I'm thrilled to be interviewing Meg Wolitzer, the New York Times best-selling author of The Interestings, The Uncoupling, The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, The Wife, and Sleepwalking. She's also the author of the young adult novel Belzhar. Her latest book, The Female Persuasion, was an instant New York Times best seller and was one of the most celebrated books of 2018. Nicole Kidman has signed on for the film adaptation which is in the works. In fact, three movies have been made from Meg’s books including This Is My Life, The Wife, and Surrender, Dorothy. A former creative writing teacher at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Princeton University, Skidmore College, and Stony Brook, Wolitzer currently lives in New York City with her husband.
Hi, Meg. It’s Zibby Owens from “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Meg Wolitzer: Hi. How are you?
Zibby: I'm good. How are you?
Meg: Very well. Thank you.
Zibby: Thanks for coming on my show. I really appreciate it. I loved your book The Interestings. Even rereading it now, all those characters are so lifelike. I could feel myself like Julie, that shy, awkward girl at Spirit-in-the-Woods camp on the outside of the group. You wrote so beautifully about that period of time. I'm going to quote, if you don't mind, to start us off. When a cool camper asked Julie at the row of sinks to join the group, you wrote that “Julie had looked at her with a dumb, dripping face, which she then quickly dried with a thin towel from home. Jacobson, her mother had written along the puckered edge in red laundry marker in a tentative hand that now seemed a little tragic.” That feeling of being an outsider, can you talk to me about that and how you include it in many of your books? Let’s start with The Interestings.
Meg: I did go to summer camp when I was exactly Julie’s age, which was a total coincidence. I'm not her. I'm really not her, and yet of course there are some overlaps. I didn't grow up in the household she grew up in. I grew up in a more sophisticated household. My mother’s a writer. My father’s a psychologist. We had a lot of books. I had of sense of culture and the world. I still hadn’t jumped in yet. That is definitely where we’re more similar. Julie had felt that she was growing up in a place where she had no understanding of the passions or excitements of the world which included art and big friendships. She goes to this camp and it all explodes for her. To a lesser but still powerful degree, that did happen to me. It happened in terms of starting to take myself a little bit seriously and have friends who took one another seriously and were fascinated by one another in ways that I do have a little fun with. They called themselves jokingly, but not entirely, the interestings. We didn't do that. I didn't have a group in that same way. I definitely saw that time in my life as being an open door.
Zibby: I could so relate to that feeling when Julie said if she called her attention to herself by moving in any way, someone might start to wonder why she was there and realize that she had no reason to be there. It’s such a painful moment. I have twins who are almost twelve. I can't believe they have to go through this now.
Meg: Everybody has to go through it. I know.
Zibby: In The Female Persuasion, an instant best seller which is so awesome, you bring back that sense of wonder of being selected. Like Julie, here you have Greer who gets singled out by Faith at what you call an undistinguished school in southern Connecticut. Greer thinks maybe it’s her hair that's attracted Faith to her. Then she thinks that it’s because Faith felt sorry -- I'm quoting again -- “for eighteen-year-old Greer, who was hot-faced and inarticulate that night. Or maybe Faith was automatically generous and attentive around young people who were uncomfortable in the world.” I felt like that was the similar thing, the “Why me? Why’d you pick me?” phenomenon.
Meg: That idea of being chosen and having your life open up to you is something that I could write a number of books about in different ways. What's really different in The Female Persuasion is that it’s an intergenerational story. It’s a story not about friendship, but about being seen by someone you admire and having your life open up because of that.
Zibby: There are all these different ways to take what you have and then all of a sudden throw you into some new setting. It’s really neat how you do that in these different ways already. Your mother, you mentioned she's a writer. I actually read what you posted on Mother’s Day, the essay she wrote called “Today, a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.”
Meg: It was the first thing she ever published. It’s a short story in the old Saturday Evening Post in 1966. She's amazing. Really, my mother, she's got it. She's eighty-nine. She's a genius. I learned so much from her. She's a wonderful writer.
Zibby: You said somewhere that the paper wrote a headline about her, something like “Housewife turned novelist.”
Meg: She's joked that it was like she’s Clark Kent going into a phone booth becoming Superman. Whoa, a housewife turned into a novelist, how is that possible? This condescension toward women, I took very much note of. It really did affect, to some degree, my novel The Wife that I wrote in 2003, which was made into a film this year. I've been thinking about all of this for a very, very long time. It appears in different ways in my different books.
Zibby: In the annotated version of The Wife for PBS NewsHour, you wrote that, “My sense of writing in first-person has been that if you're going to write a novel from this perspective, the voice needs to be distinctive. Joan’s anger and tart depictions of Joe definitely interested me, and seemed best served by an ‘I’ voice. Had I written the book in third-person, as I have often done before, I suspect Joan’s strong feelings might have been a bit diluted in the telling.” What made you chose the third person for The Female Persuasion? How did you pick for each of your books?
Meg: I felt that with The Female Persuasion I definitely know that Greer is the anchor of the book, just as in The Interestings, Jules, who’s called Julie at the beginning, is the anchor of the book. We do go into Ethan’s point of view and other points of view. I really, really wanted to go into the mind of this older woman feminist from a different generation too. Those were the two I knew I wanted to go into both of their minds. I didn't want to do different first-person stories. That wasn’t the way this was going to be. Also, in both cases of those books, The Interestings and The Female Persuasion, they go through a long period of time. They have different characters. To me, the best vehicle was third person.
Zibby: It’s more on a case-by-case basis? Do you decide that at the beginning? Do you start with your story?
Meg: I start with an idea of what I want to write about. In the case of The Female Persuasion, it was what happens to female power? What about the person you might meet who sees something in you and changes your life? Also, making meaning in the world and misogyny, all these things were swirling. I just start writing. I saw this young woman at college. She has this experience where she's groped by a frat brother at a party. She doesn't know, is this thing that happened to me legitimate? Should I just suck it up? Was it an assault? Her face goes hot. She doesn't know. She needs to find out how to think about it from this famous feminist who’s three steps down in fame from Gloria Steinem who comes to speak at her college, who was famous in the seventies. That's how the characters and the story unrolled. I didn't really know where it was going to go.
Zibby: Do you outline anything? When you start a book, what does your desk look like? Tell me a little more about the process.
Meg: I start writing just knowing only what I said. I’ll write about eighty pages. I say eighty pages because that's enough so that you can feel you've accomplished something. It’s not so much that if you end up putting it aside because you don't really know what to do with it after eighty pages, you're not going to feel like your life has been ruined. Then I start to look at not what I wanted to do, but what in fact I ended up actually doing. There's often a really big difference between the grandiose fantasy of the first attempt and what you end up doing. That's the point at which I do start to make something of what I call an emotional outline. It’s not really that plot based, but it does include very important things like this is the chapter where she feels alone. I then start to look at it. For me, outlines are like EpiPens. You may never need one, but it’s good to know that you have them. I always see it that way. I only sometimes will look at that outline.
Zibby: I have EpiPens all over my house. I outline everything I do. [laughs]
Meg: Great. That sounds like a good plan.
Zibby: That's the kind of person I am. I read, by the way, in this New York Magazine article on you, you play competitive Scrabble. I thought that was the coolest. I'm obsessed with Scrabble. Then I ended up ordering the board you recommended, the SamTimer acrylic board you mention in the article. Thank you for improving my home.
Meg: Scrabble is so great. I actually wrote a middle grade book for young readers called The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman about kids who play competitive Scrabble. It has some Scrabble wordplay to solving a mystery of identity in the book, just saying without giving too much away. You can see that I love Scrabble so much. I’ll write a couple of paragraphs. Then when I feel that I can't go any further without having a little sorbet between courses, that sorbet will take the form of a Scrabble game online. I find it gets me thinking about language, the beauty of language, the way letters can jump around, how nimble they are. I'm so bad at numbers. Any number if you put in front of me -- it’s sort of terrible that I am this way. I grew up before the encouragement of girls in STEM fields. Letters and words are it for me. I used to create crossword puzzles with Jesse Green, who’s now one of the theater critiques for The New York Times. I just love words. I love wordplay.
Zibby: When I was in business school, someone talked about being a writer as starting a company but the product you're putting out is words. I feel like you're the consummate producer of words, if you want to look at it that way.
Meg: Awesome. I’ll take that.
Zibby: Did you always want to be an author? Tell me about how you got into this field to begin with.
Meg: Because my mother is a writer, as you know, she was very, very encouraging to me from a very early age. I would run home and want to show her short stories that I'd written in school. She was always very receptive to them. I loved writing. It was very important to me to write. It was my favorite thing to do. I used to make up short stories and a serial novel on the way to school. I had a serial novel about the heirs to the Kraft cheese fortune. You can see that I never published that one. There's a good reason for it. I did want to be a writer from an early age, absolutely.
Zibby: Aside from having a mother to show you the ropes a little or to role model for you, what do you think allowed you to -- there are lots of people who grow up wanting to be authors. Aside from talent, was there anything else do you feel like differentiated your journey to make you into a best-selling author?
Meg: I don't know. I read a lot. I've always read a lot. I think that all writers do. I had such a desire to do it. I'd be doing it anyway even if they didn't pay me. It was kind of a full-time thing for a long time anyway, in some way. In college, I wrote my first novel. I would sneak away from class. Sorry, Mom and Dad, who paid for that education. I did get a lot out of it. I would really sneak away from class because there wasn’t that much to differentiate the stuff coming in that I was reading and my desire to put stuff out. They all came from the same source, which isn't to say that my work was in the same category as the stuff I was reading. Just the act of generating was really connected to the act of taking in. It was very exciting to me to do both.
Zibby: What about the difference between your mom being a writer way back in her day versus now? Do you think that experiences allow women writers to flourish more? Obviously, it was harder back then. How does she contrast her experience to yours? I'm so interested in that dynamic.
Meg: It was very, very different. She had parents who did not encourage her to be a writer, who didn't think she even should go to college, that it wasn’t important for a girl to go to college. She didn't have a college education. She took a couple of college classes here and there and some art classes. She's pretty much an autodidact, whereas I had a mother who was like my full-time fiction butler. “May I see your short story, Meg?” Margaret, back then. That was just incredible. When I got older, she would show me her work. I'm joking about my fiction butler. It was more that we almost created a little writing workshop within the house when we were both working on things. We were both so happy to have that. That's an unusual situation even today, to have a parent or someone else in the family who is writing. Things have changed. It’s still an ongoing battle and struggle to have women's voices count in the same way that men’s do. I definitely know that's true. Who gets heard? Who gets authority? We have a president who speaking in a loutish voice and saying insulting things to women didn't stop him from getting to be where he is. It’s a long and ongoing path. Writers need to write the books they want to write and put them out there and never stop speaking.
Zibby: What has it been like for you having your novels adapted? What was it like having The Wife adapted and going to see it and being at the Oscars, that whole situation?
Meg: It was incredible. I had an earlier book made into the film This Is My Life, which was the first film Nora Ephron directed. Somebody asked me in an interview, “Aren’t you afraid of what they're going to do to your book?” I thought about it. I said, “My book’s on the shelf. Nothing's going to change that.” I've felt like if you admire the stuff that the people who want to do the adaptation have done and you feel that they are really earnest in desiring to do something new and exciting with your work, you can say to them, “Go do it.” It’s not going to affect your book. I was very, very fortunate to have such wonderful actors in Jonathan Pryce and of course Glenn Close playing the title character and the title role. That was a very exciting experience. The Oscars was tremendous. The scale was so big. I learned that there's an open bar at the Oscars. Who knew? You don't see anything like that when you're watching on TV as I did every other year. It was very exciting, sad when she didn't win, but beautiful and exciting all along.
Zibby: An honor to be nominated.
Meg: Oh, yeah. Goodness.
Zibby: Are you working on another book now?
Meg: Yes, I am. I'm more at the beginning of it. I don't really know how I would describe it yet. It definitely has to do with family to some degree. I'm pretty interested in that. The Female Persuasion is about an intergenerational relationship between a mentor and protégé as well as a boyfriend and girlfriend and friendship. The Interestings was about friendship. The Wife was about a marriage. This one looks at a family and what happens when you grow up. What does your family look like?
Zibby: That's fascinating. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?
Meg: I do, but it’s going to cost you extra. No, I'm kidding. One of the things I would say is to not be hard on yourself when things aren't going as you planned. I used to feel that way, hard on myself, when I wouldn't have a good writing day. It isn't that every day doesn't count. How's that for a double negative? Every day does count. We sometimes use days in different ways than we imagined. If it’s not going well, I might read something that I feel the writer was really excited when he or she was writing it. That is a different experience from generating something new. It might help you locate that excitement in your own work, that feeling of love that you first felt when you began writing it.
Zibby: What about advice for someone feeling like Jules or Greer on the outside looking in, not just as a twelve-year-old or a college student, but anyone who’s carrying that feeling around that you portray so well in your books?
Meg: Sometimes we feel that way, but to remember that everybody does feel that way. If everybody feels that way, then who are the ultimate insiders? It’s such a part of life to feel that way. Fiction is about, often, being an outsider. At the very worst, you can use it in your work regardless of what your work is. If you're an artist, you can certainly use it. To understand that we think about ourselves much more than other people think of us. This notion of being an outsider sometimes isn't really accurate. If you can explore it as a writer, you can see it from all different angles.
Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books” and sharing your experience with the listeners.
Meg: Thank you for having me. It seems like a wonderful thing that you're doing. I really appreciate it.
Zibby: Thanks. Take care.
Meg: You too. Bye-bye.