Bookforum talks with Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings: A Novel BY Meg Wolitzer. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 480 pages. $27.
Cover of The Interestings: A Novel

Meg Wolitzer is a bestselling novelist and an unapologetic advocate for women writers. I have been intrigued by her work since reading The Wife (2003), a book about a successful male novelist and the woman behind him that offers incisive, witty commentary on contemporary publishing and the roles of men and women in that world.

Wolitzer is a force, and she has brought her ferocious energy, wit, and intelligence to bear on her latest novel, The Interestings, which follows a group of friends who meet at an arts camp as teenagers in the 1970s and remain connected throughout their lives. One member is exiled because of a terrible deed and another is abandoned in the wake of what goes wrong. As for the remaining Interestings, two become incredibly successful, amassing wealth and power, while the rest grapple with their own lives and how they live up to or fall short of the ambitious name they gave themselves when they were so young and knew so little.

As I read The Interestings, the word epic kept coming to mind, which was surprising, because there was also so much intimacy throughout the novel. Did this book feel epic as you were writing it?

It always takes a while to see what you’re writing. You can have a vague idea about it in advance—or even an idea that feels very particular—but a book never exactly ends up being what you imagine it’s going to be. Only as I really let myself go off in the different directions that began to seem natural here did I get the sense that this book was maybe different from what I’ve written before—more expansive, for one thing. And yet, in terms of intimacy, it feels very much in the vein of the novels I’ve written before. I like that you used the world “intimacy,” because intimate is how I think of a reader’s relationship with a book, as well as a writer’s relationship with a book. A novel can be a private, enclosed thing, away from the world and containing its own world.

In recent years we’ve seen a lot of extremely long novels, mostly from men, so it was a pleasure to see a woman write a big book. Why did this story need so much room to breathe? How did you allow yourself to give this story the room it needs to breathe?

The first reason the story needed room to breathe was the time-span involved. It starts in 1974 and moves ahead almost forty years. I also saw, as I wrote, that different time periods are associated with different sensations and emotional valences for me, and I wanted to take my time and include them. And also, of course, there are several main characters whose stories I had to cover, and I didn’t want to give anyone short shrift out of some fidelity to a notion of how long a novel is supposed to be these days.

Do you find it intimidating to tackle big issues like sexual violence, AIDS, class, and the like? Do you have “rules” for how you write about these subjects?

I do sometimes find it intimidating. The novels I like aren’t polemics, and issues should never feel as if they’ve been deliberately inserted into a narrative, but should instead arise in a way that makes sense. In this particular novel, some of the issues you mention came up naturally as I thought about the eras in which my characters lived and grew older. These issues were ones that were all around them in the culture, and so I wanted to include them to some degree, but not in a dreaded “issues” way. It’s a balancing act for a fiction writer. I don’t have any rules along these lines except the usual writing ones I try to follow: get everything down in a passionate but thoughtful burst, and then go back later and ruthlessly revise. That way, anything that feels forced—in this case along “big issues” lines—will have to go, or at least be re-thought.

Jules Jacobson intrigued me because she seemed perpetually dissatisfied in a relatable way. Jules at 15 was not terribly different from Jules at 50, though clearly she had grown and matured in the ways people generally do. The same could be said for Ethan and Ash and Jonah, as well. How did you ensure that your characters would be recognizable and true to themselves over the course of such a sprawling narrative?

It just seemed to happen. Every time I went back to them it was like going back to an “ol’ favorite.” “Oh, here’s Jules again!” And I would be in a Jules Jacobson mindset, so it didn’t really matter how old she was at the time. I was reminded of something I’ve said to students, which is: You know how sometimes you want to call a friend up for no particular reason? You don’t need to say anything specific to that friend, but apparently she gives you something you want that’s sort of hard to define. What is it, exactly, that you get from her? What qualities does she possess that you (maybe unconsciously) feel like being around? If you can examine them, then maybe you can understand better what people give one another. And that’s true for characters too. How does it feel to be in a certain character’s mind, or in a room with her or him? What is the exact feeling? If you don’t know how it feels, really—that on-the-edges, deeply subtle feeling—then maybe the character isn’t fully developed yet. But once you do start to know the feeling of a character—the pulse, the scent, the gestalt—then ideally you can write them at age 15 or 50, because people do change, but they also stay pretty much within some recognizable membrane.

What is this cultural obsession with likable characters? Do you find yourself deliberately working against likability when you create your characters?

I dislike the obsession, and some women writers have described being asked to make their characters entirely likable. The reader needs to want to be in the world of a book, but there are a lot of ways to do that. Ultimately, it’s your book, and you have to write the one you want to write. Sacrificing character complexity for the sake of likability doesn’t sound worth it to me. But, of course, writers have very different ideas of what they want their book to be. Some books might be deliberate fantasias on the theme of likability, and that’s the point of them. If so, great. But if it’s not the point, and if it wasn’t your plan, why strain to do that? I don’t think I’ve ever thought objectively about likability when I write. I do need to feel a closeness to my characters, though that’s a separate issue. I’m reminded that a writer I really like is Patricia Highsmith, whose characters are sometimes deeply unlikable, but what she does with them is so far beyond those questions.

There is an exquisite attention to the physical throughout The Interestings. Not only did these characters have personalities, they had desires and hang-ups and bodies. Moreover, those bodies were inhabited—the way Dennis was proud of his penis, the way Jules didn’t want to climb up to Dennis’s bed with him staring at her from such an unattractive angle. I admired how you were able to detail these vulnerable physical realities and the ways in which these characters were utterly aware of their human bodies with wit and charm. So much of your writing, including your previous novels, is in one way or another about bodies. Is this awareness of physicality something you bring into your work deliberately? Why are bodies important to your work?

It wouldn’t occur to me not to include these details. They seem so essential. Writers have a kind of prurient interest in all details, and physical ones are right there in front of you, so you really have to contend with them. But I think all writers have their strengths and particular preferences; for instance, I rarely spend much time describing places. Its not an either/or situation, but the body, with all is imperfections and weirdness and beauty, always seems to deserve close attention. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure exactly why it’s the case. All writers are interested in “people,” but I think that since I’ve particularly wanted to explore sexual territory, marital territory, and the territory of mothers and children, an intense focus on physicality is going to come along with that. You have to sort of jump right in, both cold-eyed and compassionate.

Jules (and Dennis) ended back at the summer camp where the Interestings first met but then Jules realized that whatever she was looking for couldn’t be found by moving backwards. Did you ever consider ending the novel differently?

I didn’t really know for a long time that they would go back to the summer camp in the way they did. I knew, somehow, that they would return, but I wasn’t sure by what means. I’m interested in “returns,” and in the way that time can so shockingly change our views of places, people, objects, and ideas, which previously might’ve had a kind of fixity to them. I was pretty open as to where the novel would go. I had to get these people “back there”—that much I knew. And when I realized (somewhere about a quarter of the way into the novel) that they would return to the camp in a work capacity, I got excited. It made sense to me.

Who have been some of your creative influences? What books or writers have you enjoyed lately?

My mother, Hilma Wolitzer, a novelist, has been a big influence. She taught me many things about writing, and about the experience of being a working writer. Mary Gordon, one of my first writing teachers, who is now one of my closest friends, has had an enormous influence. She said something in that class that I think about all the time: “Only write what’s important.” Of course, what’s “important” varies from person to person. Some books I’ve loved are the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn; anything by Jane Gardam; and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which was kind of a thrill to read.

It has been nearly a year since you wrote “The Second Shelf” for the New York Times Book Review, and in March, we saw the third year of VIDA numbers which were, for the most part, as dismal as ever. As a writer and a woman who is vocal about these glaring gender disparities in coverage, critical attention, and publication, do you think this climate will ever improve? How do you keep fighting when it all feels so futile?

The numbers are very depressing. Someone wrote and asked me what writers can do other than talk about it; I’m not sure I know the answer, but I do know that we need to keep talking about it, and widely. And, of course, it depends on whom you talk to. People can also support VIDA, which does such important work illuminating the hard and shocking facts of gender disparity.

How do you balance advocating for yourself and women as writers and being and creating, being a writer? Do you ever find that you are pulled too much in one direction?

They seem so closely related. I can appear on panels and talk about gender inequality in publishing, and I’m willing to do that when asked. I also teach sometimes, and talk to former students and writers I know, often women, about ways to navigate their writing and publishing lives. But I think that trying to write as strongly as I can and have my fiction voice out there in the world is also part of “advocating,” in a loose sense. I mean, just showing that you’re a working writer, regardless. My work time is pretty inviolable. It’s important to be protective of that, or else everything goes to hell.

What do you like most about your writing?

I’m a freer and less nervous writer than I used to be. I hope that comes across occasionally on the page.