Time and Talent: Meg Wolitzer on “The Interestings” and Writing Freely, Openly, Without Fear

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mwolitsbio_imageBy Kelly Roark

Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, “The Interestings,” begins with a group of teenagers in a summer camp. Jules, the initial outsider, is there on a scholarship but finds herself embraced by a circle of friends that open her world a little wider. A look at talent and various means of success, “The Interestings” follows these characters to their late fifties. Wolitzer discussed the book and some of its themes with me.

You attended a summer camp like the characters in the book— is that what inspired this story?
Yes. I mean, in part. If the summer camp experience hadn’t led to a lot of other thoughts I would never have written a book about it because it’s not a “summer camp” novel. For me, the experience opened my life up to the fact that there’s a big wide world out there. So, it was really when I came of age. I loved it so much there and it was the first time I got to take myself seriously. I met these wonderful kids who are not the kids in the book but I met my own group of wonderful kids. I couldn’t bear to be without them.

Did they become lifelong friends like your characters?
One did, the person I dedicated the book to. She remains my closest friend to this day and it’s very moving to have that, because it’s somebody that knew you back then. What interested me, and why I started it at that summer camp was that it was the moment of change, the big moment when things change for a character, and everything is so heightened when you’re an adolescent.When you came of age remains a time that is just pivotal for you, or at least for a lot of people. I remember things with greater detail—it was wonderful to bring up those visuals for me like living in this beautiful setting and being free—being allowed to be creative.

It was an arts camp?
 It was an arts camp for teenagers. But, you know, it was different from the way things are in the book because I do like to make things up.

What is it about camp that gives it this transformative power?
Well, you’re away from your parents. That’s a really important thing. What goes on there is a society that is essentially run by young people. With a little luck it’s not going to be “Lord of the Flies.” It’s going to be somewhat self-governing. You wouldn’t go to a camp like this if you didn’t want to do something arts-like with your summer, so right away it’s a self-selecting community.

Could you describe Figland?
“Figland” is a cartoon in the vague vein of something like “The Simpsons,” in that it’s a cartoon from that same period that is meant for adults but kids can like too and has ironic jokes and weird characters and cultural references. It’s created by a character in my book called Ethan Figman who came up with the idea for a place called Figland when he was a child. It was a planet that was kept in a shoebox under his bed. He would open the shoebox in his mind and go to Figland. What it stands for, for me, is that pure creativity, that if you’re lucky enough to have access to, you have wonderful things in store. He is the most talented figure in the book, and Figland makes him fabulously wealthy and successful as an adult. I like the idea of one’s creativity being able to take that person the distance. I don’t really mean financially because that’s less interesting to me, but that comes with the territory here. He’s true to himself and he gets to have this very public success. But, a lot of it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t had the connections that he had. A lot of success is about luck, and money, and class, and all those types of issues that I tried to explore.

Ethan is one of the few characters that transcends his “class”—is that because of his talent?
Well, he marries a woman who is upper-class, and her family has connections that he has been part in, so that’s a big part of it as well. I think he would have succeeded regardless. He may be a case of “talent will out,” but the scale, and the connections, and the way that it keeps going along is helped quite a bit by Ash’s family. I know how hard it is to leave one’s class. But, even though he grows up not-wealthy, he does grow up in the milieu of New York City and he’s allowed to go to this summer camp. His parents are able to send him there. So, even from the start, he’s got a leg up.

Do you think it’s a spoiler to say what happens between Goodman and Cathy?
No. I wrote a novel called “The Wife” that has a big “surprise ending.” I knew that a lot of readers would not know what the ending was and some would. I’m always much more interested in how you get there than plot. I think that plot is a sort of thing for me that I have to remember books are supposed to have, because I don’t fetishize plot. But, we can talk about it if you’d like to. Goodman, who is the brother of Ash, who I just mentioned, who is a very handsome, sort of sexy and disagreeable character who hasn’t found his niche or his talent, has been sort of coddled by his parents, is accused of raping Cathy, who is one of the other “Interestings” as they ironically call themselves. He disappears and no one knows where he has gone. I like the idea of one of them falling away. It was exciting to me to write. I don’t travel in a pack. And you have friends that go in and out. A couple break off, or two of you do or you come together again. One of the things that they don’t tell you about adulthood is that you’re not all going to stay together. You have this fantasy that you will. So, I followed over this very long period of time this initial group, and one of them falls away, in disgrace, but in confusion.

What about Cathy? The Interestings really turn away from her in her hour of need.
They do. I really struggled with that. What occurred to me is that Jules loves Ash and Goodman’s family. The idea of being included was so important, and the fact that they include her, and in such a big and important secret—she’s so flattered by that. And it’s only much much later as an adult that she’s able to almost wake up from the dream. So many people, it’s like, you ask how were they able to do acts of cruelty when they were a child, and there’s this sense of “I wasn’t fully conscious. I didn’t inhabit my moral character yet.” They don’t really take her claims seriously, and she falls away from them too, in a different way. It was a painful thing to write.

Do you have a favorite character?
I do kind of love Ethan. I like Jonah, which is a lesser storyline, but I like Ethan a lot. My books are focused more on women than men. Giving Ethan his own sections, I wanted to rise to the challenge of writing a complex man who wasn’t just the nice, Sam Shepard-y fantasy of what a kind man would be. I mean, he is very kind, but he’s flawed. As I get older, I’m still reinventing what I want a novel to be. It’s not even so much about the characters in isolation from one another but it’s about them in connection with one another. The reason I like Ethan is because he’s so connected to Jules.

Could you talk about the importance of nostalgia in your book?
I think that it’s a very nostalgic book. The fact that I looked back at this time in my life with strong feelings let me know that this was worth writing about. Writing a book is like a heat-seeking missile. You go where the feelings are. What is nostalgia?  It’s missing something that you experience. That opens the door to questions like, “Are you missing something now?” It can become more complex. So, [it’s] starting with nostalgia and, I hope, broadening it, so it’s not just a sentimental book.

Some of the characters let go of their talent—do you think they’re letting go of something special or is that just a natural part of growing up?
When you’re young, if you’re the kind of person who gets sent to a camp like this, your parents can probably afford it, and you may come from a background that believes in the arts and thinks this is worthwhile. But, as I note in the book, for a lot of parents who are glad that their child is a glassblower at fifteen, if that child grows up to become a glassblower at thirty, some of those parents are going to feel that they’ve failed, because the child hasn’t taken that and turned it into something more “establishment.” I’ve wrestled a lot with these issues of talent and what does it mean if you are talented but you don’t make a living from it? Was it a waste that you did that? I certainly don’t think so. One’s talent: does it have to have an actual, tangible expression? Can it be expressed in ways that are subtler? My answer is yes, it can.

Could you talk about the title?
I knew the title right away. I always really like it when I have a title right away, I feel like those are the books that I maybe understand better. The title is meant ironically, somewhat, because they call themselves The Interestings when they’re adolescents and they do it with semi-irony. They are coming into the idea that maybe they have something to offer. And I like that it was a weird word, and it’s not really a word. The book really is so much about that—that talent and specialness, and what happens to talent over time—what happens to interestingness over time. And what does it mean to be interesting.

I loved the essay you wrote for the New York Times last year—you talked a lot about cover art—it seems like your cover might be a specific response to that?
My publisher is very sensitive to things that I have said and felt about cover art. This is really a pretty gender-neutral cover, while still being very inviting. You could have a man’s name on this cover and you wouldn’t be that surprised. I like that it’s not figurative. I’ve noticed that a lot of covers by women are figurative—dreamy, girls in water, girls in fields, or that one that you see again and again that’s like women facing away, you know, the backs of women’s necks. And some of them are beautiful and great, and I don’t want to knock them, but for me, it’s frustrating because it is a smaller subset of men who go out of their way to read books about women’s lives and women’s experiences. Things like the way a book looks starts the conversation. Coded images affect our choice of a book, or a book-review editor’s choice to review a book. Like, “Oh, this doesn’t look important so I’m going to put it back, because it has a little girl in a field of wheat on the cover.” I’m not against the girl in the field of wheat, I don’t want to be elitist about this whatsoever—if it represents you, that’s wonderful, but if it’s going to keep readers from going to you because it seems so gendered, you have to wonder what effects it will have on you in terms of getting reviews and being taken seriously.

Vanity Fair called you a “stealth feminist.” What do you think about that?
The “stealth” implies hidden—I’m certainly a feminist. I was amused by that comment and I liked it because I’m not writing political tracts and I’m not writing nonfiction about feminism. I care very much for the way women writers are treated in book culture. I’ve gotten involved with VIDA, the women’s organization that does the counts every year [they collect and compile data about the sex of book reviewers and the sex of writers reviewed in major publications]. If feminism comes out in a stealthy way, that’s fine. It’s certainly a big part of my life.

Caitlin Moran says we should reclaim the term “strident feminist.”
Yeah, when did all these terms become negative? And women don’t want to call themselves feminists… okay, I mean, there’s generational things that I don’t want to get into… I recently reread Nora Ephron’s essay about the women’s movement—it’s like the early days of Shirley Chisholm being put up for president, looking at Gloria Steinem, who is just such an incredible figure, and Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan—look at how much those women accomplished, and how loud and important the women’s movement was and what it did for this country. Obviously there’s been a lot of slippage in certain areas. I can’t believe we still don’t have cheap day care, which would allow great parity for women. Yeah, I would love a return to loud, strident feminism.

Can you tell us what’s next? What are you working on?
I wish I could, because that would mean that I was at a different stage. I’ve just sort of started something, and I’m not sure what it will be yet. The fact that I don’t have a title yet lets me really know that I don’t know what it is yet. At the beginning, you’re far away from the rewriting, which is so important. To write freely, openly, and without fear, right away, and then to edit ruthlessly is a really good combination of how to begin a book.

“The Interestings”
by Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead, 480 pages, $27.95

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