Meg Wolitzer: the 30-year overnight sensation

by Ruth Nichol / 05 September, 2013
With The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
Note to New Zealand book festival organisers – Meg Wolitzer would be delighted to hear from you. “I’m always waiting to get invited to something in New Zealand or Australia,” she says by phone from her home in New York. “I’ve heard incredible things about them, and I’ve always wanted to go, but it’s never happened.”

Wolitzer would be good value at a book festival, not just because she’s an excellent writer who is finally gaining the recognition she deserves with her latest novel, The Interestings – “a friend jokingly called me a 30-year overnight sensation” – but also because she’s a lot of fun.

Meg Wolitzer: wry. Photo/Getty Images

Like the characters in her novels, the “made-up people” she has been creating for the past 30 years, Wolitzer is warm and intelligent, with a wry sense of humour she frequently turns against herself.

“They were the ugliest things,” she exclaims when we find ourselves talking about 1970s footwear, and in particular the “negative-heeled” Earth Shoes she owned as a teenager. “They looked like big lumps of chocolate cake. They were sort of inverted because the toe stuck out like a big wedge of cheese, but I loved them dearly.”

She stops for a moment.

“That’s interesting to me,” she says. “Who was that person that had that taste? Well, it was me.”

It’s the kind of question one of the main characters in The Interestings might ask themselves. Like Wolitzer, they were all born in the late 1950s – “I decided to make everyone in the book exactly my age … you can do the maths much easier” – and, after meeting as teenagers at the artsy Spirit-of-the-Woods summer camp, have reached a point in their lives where they are starting to take stock.

“You get older and things start to happen, like friends dying, and you think, ‘Wow’. I don’t know why I’m surprised, they always told us this would happen. But you really do become surprised at the way your life takes shape, and it never takes exactly the shape you thought it would.”

For Wolitzer, writing The Interestings was a chance to explore how we change as we age – she’s a big fan of the long-running British documentary series Seven Up. It was also a chance to explore a subject she’d found herself thinking about more and more as she got older: what happens to talent over time?

“I’d been marinating in it without really thinking of it as a book idea, so by the time it occurred to me it was sort of fully formed because I’d had so many thoughts about it.”

When we first meet the cast of The Interestings (the title comes from the half-jokey name the main characters give themselves as teenagers), they see themselves as equally talented and equally destined for success. But as we follow their lives over almost 40 years, we watch them coming to terms with the fact adult life can be messy and complicated, and achievement is about more than just talent.

Only Ethan achieves the kind of life they had imagined, driven by a genius for animation that had manifested itself long before he met the others. But even for Ethan, factors other than talent help him become the fabulously successful creator of a Simpsons-like television show called Figland – in particular his marriage to a fellow Interesting, Ash, who comes from a wealthy and well-connected New York family.

“One thing I realised as I got older was how much of success is about luck and connections and money and all of those things,” says Wolitzer. “I think Ethan would have been successful anyway, but it would have been harder and it might have taken longer.”

The stellar trajectory of Ethan’s and Ash’s lives is particularly galling for Jules, from whose point of view most of the novel is written. She arrives at Spirit-of-the-Woods as a gauche frizzy-haired suburban teenager in awe of the others. They are, she thinks, “like royalty and French movie stars, with a touch of something papal”.

Being admitted to their inner circle opens up Jules’s life in ways she could never have anticipated. But it also sets her up for dissatisfaction. As much as she loves Ethan and Ash, she can’t help comparing her life with theirs and finding it wanting.

Wolitzer is good on envy. In one memorable scene, we see Jules and her husband, Dennis, preparing to read Ethan’s and Ash’s annual Christmas letter. None of the information comes as a surprise to Jules – she is in regular contact with the couple – but she still needs to fortify herself with a bottle of red wine before opening the envelope.

“Just hearing it read aloud or seeing it on a page reminds me of everything,” she tells Dennis. “I can’t help it. Despite my wisdom by now, I am small-minded and predictable.”

To be fair, Jules’s dissatisfaction is not entirely unjustified; Wolitzer deals her a bit of a bum hand. Not only is she less privileged and less sophisticated than the other young Interestings, but she stays that way as she gets older – at least in her own eyes. She is forced to abandon her dreams of becoming an actress because of a lack of talent and her subsequent career as a therapist feels like second best.

But what seems especially unfair is that her husband suffers for years from depression that is resistant to treatment. For a large part of their marriage, he is unable to work and he spends a lot of his time sleeping.

When he’s awake, Dennis is a good foil to Jules’s dissatisfaction. He is determinedly ordinary, but also thoughtful and perceptive: “Specialness – everyone wants it,” he says to his wife in exasperation one day. “Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do – kill themselves?”

But was it really necessary to make him suffer from depression for quite so many years? Wolitzer thinks for a minute. Dennis’s depression was an important side plot, she says, because she wanted to show that good fortune is not entirely dependent on money; uncontrollable factors such as mental illness also affect it.

“One thing I would say in my defence is that even though Jules can’t see certain things about her life, they actually are good. I feel that if she hadn’t met Ethan and Ash she would feel it was good enough.”

The Interestings is Wolitzer’s 10th novel, and her most ambitious so far, almost 500 pages long, with a complicated plot that moves back and forward in time. For Wolitzer, the realisation she could take a more fluid approach to chronology came early in the writing process.

“I have a ‘way to write’ theory, which is that you try to get 80 pages down without worrying about anything,” she says. “That 80 pages should be the most grandiose idea of what the novel will be – you should just get it down. Then when you have 80 pages, print it out and sit in a coffee shop and look at it and see not what you were planning to write, but what you actually did write.”

In the case of The Interestings, once she’d written 80 pages she saw she had the beginnings of a novel that could be free with time, allowing her to keep returning to an important period in her characters’ lives – their adolescence and early adulthood.

“People have remarked on the structure but I didn’t even see it as particularly unusual. It was really the only way I could go deeply into their teenage worlds, and their 20s and 30s and 40s, as I wanted to.”

The Interestings is not only Wolitzer’s most ambitious novel, but also her most successful. After years of being relegated to what she called in an essay in the New York Times last year “the lower shelf of ‘Women’s Fiction’” – the less-regarded shelf reserved for books about relationships and the interior lives of women – she has finally made it to the top shelf. Reviews of The Interestings have compared Wolitzer to other top-shelf writers, such as Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides.

As gratifying as that is, it bothers her that books by and about women are still not taken seriously. A recent survey by the US women’s literary organisation VIDA, for example, found that of all the books reviewed in prestigious literary publications, three-quarters were by men. Men also outnumbered women as the writers of book reviews.

“In this day and age, this is pretty shocking,” says Wolitzer. “The readers of fiction tend to be women, the buyers of fiction tend to be women.”

And although she’s delighted for any writer of serious literary fiction who gets a wide audience, it rankles that books about the interior lives of men are often held in higher regard than those about the interior lives of women.

“If Cormac McCarthy’s The Road had been about a mother and daughter, would it have been so universal?”

In the meantime, though, she’s enjoying her success, although she’s discovering that making it to the top shelf does have its downsides, especially for someone who likens her desire to write to a 24-hour convenience store – it never stops.

“I have a lot of travelling coming up this year and I’m really hoping to develop a taste for writing in airports because otherwise it won’t work. That’s the thing about having a book that satisfies readers. If you go places to talk about your book, you’re away from your desk, so it’s a trade-off.”

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer (Chatto & Windus, $44.99).


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