Novelist Meg Wolitzer talks with Holly Rosen Fink about the success of her latest novel, The Interestings (Riverhead Books, 2013), inspiration, sexism in the literary world, working with Nora Ephron, as well as her mother, novelist, Hilma Wolizter, and her experiences in film and television that spawned the film version of This Is Your Life.
Women and Hollywood: Congratulations on the success of The Interestings. I hear this book holds a special place in your heart. Tell us why.
Meg Wolitzer: Thank you. Like my main character, I too went to an arty summer camp for teenagers in the summer of 1974. And while I was there I met a group of people who fascinated me. I was from the suburbs, and I hadn't known any city kids before. In these regards, the novel is quite personal for me. And though the rest of it is completely invented--and the book opens out into an exploration of certain far-flung issues, such as what happens to talent over time; and envy, and friendship--that summer was significant for me, and I loved writing about it.
WaH:: How did the title come about?
MW: It just seemed funny and right that these teenagers would ironically call themselves this name. I liked the awkwardness of the title, and the specialness.
WaH: Let's talk about the cover. You've said that you don't want to be stereotyped as women's fiction and that publishers tend to reinforce the stereotype through their covers. Did they allow you artistic freedom on this one?
MW: I had published an essay in the New York Times Book Review on gender inequality in literary fiction. One of the things I noted was that the covers of books by women sometimes had a softer, dreamier or more domestic look than the covers of books by men. When my novel was being designed, the art department paid attention to that, and created a kind of gender-neutral cover that, I believe, is appealing and inviting, but not coded as being "for women."
WaH: Is it true that the story was inspired by Michael Apted's film series 7-Up?
MW: Certainly the Apted films were an influence on what I tried to do here, which is show a group of people starting when they're very young, and keep going. Apted does that so beautifully in his films.
WaH: How much sexism truly exists in the literacy world?
MW: The women's literary organization VIDA does a count of the representation of women in literary publications--as writers of articles and book reviews, and also as reviewees--and the numbers are astonishing. Women are deeply underrepresented in most of the important places.
WaH: Nora Ephron would have loved making this movie! Has it been optioned and who could you see directing it?
MW: It's too early to say anything, but a wonderful writer is trying to develop it as a series for television right now.
WaH: Your first venture into film was in 1992 with This is My Life, directed by Ephron. At that time, it was hard to get the film made because it was women-driven? Do you think things have changed?
MW: There are many women who can speak to this point much better than I can. While I'm not very well-versed in the Hollywood side of things these days, I do know that the entire industry has convulsed and changed so much, and all films—male or female--that might be perceived of as "character-based" or "small" have a hard time getting made.
WaH: What was it like working with her?
MW: Simply wonderful. She was smart, interesting, and fun--and always very generous with her time and all else.
WaH: You followed that up 14 years later with Surrender, Dorothy, based on your novel, in 2006. What was that experience like and did you prefer one medium to the other?
MW: I wasn't involved with the making of that TV movie, which starred Diane Keaton. But I was very happy it got made, and I think Keaton was terrific. The TV version really stayed true to the idea of the book.
WaH: Have any of your other books been optioned? Have you faced hurdles bringing stories to the screen?
MW: Almost everything I've written has been optioned at some point or another. The Ten-Year Nap was optioned as a series, The Position was optioned by HBO for a series and later was developed as a feature film, and The Wife has been optioned as a feature film over the years. (The playwright, screenwriter and director Jane Anderson wrote a wonderful script, and I am still hoping it will be made.) But everything has to come together for a movie or TV show to go into production; I feel lucky that I've had two books actually reach the screen. I don't really face those development hurdles myself, because once I agree to let someone take a stab at it, he or she is the one trying to put it all together. I'm usually already on to writing the next book, though I always like to be consulted about the direction a project is taking.
WaH: When you write, how visual are you and do you have secret aspirations that they will someday hit the screen as vehicles for getting your story to a more mainstream audience?
MW: I never think about whether they'll be made into movies when I'm writing. It's just not a part of how I work or think. When something does get made, I understand that it's probably because of the characters as much as anything else. I don't know that I'm visual, exactly, but I am detail-oriented, and some of those details are of course visual. I think, for me, it's essential to know my characters deeply and feel what it's like to spend time with them.
WaH: Lena Dunham called This is My Life her first favorite film, and it was one of mine. I remember the night my mom and I went to see it very vividly. Tom Hanks also told you it was what it prompted him to do Sleepless in Seattle with her. Having taken so long to produce and bring to the screen, did the experience scar you for life?
MW: Well, I was not the person schlepping it around to studios and trying to get it set up. I had the luxury of hearing about how things were going form the sidelines. So, no scarring at all. Just a happy outcome and a beautiful film that incidentally led to friendships with Delia and Nora Ephron.
WaH: Your mother Hilma Wolizer is also a novelist. Do you talk about how having an artistic career has changed? Is your writing process similar to hers?
MW: I watched my mother become a writer in a very different era. She was a so-called "housewife turned novelist," as though this was a miraculous occurrence. The women's movement affected her deeply, and also, I think, affected fiction for a while in this country, creating interest in voices that hadn't been heard from before. Much of that's fallen away by now, and we are both fiction writers in what can often feel like a non-fiction world.
WaH: What are you working on now and are you still savoring the success of this book?
MW: I am starting a new novel--probably another long one--and I am still traveling a lot for The Interestings, and giving talks and readings. I am very pleased that people have responded to this novel in particular, because it is a book that allowed me to go back to a time in my own life that feels so long ago, and yet which still remains vivid to me.
The Interestings is available now.
Holly Rosen Fink is a writer and marketer living in Larchmont, NY. You can follow her on Twitter @theculturemom.