How Meg Wolitzer Made Sure The Interestings Would Be a Big Book

Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 6:50 AM

Meg Wolitzer and Sarah McGrath

The Slate Book Review author-editor interview.

(Continued from Page 1)

McGrath: No I’m not. One of the elements you mentioned in your essay for the Times was the difference between the jacket designs for novels written by men and those for novels written by women. You wrote about the soft, figurative, domestic-looking covers of novels by some women, and the big-lettered, bolder covers of novels by men. And you suggested that these covers sent varying messages of importance and authority.

Wolitzer: They absolutely do. People have told me that they’ve asked to have more input into how their books look, and I think that’s great. I mean, it’s your book. It has to look like a book you’d be proud to have written. A book that’s not marginalized by its cover, and that both men and women will take seriously.

McGrath: As a result of your piece, we approached the art for this book with particular sensitivity to these ideas, and the art department was given a copy of your essay along with the manuscript. How did we do?

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Wolitzer: Wonderfully.

McGrath: Thanks, I’m glad.

Wolitzer: The book is beautiful and inviting, but it’s also gender-neutral, with bold lettering. It's a design-based cover that I really love.

McGrath: Yes, and I also feel that it doesn't seem to warn potential male readers away by using what you described as coded images to tell them that this is a book solely for women.

Wolitzer: I really appreciate the way the art department—and you—worked carefully with what I wanted to express. Not just about gender, but also about intention. This is a book about friendship, envy, and talent. It needed a cover that feels partly young, because the characters are often young in here. And I think it needed a cover that hints at an earlier era—the 1970s, the decade that opens the book, but then it moves back and forth between the present and then—but evokes a feeling of some deep nostalgia and beauty, and makes the reader say, “Let me in.” This cover is like walking into a painting done at summer camp by a very young Mark Rothko. 

McGrath: Wow, I will pass that along. That’s a nice­­—if broad—segue into talking about our relationship: editor and writer. Maybe you could briefly describe how you think we work together—what the process is, from your perspective.

Wolitzer: Sure. As you know, I tend to like to meet with you early on and tell you my "intentions." And then you question some of them, and respond positively to others. I usually scribble pages of notes, some of which are hard for me to understand later. Once, on a scrap of paper from lunch, I scrawled the note, "What does the book mean? And what does it REALLY mean?" Is this very different from how you work with your other writers, Sarah? I mean, I guess you do have other writers, but I don’t like to think about them. That was a joke.

McGrath: I have a very different process with almost every writer I work with, and it all depends on a variety of things, but largely it comes down to the writer’s personal process—whether they find it helpful to discuss the work early, or only when they’ve come out the other side. And whether the part they want or need help with is on the line, structure, story, character, or idea level.

Wolitzer: This sounds very scientific.

McGrath: Oh, it isn’t. You just have to feel the writer out in each case to see what he or she needs, and what will work best. You and I know each other particularly well, having worked on five books over 11 or 12 years.

Wolitzer: That sounds impressive when you put it like that.

McGrath: It is. And I think the trust we’ve built up allows for a liberation from judgment, which lets brainstorming conversations roam especially freely. And because you so clearly convey to me, early on, what you’re trying to achieve with a book, part of my job as we progress through the drafts is not just to make sure the book reads well, but to make sure you’re succeeding in your intentions.

Wolitzer: Listening to you say this, I’m reminded that I’m very, very lucky. I know some people who basically get a few comments left in the margins like little droppings. “Nice!” the editor writes, months after the writer handed it in. Or, “Make her more assertive.” I feel very grateful at how deeply you work, and how patient you are.

McGrath: And I feel grateful that you choose to wrestle with certain big-novel ideas. There was that book by Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be? You’re like, How Should a Novel Be?

Wolitzer: And when I finally find the answer, you’ll be the first person I will tell.

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The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Riverhead.

Sarah McGrath is an editor at Riverhead Books.

Meg Wolitzer is the author of The Interestings.