Let's just go ahead and call Meg Wolitzer's fantastic The Interestings the book of the moment, the novel you should really read, if you haven't already. Following an early April release from Riverhead, it's gotten positive reviews from NPR ("juicy, perceptive and vividly written"), The New York Times ("warm, all-American and acutely perceptive"), and USA Today ("sprawling, ambitious and often wistful"), among others. It's a New York Times best seller. Amazon named it the best book of the month for April, and Entertainment Weekly called Wolitzer "every bit as literary as Franzen or Eugenides" (who provides a book blurb for the back cover). Oprah's O Magazine recently included the title on a list of five books women need to read before their next birthdays, a lineup that also includes John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. And Judy Blume loves it, too! But perhaps the greatest endorsement of the novel comes from Wolitzer herself, no stranger to reviews in her 30 years of writing. "I do like this one best, and I guess it's a good thing," she told me at a cafe in Manhattan recently.
The author, for her part, is warm and wonderful, the same sharp observer in real life who keeps readers' eyes on the page. In a large-in-scope conversation befitting her latest novel, we spoke about the need to "radicalize your work," why a novel is like an accordion, and how getting a bad review is like having your head shaved in public, to name just a few things.
Can you tell me about the writing process for The Interestings?
Meg Wolitzer: It was probably shorter than I'd like to admit! I wrote those 80 pages and showed it to my agent, and she knew what it was. Once I had that I sort of felt safe. It was this talismanic thing. The idea that people I trusted saw the project allowed me to do it. The opening didn't really change that much over the process of writing. It got shorter because, I don't know, I now seem to be the queen of the 40-page chapter.
I do want to say the process of writing a novel is riddled with self-doubt and self-loathing. It was a happy and pleasurable experience in parts. But you know, you're so on your own, and there's so much to do. It can be like you're planning a big bar mitzvah. There are a lot of tables to take care of. At the same time, I really do recommend writing a novel. For me, it’s like an accordion. You invent the way you want it to feel based on a combination of the books you love and the little things you think you possibly can add that haven't been done to death, and there's maybe a tiny space on the shelf for that thing and you just try to wedge it in.
What was the germ of the book? How did it begin?
With books, it's so strange how it takes you such a long time to figure out you want to write about this thing, even though you've been thinking about it forever. I did go to a summer camp that was really transformative to me. I think I needed to unspool that idea for as long as I did, because I didn't want to write a Y.A. book about camp.
As the decades passed I thought about ideas of talent, and how camp was the first time I'd been faced with really big talent. And what happens to talent. Once the Internet came along and you could look up people you'd known and find out that the most brilliant actor hadn't become an actor but was a doctor or a chiropractor or something else, I started to think: We put such a premium on product and using talent in a linear way, we want to see that. Is it O.K. if the great actor became a passionate doctor or chiropractor? The idea of the different manifestations of talent interested me a lot. I was also affected by Michael Apted's Seven Up films. I always had to see what happened to these kids. Beyond that, there was the question of who someone is. I remember seeing a photo of Johnny Carson as an infant, and he looks like Johnny Carson. It's all in there, it's just not ready yet. The book came from this idea of talent plus time.
How much of your own camp experience is in the book?
I don't write autobiographically. Nothing that happens in this book happened in my life, except that a match was lit to me then. The idea of camp was about creating your own society, which is of course what adulthood ends up being. When I wrote about New York, I did draw very much from trying to see myself in the city, walking around and feeling like it was this dirty, crazy, mess.
Going back to the idea of time, there's an interesting continuum you work with. You start with the camp point, but we get to go back and forth ...
Previously in writing a novel I would often take a more traditional view of time and feel hampered by that. I made a deliberate choice to use time in a much more fluid way. I loved that I could keep going; it's like realizing there's no fence on your property.
I always feel like "radicalize your work" is the way to think about approaching it. You have to entertain yourself, but you have to do more than that. It’s important to allow yourself to go back sometimes instead of always going forward just because we live in this narrative thrusting culture that wants the story. The reader is as smart as you or smarter. You should trust the reader.
I think a lot of the dull parts of first drafts come from a kind of over-managing, intrusive writer who wants to direct traffic. The idea of taking out the parts that the reader could infer is very liberating, and it's weirdly part of radicalizing your work. It allows you to go to new places fast.
The book involves the idea of the evolution of the self — the 15-year-old, and the person that person grows up to be. What was it like to take these characters through so many life stages?
Somebody asked which did I prefer, writing about the characters when they were young or old, but I realized I didn't distinguish that in my mind. They were an amorphous self, and they stayed that way. They could age back and forth easily and they were one.
My friend and I would say we'd had a "sighting" when we'd see someone from camp and remember that person in their 15-year-old self. When I see these people, I see myself with possibilities, before the disappointments and limitations of adulthood set in. But you've never lost the original you. It’s still there.
How do you approach the creation of your characters?
We talk about character and place as if they're shining distinct orbs. They never are. What really makes a character work, is how he or she works with other characters. They're not singing their separate arias facing the audience. The test for me was, if Jules worked, it was very much about her relationship with Ethan. If a character loves another character, you don't have to put the pressure on the reader of the question "don't you love this character?" You're watching someone love another character.
When did the title emerge?
Oh, I had it right away. The minute I thought they'd call themselves The Interestings there was no way that wouldn't be the title of the book. But again, who knows if it's good? You carry it around for a while. It has to represent the intent of the book. It's the kind of thing you'd tape to your computer, a Psalm or something.
Let's talk about gender byline disparity and the different ways male and female novelists can be treated.
VIDA does incredibly important work because they just continue to show the disparities here. The statistics are shocking about what happens, because you see it's part of a big continuum: who's reviewing, who's getting reviewed. It's not even close. The notion that yes, you can win a prize but does it have the same effect on a woman that it does on a man? Who are the writers that people see as authorities in our culture? It can be very depressing. If you look at the numbers you can feel like you've been slapped.
It's a real ongoing thing I’ve been thinking about. I wrote that essay in the Times ["The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction Between Men and Women"] while I was working on this book. Someone said, what can we do other than talk about it? I'm not against talking about it. Talking about it has to be good. But for me, writing is as good as talking about it, continuing to create this body of work by writers, some of them women, writing about women characters. Things change, and Jenny Egan wins the Pulitzer. But you're not writing for the prizes, you're just writing. If you're a women writer living in America today, you take note of the numbers, and you keep working.
In the acknowledgments to your book, you call Riverhead's Geoffrey Kloske an "excellent and, yes, feminist publisher." What did you mean by that?
VIDA had done a series about the number of women writers published at the various companies, and Riverhead came out very well. And it's not just that. Looking at what they've published over the years, he publishes important work by excellent women and really supports it. He cares.
What has the book tour been like this round?
When you have a book out, it's like a period of protracted or concentrated megalomania, and it's really not normal, or good for you, or any of that. I'm in the end of it right now. I've enjoyed this publication more than most. But I really enjoy writing much more. It's quiet, it's about possibilities. Then there's the stuff you're afraid of. I was on a panel with a writer who said afterward she was afraid to write certain things because she didn't want people thinking things. I too wish I could control the minds of everyone around me. The pain of not being able to and having your work misinterpreted and being humiliated, all of that is dreadful, and I completely sympathize with that. Of course, the alternative is saying to yourself, I didn't do the work that interested me because of somebody I don't even like.
Perhaps in 30 years of work, you don't have to have so much stake in any one book; it becomes about the body of your work as a whole, and that’s liberating?
It's a really great way to think about it. Because why are you writing? Are you writing for a claim? Does it have to happen with this one? I want to continue writing and publishing into my old age. Some books feel like sorbets between courses. You weren't ready to write the next one, but you have to do something. Also, even if it doesn't come out in that book the way you wanted it to, you're just working away, you're thinking, you're getting better. I think it's very useful to think of your work as a whole, big, imperfect thing. The novels you write at 22 versus 53 — if you can bear to look at the earlier ones, you'll see yourself.
This is your favorite of your books?
Did you have to write the others before getting to this one?
Most of them. It's pretty winding. What you write also depends what's happening in your life. There have been years when big things were going on. People have to have jobs. I've taught a lot. I've done all kinds of things to support myself and my family and a writer, and I'm proud to do that. You have deaths of people in your life, and that might not only affect your concentration but also the way a book is going to feel. To let yourself be in the world but in the world of your book is a challenge, and you need to find that balance. The books that probably are weaker are ones in which I hadn't really found the problem that interested me yet, or the world was encroaching. Sometimes the horrible thing is you see the ceiling of your ability. You see, I can do this, but I can't do that, or I can't do it now.
One of my real favorite American novels is Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Speaking of radicalizing a book … it takes place right before WWII and it's about a Kansas City housewife. It's tragic, because she's limited by what the world was like for a housewife in that era, but also because she has real intellectual limitations. She has desires for herself and they pop up and get thrust aside. Some of it is done in these bullet-pointed short sections that are not like traditional American novels. I can't imagine writing a book like it, but I've been so influenced by it.
What are you working on next?
The Interestings is the first of a two-book contract. There's this fantasy that you're going to sit in a hotel room during the book tour with a fabulous chicken caesar salad and start your next book. But it's a lot of local news in Indianapolis and emailing and general over-stimulation. You really do want to be working on something very much. It will definitely be another novel. One thing I got from this book was that I loved the freedom about time. I'm not sure I want to give that up.
The reviews for The Interestings have been very good. As a writer, how do you cope with the idea that they may not always be so positive?
A friend said that getting a bad review isn't like getting your head chopped off in public, it's more like getting your head shaved in public. The hair grows back. A good review is a bit like being "saved from shame this one time.” It allows you also to move along a little more quickly, as if everybody’s safe in their beds. Like many writers, I have a lot of self-doubt and a lot of shame all the time. It just gets folded into the batter of being productive, really.