The ‘interesting’ Meg Wolitzer

An author lives up to her book’s title; "Growing up Jewish is in me, in many ways that probably come out more subtly than in other writers."

Little boy chefs 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Little boy chefs 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
‘You may hear cooking noises in the background,” warns New York City-based novelist Meg Wolitzer before our interview.
Wolitzer, whose ninth and most recent novel, The Interestings, is based around a group of six friends who meet at an arts camp, is a funny and engaging conversationalist, and the cooking noises set a casual and warm tone for our discussions. In addition to talking about the Jewish identity of the author and her characters, we manage to touch on VIDA counts (how many books by female authors are reviewed and how many female reviewers are writing them), literary envy, and the Jewish and Israeli writers who have influenced her work.
And of course, the role of summer camp and the communities that form there.
For many Anglos in Israel, it was a Jewish summer camp and the idea of such a community that encouraged them to make aliya, much as Wolitzer’s characters in the arts community move to New York City, the center of the arts world. Aptly, the author finds this analogy “interesting” and says people are often drawn to “want to go where you feel good. Sometimes what feels good echoes an earlier feeling you are not aware of.”
With quick humor, she adds, “I myself have moved into an amniotic sac.”
She continues more seriously that her characters may be looking for an “ earlier self” that does not exist anymore, an “atavistic self,” and that when the characters do arrive in New York as adults, there is a realization that “your current self can’t find a way to be in it, not what you thought.”
Of course, part of the pleasure of the new novel is to watch the growth of the main characters as they move through their teen and college years into young adulthood and middle age.
Wolitzer herself has managed to recapture a sense of the camp experience in her adult life during her residence at artists’ colonies Yaddo and MacDowell. She notes that the latter is “not dissimilar to when we went to camp.” The author says she loved talking to those in different disciplines there, “talking to composers about what we do that is similar to or different from what they did.”
Most significant for her was that at both camp and the artists’ colonies, “I was allowed to take myself seriously.”
Asked whether she has felt any conflict between her art and other aspects of her life, she points to the issue of “art versus the domestic life.” Writing, she elaborates, is “very interior,” and it is hard to get to that interior space “when you live in a family.” She has two sons, one who just graduated from high school and one who just graduated from college.
“I managed to work at home when the kids were young,” she explains, but says she was “always making compromises all over the place.
With one’s art, one is angry when that happens.”
Still, she has no regrets about having a family, since “I wanted that life.”
Wolitzer has been vocal about the lack of recognition women get as writers. In “The Second Shelf,” a piece she wrote for The New York Times Book Review, she opens by posing the question of how the novel The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – her classmate at Brown University – would have been received had a woman written it. Asked about Eugenides’s stature for the three books he has produced versus hers for nine novels, she says simply, “Writing is not a horse race, and I don’t think of it that way.”
She is concerned, however, about the statistics from women’s literary organization VIDA, which tracks the number of male and female authors and reviewers in many major US publications. Her personal antidote to these skewed numbers? “For me, you write as well as you can, and go on panels, and talk about this issue.”
ANOTHER SUBJECT The Interestings raises is the ways in which a successful person can make changes in the world for the better – the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. One of Wolitzer’s main characters, Ethan Figman, is a talented animation artist who creates a syndicated television show, Figland, based around a “shy lonely little kid” who “takes out a shoe box from under his bed, and inside it is this tiny little planet, this parallel world called Figland.” The show is a huge success, giving Ethan a public platform and enabling him to make a difference on a variety of levels.
Wolitzer says of the character that he “is Jewish” and that his Jewishness was “never a question in my mind,” because he is “empathetic, passionate, worried,” and making him a Jew “felt right to me.” She adds that the book has more Jewish characters “than other books I’ve written” – perhaps because she is more “aware of various things about identity.”
The author grew up in what she terms a “secular Jewish family.”
“Growing up Jewish is in me, in many ways that probably come out more subtly than in other writers,” she says. Discussing favorite Jewish and Israeli writers, she cites David Grossman’s To The End of the Land as a book that inspired her in her “thinking about fiction.” She also credits Philip Roth, saying that in his Goodbye Columbus she found a “certain kind of freedom to write in his work that I’ve wanted to tap into.”
And what is she working on now? Though she feels it is too early to be specific, she will be teaching a class on adaptation at Princeton University this fall with singer and composer Suzzy Roche. The two will discuss the process of adapting fiction to music and vice versa, and they will be writing a musical together based on a young adult novel Wolitzer has just finished, which “deals with... issues of adolescent grief.”
True to her book title, Wolitzer proves interesting indeed.