The Things Meg Wolitzer Knew Before We Did
The best-selling author of 'The Female Persuasion' has published the perfect feminist novel about women's friendships for this moment. Only she wrote it before Election 2016.
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The Female Persuasion is Meg Wolitzer’s tenth novel, and by any measure it’s big (more than 450 pages) and immersive, spanning decades in the lives of its characters, pondering everything from love and sex to work, politics, and professional disillusionment.
At its center is a pair of women and the relationships they have with each other, their families, friends, and lovers. We meet Greer Kadetsky, a bright but shy college freshman, “hot-faced and inarticulate” when she rises to ask a question of the visiting lecturer, Faith Frank, who, at 63, is dashing, confident, and surprisingly kind to Greer. What begins as a kind of girl-crush on a powerful older woman unfolds as a book-long meditation on the power and complexity of female friendships—especially when they’re tested by ambition, competition, and betrayal.
An unabashedly feminist book, The Female Persuasion comes, of course, at a time of vocal #MeToo activism, set against a backdrop of institutional misogyny and threats to women’s rights. It’s difficult to read without thinking of our current political landscape, though Wolitzer wrote it before the 2016 election.
I talked with Wolitzer by phone, as she was traveling on an intense book tour, reading in a different city every day. She admits it’s as exhausting as it sounds, but adds, “There’s something about it that’s been very encouraging about readers in America. I’m finding great engagement around ideas of fiction, as opposed to despondency,” she adds. “Because people are so frightened and depressed about Trump, some people at least want to talk about things they care about, which are books.”
I’m fascinated by how many different kinds of relationships are in the book—friendships, romances, parents and children—but the most powerful relationship is the one between Greer and Faith. When did you decide that would be the primary relationship in the book?
My last novel, The Interestings, followed a group of friends for a really long period of time, and they were all the same age. In fact, they’re exactly my age, because I’m really bad at math, and I loathe having to figure out how old people were during a certain year! But I was very interested in the moment when you find your cohort. This time, I had been thinking a lot about the person you might meet when you’re young, who might be older—they don’t have to be, but they might be an older person—who sees something in you, and you really start to see it in yourself. And sometimes you want to please them. It’s very exciting, that sense of being seen, and maybe taking yourself seriously. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because, as I get older—and I’m in this weird mid-place where I have kids who are now out of the house and grown—but I remember when they were young, and I remember being young, and being in that position of looking up at people. It’s sort of like seeing things in a lot of different directions, like one of those viewfinders on the side of the road that give you a panoramic view. I thought, Maybe I should listen to all of that and try to put it in a book.
How much of you is in the character of Greer? And Faith?
It’s hard to know. I don’t like to write autobiographically. I really enjoy invention. But, of course, things that happen to us are like magnetic filings: They stick to us. I’m not Greer, and I’m not like her, but I remember that heat in my face and being unable to marshal my best self, to be articulate. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of readings and public speaking, and feel more comfortable now, and that’s a little more Faith Frankian. So, I’m not them at all, but I really think that everything you put into a character must be something you find human and understandable. And then you can apply little bits, dust from your life, to that character, to really give it a sense of what we call felt life.
Faith Frank is one of those characters who feels very real, but at the same time there’s something really iconic about her—I’m guessing I’m not the first person to see some Gloria Steinem in the character.
It’s always funny how that does happen, in any book you write. Not only famous people, but readers see some part of themselves and wonder if you knew this person … I think what fiction can do is make connections in the reader. Faith is definitely an iconic figure, but I hope she’s invented whole cloth. I love the idea of living in a world in which there are multiple famous feminists! And so I tried to create one.
The book comes at a time when we’re talking a lot about different waves of feminism—the way women across generational lines often have difficulty understanding one another. It also made me think a lot about the election and primaries, where there was tension between the idea of ideological purity and the need for compromise. How much of that was in your head when you were writing it?
I was writing it before that was taking place. I think that those ideas about young people wanting a kind of pure experience, and older people having more experience in the world, and seeing compromise that has to happen, has been something that we’ve seen played out. You know, it can reverse—it’s not only about age, it depends on the person, it depends on how they approach the world. I wouldn’t make a blanket statement about young people being one way and older people being another way. But I did start thinking about this book after I wrote The Interestings, which came out in 2013. So I’ve been wrestling with these ideas in my mind for a long time. For me, ideas and character are so intertwined in a novel, and that it’s not like I wanted to make this novel a vessel to explore these ideas. But the characters really become so rich to me as I get to know them; it’s easier to see how they wrestle with these ideas.
One of the sweetest parts of the book for me was the romance between Greer and Corey. This was such a sweet love story. Did it feel nice to write it?
I loved writing it. I love Corey, and I love writing about their falling in love. Writing about first times is something that I particularly enjoy doing. Because everything is so heightened. When we think of heightened experiences it’s also often because they’re new; they’re new, and therefore you’re not jaded or afraid, oh wait is this going to go the way that last relationship did? What if in fact you never had that before? What if you’ve never been in love before, or had sex before? So those are things that, yeah, I think that’s sweet. I’m glad you felt that way, because I definitely felt that way writing about it, too.
Is it different, writing about young romance as you get older?
I don’t want to feel like I’m on an iceberg floating away from everything! But yes, you get to a point where—it’s not like you forget those things, early sexual experiences are tremendous and they shape you in your life, I don’t forget them— but you’ve had other living experiences that are so vastly different. The deaths of people you know … all kinds of things. So I think returning to that at a later point—it’s kind of wonderful to be reminded. Especially now, everything is so fraught, to sort of say you know what, even in this shitty time, people fall in love. Young people find things out for the first time. And that’s true. That’s always been true.
One of the reviews of your book, in People, called the book “equal parts cotton candy and red meat.” That’s a strange way to look at a book. But I wondered, how much when you’re writing do you think about the way people perceive some kind of dichotomy between readability and high literary quality?
I don’t think of it from the outside. I try to think of it from my own desires when I read, and I hope to hew really close to those desires when I write. Like, I want to write the book that I want to read. And for me, more and more, it’s a book that allows you to be immersed in a world, like a deep dive into a world that feels expansive. And that’s what I crave. I just try to have the world fall away in a world that I write, if that’s at all possible.
You mention just wanting to dive into writing your books, but at the same time you want to be engaged in the world, and I know you’re a politically engaged writer. How do you write fiction at a time like this?
I was the guest editor of the Best American Short Stories, the most recent one. And in my essay at the beginning of the collection, I talk about the election, and how I had read some of the stories before election night and some of them after. [And I wrote about] how do you read fiction—and by extension write—in a moment when the world feels chaotic and frightening. At the same time, if I think about a world without fiction in it, it is so depressing and I despair at that. Novels can be like a snapshot of a moment in time. One of the things I try to do in fiction, and I think others try to do, is try to say, what is it like, what is it like? To try to explore how people live, and how other people live. That creates a society that I want to be in—one that asks those questions. So when things are very difficult it may be that that’s not the moment to read fiction, in that moment. But you will come back to it again.
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