Adam Gopnik: Good evening. Now, let me make sure. I’m Adam Gopnik. It is wonderful to be back at–thank you. Thank you. It is wonderful to be back here at what is now the Sydney Goldstein Theater. Yes. Exactly. This is one of my favorite places in America to sit and talk, perform, do shtick, and generally enjoy myself tonight with a very dear friend who’s also a very remarkable writer.
I should tell you that we are here tonight, all of us here tonight, as a benefit for 826 Valencia. Exactly. That amazing universal literacy program, and this is particular night is a benefit for their college scholarship program. So thank you for coming and thank you for supporting that effort.
You know, one of the funny truths of life is that artists of note and repute and importance tend to exist in two forms at once, as their first names and as their last names, and you generally tend, if you know them by the last name, sometimes you’re lucky enough to get to know them by their first name.
Richard Avedon, the great photographer, who I last saw here, exactly 15 years ago in San Francisco just before he died, you knew as Avedon the austere maker of Roman-like portraits of the American power elite, but you also knew him as Dick if you were lucky enough to. As an impish Jewish father of generations of brisket-making adopted kids.
Sam Beckett, I’m told from reading his autobiographies, was always there as Beckett, the utter icon of stoicism and despair, but he was known to his friends always as Sam, a diffident and charming and entertaining Irishman.
With my guest tonight, it works fascinatingly, in my experience, in the reverse. I have known Meg for almost more than 35 years as a close friend. She and my wife Martha Parker have been best friend since they were 15 years old and met at Drama Camp in the Berkshires.
Meg and I came of age sort of as the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland of Cadet American literature in the 1980s, when I was an incompetent young editor, and she was a rising young novelist, and have known each other through all those years. And I have known Meg as an intimate friend all that time.
But I have also watched her become Meg Wolitzer, an American novelist, a novelist of enormous distinction and great originality, and a unique combination of wit and presence on the page.
One of the inspiring things about knowing Meg Wolitzer is to have watched her evolve from that very promising and precocious novelist who wrote her first novel, her first published novel, sleepwalking while still a student at Brown, into the powerful, original, audacious, courageous author of books like “The Wife.” I’m remembering the others. Books like “The Wife.” Thank you very much. “The Ten-Year Nap.” My own favorite of hers, “The Position.”
And now this remarkable book, “The Female”–the, sorry, “The Female Persuasion.” I always say “The Feminine Persuasion” and she reminds me that it’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
Would you welcome please tonight, my dear friend Meg and the remarkable novelist, Meg Wolitzer.
So we have truly, Meg, known each other for more than 35 years since we were kids, starting out in literary world. Do you remember the first time we met?
Meg Wolitzer: Yes, I do. Yes, I do. You were the editor of a friend of mine.
Adam Gopnik: That’s right.
Meg Wolitzer: And it was at the Mary Boone Gallery when you were meeting that client of yours, who was a writer, and you said, “my wife was friends with you at camp.” And I said, “oh who’s your wife?” thinking it was just one of many Jennifers that I went to camp with. And you said “Martha Parker,” and I said “Martha Parker? She was like my best friend!” And Adam said, “let’s go surprise her now.” And we went running through the streets of Soho, and I was reunited with my camp friend and we’ve not been apart ever–
Adam Gopnik: since! You have not spent a day apart ever since. And, when you–at that point you were just in the process of publishing your second novel, you were just publishing “Hidden Pictures.” I’d love to walk with you a little bit, Meg, through your books, because I think your career as an exemplar of what it is to be an American writer has been conducted with enormous dignity and this extraordinary ability to be totally impatient with what you’ve done before and do something different next time around.
But first if you would, Meg, tell, I think most people probably know that your mother Hilma Wolitzer was a distinguished novelist of the 1970s. And I’ve always been fascinated by what it was like to grow up with a novelist in the house. And especially because, when I read your stuff Meg, I’m always struck by this kind of a double consciousness–on the one hand, the kids, the “yous” in the book very often, see themselves as kind of suburban innocents coming from outside. And I know that was part of your life and you were brought up in Syosset, right, which you always have something very interesting to say about– it’s the meaning of that name.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, nah. I’m done with that.
Adam Gopnik: You’re done with that joke. I love that joke. It’s the ancient Indian word for exit 24.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah.
Adam Gopnik: That’s a great line. But, so you, at the same time, your mother was a remarkable novelist. Author of many terrific books. What was that like?
Meg Wolitzer: Well, my mother is 89, and she hadn’t had a full college education. Her parents didn’t really think it was important for the three daughters to go to college, or at least for her, and she was someone who had a real instinctive sense about fiction. I grew up–everybody else’s mother was, you know, either housewife like my mother or a travel agent. Bonnie’s mother was a travel agent. And my mother began to write.
And I would leave for school in the morning and she’d be sitting there in her bathrobe at the old–you remember those old typewriters, that electric typewriter that was like as loud as a truck, and she would use white out and it was like doing needlepoint or scrimshaw, you know, it was like craft, like a close-up craft, and I would come home at the end of the day and she’d still be sitting there in the same position.
I thought, I don’t want to do that. But I did do it. I think you know, my mother taught me really everything I know about writing. I mean she–and I–.
Adam Gopnik: Your mother was a naturally elegant stylist. That’s the striking thing about her writing. She was like an American minimalist before there were American minimalists.
Meg Wolitzer: It’s amazing. She has this natural voice. Esquire published a few of her stories in the 70s and they’re really extraordinary. Her first story that she ever published, to give you a sense of her mindset, it was 1966 I think. It was–do you remember the old Saturday Evening Post, this era when magazines would publish–on one page they’d have a sort of Jell-O mold, on the other page a short story by Joyce Carol Oates. This was this wonderful golden age of magazines. Her first short story–and she was a housewife in Syosset–was called “Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.”
And I really think she would have gone mad if she hadn’t found an outlet for her art. She was filled with language. Her head was, I think she said, mobbed with characters. And she was able to just get the kind of desperation of this young suburban mother. It was brilliant. Really, she’s done brilliant work. And I had a very very close relationship and still do with her. But around notions of fiction she was never discouraging or made me feel that’s not going to work out.
And in fact, I gave a reading somewhere and during the Q&A a woman stood up and said, “my daughter wants to be a playwright, and I know how hard it is for playwright to make it, what should I tell her?” And I said, “well is she talented?” And she said, “oh, yeah, absolutely.” And I said, “is she burning to do this?” And she said, “yes,” and I thought about it and I said, “I think you should tell her that’s wonderful, because the world will whittle your daughter down, but a mother never should.” And my mother never did.
Adam Gopnik: That’s–and I would imagine too. Yes, I think that’s beautiful. We should.
I would imagine too, Meg, in the sense, it made it available for you, the idea of being a writer, being a novelist. Martha, who has known you since you were 15, says there was never a time when you didn’t want to be a writer. When you were not directed to be a writer.
Meg Wolitzer: It’s true. Although the summer when I met Martha, we were at this, you know, Performing Arts camp, and I wanted to be an actress that one summer. And I was so terrible, no matter what play I was in, be it a Lorca drama, you know, or, you know, Beckett, whatever it was. I had one voice and one voice only. My Katharine Hepburn voice. I would say “mother, mother, where are you? Where are you mother?” It could be a Neil Simon comedy. That was it. I had such narrow range, it was incredible.
Adam Gopnik: Well so did Katharine Hepburn if you think about it.
Meg Wolitzer: Well, and I wanted to– but it’s funny when I think about my acting, and I did write about this experience in “The Interestings,” my acting was sort of a stand-in for wanting to be in the world of making something, I think. And I mean I would carry around books, like pretentious books with the cover sticking out so you could see what I was reading, but only some of the letters, so it would say “The Magic Mounta–,” you know, it wouldn’t say the whole title of “The Magic Mountain,” and I wanted to be in the world of art somehow and the springboard was acting.
And then writing–I mean, I started keeping a journal around then and I wrote in it very diligently and these, you know, I thought maybe I would be like the Long Island version of the Bloomsbury group someday, and they’d publish my journal, so I had to start keeping it you know.
Adam Gopnik: Put a blue plaque on the house.
Meg Wolitzer: Exactly, the blue plaque on 11 Ann Drive where I grew up, yes.
Adam Gopnik: Ann Drive?
Meg Wolitzer: A-N-N, it didn’t even have an E, it was very sad, but. And I would start writing in my journal, “today I watched Bewitched,” you know, it was like that. And then, after a while, I forgot to write in the journal, and months passed, and I thought oh, no, what if I become this, you know distinguished writer. So I went back–this is true–on every page that I hadn’t written something on, I wrote “nothing happened. Nothing happened.”
Adam Gopnik: To indicate a state of existential despair, just to explain the blank passages to your biographer.
Meg Wolitzer: Explain the blank passages. That’s right. To my biographer. Yes.
But I got very excited about writing. I was I think, you know work to me is such a deep tonic. I feel when I’m writing, and it doesn’t even have to be going well, but when I am working I am engaged fully. And there may be anxiety about the work, but that more diffuse anxiety is not present. Are you that way, do you feel that way?
Adam Gopnik: Yes, I do actually and I think that’s one of the things that makes us both productive writers, in large part, is we only feel wholly intact when we’re actually, when we’re writing. I think that’s something we’ve often shared.
Meg Wolitzer: So we’re broken right now.
Adam Gopnik: Writing or performing. Doing shtick is the alternative.
Meg Wolitzer: Doing shtick. That’s right.
Adam Gopnik: The alternative. But talk a bit about “Sleepwalking.” You were all of 22 when you–
Meg Wolitzer: 21 when I wrote it.
Adam Gopnik: 21 when you wrote it. You were a student at Brown. Now everybody starts a novel in college, but you actually finished it.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah.
Adam Gopnik: And it’s still is an immensely interesting book, with one of the most wonderful first sentences.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, thank you. Now
Adam Gopnik: In fiction which was
Meg Wolitzer: “They talked about death as if it were a country in Europe.” This idea–well, it–.
Adam Gopnik: It was a book about these, about undergraduates who are obsessed with Sylvia Plath and the cult of suicide and so on.
Meg Wolitzer: But they’re really obsessed with their own mortality. I mean, it’s that moment when you realize and really start having those existential thoughts. So there’s a little bit of play around it.
But it’s a, you know, it’s a sort of melancholy book too. It doesn’t have a big humor in it. But it’s–I don’t sit around reading my old books, but I’ve had cause to read old books, recently I had to look at “The Wife,” and I actually was glancing at “Sleepwalking” recently too, and I’ll see a line and I’ll recognize myself. It doesn’t feel like a stranger wrote it.
Adam Gopnik: No it doesn’t, it seems like you. But that–let me leap ahead for a moment, Meg, cause you said something interesting there. Because I think it’s part of the tension in your art. You are naturally, if I may say, a very funny person. You are one of the three or four funniest people I know.
Meg Wolitzer: Who are the others?
Adam Gopnik: Well, let’s see now. Mark Twain, Philip Roth. Let me think. A few others. But, and in your writing there’s always been a kind of tension between being that person, that entertainer, and being another kind of artist, in being Virginia Woolf in another way.
Meg Wolitzer: I wrestle with it I think. Because you know, Nora Ephron, who was a great friend of mine and–.
Adam Gopnik: Kind of mentor in a–
Meg Wolitzer: And a mentor in a lot of ways. For her there wasn’t this distinction. I mean she wrote fabulous essays, they were witty. What I tell my students when I teach is, what do your friends know you as? Like, who are you among your group of friends?
And if when you write, that isn’t in there, I’m not saying that’s always a problem, but I would ask that person why? Why are you not breathing the fullest version of yourself into your work, using everything you’ve got? And for me some of that is humor.
There’s a line actually in my new novel, “The Female Persuasion,” that I wish I could have shown to Nora because–it’s not that I think it’s so brilliant, but it’s a kind of humor that I think I got from her.
There’s a moment where my character Greer Kadetsky is looking back on her childhood and she was very very shy. And she couldn’t ask for what she needed, so she was sort of stuck with the weird girl in the class sitting beneath the whiteboard eating Pringles. And they’re sitting there one day and the weird girl says to her, “do you ever think about poisoning our teacher?” And Greer says no, and the weird girl says, “yeah, neither do I.”
And I–but the thing about that line is that it isn’t just a funny line. It goes a distance to showing, you know, the whole sense of a person. Not the girl, but the one who had to sit with her, and what that would have felt like. And it creates a world, humor creates a world.
But I do feel that tension, and I don’t even talk about it very often, but you and I have talked about this, because we want our writers to have gravitas on the page, and get up and be funny. But what if they use their whole selves and it was funny too, does that make them less serious? Some people think it does.
Adam Gopnik: Well, you know, mentioning, you know, the late and much missed Philip Roth, of course struggled with that throughout his career and then finally said fuck it and broke it in two.
But that makes me want to leap at–leaping past your second novel, “Hidden Pictures,” just for a moment. Because there was a moment in your work it seems to me when, particularly when you wrote “This is Your Life,” which is a novel that actually Nora adapted as a film, the first time you had a book of yours adapted as a movie.
When that was becoming part of your work you actually did a little stand-up gig around that book, when you were drawn to, and it’s something we’ve shared for a long time, the urge to entertain. I did my one man show here last year, and I know you’ve always been drawn to that side of things. And that was very forward in your work for a period there.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, I this is a novel–the film that was made of it was called “This is My Life,” with Julie Kavner as a stand-up comic and her two daughters.
Adam Gopnik: Was the copyright where you couldn’t call it.
Meg Wolitzer: I know, there was a copyright issue around, even though titles for literature are public domain, there was a copyright issue because of the old TV show.
Adam Gopnik: Right. This is his life. This is her life. Right.
Meg Wolitzer: But you know, it’s a tender book too I think. It’s not I don’t–humorous novels mostly, I don’t know, like there are some that are absolutely wonderful, but they’re usually other things too. Like Roth, the work is so many things. So it’s not like adjectivally you’re only hitting on humorous.
Adam Gopnik: Right. But that’s a book about a comedian, actually, but it’s really about two sisters.
Meg Wolitzer: It’s about two sisters whose mother, who have a mother who’s not quite available, because she’s trying to make it as a stand-up comic. And I know “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which I haven’t seen, but. She’s trying to make it, so it’s a family story. It’s a story about women and work and motherhood and all of those things, but her comedy is not necessarily that funny. Like her name was Dottie Engels and she wore dots. I mean that–to give a sense of the aesthetic. So.
Adam Gopnik: But it was also a portion of a particular moment in American comedy. Kind of Phyllis Diller moment.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh definitely, the Phyllis Diller moment, the housewife, self-deprecating housewife moment, absolutely.
I love good comedy. I adore it. As do you. And I–a line that nails something in a novel and just gets it right is thrilling to me.
Adam Gopnik: Well those of us who were your readers felt, I think felt that you were sort of trying on the different costumes in the room at that point. You had tried on “Sleepwalking,” a kind of art novel of a kind, and then in “This is Your Life,” a comic novel of another kind. “Hidden Pictures” dealt with erotic themes in lots of ways.
And then you wrote “The Wife” and I had this very strong sense that you had arrived with that book, that you had really found yourself with that book. It’s almost as though you had a conversation with a friend who said…
Meg Wolitzer: This is a set up. So I visited Adam and Martha in Paris, where Adam was, where they were living and Adam was writing “Paris to the Moon,” and they took me out for this wonderful lunch at Le Grand Vefour, and I said to my dear friends something along these lines: I’m frustrated with how I’m writing, because the things I like to read feel so different from the things I’m writing. How can I reconcile them?
And Adam and Martha were just so, well useful. I mean the main thing. But really I think what good writer friends can do is they listen and they listen for what you want to do. Not what they–they don’t impose something.
Adam Gopnik: They can embolden you. That’s the, I think maybe the one thing friends can do, other writer friends can do.
Meg Wolitzer: Yes, they emboldened me, and made me feel it wouldn’t be crazy to try to sort of push it further. Because I think I was hesitant at that time, and…
Adam Gopnik: And the idea of “The Wife,” which I think you had in your head already at that point too, seems so audacious the–.
Meg Wolitzer: Well first of all, it’s a first-person book. I don’t know if–has anyone here read “The Wife”?
Adam Gopnik: Or seen the recent movie adaptation of it.
Meg Wolitzer: Alright, so now well.
Adam Gopnik: You can give it away.
Meg Wolitzer: I’m going to have to ask the rest of you to leave. The thing with “The Wife” is that mostly I had written these third-person books that had a little bit of lyricism and a little bit of humor. But this was a first person really pissed off funny voice, of a woman whose husband is a famous mid century novelist. A bloated male novelist of the kind who is described as getting his personal hygiene from the Dylan Thomas Handbook of etiquette and hygiene, or something like that. She really lays into him. She’s in a rage at him. It was writing about rage. And so much humor of course is rageful, anger.
I had to write in first person. It had to be angry about this man and more generally perhaps about men. It had to know a lot. It had to be brainy and funny and have a kind of engine that didn’t stop, rather than, I think at other times, you’re aware with fiction of the pauses. And now you have a section, and now you stop and you go, you know, you’re quiet for a while. This book isn’t quiet.
Adam Gopnik: No, not at all. It’s noisy, it’s aggressive, and it’s a feminist book too. It’s the first overtly feminist book I think in your work. Right.
Meg Wolitzer: I think so. So I really was very excited writing that, because when you’re writing and you don’t feel something holding you back–whether it’s the idea of what will people think about it, or will they like it, can I do it–when you don’t think about that you can write in a stronger way.
Adam Gopnik: As many of you know, it took a long time to happen, but “The Wife” was just made into a very successful movie with Glenn Close, who just got an Oscar nomination. Playing Meg’s creation. Watching the movie, I don’t–have any of you seen the movie–one of the things that struck me, though it’s a very successful movie on its own somewhat Swedish terms, it lacks the hard edge of irony that you brought to it, which was in part I think, a function of your having observed that kind of bloated male novelist of your mother’s generation for a very long time.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, I mean when you sell your book to be made into a movie, I feel like you know, I always say sort of, you know, go with God, do what you do.
Somebody asked me once, aren’t you afraid of what they’re going to do to your book? And I said, well my book’s on the shelf, you know, they can do what they want. I mean, we do have a Swedish director and it–I never would have thought growing up in Syosset, someday I’ll have a Swedish director.
You know, I have one voice and that’s it. The child voice. Which I entertain my friends with.
Adam Gopnik: And the Katharine Hepburn.
Meg Wolitzer: And the Katharine Hepburn voice, I have two voices.
Adam Gopnik: The 15 year old doing Katharine Hepburn.
Meg Wolitzer: And now, Katharine Hepburn is a child.
I think that one of the things that I really was so excited about with the film was looking at character, because I’m very interested in how we as writers come up with character–well Glenn– it’s so much of it, of her portrayal is really about what she doesn’t say and is in her face. And now we have a Swedish director and he’s shooting her in a different way that doesn’t quite necessarily even look like an American film, it looks you know.
Adam Gopnik: Like a Bergman.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, and I’m fascinated by that, because I love thinking, how do you get the character? How do you get the character? So it’s been a very pleasurable experience for me, just, but it was it was 14 years in the making and the book came out 15 years ago. So I never expected that to happen.
Adam Gopnik: It’s wonderful, now you have a movie edition.
Meg Wolitzer: I have a movie tie-in edition.
Adam Gopnik: A movie tie-in. So you’d agree. “The Wife” was the first book in which Meg Wolitzer was fully on the page.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah. Absolutely. I think before then, I feel like I don’t know what’s in those books. So use them to hide flasks. I don’t know, you know. No, I mean I like them, but there, but I was figuring out what I really cared about. Where the imperative was. And I think it’s always about imperative. Don’t you?
Adam Gopnik: Absolutely. I also think, what you said a moment ago, I think is is profoundly true, which is that every writer has a literary voice and an actual voice and we both know some writers, the literary voice and the actual voice overlap nearly perfectly, they’re very much the same person continuously. And others are as radically unlike the person they are in the page in life is they can possibly be. But I do think that that moment when you recognize, the person I actually am likes to talk about these things, is obsessed with these subjects, is the moment when you begin to.
Meg Wolitzer: That’s it. Yeah, that–become the writer that you really want to be. There’s a lot, there’s a wonderful essay by Zadie Smith called “Fail Better,” and in it she says, “when I write I’m trying to express my way of being in the world.” And that’s it. It’s–what is your way of being in the world? Like, how do you see the world?
And it’s not that all your characters will see the world the way you do, but there is a superimposition of this sensibility. And to get that so that you can slip in and out, you can go into your character Joan Castleman’s voice, you can go into the–you can move. It’s like, I don’t think it’s like being God. I think it’s like being a lesser God. It’s a limited God.
Adam Gopnik: Very yes.
Meg Wolitzer: Very small.
Adam Gopnik: A little God, a little God. Yes. No, I think that’s true, and you inhabit, I mean, as a novelist you inhabit people. Essayists are the same person growing older, and thinner of hair.
Meg Wolitzer: But it’s a modest thing, I mean, I think when it’s a big God it has that bloated Joe Castleman quality.
Adam Gopnik: Joe Castleman is the the fraudulent writer in “The Wife,” beautifully played by Jonathan Pryce.
Meg Wolitzer: He’s amazing. Yeah, they’re both absolutely beautiful in the movie.
Adam Gopnik: In the movie. After “The Wife” and the success of “The Wife,” the artistic success of “The Wife,”–just to add one, you know, one more thing to what we were saying just now, I think that that’s profoundly true, that you always feel the presence of the fully inhabited presence of a writer on the page.
And another thing that I think divides writers, and it’s odd because I practice as a critic a lot, from necessity and pleasure, is that one mistake critics I always think make about writers is that they sort of say, well this book is successful, and this book is not.
And though it’s true that we have different responses to different books, if you are engaged with the presence of a particular writer on the page, you know, as a writer yourself, that nobody works less hard or is less engaged with one book than the next. That you enjoy the presence of that particular person on the page.
I’m always sort of baffled by people who say you know, this was a successful book and this not, because I just like the presence of the Meg Wolitzer…
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah it’s not about plot. It’s the feeling of being dipped in that person’s sensibility. It’s like a marinade of some sort.
Adam Gopnik: Yes. And quickly, before we go into the things–who are the people you marinade in most often?
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, well actually–Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth. A novel that I’ve written about and love so much and have learned everything from is “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan Connell. The great novel that is–I’m sure many of you know, and is funny and sad in sort of equal parts and there’s no–again, they’re not like kept separate like meat and potatoes on the plate.
What’s funny is sad. What’s sad is funny. It’s a story of a woman’s life, a Kansas City housewife, before World War Two. It was published in 1959. And it’s just a series of vignettes about her life and they add up, there’s an accretion, a cataloging of her life. And she’s limited not only by her place in society as a woman in that time, but by her own intellectual limitations and emotional limitations. And it’s heartbreaking. I go to that book again and again.
I love “Dubliners.” I love Nora Ephron. Toni Morrison.
Adam Gopnik: It’s so interesting to me. If you notice, as you list these things you capture exactly the the animating tension in your work right? It’s Virginia Woolf, [UI] sensibility, and Philip Roth, right? Jewish aggression. It’s James Joyce and it’s Nora Ephron. Both of those things are constantly…
Meg Wolitzer: James Joyce and Nora Ephron used in the same sentence. Great. I love it.
Adam Gopnik: The next couple of books you did, or some of the next couple of–“The Position” and “The Uncoupling,” were very–had strongly erotic themes, right? Which was also surprising for your readers. So when you address them that aggressively. “The Position”–
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, it’s–did you want to say what it was about or–?
Adam Gopnik: No, you say what it’s–as the kids say, you tell ’em.
Meg Wolitzer: You wrote it. Right.
Yeah, so it’s about four adult children whose parents, back in the 70s, wrote a kind of “Joy of Sex” book using pictures of themselves as the models. And it was called “Pleasuring: One Couple’s Journey to Fulfillment.”
And my son, who’s here tonight in the audience, said to me once, I think you write novels so that you can come up with the names of books, rock bands, and restaurants within them. And he probably is right actually. But it’s really–.
Adam Gopnik: You love to come up with titles, too. Unattached to books.
Meg Wolitzer: Yes, titles unattached to books, and you know you’ll plug them in somewhere.
Adam Gopnik: Right, just last night.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah. Oh, a maple syrup company, do you mean that? Oh yeah, an artisinal maple syrup company called “A Sap”? I’m going to put that in something. I’m going to use that, so you can–.
Adam Gopnik: Also you came up with a great name for a Hitchcockian thriller.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh right, a thriller called “Quiet Car.” Yeah, it all takes place in a silent Amtrak car, like a locked-room mystery.
Adam Gopnik: Locked-room mysteries, one by one all the people get–.
Meg Wolitzer: As we’re saying this and we’re laughing, but I’m thinking, you know, I want to write so much, and you start to think of, how much time have I got?
I mean, but when you start a novel, it’s such a big project. You’re going to be–or a book of any kind. You’re going to be living with it for a long time. When I was young I didn’t think that way. You know, it’s like running through the field of your writing life.
Adam Gopnik: So you feel you’ve become more selective as you get older just because you don’t have an unlimited number of books.
Meg Wolitzer: Right. I don’t. I have 23 more.
Adam Gopnik: Nearly. But talk a bit, Meg, because both those books “Position” and “Uncoupling” were–“Uncoupling” is sort of retelling of
Meg Wolitzer: It’s a Lysistrata story. I felt–
Adam Gopnik: Women refuse to have sex with their husbands on
Meg Wolitzer: But it was really a kind of riff on sort of middle-aged women and loss of desire. And had a little fantastical theme running through it. My feeling about–.
Adam Gopnik: Guess it was the closest to kind of magical realist you’ve ever done.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, and will do. My feeling about out writing about sex is that it’s you know, it’s part of life. It’s part of people’s lives. And yet when people write about sex, there’s the strangeness. Either they need for it to be a hush of some sort–. A famous writing teacher, and I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, so I’m not going to say this person’s name–but a famous writing teacher might or might not have said that there are two words you should never use in–.
Adam Gopnik: Oh he said that. No, he said that.
Meg Wolitzer: He did? In fiction.
Adam Gopnik: Yeah he said that.
Meg Wolitzer: Thighs and restaurant. Now,
Adam Gopnik: That was Gordon Lish, said that.
Meg Wolitzer: Okay, and I didn’t hear the follow-up as to why, but I tried to understand why.
Adam Gopnik: Well he had written that book, you know, “Ordering Thighs at a Restaurant,” and the Times had attacked it, and that was about it.
Meg Wolitzer: So here’s what I thought.
Adam Gopnik: It was very personal thing.
Meg Wolitzer: Right. If you write a scene in a restaurant, you probably will feel compelled to sort of make the scene smaller. There are niceties you might need to put in it, you know–menus, please, may we have the check?–and it’s like the dullest language of the ordinary. And if you write thighs, can creamy or parted be far behind?
Adam Gopnik: Or immediately in my head.
Meg Wolitzer: Right. And my feeling is that everything that you put into a novel, into a scene in a novel, is a way of creating almost like a bouillon cube concentrate of these people’s lives. Novels don’t take place on one particular day. They take place on a concentrate of that day. And I think sex is a great way to show a million things.
It’s a way to show the way people are with each other, the way they wish they were with each other, their awkwardness, their history, so many things. And I just felt that maybe in my desire to write my full, you know to write with the full weight that I could, that there shouldn’t be things that I would shy away from.
I once did a panel with a couple of writers and afterward this young woman writer came up to the other people on the panel and said, “how can you”–and she was referring to sex–“how can you write about the things you do? I know that I have to see the parents at my kids school in the morning.” And I thought, if you’re going to not write about things for people you might not even like, what are you doing?
So I guess I felt that it was a great way to show a concentrate of things. To really raise the stakes, and put things in the kind of small sphere of the bedroom.
Adam Gopnik: I think that you’re absolutely right. I think that the Gordon Lish remark about restaurant sort of put me in mind of something that James Wood once said about Saul Bellow. He said, “there’s never a moment in a Saul Bellow book where someone says, pass the tea.” In other words, that home was–just what you’re saying–that home business of sort of the manners, right, is taken out, so you can leap into the intense psychology of all those Jewish losers, in that.
Meg Wolitzer: I feel like, the stuff that’s not gonna be anyone’s favorite part–why is it in there? Novels are kind of like Jenga Towers, you know, if you can take it out and it still stands, take it out. You know, “she said smiling.” Or the worst, that I find myself doing is, you know, “he paused.” No, what does that mean?
It’s like you just want to get, you want a breath before the next sentence. It’s kind of like breaths in music. I used to play the flute as a child. But there needs to be something else there, that’s not the dullness of life, but something that enriches it, if you’re going to have space.
Adam Gopnik: You know this story right, but it speaks to this, is that I wrote a children’s book, an adventure novel called “The King in the Window,” for my son Luke, and he was about 8 years old when I was writing it, and I started reading it to him and I said you have to understand, this isn’t like your usual bedtime story, I actually think I may publish this. So give me your honest appraisal of it.
And after I read the first bedtime story, you just got to listen to, you’re condemned. And after I’d read the first, I don’t know, 30 pages, he said “Dad,” he said, “it’s good. It’s good,” he said. “Could you just bring the cool bits closer together?”
And I went in the next day and I reported to David Remnick, in fact, I said, “I think I have solved all editing problems. All any editor ever has to say to a writer is, ‘it’s good. Could you just bring the cool bits closer together?'” And that’s basically what we do.
Meg Wolitzer: It’s true. It’s really true. But I think that’s what–what you’re really talking about is revision. And what revision can do is make you remember that. I think I mean, I think when I start writing a novel, every novel is a grandiose fantasy, right? You are beginning with this notion that this is the book of so many things.
This is the book of my childhood. This is the book of sex. This is the book of that summer at camp. So many things. And then when you print it out, the first draft, you look–you have to kind of deal with the sadness of not what you wanted to write, but what you have written. And I think that’s the point, that the cool bits get moved together a bit more.
Adam Gopnik: You said something very, I thought, helpful once about knowing you have a book or not. How far you have to go?
Meg Wolitzer: Oh yes, the 80 page plan?
Adam Gopnik: Yes.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh yes, which I will give to you tonight for a small fee. What I like to do, when I write a novel is have an idea–like with “The Female Persuasion,” I was thinking about female power and misogyny and mostly, I think, the notion of the person you might meet who sees something in you and changes you. And that’s all I knew. And I started writing. And characters sort of arrived to kind of say, I’ll take those themes.
And I believe in writing for about 80 pages, and I say 80 pages because it’s enough pages that you can feel pretty good about what you have, but if you put it aside, it’s not so much that you feel, I’ve wasted my life. And then you print it out and look at, as I said, what you have done. I usually kind of put it in another font, which is a great writers trick. It looks so much better in Palatino. It’s like a new book.
Adam Gopnik: I never thought about that.
Meg Wolitzer: You won’t believe it.
Adam Gopnik: Like you put it in Egyptian Gothic, or one of those strange faces that nobody ever goes to.
Meg Wolitzer: You’ve been staring at Times New Roman for two years.
Adam Gopnik: Right.
Meg Wolitzer: And now it’s like a facelift.
Adam Gopnik: Someone else wrote it.
Meg Wolitzer: Someone else wrote it, it’s amazing. And you get to edit it. But at that point I will edit it.
Adam Gopnik: You shouldn’t give this stuff away.
Meg Wolitzer: I know, I am really giving a lot of stuff away. The Katharine Hepburn, everything.
Adam Gopnik: That’s fascinating. So–.
Meg Wolitzer: But I think that that really kind of works.
Adam Gopnik: Have you ever–actually I’ve never actually asked you this. Have you ever put something aside for good after 80 pages?
Meg Wolitzer: Yes. Actually I did. In fact, that’s how I wrote “The Wife.” So I don’t even know if you remember this. I started writing a novel about Freud’s patient Dora.
Oh, yes, I do remember this now.
And it was funny. What happened– I even went to Vienna. Oh, it was during the Paris trip. I went off to Vienna, and I realized in writing about Freud’s patient Dora, sort of from her perspective, I couldn’t particularly be funny, at least the way I was seeing it, and I felt kind of corseted myself.
So when I wrote “The Wife,” I sort of let it rip. And I was freed by having done this other thing. It’s like the joke with the rabbi saying put all the animals in the house.
Adam Gopnik: Bring the goat in.
Meg Wolitzer: Bring the goat in then you take them out. And then you can.
Adam Gopnik: Not a pig, they don’t have any–.
Meg Wolitzer: Be liberated, right. So yeah, I did put that aside and it’s very hard to put things aside. Because you feel like, what did I do? Did I waste my time? But I think that everything again, that one led to this one. And Glenn Close is Oscar nominated. So there we are.
Adam Gopnik: “The Position” and “The Uncoupling,” also both, and it’s something that came up a moment ago too, and let’s, and it’s very much part of “The Female Persuasion,” of course, but let’s talk about it now.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the feminist side of your work, but also I think it’s fair to say, as your readers realized, your increasing awareness of your own role as a woman writer. You wrote very, with unusual polemical audacity about why you hated the idea of Chick Lit at a time when it was a proverbial expression.
Meg Wolitzer: Well, I wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review called “The Second Shelf,” which was kind of a pun on “The Second Sex,” and it was really about the ways in which male literary writers and female literary writers were treated differently. And I opened it with an–.
Adam Gopnik: The pink cover was one of the–.
Meg Wolitzer: The pink cover, right. With the martini cup, right. Martini glass. Martini cup, that’s like summer camp kind of thing, I guess. Collapsible martini cup.
And I opened with an anecdote that had happened. I was at a party and a man heard that I was a writer. And he asked me the worst question that you can ever ask a writer, so please never ask a writer this. “Would I have heard of you?”
Adam Gopnik: Really, you said, “hi I’m Meg Wolitzer,” and he said, “would I have heard of you?”
Meg Wolitzer: Would I have heard of you?
But there’s actually only really one great answer to that question. If someone asks a writer would I have heard of you, the good answer is: “in a more just world.”
So he’s–would I have heard of you, and what do you write about, and then I started sort of naming the things that I wrote about–marriage, sexuality, sex, family, children–and his eyes were rolling up in his head, and he said to me, “oh, you should talk to my wife. She’s interested in that.”
And I felt this deep pang that never fully went away.
Adam Gopnik: And then you went and talked to Melania.
Meg Wolitzer: Can you imagine Trump reading fiction? Like I try to imagine the most absurd thing. Like picture his night table with Alice Munro stories on it.
Adam Gopnik: “The Moons of Jupiter,” right?
Meg Wolitzer: Right, it’s just like, it makes no sense.
Adam Gopnik: The sensitive articulation. And sort of the articulation of the feminine psyche and those things.
Meg Wolitzer: But I felt–well one of the things that I talked about in this essay was the way books look, because you brought that up. And I basically joked about, but was quite serious about, how sometimes a book by a man would have like giant letters and a, you know, bold cover, which suggested to the reader, this book is an event. Whereas books by women often had covers that I called “little girl in a field of wheat.”
And you could not imagine two men–picture them on a train platform. “Hey Bill, what’s that you’re reading? Little Girl in a Field of Wheat. I loved it. I read the sequel, Little Girl in a Field of Rye.”
These books are, they’re selecting who the reader should be. Whereas I think fiction, literature sort of should be welcoming to everyone. And I think that it also follows down the path of what will happen to a book if it looks a certain way. When it’s picked up by an editor at a book review, even if it’s absolutely wonderful and lyrical, beautiful, important–will it be seen a certain way and passed along?
And “women’s fiction,” that category, if you go into stores, you can find Jane Austen and Jacqueline Susann–boy, that is the oldest reference in the world. I gotta do better than Jacqueline Susann. Who’s like a, you know, I don’t, you know commercial–writers who are very commercial?
Adam Gopnik: Danielle Steel.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, Danielle Steel and Jane Austen, both are women’s fiction in some sections. And as though–.
Adam Gopnik: Jacqueline Susann was actually a sort of interesting writer.
Meg Wolitzer: She really was, I know. I know, I’m sorry, to–yeah, anyway.
So yeah, I mean I felt that and I continue to feel that it’s still, it’s an ongoing thing. It’s amazing to me that after all this time we’re still talking about some of those same issues. But the organization VIDA did this amazing count that some of you may know about, where they looked at the number of women and men in important literary magazines and it was shocking. They did a pie chart. It was very male.
Adam Gopnik: All of your books since “The Wife” have had very bold graphic covers, I’ve noticed.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah.
Adam Gopnik: Is that something you–?
Meg Wolitzer: They’re scared of me. No, they’re not scared of me.
Adam Gopnik: All of my books by the way have little girls in field of wheat covers, if you may have noticed.
Meg Wolitzer: That’s true.
Adam Gopnik: That’s true. It’s not a joke.
Meg Wolitzer: And listen important great novels often, sometimes will have figurative covers, like the Elena Ferrante books certainly do, but that’s been described in some, you know, people have different feelings about that.
Adam Gopnik: Oh really, there are people who feel–
Meg Wolitzer: Who say they look like they’re–.
Adam Gopnik: Women’s fiction.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah. Yeah. I just don’t know what women’s fiction is. Whereas I do have a friend who’s a writer, a woman writer, and she said “I don’t care if you call my work women’s fiction, women read fiction in this country. If you want to call it that that’s fine.” She doesn’t mind.
Adam Gopnik: But you have made–that was another pivot moment, I think in your life as a writer.
Meg Wolitzer: When they started doing the big letters?
Adam Gopnik: When they started doing the big letters and the big name. But seriously, when you wrote that essay and decided to kind of be aggressive about that point.
Meg Wolitzer: I think what happened was they became sensitive to what I cared about and how I wanted my books to look.
I really–they don’t have to have these big letters, but they really need to be like beautiful books that you want to go into. For me, when I write a novel–and my editor Sarah McGrath, who I work very closely with and have worked with since “The Wife”–Sarah and I talk often about the immersive experience of the novel.
Why is it that you put some novels aside as a reader and you stay with others? I’m really interested in this sort of science of it. And there is no real science of it. Although when you’re in a store and you see someone picking up your book, your head whips around so fast. It’s like when you see your child with someone across a park, you’d recognize your child anywhere, you know?
But you see someone picking up your book and looking through it and if they put it back, I almost feel it’s kind of like the lyrics to “Beast of Burden”? Like, “ain’t I rich enough? Ain’t I rough enough? What do I have to do, lady?” But I think, I think–here’s the closest science that I can get to on that.
Adam Gopnik: You know, by the way, you know, your friend Martha always, when we’re in a bookstore, she takes your books out and puts them flush.
Meg Wolitzer: She does?
Adam Gopnik: Yes, she does, and lays them out horizontally so that you can just see the covers.
Meg Wolitzer: So making more work for the clerk later. Put them back down in the W to Z section at your feet. I was also in the W to Z homeroom as a child, filled with the weirdest names of the world.
Adam Gopnik: That’s a good title, the W to Z section.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, that is good.
Adam Gopnik: There’s a whole novel in that.
Meg Wolitzer: Ca-ching. Yes. Yes. But I think what it is, is that every reader asks of a book, why are you telling me this? And when a book doesn’t seem to answer that within a reasonable amount of time the reader may put it back. And that often isn’t just in the bookstore, but like a hundred pages and two hundred pages in. But it goes back to that notion of imperative.
And I think what changed with “The Wife,” it’s not just that it was nervy, it was an imperative. It was about an idea. It’s the first book, I think, that I started with that problem rather than with characters. I wanted to talk about male power and female complicity and the imperative is stated on every page, so that the chapters become sort of pocket versions of that larger idea.
Adam Gopnik: Yeah and the idea–which was in itself both utterly telling and truthful, and also stylized and implausible in some ways, I mean in the specifics–carried the whole book in a powerful way.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, and you can’t–thank you, I’m glad you think it did. It has to, right, the wind of the idea has to blow through the book.
Adam Gopnik: It’s a sort of–it’s almost like aerobics, isn’t it. There’s this certain moment in the book when the book just sort of takes off and you can’t, you don’t feel the author working at all.
Meg Wolitzer: No, I know. And there’s that moment in writing, that beautiful moment. Oh my god.
Adam Gopnik: Totally yes. Yes.
Meg Wolitzer: The high of writing.
Adam Gopnik: Yes it–I always say, it is uncannily like a form of mental aerobics because you know, there’s a moment, if you run, or if you ride a bike for half an hour, when suddenly you’re not making an effort, your aerobics actually kick in, and writers have moments like that too.
Meg Wolitzer: There’s such an excitement–I remember when I sold my first novel, I sold it to an editor at Random House for five thousand dollars, and I thought that money was going to last a really long time and I’m almost out now. And I got into the elevator in the old Random House building with my little–remember copy centers, where you buy your like–?
Adam Gopnik: Sure.
Meg Wolitzer: My book was short. And I got on so feeling that unbelievable high and pleasure. And a priest got on and he was carrying his manuscript and it was just unbound and it was about this high and it was sort of bound up with like thick rope. And he looked at me and he said, “Do they know you’re coming?” And I said, yes. He said “they don’t know I’m coming.”
And I was so filled with, I was just sort of running on the excitement of having written a novel and remembering what it felt like, even the work of it, I mean which, right, becomes not work, but then bleeds into the editing process and then the publishing process.
Adam Gopnik: I will say Meg, I think we, you and I, are–and one reason we’ve been friends for so long–are exceptions to that, cause we both genuinely love writing and never been–.
Meg Wolitzer: We were just talking about this, yeah.
Adam Gopnik: Not been blocked or made a fetish of the impossibility, you know.
Meg Wolitzer: No, I love to write, I love to work. I mean, it’s just, it’s like that, you know, stutterers singing idea, that some of them don’t stutter when singing I think.
Adam Gopnik: Yes, I stutter all the time except when writing. I want to get to “Female Persuasion,” but before I do, I want to move– because you arrive, as we were talking about, for your readers, as Meg Wolitzer, very much with that series of books: “The Wife,” “The Position,” “The Uncoupling.” And then you wrote “The Interestings.”
Meg Wolitzer: Yes.
Adam Gopnik: Your last book, which then, in this fascinating way to those of us who have followed your art and your career, became an enormous commercial success for the first time for you. And that–well tell us a bit about the genesis of that book.
Meg Wolitzer: That’s a setup line because I–. So I had gone to this wonderful summer camp in the summer of 1974, the summer that Richard Nixon resigned, and it was in the Berkshires, where I met Adam’s wife Martha who was not his wife yet.
And I was this unschooled girl from the suburbs, but I did have a mother who was unschooled, but also just had this amazing voice. I wanted to sing and act and write and do all these things and I was really unselfconscious. And I went to this camp and I met these really cool kids from New York City–Martha was from Montreal, she wasn’t from New York City–but they were…
There’s a line in “The Interestings”: “they were like movie stars or royalty with a touch of something papal.” And that’s how I saw them. They were everything that I was not.
And I started to think about this many many years later. Well Martha and I would always talk about this camp and bore Adam and my husband Richard’s death with all the stories. “Whatever happened to this one, whatever happened to that one?” And we would mention the one who played–.
Adam Gopnik: And you would actually do a very good impression of the drama teacher.
Meg Wolitzer: Yes. Oh who hated me. The drama teacher who loved Martha and hated me, would invite Martha to come sleep in her bed–not when she was there. To nap in the middle of the day, because Martha would get tired easily. Whereas I just couldn’t stop laughing in acting class and I would just get kicked out of acting class and I couldn’t stop laughing. But I loved being there so much because I felt like I was sort of waking up to everything.
And Martha and I talked about it over the years, but it wasn’t until my 50s that I realized I wanted to write about it. And I thought–I said to Martha, why didn’t I think to write about this book earlier, and I realized it was because it would have just been kind of one of those nostalgic summer books “That Firefly Summer,” you know. You know, “hey Jenny come to the bunk. I’ll meet you at the lake.” I mean no, it would not have been anything I would be interested in writing.
But what it became about–I mean, you always ask what is a novel about and what is it really about? So this novel was about a girl who goes to the summer camp, meets a group of friends, and in some sense or other stays friends with them or in touch with them for over 40 years.
But what it was really about was what happens to talent over time and about mortality, of course, but I was interested– and about envy, which is another thing that’s I think not been written about that much. Because there’s this kind of quiet envy that you might feel even for people you love and once in a while it kind of inserts itself into the room like a moose head mounted on a wall. And I wanted to write about about the passage of time and what happens to the brightest and the you know, the ones who you think will go far.
I was very affected by the Michael Apted films, “Seven Up!” “28 Up,” you know those films. Because there was this moment in one of them when it’s–those films are really about class, because it’s, he interviewed a group of British school children every seven years starting with when they were seven, and you see how people become who they are and how they always in a sense were the person that they become.
But there was one character named–a real person–named Susan or Susie, and when she was very young she was very, seemed snobby to me, kind of posh, like, “I don’t care for that,”. And then I think maybe during “28 Up,” her father died and she’s wounded by this. And I felt great sympathy for her, and she became a very full character to me.
So to see people and see how their lives are not a straight road. This was a novel that was going to be about a full life. And I let myself go with it in a different way from “The Wife.” It was another kind of, I don’t want to say breakthrough, that’s just too obnoxious, but it was another way of seeing that while “The Wife” was this terse short novel, like a lozenge of a novel, you know sucked down to the narrator’s deep rage, this one could flower in a lot of directions, and I had to let that side of myself be shown.
Adam Gopnik: I don’t know if I’d call it a breakthrough, but it certainly was an advance. And one of the ways I thought it was an advance is exactly in the way you’re discussing. It’s because you always have been fascinated by what might seem like YA, young adult themes, because you’re fascinated by that moment in life. By teenagers and adolescence, and you found a way to write about them in a fully adult, not in a young adult way.
Meg Wolitzer: No, I mean, I have a children’s book, in fact, coming out in two weeks, called “To Night Owl From Dogfish.”
Adam Gopnik: And you’ve written a series of young adult books over the years actually.
Meg Wolitzer: Yes. Yes. This one is with a co-writer, Holly Goldberg Sloan, a wonderful writer who is a natural–who is a children’s writer. For me, adolescence, like sex–it’s a part of life. Why not, you know, include it in your book? A novel about an adolescent that’s one of my favorite novels ever, is “The Member of The Wedding” by Carson McCullers, and it’s absolutely beautiful and important about racism and so much, about feeling like–.
Adam Gopnik: Yearning, yearning and longing as–.
Meg Wolitzer: Yearning and longing.
Adam Gopnik: Human condition.
Meg Wolitzer: In fact, that summer at camp, actually, I think Martha did a monologue “The We of Me.” Martha, am I correct on that one? It all leads back to camp for me.
Adam Gopnik: It all goes back to theater camp.
Meg Wolitzer: But yeah, there are two layers. There’s a layer of of trying to have a kind of verisimilitude about being young, but then there is the advantage of having some, you know, long view of things. So I tried to take the long view and the short view in “The Interestings.”
Adam Gopnik: Absolutely. I want to get to our audience who I know have a lot of questions before. But let’s talk before we go, about “The Female Persuasion.” Because “Female Persuasion” is a book that interests me, in part because a lot of your themes and a lot of your ambitions all come together there. It’s a book very much explicitly about feminism and about the evolution of American feminism over the last 40 years. It’s very much about a mentor relation. That’s core. That’s the core idea of it. About how a mentor changes our life and how it affects it.
I don’t know if you remember but I actually, in my last book, in “At the Stranger’s Gate,” there’s a character named Meg Wolitzer, actually.
Meg Wolitzer: No relation.
Adam Gopnik: Who is –and I write about, you know, the ways in which young people get attached to mentors. You, as you said before, very much to Nora Ephron and so on. What made you decide this was the moment to write a book about that relationship?
Meg Wolitzer: I think we are back to the notion of the marinade. I think we are kind of sitting with things for a very very long time and exploring them, and only when they’ve been explored, but not fully explored–because you have to now explore them in a novelistic way–are they ready to go.
And I wanted to write about that moment when someone reaches out and changes you. And I’ve been you know, as a feminist, this has been an again–people say to writers “write what you know,” I think it’s “write what obsesses you.”
Now there is a very good way to know what obsesses us, but no one would want to do it. Look at everything you’ve Googled for the past 24 hours. For me–oh it’s a terrible, horrifying thing. For me though.
Adam Gopnik: That’s true, cause it would be like “what stars of the 80’s look like now?” And I don’t know how many books I could.
Meg Wolitzer: For me, it’s Virginia Woolf and does this mole looks suspicious? Which is not in and of itself a novel. Maybe a novella.
But feminism is something that has mattered to me for you know, as long as I can remember. Seeing my mother really be helped by other women as a writer and sort of come of age in this period of time when novels by women were taken seriously in a new way.
I was in a consciousness-raising group when I was 14 and we wrote away to the National Organization for Women to ask for a list of topics, and they sent us a pamphlet that had things in it like “orgasm and you.” When we wanted, you know, “SATs? Don’t stress out,” you know, or. But I felt a great kinship with other girls and later women and I felt very stirred by this idea of women helping each other.
And the notion of a mentor is interesting to me. When I think about women who were pivotal in my life–you know Nora, my mother. I had a teacher in first grade, Mrs. Gerby, who used to invite me up to her desk to dictate stories to her, because she could write them down a lot faster than I could and I was sort of like a–.
Adam Gopnik: Scherazade.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, I was like a business executive and she was sort of my secretary. “Take a letter Mrs. Gerby.” It mattered so much. Is it a coincidence that they were female and I was? I don’t think so.
But I think what a mentor has to do is not have expectations about the outcome. That’s what a good mentor does. Just give the person what they have and then get out of the way, not caring if it ends up one way or another. I mean, they can care, but not showing that. And there complications with it.
And feminism–which has just enriched my life, and it’s maddening how much still needs to be done–felt like a really good way to show, as I said, what you know, what obsesses me. It was a good way to show relationships between men and women. To write about sex, to write about older women and younger women. It’s–in “The Interestings” everyone was the same age, my age, because I hate math and I can’t–I just this way I didn’t have to do the math and how old they were.
Adam Gopnik: They were your age.
Meg Wolitzer: Cause I knew I would get it wrong. I would be so bad that I would have people like, you know be 83 when. You know, I just couldn’t get it right.
Adam Gopnik: You couldn’t be a showrunner, right, one of those people who has track.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh I could not, oh. But here it was intergenerational–it’s intergenerational.
Adam Gopnik: Would you read, Meg, because your prose is like no one else’s. Would you read just, because it’s very much about this subject of mentoring, the first couple of pages of, yeah, “Female Persuasion”?
Meg Wolitzer: One of the reasons I like reading the openings is you don’t have to give that thing.
Adam Gopnik: That set up. “At this point in the book four of the characters have been killed.” That moment?
Meg Wolitzer: Or, the worst thing that happens, is if you go to a reading and you stop listening when they’re doing the setup, and then you hear them say, “and then that summer the grandma died of typhus.” And you’re–I don’t know who that is. But you won’t have to do that.
Greer Cadetsky met Faith Frank in October of 2006 at Ryland College, where Faith had come to deliver the Edmond and Wilhelmina Ryland Memorial lecture, and though that night the chapel was full of students, some of them boiling over with loudmouth commentary, it seemed astonishing but true that out of everyone there, Greer was the one to interest Faith.
Greer, a freshman then, at this undistinguished school in southern Connecticut, was selectively and furiously shy. She could give answers easily, but rarely opinions. “Which makes no sense because I am stuffed with opinions. I am a pinata of opinions,” she’d said to Cory during one of their nightly Skype sessions since college had separated them.
She had always been a tireless student and a constant reader, but she found it impossible to speak in the wild and free ways that other people did. For most of her life it hadn’t mattered, but now it did.
So what was it about her that Faith Frank recognized and liked? Maybe, Greer thought, it was the possibility of boldness lightly suggested in the streak of electric blue that zagged across one side of her otherwise ordinary furniture brown hair.
But plenty of college girls had hair partially dipped the colors of frozen and spun treats found at county fairs. Maybe it was just that Faith, at 63 a person of influence and a certain level of fame, who had been traveling the country for decades speaking ardently about women’s lives, felt sorry for 18 year old Greer, who was hot faced and inarticulate that night. Or maybe Faith was automatically generous and attentive around young people who are uncomfortable in the world.
Greer didn’t really know why Faith took an interest. But what she knew for sure eventually, was that meeting Faith Frank was the thrilling beginning of everything. It would be a very long time before the unspeakable end.
Adam Gopnik: That is truly a beginning where you want to find out more about–.
Meg Wolitzer: What happens?
Adam Gopnik: Yes, what happens.
Meg Wolitzer: I don’t usually, and I wouldn’t usually kind of do that “little did she know” thing. The “little did she know” school of fiction. But in a long book I loved the idea of setting up the notion that this relationship is going to end. And file that away. Especially because it’s about a mentor and a protege. It has to change right? There needs to be fluidity.
You know, I remember a later teacher, actually, who I loved when I was young, invited me back to the school after my first novel came out, and I just had worshipped her. And she pulled me aside and said, “would you look at my fiction?”
Adam Gopnik: Oh wow, it’s suddenly everything in reverse.
Meg Wolitzer: Everything reversed and I ran out screaming like the Munch painting. You know, because we had our roles. But the truth is, people don’t have roles. They need to be fluid. They need to be flexible. That’s how we change over time. So here I wanted to let you know, you can know that it’s going to end, but you don’t know how.
Adam Gopnik: And inevitably the protege in some way disappoints the mentor, and the mentor inevitably in some way disappoints the protege.
Meg Wolitzer: Absolutely. It’s a sad thing. I mean, I love the gray areas, of course, in things. That sort of moment of you know, seeing how things can’t stay the way they are. And they can’t with these two. But it was interesting. My feminist is a kind of–my older, the protege, Faith Frank, is a kind of–.
Adam Gopnik: Mentor.
Meg Wolitzer: The mentor is a second wave feminist, kind of described as two or three steps down in fame from Gloria Steinem, who created a magazine–and here again, to show you what my son says, why I like to create things within little worlds within a novel–was the editor of Bloomer Magazine back in the 70s, a kind of two steps down from Ms. I have a little parallel universe, kind of like Richard Scarry’s scary town.
Adam Gopnik: No, it’s true. Let me open the crowd, the field, the theater up for some questions. I know many of you must have questions for Meg. Here we are. I’m being pinged by our children. Actually.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s coming from the center.
Meg Wolitzer: Okay?
Audience Member 1: You talked about writing about envy, Meg. Are there things that you envy or things that you have in mind to do that you haven’t quite gotten to yet?
Meg Wolitzer: There are many things that I haven’t quite gotten to yet. Absolutely. I think I envy people who seem temperamentally different from me. A calm–at this point in life, moments of calm, especially in this roiling moment that we’re living in, finding calm is something that I would love to do. And I envy beauti–writing that feels like, ugh, something I wouldn’t think to do.
But envy is a sort of a monochrome word. I’m excited by it and I’ll do anything to read it. I don’t have to be the one writing it.
Adam Gopnik: No, you’ve never had a competitive relationship really with other writers.
Meg Wolitzer: With other writers? I mean, I think that–wait is this a joke or not? I can’t tell.
Adam Gopnik: No no. No, I meant that. No. I meant that seriously.
Meg Wolitzer: No, it’s true. It really is true. I don’t think, that’s true. I don’t have a…
Adam Gopnik: Paranoid relationship, apparently, but not a competitive one.
Meg Wolitzer: No I don’t have a nemesis. I don’t have someone whose career I want. I feel very very lucky to be able to live and work as a novelist in a nonfiction world really.
Adam Gopnik: And you love the company of other novelists.
Meg Wolitzer: Yes. Most of my friends are writers and I love it. So no. No, I don’t think so.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is all the way at your right, towards the back.
Audience Member 2: Hi. So obviously you’re a very successful writer, but I wanted to know of a moment of failure and how you moved on from that.
Meg Wolitzer: Well, I think when I put that book aside actually, when I put that Dora novel aside, I hadn’t been able to sort of wrangle it. And there’s something that feels very–I mean I had sold it, they would have published it, but I didn’t understand why I wasn’t up to the task. And I think a moment like that really struck me and it still gives me a pang.
You know that it feels like failure if you feel that pang all these years later. When you put something aside that you couldn’t master and that book for me was that. But it, you know, I became very happy when I wrote the next one, but… Was it that I wasn’t up to–I didn’t have historical chops? I couldn’t have the gravitas around that? I, you know, that, yeah, I think that that was a moment that I certainly wasn’t successful.
Yeah. I mean, do you have any other moments of my failure?
Adam Gopnik: Well there are several books I didn’t even mention, right? No, but I think you would say, and you did say before too, that as you were working you–I mean one of the fascinating things about your career Meg, is that you worked your way out in public, because you were very precocious and you had a significant book, a very well-received book out when you were in your early 20s.
And so you were, I always thought that in some of the books, like, you were pulling on saying, who am I? Am I an entertainer, am I a polemicist? What, where do I belong in this too?
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah. I mean, I think that I became more comfortable with ideas around you know, if you– look, reviews are a thing that we all sort of have to deal with, and I could feel failed if I did something that didn’t get a, you know, a good review.
Adam Gopnik: As a young writer.
Meg Wolitzer: As a younger writer. Yeah. I mean, honestly, I have an aunt though, who you could get a terrible terrible review and the headline is something like, “Sadly Wolitzer Disappoints,” and my aunt would call you up and say “I saw your cute article.” A cousin actually, a cousin.
Adam Gopnik: Wasn’t she the one also said that thing about, when she read your book, “I liked it, I didn’t love it?”
Meg Wolitzer: A cousin.
Adam Gopnik: Cousin, cousin.
Meg Wolitzer: But frankly, if you want to feel like a failure, look at your Amazon reviews sometimes. If you write a novel called “The Interestings,” you know, you will go on Amazon and someone will headline their review “Not Very.”
Adam Gopnik: The one-star review.
Meg Wolitzer: Right, or it’s so unfair people write, you know, “this book arrived late one star.”
Adam Gopnik: You want to write to Jeff Bezos and say, change that.
Meg Wolitzer: It’s just, you can feel, my point really is you can feel like a failure in a lot of ways as a writer. I mean, it’s a very crazy because within the course of the day, if you write a line you love you can’t do any better, but if someone doesn’t like a line you love you might feel bad. But I think I’ve gotten past that a lot more than I used to.
Adam Gopnik: I think that is one place where age helps. You’ve had more experience of it too. Another question here.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s at your left.
Audience Member 3: “The Interestings” is very layered and structured and I’m curious about your process. Do you map things ahead of time? Do you move parts around? How does that come to be?
Adam Gopnik: Well, that’s a very good question. Do you write, do–I always tell students don’t write to an outline, an outline will be a handcuff, but “The Interestings” is a very tightly, intricately plotted book.
Meg Wolitzer: Well the thing I didn’t say with the 80-page plan is that once I write the 80 pages, that’s the point at which I’ll start to map it. Before then, I don’t. I believe that the first 80 pages, what I really wanted to get across, was that it’s really about exploration and play and not caring the outcome. But around 80 pages I start to feel I need to map this so that I have a sense of it. But I kind of feel for me like an outline is like an EpiPen. You may never use it, but you’ll know you have it.
Adam Gopnik: I never thought of that as a metaphor, but.
Meg Wolitzer: That’s what they pay me the big bucks for. The medium ones.
With that book, because there were so many characters and it took place over 40 years, I did need to kind of create a map, but only as late as I could. Because I’m really bad with outlines.
When I was a child I was so– I didn’t understand, you know, when they made you make an outline in school? I didn’t get the concept. I would write “The Greeks. A. What they wore. Two. What they ate.” Like I didn’t know the use of an outline. I have more of a use of one now. Definitely.
Adam Gopnik: Although you said, I know, in fact you still surprise yourself sometimes by, truly by what the characters did. You said that you didn’t know who Ash in “The Interestings” would end up with until she did.
Meg Wolitzer: Yes. You have to leave yourself open to that great title by Grace Paley, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.” Which is so true for what will happen in my fiction really, or in anyone’s fiction.
Adam Gopnik: Someone else.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s at your left.
Audience Member 4: So one of the things that sets your fiction apart I think from a lot of others is I love your beautiful use of metaphors. And sitting here tonight, you’re just throwing out metaphors in your speech too.
Meg Wolitzer: Am I?
Audience Member 4: Yes!
Adam Gopnik: Totally.
Audience Member 4: Like the EpiPen metaphor and the moose inserting itself like envy, or envy inserting itself like a moose. And how do you come up with metaphors when you write? Do you just think of metaphor, like do you just think in terms of metaphors, or how do you put them in?
Adam Gopnik: The metaphoric mind.
Meg Wolitzer: Metaphoric mind, yeah. Well, you know, it’s so funny you should say that because I actually was interviewed once for a psychiatric journal about this very question. They were like going to study my brain for, no.
Adam Gopnik: They had to have your brain.
Meg Wolitzer: They had to have my, no. But a psychoanalyst wanted to talk to me about metaphor. I think it’s a reflex for me. I think that way, I don’t know that I even, it’s not even that visual. I’m not particularly visual. But it’s–.
Adam Gopnik: It’s tied to your comic gift, if I may say, Meg. It’s bringing two unlike things together, so it’s very close to the–.
Meg Wolitzer: I guess the thing I would say to you is it feels most natural to me. It feels the most natural way to me to make sense of the world.
Adam Gopnik: Right. And you don’t will them?
Meg Wolitzer: No, you can’t will them at all, no.
Adam Gopnik: Right. Someone else? Curiosity is at an end?
Meg Wolitzer: There was–.
Adam Gopnik: Can’t believe–a lady back here, I see.
City Arts & Lectures: I’m going far back in the orchestra.
Adam Gopnik: All right.
Audience Member 5: How hard was it to get your first book picked up and published? I mean, I can’t imagine 21, still in college and finding a publisher and–.
Meg Wolitzer: Well, because my mother is a novelist and was, she sort of you know, I kind of knew to get an agent and things that I might not have known otherwise, so it shortened the process considerably. So it did happen fairly quickly, I have to say. I mean, I’d like to say that I had to go off and work on a barge for a year and throw that novel out, but it did happen fairly quickly. I felt very very lucky that I did.
But I was in college at the time, and I have to say one thing that hasn’t really come up in terms of our mentorship were, some of the writing teachers I had were so important and were so influential to me. The great John Hawkes was a teacher of mine at Brown and his work couldn’t have been more different from most of his students including me, but he tried to see what you were going after and I think that was so–.
Mary Gordon, the great novelist, who remains a very good friend of mine, was a mentor of mine, was a teacher of mine, and she said to us something that I think was really important and helpful to me in writing that first novel. She said, to our class, only write about what’s important. And I think what she meant really, was, what’s important to you–there was a parenthetical there. And it made me at 21 start to think, what’s important to me? So that’s how I kind of chose to write about that.
Adam Gopnik: You know, question, picking up from this lady’s question, that we didn’t talk about yet tonight. That you were precocious in your appearance as a writer, but you also belonged to a generation–and I wrote about it in my last book–in the 80s, which was sort of the last–.
Meg Wolitzer: The Brat Pack.
Adam Gopnik: The Brat Pack, yes, all that. A sort of ostentatiously precocious literary generation, was seen as a generation at that time. Wonder how you feel looking back on that period and that group of writers now?
Meg Wolitzer: It’s a strange feeling. I mean, because at least for me, I wasn’t in that–I mean it wasn’t like one group, it wasn’t really like that. We all lived in New York and were you know, roughly the same age, within a couple of years and it made good copy to describe people…
Adam Gopnik: David Leavitt, Mona Simpson, Susan Minot, and so forth.
Meg Wolitzer: But I think that everybody’s writing life and career is different. It’s not a horse race. It’s gone off in different directions. I think I didn’t understand when I was young that people wouldn’t all be together. That you would have a separate trajectory. It feels so old, it feels so long ago, doesn’t it to you?
Adam Gopnik: Yes, absolutely.
Meg Wolitzer: There’s a–I mean, so I feel a tenderness about it in a funny way.
Adam Gopnik: Yes, when I was writing about it– because I think you have a privilege to start writing about–the past becomes the past after 30 years. Before that it’s not, it’s still there. Is that at the time, I’m sure it seemed to many people outside, obnoxious. It certainly seemed that way to many older writers, that there were younger writers who were getting more attention and larger advances than they deserved, but it was sort of the last time when there was a kind of pervasive illusion of literary centrality, right? You know?
Meg Wolitzer: But you know, much of the work was wonderful, I mean this–you know, Susan Minot, I mean these were like–.
Adam Gopnik: “Monkeys” was a wonderful book, and Mona Simpson’s “Anywhere But Here” was a–.
Meg Wolitzer: They remain wonderful writers and it’s a wonderful thing to see how a writer matures over time, or how their themes change, what interests them change.
Adam Gopnik: But yeah, this is, if I may, a wonderful place to end because as I said when I began, one of the things that those of us, who are fans of your work, intense fans of your work, admire, and what I hope we captured some tonight, is exactly the way that you have took the bit in your teeth and have just pushed ahead as a writer, year to year, book to book, in the most extraordinary way.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, I’m so glad you feel that way.
Adam Gopnik: I think all of you have had a taste of the pleasure of an evening with Meg Wolitzer. The fun, the intelligence, the wit, and the commitment to literature. Meg, thank you so much.
Meg Wolitzer: Thank you so much for coming.