Montclair Literary Festival: Meg Wolitzer in full bloom
Friday, March 16
6:30 p.m. Meet the author
7:30 p.m. discussion of “The Female Persuasion,”
with editor Sarah McGrath
Ticketed event of the Montclair Literary Festival
Montclair State University Communications Center
1 Normal Ave.
By GWEN OREL
In some ways, Meg Wolitzer was a late bloomer.
At least, there was a long delay between Wolitzer’s first story and her first publication.
She began writing stories in first grade, but didn’t publish until she was 11, in Kids’ Magazine.
Her first novel “Sleepwalking” she wrote during her college years. It was published after she graduated.
The now best-selling author’s new book “The Female Persuasion,” set to come out in April, is one of the headliners at the Montclair Literary Festival. She’ll appear in conversation on Friday, March 16.
“My mother is a writer,” Wolitzer explained by phone. Hilma Wolitzer published her first novel in the ’70s, after having been a housewife and autodidact. Her mom’s transformation of careers was a big influence on Wolitzer, as was her mother’s support. Her father, Morton Wolitzer, had encouraged her mother to take a class from New York Times Book Critic Anatole Broyard at the New School. Broyard quickly spotted her gift. Both her parents are big readers, she said. “I grew up in a house with a lot of books and book talk.”
When Wolitzer was in her “single digits,” growing up in Syosset, Long Island, she mostly focused on short fiction, though she create a serial novel as she walked to school.
“It was about two brothers who were the heir to the Kraft cheese fortune. I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese,” she said.
Writers can be born and made, she says. Wolitzer credits some of her teachers, including her high school teacher Reine Kidder, the mother of Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder, with encouraging her. And her own mother helped her understand some of the steps to getting published, such as acquiring an agent.
“Having seen my mother do it, it seemed possible,” she said.
Along with her successful string of novels for adults, including “This Is My Life” (1988), “The Ten-Year Nap” (2008) and “The Uncoupling” (2011), Wolitzer has written a young adult novel and a middle grad novel.
At the time her son Charlie, now 23, was reading John Green’s “Looking for Alaska,” she said. Wolitzer picked it up and “realized how intense it was. I got a window into the kind of things my son was thinking about, and hadn’t known.”
While she had written adolescent characters before, she began to think writing something for young readers would allow her to go further into her craft.
“Adolescence is a time of firsts, of first experiences,” she said. Even the pace is different in “Belzhar,” a YA novel set in a boarding school, that came out in 2014. “I had the sense of a breathless narrator who needed to get the story out. I do like to linger in adult novels,” she said.
WRITING WHILE FEMALE
While the #MeToo movement makes a novel with the title “The Female Persuasion” especially timely, Wolitzer started the novel much earlier.
“Lots of people myself included have been thinking about this for a very long time, myself
included,” she said. Among the subjects the book explores are female power, male power, equality and misogyny.
The book explores the mentor and protégé relationship, something she had not seen much written about. “For me, it opened up a lot of ways to look at various issues over time. It opens at college in 2006, when there is a sexual assault on campus.” The book asks questions about making meaning in the world, and what is a meaningful life, she said.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about ambition, and intergenerational ideas. In ‘The Interestings’ I follow a group of friends over time. This time, I’m looking at the interplay between generations. I can look at it through the lens of Feminism, or through just growing up, two women growing up in different times.”
In her books, Wolitzer incorporates what she sees. “The Wife” (2003), which will hit the silver screen this year starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, “examines power in marriage, and female complicity.”
“Women were pushed down in different spheres when I was growing up,” said Wolitzer, who, at 58, grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. “I’ve been a Feminist my whole conscious life. I was one of the girls who started a consciousness-raising group when I was about 13 or 14. It was very exciting to take these ideas seriously talk about femaleness and social justice in ways they haven’t done before.”
In her essay “Second Shelf,” published in the New York Times Book Review in 2012, Wolitzer explored how the rules of literary fiction were different for men and women and how even book designs and covers varied.
“Feminine cover illustrations are code. Certain images, whether they summon a kind of Walker Evans poverty nostalgia or offer a glimpse into quilted domesticity, are geared toward women as strongly as an ad for calcium plus D. These covers might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words, ‘Stay away, men! Go read Cormac McCarthy instead!’, she said.”
She was in a writing workshop with Jeffrey Eugenides at Brown, and yet, she wonders in the essay, if “The Marriage Plot” had been written by a woman, would it be called Women’s Fiction?
While this cultural moment is striking, she cautioned, “things are always changing. It seems very fast and whirling right now. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”