Meg Wolitzer is the author of ten novels, including The Wife (2003) and The Interestings (2010). Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, she currently teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton. This interview was conducted in Spring 2017.
Interviewers: You’ve had a long and successful career as a writer, publishing both literary fiction for adults and books for younger readers. Do you approach your YA and middle-grade novels differently than your literary fiction?
Meg Wolitzer: I try to write the books that interest me, regardless of whether they’re for young readers or adults. That said, I do try and imagine myself at 12 or 13 when I’m writing middle-grade or YA, and think of the kinds of books I would’ve loved then.
Interviewers: When did you start writing? How has your understanding of yourself as a writer changed over the years?
Meg Wolitzer: My mother is a novelist, Hilma Wolitzer, and she encouraged my writing when I was in grade school. I was very fortunate to have had (and still have) her support. I’m not sure exactly how my understanding of myself as a writer has changed, because I’m not entirely sure I have a great understanding of myself as a writer. I just try to work on ideas that interest and perplex and absorb me. People say, “Write what you know,” but for me it’s more like, “Write what obsesses you.”
Interviewers: Does YA open possibilities for your literary fiction and vice-versa? Where do you see your fiction moving in the future?
Meg Wolitzer: I have always written about young characters in my books, and perhaps writing YA keeps me, in a more concentrated way, in the piquant world of the teenager. I don’t know where I see my fiction moving. I can’t say it’s exactly like Mary Poppins going somewhere new when the wind changes, but I do try to remain open to writing a very different book next time.
Interviewers: Your novels are very funny, but the humor often seems to come from different places and to operate in different ways—playful or scathing or even, somehow, both at once. Can you talk about the role humor plays in your work? What are continued sources of humor for you?
Meg Wolitzer: It feels natural to include different parts of myself in my work, and I guess humor is one of them. But I hope it doesn’t arise out of nowhere and just get shoehorned in. Ideally, humor works along with the other elements in a piece of fiction, a way to enhance the story, a sort of narrative MSG.
Interviewers: In The Wife, the narrator, Joan, says that as a student she could not “write from the point of view of the husband… I didn’t really know what men thought, or how they thought, couldn’t imagine what powered them, what steered them, and so I decided not to try.” And yet, in a way, she does write from that point of view, and the novel itself reveals a great deal of what powers and steers her husband. Do you find that fiction opens up spaces to understand new perspectives? Is this the case with both reading and writing?
Meg Wolizter: Sure. That study about fiction increasing the capacity for empathy—that felt right to me. As a reader I have felt the absolute thrill of other lives opening up before me. As a writer I’ve tried to do that—to say: this is what it’s like being this person in this situation. This is what it’s like. Sometimes a novel is a longform accretion of evidence of what it’s like being someone else.
Interviewers: Your most recent book of literary fiction, The Interestings, explores familiar childhood territory for many readers—camp, summer friendships, the precociousness of youth. The novel crosses decades, carrying us through the characters’ teenage years and well into adulthood. What made you decide to write a novel about summer camp? How did you determine The Interestings’ shape and scope?
Meg Wolitzer: I did go to a summer camp that was similar to the one in the novel, and it was a strong experience that stayed with me. I would dream about it a lot over the years, and I realized that what interested me was the idea of what happens to talent over time. So I set part of the novel there, in that place that was so vivid (at least to me).
Interviewers: In The Interestings, you beautifully captured how tightly envy and awe are woven into friendship. Can you talk a bit about how to write believably about friendships— and the characters that are transformed by it—on the page?
Meg Wolitzer: I love writing about friends. They are essential, they fortify, they disappoint, they hover; there are many ways to look at friendship. It’s a subject that I find pretty durable, and I imagine that will always be true for me.
Interviewers: What are the books you read as a young person that shaped you as a writer?
Meg Wolitzer: Charlotte’s Web; A Wrinkle in Time; Jane Eyre—in that order, moving from spider/pig friendship to the mysteries of the universe to the search for love and a place in the world.
Interviewers: What advice do you have for creating a sustainable writing life?
Meg Wolitzer: I think you have to be willing to set aside some inviolable work time on a regular basis. This can be hard, because people have jobs, and maybe families, but if you can find a bit of time and a particular place where you can’t be reached by any kind of electronic device or person—and you stay there a while—you’re off to a good start.