Meg Wolitzer's novels include The Interestings, The Uncoupling, The Ten-Year Nap, and The Wife, among others. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. Wolitzer has taught creative writing at The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Barnard College, the MFA program at Columbia University's School of the Arts, and recently she was a guest artist in the Princeton Atelier program at Princeton University. Currently she is on the creative writing faculty at SUNY Stony Brook Southampton. Wolitzer reviews books frequently for the NPR show All Things Considered.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Kira Assad. Of the process, she said, “I am very excited to have had the opportunity to interview Meg Wolitzer. Her novels tell such beautiful stories in a way that I feel completely immersed in the stories’ world.” In this interview, Meg discusses her new novel The Interestings, seeing two of her novels become movies, and the difference between writing for adults and young readers.
Superstition Review: In your novel The Uncoupling (my personal favorite), you depict a world where the women have lost their passion in the bedroom as if under a spell, which is a take on the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes. What inspired you to use the play? Can you talk about the choices you made in modernizing the play to apply it to the narrative in The Uncoupling?
Meg Wolitzer: I wanted to write a novel about changes in desire over time. I knew that I needed some heightened way to write about this, or else it might come off seeming like a novel that was essentially about women complaining about their sex lives, which is not at all what I intended. Using the play created an organizing principle and a leaping-off place. In the play, the women have a hard time not having sex; in the novel, sex just slips away from them, and they don't really understand what's happened. The situations are quite different, but you could say that the modern-day women are going on a sort of sex-strike too, except it's entirely unconscious.
SR: One of my favorite quotes in The Uncoupling comes at the end of the novel: “Like any really good book, the play had held the people who ventured into it, and then, when it was over, it had released them.” What are some books that have held and released you in this way?
MW: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell; A Passage to India by EM Forster; The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; Old Filth by Jane Gardam.
SR: Your novels explore personal tragedies like failing relationships and death; however, you use humor to offset those experiences. How do you decide how much humor to use and where is it appropriate?
MW: It's never a conscious decision, like, 'Oh, this part should be funny,' or, 'Insert joke here.' Instead, humor needs to arise in some natural way, out of an absurd moment or a painful one, or a sudden, perhaps unexpected observation. There are many times when, during revision, I will go back and remove a moment of humor because I feel it's created a glibness that I didn't intend.
SR: I have noticed that you have amazing attention to detail in your novels when describing characters and their actions, like in Surrender, Dorothy: “If a pencil happened to make its way into [Adam’s] hand, it would soon be put into service tapping out a rhythm.” Can you talk about your methods of creating characterization through specific action?
MW: Detail is natural to me. The specific is so essential. While I usually start a novel with an idea, almost immediately the specific characters will start to form, and with them come the small but crucial details of the ways in which those characters move about and act in the world.
SR: Your novels tend to jump to different time periods or to memories of different characters. How do you approach these shifting perspectives?
MW: In The Interestings, I knew that I would be following my characters for almost forty years, and a faithful forward-motion of time seemed wrong to me, a little dull. And also, had I written the novel in a linear fashion, the reader might think for a long time, "Oh, I see, this a novel about adolescence." Which it isn't. I wanted to take as long as I needed to show the characters in adolescence, but I also wanted to take the long view and examine them in middle age. Moving into the present day the first time, after a long opening scene in 1974, let the reader understand that the book was going to move around. Time is a strange and fluid thing. There's no such thing as a "flashback," really. We're always partly in our memories, and partly anticipating what's going to happen.
SR: In the Slate Book Review author-editor interview with Sarah McGrath you discuss wanting your readers to understand why you are telling them imperative information. Can you talk about your motivation for creating this sense of urgency in your works?
MW: A reader essentially asks a writer, "Why are you telling me this?" And a writer ought to be able to answer that in the pages of the book. A novel should feel like it needed to be written, and therefore needs to be read. Which essentially means it should be about something that's important to the writer.
SR: Many of the characters in your novels are driven by the literary arts, (such as in Sleepwalking and The Wife). Why do you use literature as a backdrop?
MW: For me, books are "hot objects," containing mystery and excitement. I love when a book is central inside a book.
SR: Friendship is a recurring theme in your novels. What attracts you to writing characters in friendships rather than single characters written in conflict with others?
MW: Friendships include conflicts. Like marriages, friendships include quite a good deal. I think it's interesting when one of your characters really knows another one of your characters—has known him or her for a very long time. If you write about friendship you might be writing about intimacy, or jealousy, or comfort, or the passage of time.
SR: The changes that some of your characters go through suggest that talent in adolescence does not always mean success later in life. What draws you to this theme?
MW: I was very struck by Michael Apted's "Up" movies, in which he filmed a collection of British kids starting when they were seven, and came back and filmed them every 7 years. The first one was called 7 Up, and the most recent one was called 56 Up. What happens to people over time is always so compelling, and often a little shocking. And what happens to their talents—well, when you write about that, you're writing about what happens to people's possibilities, as well as their desires, their senses of self. All kinds of compelling things.
SR: Your newest novel The Interestings was your longest not only in page length, but also in time. Many have said it is your most ambitious novel. Would you agree with this, and if so, why do you see it as such?
MW: I suppose it's partly ambitious in that it's "about" a variety of things, from what happens to talent over time, to the nature of envy, to the role friends play in our lives. I liked allowing myself to be a maximalist, putting in as much detail as seemed appropriate, and letting story linger where I wanted it to. The world appears in the book, too, as it changes. I suppose if you write a novel that's close-grained but sweeping, it feels ambitious.
SR: You said that this sense of urgency in books essentially comes from writing what is important to the writer. In a past interview with Bookslut you said “your mantra in your classes is ‘write what interests you.’” How do you identify that element of necessity in your work? Any tricks you use to help develop urgency?
MW: I sometimes joke that if you really want to know what interests you, just look at everything you've googled for the past 24 hours. That would put you in touch with your own interests, sometimes alarmingly so. The truth is that if you aren't really absorbed by what you're writing about, it will show in the work. If you think an idea for a book is only abstractly interesting, it may not translate into actually being compelling. The best ways for a writer to find out what "interests" her is to take stock of her own daydreams, repeating questions and preoccupations, and any particular areas that "stick," and to try to understand why. That's one good way to burrow into writing a novel.
SR: You have written books for young readers, and have a YA novel, Belzhar, coming out in September. What is the difference between writing for young readers and writing for adults?
MW: I think essentially you're still you, writing a book. But you have to be respectful of the rhythms that the prose requires, and in the case of Belzhar, which was written in first-person (something I've rarely done in my adult novels), I needed to be true to the drama and immediacy and oomph of the voice of the teenaged narrator. So that meant I cut some meandering out.
SR: In your essay “The Second Shelf” you discuss a category called “Women’s Fiction” where Amazon lists you and other writers, such as Jane Austen, because you are females writing about relationships and families. You end your essay with the question: “And will ‘Women’s Fiction’ become such an absurd category it’s phased out entirely?” Can you envision a time in your life where labels such as “Women’s Fiction” will be obsolete?
MW: In some ways things have gotten much better; and in other ways (just look at the organization VIDA's annual "count," their breakdown of gender representation in literary publications), it's more of the same. Hard to know what the future will look like.
SR: You said, “I usually start a novel with an idea, almost immediately the specific characters will start to form.” How do these ideas come and how developed are they? Can you talk about one memorable character that developed in this way as an example?
MW: Ethan Figman, in The Interestings, has a very specific look to him—a homeliness and sweetness–and because I wanted to be in his presence (as it were), I started to realize the vessel he could be in the novel, a way to explore talent and creativity. Ethan, whom I love, came to embody the kind of talent you can't teach someone; they just have to possess it.
SR: Your novels Surrender, Dorothy and This is My Life were each made into a movie. What was it like to see your works become movies? What was the process of production? Do you think the on-screen version accurately represented the book’s literary vision?
MW: It was a very pleasurable process to see my fiction shot, and then to see it on the screen. The small details in particular were enjoyable to see, and I was reminded not only that the details had come from my book, but that I had once conceived of them, and here they were being visually represented. Adaptations are always variations on a theme, but I was happy with the outcome.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has changed the way you look at writing?
MW: Mary Gordon said to our writing class, "Only write about what's important." I couldn't say it better.
SR: Your writing theory is “if after turning out 80 pages the novel hasn't flown, it's time to tear it up and start again.” You did this once with a book you were writing about Freud's Dora. What attracts you about this philosophy?
MW: Well, what I've said, I think, is that 80 pages gives you a sense of accomplishment, but if you actually end up putting the manuscript aside, it's not so many pages that you'll feel you've wasted your life. 80 pages allows you to take stock of what you've done and see the book you've started to write, not necessarily the one you had planned to write.
SR: The books you chose that have “held and released” you were quite interesting. Could you pick one or two of these books to discuss further how they "released" you in this way?
MW: Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell is a perfect novel, published in 1959, about a Kansas City housewife before WWII. It's all about her desires and her limitations. It liberally explores the small tragedies of daily life and domesticity, and the deep comedies that come from the same well. I have felt so many differing sensations in close succession, reading that novel, and I always feel captivated and excited as a reader and writer.
SR: Which of your novels has been the most enjoyable to write and why?
MW: The Interestings. Though the novel is not autobiographical, I did go to a summer camp in 1974 which I loved, and one of the fringe benefits of writing this book was that I returned to some of the feelings and sensations of that long-ago summer.
SR: How has your writing space changed over the course of your writing career?
MW: I no longer have a desk. I rarely used it when I had it, except as a surface for papers and books. So now I write on a laptop on my bed and on the couch, as well as in coffee shops and a library. And somehow it works.