CULTURE & ARTS
04/06/2018 12:03 pm ET

How Meg Wolitzer Built The Parallel America Of 'The Female Persuasion'

The author takes us through the looking glass.
Riverhead

Since it was announced last year, excitement has been building around the publication of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, finally cresting with a recent New York Times profile of the author. Why Now May (Finally) Be Meg Wolitzer’s Moment,” the headline read.

That a writer who has been published steadily since she was barely out of college could finally have her moment in her late 50s, after releasing best-sellers such as The Interestings, seems both frustratingly common and a great relief. But Wolitzer’s professional trajectory has fed the themes of The Female Persuasion, which tells the story of college student Greer Kadetsky, a bookish introvert with a quiet, burning passion to do something important with her life. That possibility is opened up by a chance meeting with Faith Frank ― a feminist leader “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem” ― who, along with Greer’s best friend, Zee, pushes Greer forward more firmly into the clash between feminisms past and future. Bringing in Greer’s high school boyfriend Cory, and a male venture capitalist of Faith’s generation, Wolitzer uses her characters to grapple with the tensions between what we want for ourselves and what we can do for the world at large, exploring how people evolve and disappoint each other with their moral failings along the way.

Such a premise makes it unsurprising that this book would draw a great amount of media attention; not only is Wolitzer a beautiful and thoughtful writer, her novel fascinatingly situates itself in a world that is ours but decidedly not. Wolitzer’s America has a take on ”The Vagina Monologues,” a different version of Teach for America, a foundation devoted to women’s empowerment conferences and an iteration of Hillary Clinton’s campaign anthem, Katy Perry’s “Roar.” The themes and discussions about what feminism is today ring so true to life that you periodically have to remind yourself you are not reading a case study about five individuals struggling with the generational feminist divide. (As a former editor of Jezebel ― which shows up in this book in the form of Fem Fatale ― and as someone who went to college at the same time as Greer, the similarities to my own life gave me minor whiplash at times.)

It is this near-likeness to reality that has provoked both raves and skepticism among Wolitzer’s readers and critics; some find the book startlingly visionary, while others have been thrown by what they see as a facsimile of our world.

I was intrigued by the responses to The Female Persuasion. Wolitzer, who has written astutely about the different ways in which men’s and women’s books are marketed at and received by critics, and has given her new book a title that places it squarely in the Women’s Lit Canon. Yet The Female Persuasion is well on its way to receiving the kind of serious literary attention Wolitzer’s other books didn’t. Whether that’s in spite of the title or because of it is a question that goes to the heart of Meg Wolitzer’s “moment.”

I spoke with the author last week about the puzzle of divorcing one’s own beliefs and experiences from her (or any) novel, the challenge of rewiring the expectations you have for your life, and the joy of writing fiction in a time when non-fiction can be all encompassing. Wolitzer is a clear, almost jealousy-inducing speaker who doesn’t so much drop literary references as dust them onto the conversation, as if seasoning a dish with some salt. In talking with her, I was left with the feeling that if The Female Persuasion seems didactic to some, perhaps that is only because its author is so gifted at her job as a world-builder. 

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Obviously the book’s literal origins are pretty clear. You’ve lived through the decades that you’re writing about. But I’d love to hear a little bit about how you conceived of these characters and this universe you created.

Sure. You know, some of the ideas in the book around issues of female power and misogyny and influence, the person you meet who might change your life, have been things that I realize I’ve been percolating for a long time, kind of gestating these ideas without really knowing they were going to go into a book. I think that’s how it often works for me. What’s first and foremost for me with a novel is that it’s really an immersive world that the reader wants to be in, and that I want to be in as a writer. So I was thinking about these things over a long period of time, and I guess eventually in my own life I realized that I was at a place where I’d had older women who were very important to me and were very generous to me when I was young, and I was now seen as an older woman by some younger women, which was a new experience. And I think at that moment, it’s like I understood, oh, there’s a story here. And I just wanted to follow it.

Outside of those themes, what came first? Did the idea of Faith come to you? Did the idea of Greer come to you?

As always, there’s a question of what ideas are burning in you. And then once I start playing with those, I think Greer really became a powerful figure in me, because she’s a complicated character, and Faith came quickly after her. I sort of knew that they would both exist, the younger and the older one. It’s a delicious feeling, I think, for a novelist to get to create a fully invented character, so I just tried to let it go where it would go. But I think both of them on their separate tracks – intertwining, too, but being separate people, having very separate and different lives and different experiences ― started coming up.

But I tend to write chronologically through the book. I know writers who will say, “Oh, I just finished Chapter 10, now I’m going to go back and write the beginning.” And I can’t really imagine that, because for me there’s this story and I want to kind of follow it through. So Greer was the first one I really got to know, because she’s at the beginning of the book.

The structure of the book is such that you are slowly revealing parts of information about people. You’ll have this small detail that will later be circled back to and it will be an aha! moment.

I enjoy those in what I read, too. I enjoy looking at things from different angles, seeing it in a different way or seeing a relationship in a different way or a small moment. I think novels are made up of those sometimes-small moments that take on meaning.

It almost felt suspenseful to me in a way, where you’re learning that the anti-choice senator mentioned was Faith’s old roommate and her botched abortion was a big part of Faith’s feminist awakening. Did those kind of moments just come to you?

They do, because it’s not a canned, planned thing. I think it just involves you being as immersed in the writing as you want the reader to be in the reading. I think it’s intuition. You follow the kind of book that you want to read — that generally is the kind of book that I want to write. And if you go to what feels true, what feels real, there’s always revision to go back and fix it. But I tend to follow the heat of what’s exciting and interesting me and what’s immersing me, because I think novels really are these deep-dive experiences. The ones I love, anyway.

How much did you want or expect any reader to pick up on those surprise moments?

I don’t really think about it, because I’m so deeply involved in creating this world. Like I’m so excited about it, that it’s me and the world. And I don’t know what the reader’s going to know and pick up. Later I want to be sure that it actually makes sense ― again, that’s what revision does ― but I think that when you’re excited as a writer, when you get excited about a passage, I tell students when I teach to trust that. To trust that excitement, and to try to stay with it. And sometimes some of the more surprising moments can come out in your excitement.

I really loved the book, and upon finishing it, I started thinking about how much I loved it and wondering if maybe much of that was tied to the fact that the themes and the larger life choices you’re writing about were very similar to things that I had gone through.

Oh, that’s interesting.

I was trying to parse that a bit. And then I realized it was funny and very apropos that my response to a novel that’s about struggling with questions of personal versus political responsibility basically had me asking myself the same questions. If that makes any sense at all.

Yeah, totally, I’m really glad to know that.

So that’s a long way of asking you, when you’re writing a novel that’s very deeply situated in a reality that people will pick up on, how do you create that story as it relates to the real world that we are living in?

I think one of the things that I like to do is to create almost a ― it’s a bit of a parallel universe, because there are all some real populated figures from it. But I get great pleasure in creating ones who don’t exist. Like the name of the magazine Bloomer, which is a couple of steps down in fame from Ms. as Faith Frank is from Gloria Steinem. So these are other people and this is another magazine, but that doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s almost a mash-up of things that are out there and things that I feel could be out there. So that’s what a fictional landscape can look like for me.

Of course with the things that are out there, you want to get them right. It’s important that the reader is not suddenly held up on something or distracted because they know more about it than you and it seems inaccurate. There’s different kinds of getting it right in a book ― the factual getting it right and then the emotional getting it right ― and both matter. But I love that part that is the fully invented world, the details. My son jokingly accused me of wanting to write novels so that I could make up things like the names of books within them, or the names of restaurants or movies that I have sometimes dropped into books. But I guess for me it’s just a reminder of the pleasures of invention. Getting things right so that they feel right is extremely important. 

Meg Wolitzer.
Colin McPherson via Getty Images
Meg Wolitzer.

I’m sure you’ve gotten already and will probably continue to, especially from women, because the book is so much about a feminist community, a lot of feedback about how “true” the book is to the current and recent moment. But what I’m getting from you is that it doesn’t necessarily have to feel like an actual reflection of the world we’re living in as much as an idea of one.

Well, I want it to feel like an actual reflection, too. If it’s possible to do both I would like that. I think that one thing novels can do is be a snapshot of a moment in time or a series of moments in time. So you want this to feel like, yes, this feels right about how people live. But everyone brings their own experiences or will feel ― this feels right to me, I see this differently. That’s part of reading. But since it’s not a non-fiction book there are different rules, if you will. There was that line by — is it Somerset Maugham? I can’t remember. I’ll have to look it up. “There are six rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Something like that, I can’t remember the number. [Editor’s note: Close! It’s three.] For me, it’s like the Emily Dickinson line, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I hope to some degree I’m doing that here.

I was looking back at something you said to The Guardian about the character of Jules when you were talking about The Interestings. You say that she doesn’t stand for women everywhere, and you had to remind yourself of that sometimes. Do you think that that mantra applies in some regards to the characters in The Female Persuasion?

Yes, I think it applies to all novels really. Because unless you’re writing deliberately an allegory, you’re trying to get at something ― true fiction ― that’s different than writing a comprehensive social history. You’re trying to go specific and close-grained and look at particular people’s experience of making meaning of social justice, of ideas of power, of whatever it is in a particular chapter or moment. And in doing it through these people, they really need to be particular. But they reflect the light of the world, of course. When the world of your novel has some social commentary attached to it, you want it to be true and rigorous. But just as important is that the characters are really deeply explored. I mean, that’s true for me when I read a book. It’s not even my rules for myself; it’s just my rules about fiction generally. Reading, too.

You have so many good lines, like when Zee says: “I think there are two kinds of feminists. The famous ones, and everyone else.”

For me that line speaks so much to who she is and the idea of making meaning. Sometimes it can be done in a splashy way, but in fact most people’s lives aren’t the ones we hear about. They’re quietly doing good work. And I wanted to sort of honor and acknowledge that. Yes, she stands for that to some degree, but she really, really needs to be a person. There was a great line in a Flannery O’Connor essay, she’s talking about her short story “Good Country People.” It’s a pretty famous line now. And in the story, I don’t know if you remember it or know it, but there’s a young woman with a wooden leg, and a Bible salesman comes and steals her wooden leg, and audiences asked Flannery O’Connor, is the wooden leg a symbol, and she said ― I hope I’m getting this right ― she said, “Before it can be a symbol, it has to be a wooden leg.” [Editor’s note: The full quote is, “If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story. It has its place on the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface.”]

So characters who serve a purpose to represent ideas in a book must be really full and fully realized and full of what we call “felt life” as well.

There are two things at play in the characters in this book that I really enjoyed, which is that obviously they’re all very complicated ― you wouldn’t want to read about them if they weren’t ― but you didn’t really present any of them as inherently bad?

Yeah.

I get frustrated sometimes because a lot of books for adults are about really bad people, and it kind of bums me out. But I think instead what I see in this book ― and tell me if you think otherwise ― is that you have a lot of characters that you could argue are inherently good, and instead grapple with what that means for themselves.

Yeah, and sometimes do shitty things in that human way. And I think that it’s really important to let your characters do the things that they need to do. Readers sometimes get mad at you ― or get really impatient with your characters for not changing at the pace that they would like them to, and not being filled with the self-knowledge that they feel they should have. But people are sometimes really intransigent, and you have to let them just be themselves and sometimes it isn’t very flattering. But, yes, I feel that kind of humanity and compassion for them. If you start to really, really know them, you can feel something for them. You can certainly be frustrated with them, but chances are you’ll feel other things as well.

You have these people who disagree and have these conflicts, but still the book ends and they have seemingly managed to work through their problems in more cases than they didn’t.

I started the book around three years ago. The only thing that I ended up going back and in this sort of new climate doing, which is sort of obvious reading the book, is giving a nod to the Trump election and the dark future at the end of the book. And as I went into that a little more deeply, I was thinking about the ways in which the characters have their personal lives, but then they have this political landscape in which they’re living. And they’re interconnected but they’re separate, too. They love each other, these two characters, and that’s going on in this sort of dark time. And that felt right to me for their story.

You can have a lot of very horrible things happening, but your personal life still has to continue on.

I know, that’s the thing. Sometimes in a novel, it’s like everything stands still and in one layer. I like novels where you see the different layers, that in one part of your life something’s going on, but at the same time something absurdly different is happening, And how do you reckon with the two? And those contradictions, I think, are so much about how we live. Like, in the course of the day you can feel really good and really bad, really so depressed about what’s happening in the country and in the world and then you get a little piece of good news and you feel happy. Which is the real emotion? They live inside us, moving very, very rapidly.

Yeah, immediately after the election, I and probably many, many people were sort of like, what are we supposed to do? I was deeply depressed. It felt like there was really no way forward, and then you’re kind of like, oh wait, there is no other choice. I mean, I guess there is a choice to not do it, but really, is there?

Right, what are you going to do? I heard a story once about a woman who went into labor and hated it so much that she tried to run out of the hospital, as though that could do anything, and they’re chasing her like, wait, you can’t escape that.

But that goes back to certain issues in the novel about making meaning. The project-based kind of person which Greer really is, I felt — I went to the Women’s March in D.C. I went down there with my son and his then-girlfriend, who he’s now married to, and a bunch of NYU Law students on this boiling-hot bus going down to D.C. I think my face was really heated up, the bus was suddenly hot, and we got there, and people ― it’s like, you want to do something in a moment when you feel something very, very strongly. We feel the desire to change things, to do something. Or at least to be expressive. And I actually, before and after the election, was editing the Best American Short Stories. And they would come in in different packages, and my office at home was filled with manuscripts. My essay [for the introduction of the book] deals with reading in the time of Trump and fiction in the time of Trump, and the idea of reading. I sort of reached the conclusion that you go back to the reading experiences of the past in a way to propel you into some kind of hopefulness into the future as a reader. But you’re changed, and you have different demands, and you have new thoughts about the world. So it’s a work in progress, how we think about ourselves in this moment, I think.

Yeah, and I think the nice parallel that you have in the book is that you have these larger themes on, what is my place in the world, what am I going to do to make the world a better place or a worse place? But then you sort of also see a character like Cory really working through personal grief. I was fascinated that you allowed him to move out of that and to move past it.

I’ve seen people in deep grief and seen that there can be movement over time. I think what the novel can do is look at time, and if you’re looking at time you end up looking at incremental change of some sort of other. I remember a friend talking about a great illness that he had had and that when he could work again, he knew that he was a little better. And there is that sense in this book — the meaning of work, the dignity of work. And with regard to Cory and his mother. It wasn’t something pre-programmed for me. With him I wanted to really go slowly and look at his life over time. Because the novel can really handle time. You can stretch out in the novel, like a cat in the sun. You can stretch out and see what makes the most sense for your characters and their story. And more than that, for your sensibility.

There’s a great line of Zadie Smith’s, I often quote this line. It’s in an essay of hers called “Fail Better,” and she says, “When I write I’m trying to express my way of being in the world.” I think that’s such a great explanation for what novelists try to do, maybe sometimes without even articulating it to ourselves. I think that’s what I’m trying to do here. The things I’ve been thinking about ― grief, as well as some of these political issues. Even the coming-of-age story remains very interesting to me. How do we become who we are? How do we know that’s what we want to be? And just letting them take the time to get there.

It’s interesting that you bring up lines you remember like that one, because I feel like this book is really chock full of them. There are lots of sentences that stuck in my brain and I had to write them down, like when Greer is thinking to herself, “Apparently people never really paid as much attention to you…”

Oh, “… as you think they do.” Right. Oh, I’m glad, I’m really glad. In a way, the 24-hour news cycle and the heat of this moment is such a different experience from, to me, writing a novel, because I really love the slow intimacy of being in a novel as a reader and being in a novel as a writer. Sometimes it’s a feverish intimacy, but it’s a detailed one made up of moments, made up of mistakes that people make with one another, made up of little descriptions. That counts to me, that really matters, and sometimes we feel, reading the news, that some of those small moments get lost.

I can imagine it would be a real thrill to find a sentence and just be truly happy with it.

It is! It’s like you want to do the Snoopy dance when you write a line that you like, because there’s so many days that you get nothing.

Switching gears just slightly, I wanted to ask you about something I’ve noticed in a lot of your novels, which is that there seems to be a small theme of people coming to New York to start their lives as adults. You see in this book, the city seems to represent a lot to Greer in her relationship with Cory and even in her career.

Yeah, she has a fantasy of how she imagines herself, and it’s connected to seeing her life go ― controlling her life and having it be the way she’s always imagined it. And then it goes really differently. Nobody’s path is a straight road. It just doesn’t work that way. But people learn that again and again as if they’ve never seen that anywhere in their lives. But this idea of the city and living in Brooklyn and having the equipment for the young person’s apartment falls away, falls into a lost thing. And in fact Cory’s idea of how he imagined he would be falls away, too. And his notion of making meaning becomes something really, really different than he had anticipated. And that’s something that I just had to kind of learn on the job and see that that was what was going to be the case for him.

Their relationships with their parents ― it starts out that Cory’s parents are so loving, it’s this very tight-knit family, Greer is very distant from her parents, and then you see that things sort of switch for both of them. They seem to think they’re going to have these fixed relationships with these people, and it dawns on them that that’s never the case with anyone, even your family.

Yeah. Right. I don’t know if you ever saw the Michael Apted documentaries “7 Up,” “28 Up”...

Oh, I haven’t.

Oh, I really recommend them. I ended up going on about them when I was talking about The Interestings, but I think they’re still so relevant in terms of ideas of time passing. So this British director, he did a series of films starting with the British children when they were 7 and following them every seven years. And there’s this one moment where one of the characters ― when she’s young she’s this upper-class girl and she seems a little snobby and is kind of funny and we don’t really like her, and she kind of seems like a parody of a sheltered, very wealthy British school child. And then later on, I think it might be around “28 Up,” her father dies, and she talks about that. And she seems so vulnerable that she becomes a much more … a figure we’d want to know more, and not like a cliche. She opens up more. I don’t know, I’m not recommending grief for anyone, but I feel like people have expectations of how their life will go, and it goes different ways, and the novelist’s job is to track that.

It’s weird because of course you would never want to recommend someone have suffering, but I have seen it in my own life that I feel that I’ve been bettered by going through difficult things. It’s a weird tension.

Yeah, I don’t mean that she becomes better. I just mean that we become more open to her and we see her more fully when she shows something of herself that isn’t fully armored in some way. Or actually, it’s not even fully armored, she’s not armored as a child. But things have happened to her that she didn’t know would happen, and she’s musing on that, and we start musing on that, too.

It ties people together in a way.

Yeah, it’s how I think about characters, really. Their life, like any persons, can’t be controlled fully by their will. We’re all vulnerable to so many factors.

Kate Dries is a writer and editor who lives in New York.

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