Greer Kadestky is an introverted college freshman forced to attend her safety school after her stoner parents bungled the financial aid forms for Yale. She’s far away from her high school boyfriend, Cory, who’s at Princeton on a full ride. Greer sits around her dorm until a friend drags her to a lecture, where Greer meets the larger than life Faith Frank—a sexagenarian feminist who occupies an outsized role in the impressionable young woman’s life. Faith takes Greer under her wing, gives her a job, and helps the shy Greer find her voice.
So begins The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel. Though The Female Persuasion tackles modern feminism, and arrives against a backdrop of #MeToo and evolving conversations around gender politics, she, “wasn’t holding onto these ideas waiting for the right climate moment.” Wolitzer has always considered herself a feminist; the novel’s foundations—female power, relationships between mentors and protégés—were built on the influences of her mother, novelist Hilma Wolitzer, and Nora Ephron, to name a few.
The writer has plenty to celebrate in 2018. Beyond the release of The Female Persuasion and the accompanying publicity tour, another of Wolitzer’s books, The Wife, was recently adapted into a movie starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, which will be released this August. When Wolitzer and I spoke, she offered insight into her craft and process, including the “secret factory” that helps transform experiences into novels. We discussed the concept of “women’s fiction” and the category “women’s writer,” being in “cahoots” with her characters, and our shared passion for the perennially underappreciated novel Mrs. Bridge.
—Phineas Lambert for Guernica
Guernica: It’s been a crazy past few weeks: There was the March for Our Lives, and an adult actress on 60 Minutes talking about spanking the president, to name just a couple of happenings.
Meg Wolitzer: It’s definitely a very strange time generally, and for my book to come out. But I didn’t write this book for this moment. It just happened in the game of musical chairs. Ideas around issues of feminism, femaleness, who influences us, misogyny, the person who changes your life—these are big things I’ve been preoccupied with for a really long time, and I tend to be driven by my preoccupations.
Guernica: Still, the timing is very apt.
Meg Wolitzer: The book certainly comes at a time when some of these topics are very much in the air, and we’re talking about them in some new ways. I did go back into the book at the very end—a chapter that acknowledged the post-election world we’ve fallen into, in part because I was feeling so shocked about what happened. I wanted to acknowledge that it’s not always little movements forward and little movements back when it comes to feminism and other social justice movements. Sometimes the tablecloth gets ripped away. And what happens when things change in that way. So the last chapter is a sort of coda that thrusts the characters into the future a bit.
Guernica: As you mention, the themes at the heart of The Female Persuasion have certainly been swirling for some time.
Meg Wolitzer: You’re thinking about things all the time, but then they pop up, like a number in a bingo tumbler, when you’re ready to address them. My last novel, The Interestings, starts at a summer camp in 1974. I did, personally, go to summer camp in 1974, where I met the person who is my closest friend to this day. And we always talked about that summer, the people we knew, what happened to them. It didn’t occur to me to write something that would springboard from that; I didn’t know what the book would be about. When something’s just an anecdote or experience, hasn’t been put through the filter that fiction requires, that sieve you need, you don’t necessarily think about it as book. But, to mix my metaphors, the sieve and the bingo tumbler, I realized, as enough time passed, what was interesting was not just a nostalgic look back at that summer but what happens to people over time. What happens to talent over time. That quiet envy you feel for people you really love.
My mother, the novelist Hilma Wolitzer, was really affected by second-wave feminism. She didn’t have the encouragement of her parents. Didn’t attend college in a formal way—took a few classes but was never fully enrolled. She was pretty much an autodidact. During the women’s movement, she was really helped by the encouragement of other women, and I saw that. It registered. Things got filed away, and when they got processed through some kind of secret factory of night inside you, they turn into something that you think might work in a novel. The Female Persuasion deals to a great extent with the notion of mentors and protégés; I might have thought to write it now because I’ve been so helped by a number of very generous women. I’ve also found myself as the older woman figure to some younger women too, and I was aware of both those things happening for the first time.
Guernica: Speaking of second-wave feminism, Faith’s mentorship of Greer is central to the novel. Who are some of the Faith Frank-type inspirations in your life?
Meg Wolitzer: I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Kidder, who was one of the dedicatees. She was someone who seemed delighted to read your work, excited by students’ progress. Her son is the writer Tracy Kidder. In more recent years, Nora Ephron; the first film she directed, This is My Life, was based on my book. She was tremendous. A really influential person in my life. She enjoyed being generous to writers whose work she liked, who she liked to talk to. Not out of any obligation, it was never formal, just an elder person showing some of the things she’s learned.
Guernica: On the back of The Female Persuasion, there’s praise for The Interestings. Entertainment Weekly says, “This isn’t women’s fiction. It’s everyone’s.” Why the distinction?
Meg Wolitzer: I wrote an essay in 2012 in The New York Times Book Review called The Second Shelf, which was about this issue. I opened with an anecdote of being at a party and meeting a man who was asking about my books. I told him some of things that were interesting to me. He said something like, you should talk to my wife. He immediately wanted to hand me over. I don’t know what I could have said to make him interested in my work. I’m sure the things I said were things both men and women would want to read. I don’t read that way. I’m drawn to books for reasons I sometimes don’t understand; it’s like why you like a smell.
Guernica: So, what does it mean to be “a women’s writer”?
Meg Wolitzer: I don’t know how to answer that. It depends on who is using the term. Sometimes it’s used to describe books that are about women, as if men don’t need to read them. I have a friend who says she writes women’s fiction; she knows her audience and is really happy with them. It doesn’t have to be a demeaning thing. I want male and female readers. I don’t want to be limited.
Guernica: It’s not like the term “men’s writer” is exactly trending.
Meg Wolitzer: Right, it’s a book about fly fishing. If men’s fiction isn’t used, why are we using these terms? Fiction readers, they say, are mostly women anyway. I want to go beyond the question of category. Read a book that really excites me and reels me in. I love books that draw you inside them, and you want to stay there. You want your fiction to be for everyone.
Guernica: As I read The Female Persuasion I found myself continually coming back to the idea of success and what defines it. How it differs for the older Faith versus the younger Greer and Zee.
Meg Wolitzer: Success is connected in The Female Persuasion with making meaning in your life. The characters are striving for purpose and that can change over time. For someone like Zee, who has an idea of activism early in the book, I think she comes to have her own experience that is much more one-on-one than she had imagined. She works as a trauma professional and that is something powerful and important. She can see it happen with her eyes. Cory imagines a certain future that ends up taking a sharp swerve. It’s not at all how he imagined his life. Is his life successful? For me, it’s about looking at how the characters are digging into ideas about making meaning as much as it is about success.
Guernica: How often do you feel like your characters act of their own accord? Zigging when you expect a zag? In Cory’s case, for example, was that something you’d intended from the outset?
Meg Wolitzer: He’s someone I really liked challenging myself getting to know. For Cory, things acted upon him as opposed to a character gradually growing or changing. He ends up taking care of his mother, doing things that are seen as domestic, not feeling he has to get the credit for it, the kudos. For Cory, it’s not about looking at yourself, objectifying yourself, saying how does this look to other people, but really doing what’s right. I was very moved by that in him. Cory and Greer start off being called “twin rocket ships.” I think he starts to realize it’s not about that. It’s about looking at your life, what it’s made of. Once I realized that, when I saw him in that house trying to do good in a less cool way than he imagined, it became very natural for me—he has an innate decency he’s not quite sure what to do with.
It’s not that I feel led around by my characters or that I’m dragging them behind me like very large marionettes. It’s more that I’m in cahoots. There are moments when you go wrong, when you force something. Like kissing the wrong person. You’re like, wait a minute. This isn’t what these people should be doing. Yet here I am, say, killing off a character or making a character do something that I smugly thought was right because I saw someone do that in 1986, and I’ve been waiting to put it in a book. If you’re open, the stakes become apparent sooner rather than later. You can understand that you have a sensibility and the book has a sensibility. You want to merge the two. That you’re not imposing yourself and dominating the book, but just lightly watching these people and guiding where the story should go.
Guernica: When you set out to write, how much is preplanned?
Meg Wolitzer: I’ve jokingly referred to what I call my 80-page plan. I begin with a problem I want to think about. In this case, a couple: what about female power, what about the person you meet who influences you? I’ll take some simple ideas, more questions or problems. I’ll do my best to try not to think, where is this taking me, will people like it, is it a long novel? Just try to write a little bit. But almost invariably because I’m very character drawn, some “people” will step up and say, I can take that. The characters are born through the ideas. Soon I’m very interested in them. I’ll let this go for around eighty pages. The reason I say eighty: it’s enough pages to feel like you’ve accomplished something, but not so many that if you end up putting the whole thing aside, you feel you’ve wasted all this time. And maybe there’s something in there I could use in another context, later. At that point I print it all out, go sit somewhere and mark it up. A lot of it involves crossing out and disliking. Instead of the thing I thought I was getting at, I see what I really did get at. Only then will I start to think in terms of an outline or a shape—more broad, gestural, emotional outline than plot-based.
Guernica: I have to bring up a book we love in common since it’s initially what brought me to you: Mrs. Bridge. I know how much you love the Mrs. Bridge and its author, Evan S. Connell. What would Mrs. Bridge herself think about the political and social climate of today?
Meg Wolitzer: I love that you love that novel! It’s such a brilliant, perfect, fantastic novel; it accomplishes so much. I think should she would be very scandalized. I’m not sure she would understand how to process a lot of it. I think she would have to change. I’m curious, what’s your take on it?
Guernica: I feel like a lot of her reconciliation would come out in questions to her husband.
Meg Wolitzer: And she would form an opinion based on his answers. He would shut her down. He would shut the questions down. And then it never comes up again. The decision has been handed down, and she can’t do anything with it. I think she probably would use him as a way to understand something, but she’d be thwarted in her understanding, of course, because he wouldn’t be tolerant of new ways of thinking. It’d be so painful, another painful outtake in the Mrs. Bridge blooper reel. And yet, she’s always trying to learn. She’s reaching blindly toward change and then being thwarted at so many junctures. It’s a very understated mix of the saddest stuff in the world and the funniest. Books I love again and again seem to try to include that. Connell does it all so beautifully in kind of a piquant tone.
Guernica: So, what’s next?
Meg Wolitzer: Oh, the male persuasion! I have an idea for a book, and I’m happily, at this point, turning it over and over. I’m going on this book tour for most of April, and I have a plan to try to work on the road, which I haven’t done before. I like the idea of coming back to a hotel to maybe a paragraph I left off the night before. I’m happiest when I’m writing. Going back to my eighty-page plan, I have my problems. I don’t know how they’re going to be worked out, but I don’t have to feel anxiety about it yet. I’m still at the kind of play [stage]—I think the play of the early days of writing a novel is essential. I just want to explore and figure it out and play and kind of noodle around and hope that takes me somewhere.