friends who are really successful, friends you just love, and friends that you only wish well. Maybe what makes envy come in is if you could actually see yourself in the other person's position a little more easily. In the Venn diagram, if there's more overlap between what you do and what the person does, and you feel that perhaps it's because of luck. So much of it is luck. That's the thing about success, which is different from talent: it's talent manifested.
I didn't understand that was the case. When we all came to New York City after college, everybody was living in the same size studio apartments and just sort of wanted to be in the arts, and gradually it all sort of sorted itself out. Some of it had to do with money and class and connections and things like that, and that was sort of shocking to me, and it was sort of depressing.
Do you think envy in the arts looks different than envy in other parts of the world?
I think it may look worse in other parts of the world. Envy in science -- there's tremendous professional jealousy and undermining. There's no undermining in this book. This isn't about that. They say that the smaller the world, the more treacherous. With poets? Forget it. So maybe with the arts -- because we live in a world that's so not arts-focused -- this is rarified. The culture is very nonfiction-based, and novels are going the way of a luxury item, and I feel very strongly that fiction writers need to make the case for their work. There may be less at stake -- except when there's something huge at stake -- but I think envy is rife in all worlds.
What's the longest friendship you've ever had?
My friend who I met at this camp, actually, who the book is dedicated to, and who is my closest friend.
Tell me a little bit about this experience you had at camp.
I had been to a series of summer camps that were really different and not arts-based... I went to "regular" camps, but when I was a teenager, my parents sent me to this camp that really considered itself a spool. It was very serious. We sang Mozart's "Requiem" in the morning, and I remember calling my mom and telling her and feeling sort of resistant to it and immediately bending. I have this sheet music from "Requiem," and it literally has Caladryl on it. I met all kinds of people there and they were just smart and sensitive and everyone was serious about doing some kind of art. I did theatre. The friendships I made there were really strong and were built on certain passions.
Have the changes that your friendships have undergone looked like Jules and Ash's did in the book?
I think it's important to say that while the real springboard and catalyst of this book was a teen arts camp where your life is changed. I hope I invented everything else, because I don't feel that my life is interesting enough.
You're not one of "The Interestings"?
No. Also, I don't have a group that lasts. But I do have my closest friend, and we didn't see each other for twelve years, and then we ran into each other in New York. It was this amazing thing, actually. It was in the '80s, and I actually met her husband, and he said, "My wife has talked about you," and we had this reunion, and we just sort of picked up.
You know the way you can just sort of put two kids together and they can play? If you have a sort of major experience when you're fifteen together, it's almost like that. You can put yourselves together again when you're twenty-seven, and you can play. I'm moved to have a friend like that.
Many life events in the novel are, in ways, traumatic. We see death of parents and spouses, loss of friends, disease, separation of family, loss of trust -- there's really a wealth of trauma. What did you discover to be the most non-explicitly traumatic moment to write about?
Moments of small shame are really big in life. There's this moment where Jules and Dennis go to a dinner party, and this other horrible couple are there, and they never look over, and they never really address Jules and Dennis, and they realize that they're sort of inadequate in this new world, even though they're friends with Ethan and Ash. Ethan and Ash would never say it -- they'd never be unkind in that way -- but there are ways in which they are, and to sort of have to feel okay about yourself when someone has subtly found you not to be okay is really painful, and I think everyone has experienced that, like the first time that you realize that you can't just live in the little netting of your friends as much as you'd like to.
When I used to dream about going back to that summer camp, I didn't dream about being a kid again -- it's full of face acne and I don't want that -- and yet the only things that were asked of you were things you asked of yourself, and that's never been true since then. If I understood back then how little life was like that, and how you had to fight for every moment to be a creative and productive reading person, I'm proud of that, because you do have to fight for that. But back then, you don't, and you feel it's all enough, so to go out in the world and to have someone be a snob or a snot toward you -- it's painful for these characters.
The novel is sprawling in the ground that it covers -- the characters as young people through their middle ages. Which parts of those characters' lives was the richest in discovery about their identities?
Their adolescence, and I was so glad that I could keep coming back to it. Writing a novel that's purely linear seemed to me at this moment just seemed like a series of blocks lined up, and I didn't quite want to do that. I always wanted to have the option of returning to the shimmering moments. One thing I say to students is that there's a false notion of "flashbacks." You're sitting here talking to me, I'm talking to you, and I'm sitting here thinking about a movie I went to with these kids from camp in 1975, and then the essay I wrote, and now I'm back here.
It just reflects human thought.
It reflects human thought, and I tried to approximate that in this novel. It's freedom, and that gives you sprawling. One way I try to write a novel is that I say, Well, it'll take place within the brackets of this story, and it's very reassuring and can really, really work. If you want to track intersections in a life among a group of people, you have to allow yourself a possibility of going into years you didn't imagine it would continue. I just didn't know. I decided to be less concerned with neatness. I'm very interested in style in writing. I just decided I would sacrifice a little bit of shapeliness for something that went off a little more and maybe was therefore imperfect.
The road to every novel's life is so different and never what you expect it to be. My idea of what I wanted in a novel had changed. I wanted a novel that was this big, pleasurable thing that was very emotional. That's what I wanted to read, so I figured I would try to write it because it really did coincide with all these thoughts about talent and envy and friendship and mortality, so it seemed like the form and content would suit each other.
The other point of construction that's most interesting is that you really had to lay building blocks for these friendships. There's a line in which Jules says she wants to "make sure she remained essential to these people." It seems like you must have had to lay out explicit sketches to make these multidirectional friendships believably essential relationships.
It's a hard thing to do. Friendship in a novel -- what's a great friendship novel? I don't even know. I'm sure there are many, but you don't think of them that way. You think of the conflict in a book. Is The Great Gatsby a friendship novel? When I was writing initially, it was really about her urge that carried it through. The characters were like these whirling objects around her. The way later on that parents are about children -- lifting cars -- she'd lift a car to stay in this world, to be special, to be needed by them.
Is there anything you hope you've communicated that people take away from the friendships and the dynamics?
The fantasy is that people read the book the way you read it back to yourself when you liked -- because sometimes you hate it.