Interview with Meg Wolitzer

Posted by Goodreads on April 1, 2018
A few weeks before publication of The Female Persuasion, we called Meg Wolitzer to talk about her tenth book. She was in her home in Manhattan, already percolating ideas for her next book while preparing for a publicity tour for one of the most anticipated books of spring.

The book starts with an incident at fictional Ryland College, in which a young man is given a slap on the wrist after harassing and inappropriately touching many young women on campus, including the protagonist, Greer Kadetsky. That spurs Greer's awakening to feminism, along with an encounter with a Gloria Steinem-like character named Faith Frank, the elegant, charismatic author of a 1984 manifesto called The Female Persuasion. Faith becomes Greer's mentor as the young woman pursues a career in a new media venture fueled by idealism but filled with compromise and betrayal.

There's also a romance—with a boy next door whose ambitions take him far away from Greer—and heady takes on topics as disparate as video game technology, troubled inner-city schools, and conferences on women's issues that sound a lot like something Gwyneth Paltrow would be attending. The Female Persuasion ends on a note so contemporary, it's almost uncanny. Goodreads contributor Mary Pols spoke to Wolitzer about the joys of finally having a home office, her famous mentor, and how Las Vegas—circa 1965—wandered into her plot.


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Goodreads: You couldn't have picked a better time to drop a big fat novel that includes sexual harassment and fierce feminists. Did you plan it this way?

Meg Wolitzer: I certainly didn't time it! As always, I just need to write the book that I am really thinking about, about the ideas that I am thinking about. I got a text from a friend recently, talking about the perfect timing of it. But the truth is, these are things I have been thinking about and have been in the world and in the air for a very long time. Everything is heightened right now in this moment, of course, but people have been wrestling with these questions for a long time. The fact is that these are questions that were in my book before this #metoo movement.

GR: The book does feel just as much, if not more, about the relationship between Faith and Greer. Can you talk about how and why the relationship between mentors and protégés is so important for you?

MW: I had personal experiences with mentors from both perspectives, and I hadn't seen that in fiction. I realized how grateful I was to a number of women who had been very helpful to me. And when I saw some of the ways they had been with me being mirrored, I realized that I might automatically take some of what I had gotten from them and use it in mentoring others. That just sort of stayed with me.

GR: Were these writing mentors?

MW: Yes, but I never called them that. In my teens and 20s, "mentor" sounded so formal to me. My mother, Hilma—she is 88 and a fantastic writer, who is still writing—was someone who mentored me from a very early age. I was allowed and encouraged to play with writing, and I loved showing her my work. Then I had a couple of teachers who were incredibly welcoming to me. Later on, Nora Ephron was someone who was a great friend and enthusiast who really made you feel good about your work.


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GR: How did you meet Ephron? Was it when she was adapting your 1988 book, This Is Your Life, for the screen?

MW: You know, my mom actually met Nora back in the 1970s. Nora liked something my mother had written and invited her to lunch. If she liked something, she was so generous that way.

I met her because she had optioned the book. And her sister Delia, who also became a good friend and who co-wrote the screenplay [which was about two sisters whose mother was a stand-up comedian]. It took a long time to get the movie made. Nora would invite me to casting sessions. I went with them around the city to comedy clubs. I was pregnant with my first child. It really just was fun. It was like they were figuring out how to do this big thing.

GR: That was Nora Ephron's first movie as director. It came out in 1992 and has intense fans. Like Girls creator Lena Dunham. But isn't it impossible to find on video?

MW: It is now finally streaming. I really do recommend it. It is a beautiful film about mothers and daughters. That movie is so much Nora. It is very funny and very dear and, yeah, it made no money! She was 50 years old when she directed it. I remember because she came to my 50th birthday party and wrote me a note about remembering she was that age when she made that film, acknowledging the passage of time. And that it had been a special experience, having her first film made. [Ephron died in 2012, at age 71, three years after Wolitzer's 50th.]

GR: A reader named Alika says she was inspired and amazed at the vast scope of The Interestings. She'll find the same to be true of The Female Persuasion. Alika wants to know how you stay organized and not get overwhelmed. Do you plot things out concretely before putting pen to page?

MW: It is a pretty free process. Not highly planned. I have something like an 80-page plan. I like to have an idea for what problem is interesting to me, the problem that I want to work out. Then, without having any plan, I go forward and write very freely for about 80 pages. Then, when you are really in the world of the book, you can map it. But before that, it is hard.

For me, novels are like a self-enclosed culture that you can sort of populate. I enjoy that so much. And populating it not just for the sake of populating—it's not like room decorating. Like creating a video game [as Greer's boyfriend does] not just to be funny or a riff on it but to create a game that connects to the story.

I don't think plot has ever been my middle name. It is more that the feeling needs to stay true all the way through. I am very character-based.

GR: Are you ever surprised by where characters take you?

MW: Definitely! I don't know what will happen. I think that as a writer, if it is schematic to you, it is going to feel schematic to the reader. I don't know that I knew what would happen in The Female Persuasion, where we would take our characters—me and all my assistants and minions. I can't think of anything in particular that was a shock. But when we go into Faith's point of view…

GR: You mean the backstory of her becoming a famous feminist? Starting with when she goes to Las Vegas in 1965 and works as a cocktail waitress?

MW: Yes. I had no idea that the famous feminist had worked in Vegas. This is really an intergenerational novel, where we see this interplay between the two generations. And though I'm moving [the action] forward, when I got to that point, I wanted that story, to go back. I didn't know it was in Vegas and that now we were going to go there. That backstory became as real to me as the forward-moving story and as necessary.

GR: What do you need to be able to write? Peace and quiet? The perfect desk setup or time of day?

MW: I really make it part of my daily routine. For the first time ever I have my own office at home. [Wolitzer and her husband, writer Richard Panek, moved to a new apartment recently.] I wrote all of my books on a bed or a couch. Or in coffee shops all around the city. But now I have an actual room where I write. It is great that I have it, but you try to write wherever you can. I like using the sort of ambient sounds of New York as a backdrop. The hum and clatter of a coffee shop. Every once in a while I would let something puncture the concentration. I do like to be at home, though. And I like the morning hours.

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GR: Are you empty nesters now?

MW: Yes. One of my children just graduated from college, and the other graduated from law school and is clerking for a judge. It is shocking to me to not have a cute answer to the question about children, like "one is four and one is six." Instead, my kids are grown, which makes my writing day very much better. It used to be, they'd go to school and it would be like a starter pistol would go off. Now it is up to me.

GR: How much of a rest do you give yourself between books?

MW: I am married to a nonfiction writer and he is on deadline now, finishing a book. It's on gravity. I know he just wants to work all the time. I know he'll be working, so I might be reading. But we love the factory nature of our life here. And I always want to be thinking, "What is a good idea?" It makes me happy to be working. It also makes me happy to be relaxing.

Last night I was lying in bed, and I was thinking about my new book. Without any pressure but a good deal of pleasure. Every time you write a new book, it is a do-over. No, that's the wrong word. It is a chance to start fresh in a way. To think, What do I want to do with the next two or three years? What will really engage me? What ideas are very much alive in me? With a little luck, a character will step up and say, I can handle that.

GR: I wondered if you revisited your 2003 book, The Wife, while you were working on The Female Persuasion. That book is about a wife who suppresses her own talent as a writer for the sake of her writer husband. The two books have some things in common: feminism, campus dynamics, voices. The husband even refers to a woman writer as of "the female persuasion."

MW: It is hard to read old things because you might want to change a word. Somebody told me recently, "Ah ha! I see your joke about the female persuasion that you planted in The Wife long ago." They thought I was making a direct, arch reference to that.

GR: You weren't?

MW: No. It's all a big blur. When I finish, it is like I don't even remember writing. But you are the person you have always been, with some modifications and expansions, of course. I always say, Write what you know, write what obsesses you and about the things that you are really thinking about a lot—the things that you keep returning to late at night in bed.

GR: Speaking of bedtime, what is on your nightstand right now?

MW: A bunch of different things! The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. [They share an editor.] True Grit by Charles Portis, which keeps coming up as a book that people really love. Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. Lorrie Moore has a new collection of essays (See What Can Be Done, out April 3). It is nice to mix those in with fiction. And The Hate U Give. I'm in a young adult and kids book club, and we're reading that. I started it, and it is fantastic.

GR: I can't believe you have time for a book club! Are you more propelled to go forward into fresh material than reread?

MW: I travel so much that I haven't had a chance to go to this one as much as I would like. I do love being in touch with things I have read before. The books that you have loved in the past are really valuable. And it's not just like the repetitive nature of a child watching a Disney movie a thousand times. Maybe it's something I didn't get enough out of [the first time]. I had a very literary friend who loved Colette. But I just didn't get into it. But when I reread Colette much later, I cried and cried. Like in Chéri, reading about this woman fearing aging and losing her lover—all of these things that I didn't understand deeply enough when I was young.

GR: Let's end with another reader question, from Connie, that relates to books from the past. Which author or book influenced you most as a child?

MW: I think A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. Being a Meg and the character's name is Meg Murray. It is like an Advent calendar; there are a lot of ways to enter it. I was never a big fantasy book fan, but I loved it, I related to it, and it thrilled me—something about that idea of striving to save a parent. And Charlotte's Web had a profound effect on me. I remember reading it in my mother's arms and crying. And those illustrations by Garth Williams. The way he drew the hair on Wilbur's snout!

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