Bookforum talks to Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer. Photo: Nina Subin

Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasion, tells the story of Greer, a young college-aged woman, and her famous feminist mentor, Faith Frank. Through the book, Wolitzer explores both second-wave feminism and a younger generation’s responses to it. Along with the novel’s explicit political focus is the story of a life-altering female friendship. Through this relationship, Wolitzer observes the changing conditions of her characters’ lives in the context of feminism and misogyny—something she had been thinking about long before Trump and Weinstein. Wolitzer and I discussed the book this February.

Reading the novel in the current political climate makes it impossible to separate the content of the book from real life.

Obviously, this book is coming out in this strange, dark, roiling time. When I began writing it, it was a different time—many of us anticipated having a woman president. I did go back and work on the last chapter, which mentions the Women’s March, after the election. I wanted to project my characters into the future. So it may have a darker ending, but it still moves forward, and the characters are still working toward what they’re working toward.

I didn’t try to write a book that keeps up with the headlines. Somebody once asked me, “How do you deal in a world of hot takes?” And I joked that I was the master of the warm take. Novels for me are about being slow and looking deeply into a subject, and that’s something that the twenty-four-hour news cycle doesn’t encourage. It’s a strange and whirling moment without a doubt, but these are issues I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. Like misogyny, for example. It’s an issue we’re dealing with that’s been set into relief right now. But I wanted to write about that before this happened, and I think I’ll be writing about some of these questions for a very long time.

What inspired you to write a novel about second-wave feminism?

I don’t think I’ve ever really stopped thinking about it. Mary Gordon told me about a panel she was on with Grace Paley. Somebody asked Paley if she thought of herself as a “woman writer.” And Gordon recalls that she said something like, “If a horse could write a novel, it would write like a horse. I’m a woman, so I write like a woman.” And I’m a feminist, so I write like a feminist.

The Female Persuasion explores themes of love and loss, but rather than through a romantic or even platonic relationship, you chose to look at the mentor-mentee connection. What about this relationship was compelling to you?

I’ve been very much affected by certain older women, and I’ve also gotten to know younger women who have been my students. I thought there were a lot of interesting dynamics in those relationships. I realized I’d been giving it a lot of thought, but I hadn’t seen these kinds of connections represented or talked about very often. So many women I knew had similar stories, or understood that kind of relationship, and it was very central to them. It’s not like I was casting around for an outside story.

I’ve been very formed by women in my life, by older women who have been helpful to me, and by a very strong mother who’s a novelist who had taken some college classes but hadn’t been encouraged by her parents to go to college. She was encouraged by other women, and I think was really affected by feminism. I saw this happen in the ’70s. It’s not like I thought, “Oh, I’m seeing that now,” but instead I just marinated in it over a long time, and eventually it all began to form as an idea. Mentorship and protégé-ship, and who has power—who gets it, who wants it—those are issues that felt very natural for me to write about.

I expected The Female Persuasion to mostly focus on Greer, but we really delve into the interiority of several different characters.

I like a novel to be a really immersive experience, to be a long, long dip in a deep pool. Letting the book go where your intuition tells you, following your innate sense of structure, is imperative. But it probably can’t just be what’s interesting to you—although of course that’s an essential part. It’s really also about creating forward momentum, and sometimes that includes delving into the characters’ backstories. When I got to Faith, the older character, the famous feminist, it became clear to me that I wanted to see her story, and that gives us a look at her experience in second-wave feminism. But I don’t see flashbacks as backpedaling. I feel that the notion of the flashback or flash-forward is kind of a false one because we’re always thinking about something that already happened or what we’re having for dinner or something that happened in childhood, even while talking to a friend. Being open to what feels right sometimes takes you into other characters’ stories.

Faith doesn’t seem to shy away from the criticism she receives, particularly from younger women.

If I had made Faith doctrinaire or just one way, she wouldn't feel real. I can see the kind of criticism that she would get, and I can see what she’s trying to do, and her limitations and her struggles. So, I’m trying to acknowledge that rather than gloss over it.

I really appreciated the fact that Faith and Greer are not idealized in the novel. Can you talk a bit about the “likeability” question when it comes to female characters?

I think you really have to throw concerns about likeability aside and allow your characters to not be models of anything, because I don’t know anybody in real life who is. One of the things about interiority is that when you’re deeply exploring people’s inner lives you’re often writing about ambivalence or about imperfections. I don’t think novelists are God, but they’re kind of like limited gods, lesser gods. You have to be free to show characters in moments that they wouldn’t necessarily be proud of, but also in the ones that they would. You’re going for a sense of the person in their entirety. I hear from readers sometimes, “I was so mad at your character when blank,” or “Why did they do X?” And the best reply might simply be: because that’s who they are, or because that’s what they did. I think you have to be free to let characters be who they are and sometimes that’s maddening. Sometimes there are betrayals between people.

What about the idea of power was so intriguing to you?

When I was just beginning to think about this novel, I had gone to speak to a book group. They asked me what I was thinking about writing, and when I tentatively mentioned power—there’s an oxymoron for you—the women I spoke to were very responsive to it as an issue. They all had different ideas of what it meant to them and I realized that there are a lot of different meanings around it. We’re all trying to have dignity, power, the ability to make a difference, and some kind of control over our lives; sometimes we want to control other people’s lives or our place in the social hierarchy. What does it feel like to have power and what does it feel like to lose it? Novels are a great place to explore issues of class and power. For me it’s a natural forum for some of these issues that exist in our lives even in really small ways.

It’s a truism that women will often read books about men and women, but men generally don’t read about women.

All writers want readers, and don’t want people to feel that there isn’t anything in that book for them. A study that said fiction teaches empathy was really interesting to me; I think we should be looking at the world of others all the time. That is what fiction can do so beautifully. I do feel that I innately think of fiction as an empathetic exercise, among many other exercises. I don’t try to plant empathy in there, but I think it’s innately in there. When I read a story about a character that affects me very deeply, I come away not having to have put my own experience in there, but to sort of disinhabit my clothes for a minute and see what is it like having a different struggle or a different world.

You hope that both men and women will read your book, regardless of what it is. It’s true that I didn’t call my novel the “Every Person Persuasion”—come one, come all. But it’s not like the book is about all women, either—it’s about these specific women and their experiences. You write a novel, you put it out there, and you hope that some of what you are interested in—and obsess about—overlaps in the big Venn diagram of everything, with readers’ interests.