Person of Interest
Meg Wolitzer's latest book tracks six characters through three decades of friendship
"Fiction contains as much truth as nonfiction. You're learning how people live," says novelist Meg Wolitzer. "And you need that kind of empathy to live in a world that is bearable."
We are speaking on the phone in advance of Wolitzer's appearance at the Texas Book Festival, and although it is early – she has to go teach a morning class at Princeton University – Wolitzer is every bit as funny and insightful as her novels would suggest. In novels like The Wife, The Ten-Year Nap, The Uncoupling, and her most recent book, The Interestings, she portrays realistic characters struggling through slow-burning everyday dramas of families, marriages, and careers, punctuated by the occasional tragedy. As in life, they usually survive, using a mixture of humor, endurance, and, above all, empathy. Wolitzer is a portraitist of the bearable world.
The Interestings tells the story of six friends who meet at an artsy camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods in the historic summer of 1974. The central character enters camp as Julie Jacobson, a mousy, permed invisible from Long Island; she leaves as "Jules," a glamorous "Interesting," having been miraculously adopted by a clique of cosmopolitan teenagers. The group includes Goodman and Ash, the perfectly blond son and daughter of a wealthy, tight-knit Manhattan family; Jonah, the sensitive son of a famous folk singer; Cathy, a self-assured dancer; and finally Ethan, an animator with an ugly face and a monumental, obsessive talent that sets him apart from his precocious peers. The group's moniker, conceived in a moment of grandiose irony, captures all the intoxicating and self-congratulatory feelings of the young and creative at the height of their energies. Wolitzer tracks the six characters' lives over three decades, with a special focus on Jules, for whom being "slapped into life at Spirit-in-the-Woods" that summer raises expectations that are never quite fulfilled.
Wolitzer herself had a formative summer camp experience at a similar camp for young artists and performers in 1974. Although growing up on Long Island with a novelist mother (Hilma Wolitzer) and a psychologist father, her life was hardly without culture. She remembers the experience as a revelation: "These kids went all around the city on the subway. There was a new print of an old Marx Brothers movie that we went to, and we went to Washington Park, and we went to museums without my parents, and stayed in these apartments. Who they were, what they read, what they knew: It was a whole new world to me."
In the novel, as Jules' wealthier and more connected friends move into bigger apartments, she experiences pangs of envy, as well as a suspicion that things could have gone differently if she had requited the attentions of the group's most successful member. The friendship between Jules and Ethan is one of the most satisfying aspects of the book, and, incidentally, one of the most sympathetic portrayals of the "friend zone" in recent fiction.
"What's the friend zone?" Wolitzer asks me, but recognizes the concept immediately when I explain. "What I liked about writing about this one-way feeling was that you could really write about longing – his longing for her, but also her longing that it had been another way perhaps, but then making her peace with that." (Some of Wolitzer's readers have made it clear that they haven't made peace with it – "I love when people take umbrage at things characters do," she says.)
Wolitzer, who was partially inspired to write the book by reconnecting with a camp friend, never leaves us in doubt over the value of such friendships. "I think it is really about the moment in your life which often happens when you're young, when you find your tribe, your people," says Wolitzer, who balances Jules' inevitable envy of her friends' lives with the rewards of lifelong friendship, as well as the heightened sense of herself that she gains from knowing them.
Aside from her novels, Wolitzer is also known for the public stance she has taken on gender disparity in the top ranks of literary fiction. In March 2012, Wolitzer's New York Times article "The Second Shelf" (she gracefully credits her editor with the title) asked why novels like hers that deal with a wide range of topics are called "women's fiction" and lumped together on Amazon, with "Jane Austen, Sophie Kinsella, ... Danielle Steel and Louisa May Alcott" – authors who have little in common besides their gender.
Has anything changed in the year-and-a-half since she wrote the original article? Not really, she says, citing the most recent VIDA statistics on the number of books by women and men reviewed in top literary publications, alongside with the proportions of male and female reviewers: "They're bad. ... In the literary world at that level, it's quite a man's world, with some notable exceptions."
Although none of the characters in The Interestings write novels, its central premise – the ways in which creative talent does or doesn't translate into a career – takes gender into account. Ash complains about the tendency of reviewers to mention her famous husband in reviews of the feminist plays she produces: "What does a woman have to do to be seen as a serious person?" she asks.
What, indeed? Wolitzer's past novels have taken seriously the rewards and regrets associated with women's choices, from dreams deferred in The Wife to stay-at-home motherhood in The Ten-Year Nap. Another theme has been the lasting effect parents have on their children and vice versa; The Position hilariously portrays the effects on four children of finding the hippie sex manual – complete with pictures – written by their parents. As the daughter of a novelist, Wolitzer was not immune to such traumas. She recalls boys at school making fun of her for the sex scene in her mother's first novel. But, in typical Wolitzer style, she finds a positive spin: "But if you think about it now – wow, these boys had taken this literary novel out and read it! What is that world? I want to live in that world!"
Maybe she will, eventually. Since the publication of The Interestings, Wolitzer has garnered more male readers, but whether that's due to the Times manifesto or to the fact that the recent book has more male characters, she can't say. The day after we spoke, however, Canadian writer Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her beautiful stories, many of them based on home and family life. The world is getting more interesting every day.
Meg Wolitzer appears on the Iconoclasts panel with Lynda Obst Sunday, Oct. 26, 10am, at the Sanctuary at First United Methodist Church (1201 Lavaca). Sarah Bird moderates.