Q&A: novelist Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s novels shouldn’t be spoiled. Even though nothing can spoil the fun of reading her books. Her writing has no expiry date that I can find. Timeless kind of prose, brilliant in many ways at once on every page. Still, I almost spoiled this interview by accidentally asking for an answer from Meg Wolitzer that would make her reveal what’s going to be one of the fun pleasures of reading to the end of her latest, The Uncoupling. So I edited that question out. If you’d like to know the ending, look elsewhere, others couldn’t resist. No biggie, like I said, it’s the reading of her flawless organic tell-all prose that’s the pleasure.

Meg Wolitzer lives in Manhattan, where she writes playful novels full of every imaginable kind of voice and flawed, wonderful characters. She observes them and disturbs them, she gives her characters  public and private selves, and lets us see the contrast. She plays with shape and form and duration in her novels, using memory, media, real history, and intimate family details to spin wonderful, page-a-minute stories. The Uncoupling, her new novel, is not her first to consider the mating dance our first step into magic realism. The Ten-Year Lap, her novel from 2008, and before it, The Wife, The Position, and her first, Surrender, Dorothy, all discover real, vividly real scenarios and depictions of love and our relationships that would be absurd and impossible to consider were it not for great literature to invent a way.

How would you describe the way the action unfolds in your latest novel, The Uncoupling?

My novel involves a magic spell (I never thought I would use the words “my novel” and “magic spell,” in the same sentence), that is cast upon a suburban town, causing all the women to turn away from men in bed.  The action, such as it is, unfolds subtly, in that it’s really a kind of inaction–a mass refusal.  I follow the spell as it wafts through the town, and I go in and out of the bedrooms and psyches of the women and teenaged girls in question.

I wonder if in writing this novel you observed certain myths of the American sex life that your story was able to transgress or highlight?

I think there’s a truism in American culture that everyone wants sex all the time, and that to be healthy is to be strongly sexual.  This began with Freud, I guess; if you were sexually repressed back then, you were seen as ill.  But actually, I don’t think that sex is always the imperative in one’s life.  There are vicissitudes, and I wanted to acknowledge that, at least metaphorically.

Sex is some tricky language. There’s even an award for doing it poorly! You don’t get that for writing a family dinner scene. Who are the top writers on the themes of sex you might have looked at?

For a book about sex, there’s very little sex in The Uncoupling, because it’s about that aspect of life being taken away.  But let’s see, in novels without magic spells or sex strikes, I like some of the sex scenes in… Jenette Winterson’s work, and in Jonathan Franzen’s.

Does theatre still have magical properties? — what parts of performance and rehearsal and line interpretation did you enjoy writing about?

I think all great literature–whether it’s meant to be only read, or read and performed, is highly powerful, and can change everything.  That’s part of the premise of my book.  There are lots of “spells” floating around out there in life, including the spell of art, which in some instances has lasted from ancient times all the way up until now.

Is there a play you’ve seen recently that made you wish you could have watched all the rehearsals?

I am going to see “Arcadia” by Stoppard tomorrow; it’s one of my favorites.

[enough Time passes before publishing this interview that I can ask] What did you think of the play, now that you’ve seen it?

I actually found that I preferred reading the play, and I am not sure if it was this particular production, or simply the fact that the words fly around your head in Stoppard, and I as a writer can’t help but want to linger on them. Some of it was extraordinarily moving, of course.   (For me, all you have to say is “Time passes,” and I am basically weeping.)

If you wrote a stageplay, what might it be about?

I actually am planning to write a musical with a musician friend.  We are just starting to think what it will be.  I have a fantasy about the ache of a play like “Our Town,” but with zesty music.

Are you interested in actors?

Sure.  They are often much more beautiful than writers!  Also, the actors I have met seem open to lots of different kinds of writing, and their interpretations of character are sometimes startling and not “fixed.”

This is a writing question and it turned into a long whopper: Your novels are lively relationships, and there are main characters, and through them we meet so many different people, secondary characters, and hear their stories told in so many different styles. The characters’ dialogue, the newspaper clippings. and announcements, letters, interviews, and all laid out in this fine, smooth order —  what is your technique for developing these numerous voices, all appearing in and out of narrative and scenes and chapters, what effort to find that pace you like and the fluidity and continuity?


A while ago I had an insight (well, I think it was an insight) that the whole concept of “backstory,” or “flashback” was fallacious.  Most of our lives are back-story, aren’t they?  I am sitting here typing, but I am also thinking about something that happened to me this morning, and something that happened to me in my childhood.  It goes back as much as it goes forward, and I think ordering parts of a novel for “momentum” can be a mistake, and goes against the grain of fiction.  The ordering that I do more closely resembles free-associations.  Only later, during, say, a second draft, will I go in and heighten momentum on purpose.

At what point in the writing process do your characters get named?

They get named very, very early; then their names sometimes get changed very late.  But one of the pleasures for me (as I am sure is true for all writers) is the naming.  We know when a name is right, though sometimes we can’t explain why.  I like the way the unconscious works during the picking of names, leading the writer toward certain qualities in a character that a name either amplifies, or desperately tries to hide.

Do you toy over how major events play out or basically write them as they come to you, revise, and move on?

I barrel through as they come to me.  Later, looking them over, I am often appalled, and so I revise.

Are you able to talk a bit more about how you like to develop and reveal aspects of your characters?

I never really picture the characters, but instead I just let them kind of appear as the ideas in a story deepen.  Once the ideas solidify, I try to enrich the characters; I never want them to just “be” there like people idly sitting in a park.  I want them to have some kind of dynamic role, even if I don’t initially know what it is.

What’s a story got to do under your typing fingers to make you feel awake to its potential?

The writing has to excite me, thrill me, make me want to rip through it.  I love that crazy, sick, overstimulated feeling you get when you’re writing well.

Do you think a person can see themselves as well as we can see the actions of characters in novels?

No, I think we are all blind to ourselves for most of our lives.

Are people in it together or inherently more selfish?

In life?  We are frightened of dying and need solace all the time.  Selfish, definitely, but human, which makes it all understandable.

Do you write short stories?

Not usually.  I tend to like the big bag of a novel.

What’s an important film for you?

“The Lady Vanishes,” by Alfred Hitchcock.  Funny, frightening, moving, beautiful, and old now, very old.

Do you go see any foreign films in the movie theatres?

Yes, once in a while, although more and more my movie-watching takes place at home.

Who is a really great auteur type filmmaker you can’t get enough of?

Hitchcock.

What’s some of your favorite short stories?

Alice Munro’s “Child’s Play.”  Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” James Joyce’s “Clay.”  “Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”

Who writes the wildest short stories?
Mary Robison is pretty wild.  James Joyce is too.

Do you hang out at many of the interesting-sounding literary or other NYC events that the rest of the world’s agape over when they read NYer etc, must it all balance with hunkering down over the keys, writing?
Most of my friends are writers, so I guess when we get together it’s a writers’ thing, in a way.  We do go to readings and lectures in NYC, certainly.  As far as whether the world would be agape… Does the world want to sit around and eat cheese with writers and talk about books?  Maybe in, oh, 1982 it did, but I don’t think it does to that degree anymore.   All the writers I know are nervous about the future of books and writing, but everyone balances the cheese-eating and even reading-going with serious productivity.  We don’t know what will happen, but we just keep doing what we know how to do.  What else is there?

What’s a remarkable novel you’ve read recently?
Here’s a great one:  Old Filth, by Jane Gardam.  It’s masterful!  (See, I even used an exclamation point.  I felt the need to exclaim over this one…)


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