Sarah McGrath: Meg, having known you as long as I have, and all the conversations we’ve had in that time about books and writing and careers and also life and friendship and aging, I have the sense that many of the ideas behind The Interestings are things you’ve done a great deal of thinking about. Do you have the same sense that I do, that this is a book that you’ve been building for a long time?
Meg Wolitzer: That’s certainly true, though I don't think I realized it until I was well into it. What I knew initially was that I wanted to write about what happens to talent over time—and do it by following a group of friends who know each other from adolescence through middle age, having met at a summer camp for talented teenagers. But once the essential premise got underway, I saw that maybe it wasn’t an accident that I’d chosen a book that required a big sweep of time. And in fact that choice was related to the way I'd been thinking about life more and more.
McGrath: And what exactly was that way?
Wolitzer: Well, I suppose I’d been focusing on changes that people undergo over years and decades. I’d been thinking a lot about who'd dropped away, who’d become well-known, who’d become lonely, who was dead. There were a lot of obsessive thoughts about who was dead. I’m still shocked at the deaths of friends, even years and years later.
McGrath: The fact that you let more of the city and the world in, along with all the people in this book—and there’s a pretty substantial cast of characters—makes me feel that your whole conception of a novel was changing.
Wolitzer: You know, I started publishing novels very young. I sold my first book, Sleepwalking, when I was a senior at Brown. And it came out the year after I graduated. But I have the sense that even though I started young, I began to mature late.
McGrath: I think your early work is pretty sophisticated.
Wolitzer: Well, I was more intuitive than anything else. I wanted the sentences to be fine, and I cared about style. Those things still do matter to me, of course. But the overarching sense of what a novel could be wasn’t something I thought much about. And it kind of stayed this way for a long time. Pretty much until I started my novel The Wife, at which point I woke up a little, and wanted to challenge myself more in my work, and write a novel that was tighter and, I guess, bolder.
McGrath: This was conscious? That you should write in a different way?
Wolitzer: It was more like, the books I liked reading felt both freer and more focused than the ones I was writing. And I didn’t know why that was. I started thinking that what makes novels work is an imperative that propels them forward, and I hadn’t always had that. And as I’ve gotten “mature”—which makes it sound like I’m talking about going through puberty here in delightful middle age—I guess I mean that I now feel compelled to try and make my books more urgent.
McGrath: What do you mean by urgency?
Wolitzer: I’ve had moments, quite a few pages into reading a book, when I’ll think, irritably, Who the hell are Susan and Jeff, and why am I supposed to care about their marriage? Maybe the writer hasn’t found the imperative. Which isn’t to say that good writing can’t be both good and leisurely.
McGrath: Or beautiful.
Wolitzer: Exactly. Leisurely and beautiful is maybe my dream. But you need to give the reader a sense of why you are “telling them this.” Why they need to become absorbed in your story and your language. It’s really difficult to do; I worry about it whenever I look over new pages I’ve written.
McGrath: As your editor, naturally I’m biased. I feel that The Interestings totally has what you call imperative. Some of the writing is beautiful, too. I wouldn’t call it leisurely, though it’s pretty long, for you.
Wolitzer: My new nickname is William T. Vollmann.
McGrath: But your book is really a “big” novel in all senses of the word. Big in size, broader in its coverage of time, and the changes in people’s lives, and it’s ambitious in scope, and it’s also accompanied by “big book buzz.”
Wolitzer: Oh God … “And all her hopes for the novel were dashed on the rocks below.”
McGrath: Of course, this topic of how fiction is perceived, big or small, is something you wrote about in a now famous essay in the New York Times Book Review almost exactly a year ago. Which came first, the ambition and vision for the book, or the insights that went into the essay?
Wolitzer: I have a chicken and egg answer, I think. I've been absorbed for a long time in questions about men and women and fiction; I tried to address them—or impale them—in The Wife 10 years ago. Since that time, these ideas have sometimes found their way sort of obliquely into my fiction, and other times they've simply made for a passionate conversation.
I knew I wanted to write an essay about this, because it was what I thought about all the time. As I kept playing with ideas about the different ways literature by men and women is often treated, I was also deep into The Interestings. But as I mapped out the essay, I may have also (coincidentally or not) allowed myself to try and put a little more unconflicted muscularity and energy in my novel. I mean, you may not be able to control how your book will be treated, but no matter who you are, you have to write what absorbs and preoccupies you. There's no point otherwise. Thinking directly about gender issues, which do absorb and preoccupy me, I guess—and also looking at the atrocious VIDA numbers—did light something up in me, and at least some of that light was applied directly to my fiction.
McGrath: “Gender issues”—I’m glad you brought that up.
Wolitzer: But I bet you’re not surprised I did.
TODAY IN SLATE
The Right Target
Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.
The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget
It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is
I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights
Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.
Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.
It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice
Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.
In Defense of HR
Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.