The Female Persuasion, The Wife and working with Nora Ephron: an interview with novelist Meg Wolitzer
Carriageworks, the venue for the 2019 Sydney Writers’ Festival, is a maze of open staircases, exposed metal beams and factory floor. As US novelist Meg Wolitzer winds her way into the dingy heart of the building, it seems a far cry from the glamorous life she portrays in The Wife, her novel about an award-winning and feted fiction writer and his unassuming — in public, anyway — wife. Glenn Close’s magnificent performance, nominated for an Oscar, meant the film and novel received international attention. But it’s Wolitzer’s latest book that has brought her to Australia, The Female Persuasion, a novel written before the #metoo movement came to light, but which embodies the ‘where are we at’ and ‘where have we come from’ discussions bringing to the forefront all aspects of feminism.
I spoke to Meg Wolitzer about her books, women using their outside voices, mentors and what it’s like to have a mother who’s a novelist.
Kirsten Krauth: What was the impact of your mother being a writer, growing up? Did you think, “Oh, the writer’s life, that’s something I want”?
Meg Wolitzer: It wasn’t that I thought that life was so great. It wasn’t about the glory or the reviews or anything … It was that I loved books so much, and we shared that, and I just loved to read, and it was such a huge part of my life going to a library. It was this enormous thing that we did as a family all the time, and because my mother was a writer, they let us take out more books than everybody else…
It was very exciting to create characters and to create a whole world, so I think it was the desire to create worlds, really, that brought me in.
Kirsten Krauth: When did you start writing your first kind of stories? Did you feel like you were creating your own world even at that point?
Meg Wolitzer: In first grade, I had a teacher who would invite me up to her desk to dictate to her, and she would write down my stories because she could write much faster than I, so she was sort of like my executive secretary.
It wasn’t even necessarily that she thought I was good, because it didn’t have to be about accomplishment. She saw that I loved it, and I think that in terms of mentorship, to sort of recognise passion as opposed to a skill is a really great thing. But they weren’t very good, the stories that I wrote, but I was filled with stories and just couldn’t stop.
Kirsten Krauth: So why do you think they weren’t very good, even at that age?
Meg Wolitzer: Well, because I was six.
Kirsten Krauth: … like compared to other kids?
Meg Wolitzer: I was trying to sort of imitate what I thought a story felt like or was, and they were … I mean they were probably good for a six or seven year old. There was no real characterisation yet. It was only later that I, of course, saw what makes a story. But I think what was in them, that showed that I loved it, was an inventiveness, and you certainly need that as a writer, and that was definitely there.
There were truck drivers. There was one about astronauts.
They really were about other people, sort of imagining other people’s lives, so that was my way in.
Kirsten Krauth: Yeah. That strikes me as very unusual.
Meg Wolitzer: And maybe so. I don’t know if your experience was very different.
Kirsten Krauth: Actually, I wrote from the perspective of the Sydney Harbour Bridge when I was little.
Meg Wolitzer: Well, there you go.
Kirsten Krauth: It was my first story, it was about the Sydney Harbor Bridge.
Meg Wolitzer: That’s fantastic.
Kirsten Krauth: The Bridge was sad, because she wasn’t colourful.
Meg Wolitzer: Yes, but you understood what a story can be. It was later that I got more ‘I-ish’, but I don’t think of my fiction as terribly autobiographical now.
Kirsten Krauth: Do you think that has shifted from early books, or it’s never been like that?
Meg Wolitzer: No, I don’t think its ever really been like that. I really wanted to create a whole world, and I was much more interested in invention. So, I like to make things up.
Kirsten Krauth: So, any parent is familiar with the line, “use your indoor voice”. I know I am. So, in your novel, you play with this term, “outdoor voice”. What does using your outdoor voice mean to you?
Meg Wolitzer: I guess it means being unashamed to say what you feel. You know how on television shows, sometimes they’ll have a seven second delay if somebody’s being interviewed? It’s like not worrying about the seven second delay.
So, it’s really about speaking your mind without being afraid of repercussions. That’s what it is for me.
Kirsten Krauth: And, does that flow onto the fiction you write?
Meg Wolitzer: I hope so. I really mean it as much about fiction as I do about speaking in the world. I mean, for instance, you go onstage and you really try to be honest — to get at something. It’s not private. It’s not just between you and a friend. It could go on Twitter, it could anywhere, and its a voice that becomes in the world, especially now. So, to not be afraid. Somebody once said to me about the first panel they were on, they realised people were filming it, and at first she got much more reticent, and then she goes, “Oh well, because I can’t do anything about it, whatever.” Then she became more herself, speaking.
Kirsten Krauth: So, that’s sort of the fear of being seen?
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, exactly. Just not being afraid to be seen, and to think whatever I have to say is enough.
Kirsten Krauth: And has that changed from say your first book tour? You couldn’t really get a much bigger audience than yesterday.
Meg Wolitzer: No, I definitely would have had much more anxiety, and sort of feel sick to my stomach. I was young and worried about how I’d be seen. Almost like you are putting on a persona rather than who you are, and how you describe your work, and how you describe the process is enough, because it’s genuine.
Kirsten Krauth: So you don’t feel that you need to put it on, like a lot of writers, who feel like they have to be a performing version of themselves, or have a scripted kind of way that they speak.
Meg Wolitzer: There are lines, there’s shtick that you do and things you repeat, and I know that I have repeated myself at the festival because I don’t have an endless bucket of things to say, but, I’m definitely much more myself, fully myself now, than I was when I began.
Kirsten Krauth: The Female Persuasion is about mentorship and the complexity of that relationship. Did you have a Faith Frank in your life, or did you ever fulfill that role?
Meg Wolitzer: I definitely had a number of different women who were very helpful and encouraging to me when I was young. One was my mother, Hilma Wolitzer, who is a writer, who is 89. And one is the writer, Nora Ephron, who was very encouraging to me, and also made a film based on an early novel of mine. The film was called This is My Life.
Kirsten Krauth: How did that come about?
Meg Wolitzer: You know she optioned it.
Kirsten Krauth: She read it and thought, “I’m going to make my first film based on this book”. I mean, that’s a big thing to do.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, I know, it really is. She was very inclusive — “come along and be part of it”. It’s about a stand up comedian and her two daughters, and we went to comedy clubs and all of that.
Kirsten Krauth: So, what role does humour play in your work? Do you try to attempt comic flourishes or does it just come naturally?
Meg Wolitzer: I would never try to attempt comic flourishes. I think novels are not like — insert joke here. If something comes up and it’s arising innately from the material … If it’s a humour that comes out of character, how people live, I won’t discourage it. But sometimes in editing you go, “Oh, wait a minute, you’re just trying to be funny. Cut it out.” I don’t think my books are comic novels really at all. There is some incidental humour or wit maybe in a scene.
Kirsten Krauth: Did Nora teach you a really good sense of comic timing then in terms of a laugh? Do you think Nora taught you anything like that about where to place humour?
Meg Wolitzer: Not necessarily where to place it, but it almost ties into what you were asking before, to not have to suppress it. I remember there was something we were looking at, somebody’s screenplay, and there was a sort of mean joke in it, and she didn’t like it, and it was never about cruelty, that kind of humour. It was a charitable humour, but I definitely saw how important that was, and I think that is right. That was encouraged by her.
Kirsten Krauth: At a key moment for your character Greer… she says that’s what this life it about, the weighing. Is that what life is about for you? Weighing things.
Meg Wolitzer: That is part of it, definitely. You have all these experiences and you weigh them. You weigh also things in a moral way. Is it worth it to do this? What does this get me? Is the mistake I made so bad? Yeah, I definitely think so. The fact that as I talk to you, I’m using my hands like a scale means that it must be true.
Kirsten Krauth: There is a lot of public speaking in your novels, and I sense some reticence sometimes. When you get up on stage at festivals, do you feel like you are more Faith or more Greer in the spotlight?
Meg Wolitzer: You sensed reticence from me, you said?
Kirsten Krauth: Just in the books — no, not you personally. Well, it’s something that seems to be an undercurrent all the way through.
Meg Wolitzer: I think it goes back and forth, definitely. I am a writer, not a public speaker, but I do a lot of public speaking. I think for writers, so many of us discuss it, how the public self is the antithesis of when we are alone in a room, and we get paid for that part — that is the main thing. I definitely waffle back and forth. I think that it has gotten a little more Faith-ish as I’ve gotten older.
When people come to you and want to tell you things, so it’s gotten a little more that way but I’ve definitely been in both positions without a doubt.
Kirsten Krauth: What all the characters seem to share is the notion that it is doing the work that matters. How does doing the work of writing shape meaning in your day-to-day life?
Meg Wolitzer: I think it really is profound to be able to put something down in words and have it represent the thought, and have it not be a way around the thought, but to really go in and go through it. So, writing means to me something serious, the best representation of what I am thinking at the time. I had a teacher, the writer Mary Gordon, who said to our class in college, “Only write about what is important.” What she meant was, only write about what is important to you. And I feel like that was so meaningful to me, because no one had ever said to me — what is important to you? It made us start to think about what is important to us.
Kirsten Krauth: And that comes across in the way you speak.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, good. I’m glad.
Kirsten Krauth: I kept waiting for your novel, The Female Persuasion, to diverge from feminism. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it as the central theme of a novel. And it also incorporates ideas brought up by the #MeToo Movement, but you said you wrote it before that, which was surprising to me. Did you set out to write a book about feminism? And, did #MeToo, when you heard about it, have an impact? Did things shift in your mind, or did you think, “I’ve captured the Zeitgeist”?
Meg Wolitzer: I don’t think I set out to write a book about feminism. I used that as a sort of backdrop. I really set out to write a book about female power and about that person who sees you, and feminism seemed like a really direct, good way to sort of look at it. If I started using words like intersectionality in this book … I didn’t want the book to feel like a treatise in any way. It would not be interesting to read. Plus, I think it is about a lot more than that. I mean, the relationship with Cory — I’m very, very interested in long standing relationships in books, and I like tracking them over time. I try to never be doctrinaire. The ideas around feminism are not explored in some deep way, but it’s using feminism as a lever, and a way to look at a lot of ideas around female power, and mentorship, and all those things.
Kirsten Krauth: So, when #MeToo happened, what were you thinking, when all this stuff was cropping up?
Meg Wolitzer: I handed in the book right before the 2016 presidential election, and I thought, of course, Hillary would be president. It was making its way through copy editing, and I said to my editor, “I just feel like — it almost seems as if right now, sometimes things are a little bad for women, and then they’re a little better, but you keep going. What if the whole thing is ripped out from under you like that magic trick with the table cloth.”
I would like to go back in and write what essentially is almost like a coda to the last chapter, which thrusts a bit into the future, into 2019, which is no longer the future but it’s the future for this book, because the book starts in 2006 and moves forward. So, it was the future for these characters. I wanted to acknowledge that sometimes there could be a sharp change that wouldn’t be for the good, and how these characters reckoned with that and I also wanted to acknowledge the nascent movement of women flooding politics, and the change that had happened. You don’t want a book to be disposable. I don’t mean for this book to just be about this moment. I never, ever meant that. So, I like to acknowledge it without making it too specific. Hillary and Trump’s names are not mentioned in this book, and that is deliberate. I want it to be about ideas that have been resonating for a long time, and will be resonating, some of them unfortunately, and some of them fortunately.
Kirsten Krauth: And, this is a bit of a cheeky question … After writing The Wife, does it ever make you wonder when you are on panels with male writers …
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, that they are like that? Like blowhards, you mean?
Kirsten Krauth: No, who is behind the hard work.
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, oh — whether they wrote their own books?
Kirsten Krauth: Did they deserve their own success?
Meg Wolitzer: Maybe, I should. Maybe, I should.
Kirsten Krauth: That’s what I would be doing. That’s never occurred to you?
Meg Wolitzer: No, but now it is. No, it hasn’t.
Kirsten Krauth: So, how did you get that idea for the book, The Wife?
Meg Wolitzer: You know, because my mother is a writer, I had seen some of the experiences that she had when her first novel was published. A review said something like, “Housewife turns into novelist”, and it seemed condescending. I took note of that. You just filed things away, and you could see sometimes a certain heat and excitement around the male writers, the big male writers — the Updikes and Norman Mailers — all those writers. Not that they are similar writers, but there was a feeling about it, a gravitas around them. And, just as a young person, I just filed it away, as you do.
Kirsten Krauth: And from there, how did you move on to The Wife? Was there any story you came across, or any research you came across? I guess, I am thinking at the moment, there is a podcast on here about Einstein and his wife …
Meg Wolitzer: Since the book came out I’ve heard a lot more stories around marriages and things. Not even where people are suspected of writing the work, but you have Vladimir and Vera Nabokov, and she was essential to his work, and did so much for him. Those stories aren’t uncommon, but I was just wanting to show the way men, talking about voices, have been given the voices, the outside voices, and women have been the wife. And you go to the wife for sustenance, but there is a lot in the book — everyone needs a wife, not meaning as in a lesbian couple, but to have that role of the person who is going to create the world that you can then do your work comfortably from.
Kirsten Krauth: So, there seems to be a breaking down of the idea of the male gaze. And at one point Faith Frank bypasses Holt Rayburn and she speaks directly to the camera. That’s a really powerful scene for me. Do you see all your writing, including The Wife, as kind of reflecting that female gaze?
Meg Wolitzer: Definitely, a female gaze. Yeah, I’ve never not thought of it that way. I’m interested in writing about women. I mean, I write about men too, but I’ve been really interested. I think so many of the books I’ve read and loved really examined women in so many ways — Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison, and I’m interested in people, but definitely that female gaze is compelling.
Kirsten Krauth: Do you have a visual background at all?
Meg Wolitzer: No, I do not think of myself as visual at all. I doodle. I draw. I don’t know if you have read my book, The Interestings, but there is a sort of animator in it, and sometimes when I sign the book, I’ll do a little doodle of myself at 15. I was very aware, it’s funny, I loved to draw as a child. I would draw up comic books in drawings, but I could see the ceiling of my ability. I could see the ceiling of my talent, and did not really want to push it particularly. The idiom I really loved was writing, and I did not know how far I could go. I knew that I could go farther if I wasn’t afraid. So, I was pushing myself in that way, but, no, my sister is a visual artist.
Kirsten Krauth: The book is about female friendship. Some quietly dissolving, some torn by conflict, some resurrected. You dedicate the book to eight women. So how important has friendship been to your early beginnings as a writer and as a feminist?
Meg Wolitzer: It’s everything. My friendships are a source of sustenance constantly. It’s not even intentional, it just sort of happens. I look around at my life. I’m married and I have two grown sons, and very close relationships with my parents and my sister, but I also have these friends, mostly women friends, and certainly very close male friends too, but when I think about my women friends — well, I had a conversation with my closest friend, who I have known since I was 15, and to whom The Interestings is dedicated, and we were talking about how sometimes there are things that you might not want to belabor with your spouse, because you want to protect the nest from perhaps your neurosis, you’re perseverating about something, but you can do that with your friend.
Also, there are things that you might want to explore deeply, because they’ve known you forever, or because they’re also female. I have a house of men in my family. So, I think that female friendship is endlessly interesting. There is a lot to explore, and I know that I will continue to put that into my books, I’m sure, and I hope to not repeat myself.
Kirsten Krauth: Yeah, and you said that if you weren’t a writer, you could be a psychotherapist.
Meg Wolitzer: Yeah, I’d love that. You try to listen and not be so judgmental.
Kirsten Krauth: There is a sense of frustration within the book that issues raised in the ’60s and ’70s, like cheap childcare, safe abortions, are still being fought for. Are you hoping your fiction can galvanise people, or is that not the role of fiction?
Meg Wolitzer: Well, I do not know if it is the role of fiction to galvanise people. I know that it can galvanise people, but if I set out to do something specific, it would be a polemic. I don’t think it would be art. So, I’m not interested in that. In fact, somebody said the book “galvanised” her to do something — I’m moved by that. I’m moved to hear that, but I can’t imagine writing with something like that in mind. I almost feel like you put it out in the world. It can leave people cold. It can be unread, or it can speak to someone.
What the beauty of fiction is for me, is that people take their whole histories into reading a book, and you can’t control what they think, what they like, what they don’t like, what they respond to. They might like something because they had an experience like it, or they might hate a character because it’s frightening to them because of something that happened. So, it’s a conversation that you are not really privy to, except when people come and tell you, but it’s a critical conversation that goes on after the book is written. Whether that has political ramifications or not, people might write and tell you, but I wouldn’t write with that intention. I believe fiction is important. I believe, particularly in this world of non-fiction and our anxieties, a slow place to really explore ideas is terribly important, but what people will do with it — it’s up to them.
Kirsten Krauth: One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the use and integration of technology throughout to indicate the difference between generations, and how they view the world mediated by a screen. So, what is your relationship with the digital age?
Meg Wolitzer: When I started writing, I sort of alluded to and mentioned in there, I started writing on a typewriter, and I was writing with the little Wite-Out. My friends and I wrote letters and there was a sort of pretentious desire to be like the Bloomsbury Group. I remember a friend made me buy an early Mac. It was called the skinny Mac. He said, “I am going to give you a really good deal on it.” He grew up in Silicon Valley. Nobody I knew really had one. He taught me how to use it. It had a thick manual. I remember tearing up because I didn’t think I would really be able to use it well. I was frustrated. I was like, how am I going to use this? It became the greatest thing for my writing because your hands can go as fast as your thoughts in a wonderful way and you can see it on the screen. You may be asking more about email and social media?
Kirsten Krauth: I really like how you describe it. People talk about digital revolution, but it’s those day-to-day things that seem to have an impact that people don’t notice.
Meg Wolitzer: I remember when I was watching the Flintstones as a child, and they had such clever things, like the can opener would be a bird whose beak would open the can. The people on the show would, without acknowledging it, use these things. We do that really now. You’re taping on this tiny computer that’s on your phone. I marvel at it all the time. I do think that it has put the meat and potatoes a little too close together for a writer because you can be working all day and there is the seduction of the internet which is deeply seductive. I think it is deeply seductive because it is almost like the unconscious. I made a joke about finding out who you are and what obsesses you by looking at what you’ve Googled. It’s true, but it’s problematic, because there is a purity of being away from distractions. It is really, really hard to get now.
A shorter version of this interview appeared at The Saturday Paper.