Books & More, Interviews

Illicit and Thrilling and Magical: A Conversation with Meg Wolitzer

by Brendan Dowling on October 7, 2013

Meg Wolitzer’s acutely observed novels such as The Ten Year Nap, The Position, and The Uncoupling have earned her a loyal following during her thirty-year career. With the publication of The Interestings, however, Wolitzer enjoyed her best reviews to date. The New York Times Book Review said The Interestings‘  “inclusive vision and generous sweep place it among the ranks of books like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot” while the Chicago Tribune called it “a supremely engrossing, deeply knowing, genius-level enterprise.” Spanning over thirty years, the novel centers around Jules Jacobson, a sharply funny fifteen year-old,  and the five friends she meets at an arts summer camp in 1973. As the six teenagers move into adulthood and launch their careers, they are forced to confront how success, money, jealousy, and class affect their relationships. Meg Wolitzer spoke to Brendan Dowling via email on October 4, 2013. Photo credit: Nina Subin.

Public Libraries: Jules’ sense of humor is a complex part of her personality that stretches beyond simply being “funny”: it attracts people to her but she also uses it as a defense mechanism to avoid tough feelings. Her humor is also pretty elastic: throughout the novel she is alternately described as hilarious, wry, and sometimes just “in the neighborhood of funny.” What went into developing this part of her personality?

Meg Wolitzer: I hadn’t really seen many funny women written about in serious novels, and yet I know so many women I would describe as funny or witty or at least a little goofy in life. And humor is such a big part of so many peoples’ sensibilities, including my own, that I thought I would explore the way it is a genuine response to the world and the way it can also put a fence around feelings. And also the way it can almost become a language between two people. I know that Jules’s and Ethan’s shared humor is important to them—a comfort and a release.

PL: Judging by posts on your twitter page, readers really seem to identify with Jules and her struggles with talent and envy. Do you sense that readers are connecting with Jules in a more intimate way than they have with characters from your previous books? Is this a byproduct of how accessible authors now are on the internet? Or both?

MW: I am aware of readers connecting with this novel, which is very gratifying. Some readers feel angry with Jules for not being able to appreciate her life, and for continuing to feel a sort of low-level envy toward her good friends. Other readers identify completely. But I think the connection may have to do with the world of the book and the time it covers, and the fact that many people have longstanding friends about whom they feel deeply. I am on twitter, yes, though only in an occasional way. In my case, I don’t think my internet presence is strong enough to have changed the response to this book in particular.

PL: Many of the characters reinvent themselves, in ways both big and small, throughout the novel. Did you have an overarching plan for where the different characters were going to end up or were those surprises along the way?

MW: I usually wait and see where the story takes me in terms of my sense of what’s going to happen to the characters. I had various half-realized and more-realized ideas with The Interestings, but some of them were scuttled as I went along. I do like sometimes being surprised by what I have in store for a character.

PL: We see two generations of parents in the novel. Susannah, Gil and Betsy seem to take a much more “hands-off” approach to parenting than Jules, Dennis, Ethan and Ash. Did you find that there was a fundamental difference in parenting between these two generations or was it just specific to these individual characters?

MW: Oh yes, I think there was a difference. I seem to remember that my sister and I would go out in the neighborhood and play for hours without our parents knowing exactly where we were. There is much more of a fear-based and gratification-based hovering taking place among young parents and children today. It’s easy to say, “The world was different back then,” but in many ways it’s true.

PL: You move back and forth through time so fluidly and the reader discovers things later in the book that inform her perception about earlier scenes. How did you plan at what point you would reveal different events to the reader? Did those moments present themselves organically or did you have a design in mind?

MW: I feel a little embarrassed to say I didn’t have a master plan. I wanted to take my time with this book and let it unfold But I am a big believer in rewriting, so I knew that even if my master plan proved flawed, I could go back and fix it. I sort of wrote based on hunches more than anything else.

PL: The characters keep various secrets from each other. As the novel progresses the secrets are, to varying degrees, exposed. It seemed very true to life how characters did or didn’t share information with each other, regardless of how close they are to one another. Was it important to you to capture the untidiness of life where issues might never get fully resolved?

MW: I do think life is untidy and imbalanced and that “closure” is something we rarely see; I hoped to convey a bit of this view in the novel.

PL: The final sentence packs such an emotional wallop. Did you feel any added pressure writing the end of The Interestings since the book is so expansive and ambitious?

MW: The end of the book is a big moment for every writer. It’s kind of like: you originally had to figure out a way to get into the novel, now figure out a way to get out of it. For me, I wanted the ending to be something of a concentrate of the whole book, and a return to a certain emotional quality that I tried to put into the very beginning.

PL: Finally, what role has the library played in your life?

MW: I worked in my public library as a teenager, and I have spent a lot of time reading and writing in libraries throughout my life. To this day, libraries have a big part in my interior life as well as my actual daily life; I find them extremely important places, and I have known librarians who have had a big influence on me and my reading tastes. As a young mother, going to the library with my sons was a significant part of our day. One of my favorite jobs at the library as a teenager was staying late to show the movie downstairs, especially because, when I went back upstairs, I got to be alone in an empty library at night, which felt illicit and thrilling and magical.



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