Aleta Margolis ’89: Meg, thank you so much for joining us today. We're really excited to hear what you have to say and get to share your voice with the Brown community. I wanted to start off by really asking you, you write compelling descriptions of your characters that allow your readers to get to know them intimately. How do you describe yourself?
Meg Wolitzer ’81: I don't know that I describe myself very much. It's so much easier to think about other people, which is I think why I'm a fiction writer pretty much. I don't know how I would describe myself. The question is something I don't really think about that often. I mean, I've been sort of keeping my head down writing. I think that's maybe the closest way I would describe myself.
Margolis: So, speaking of writing, we're talking to people who went to Brown, and Brown really prizes writing. Writing is an important part of the curriculum, of the academic experience for all of us. How much was writing a part of your experience as a student at Brown, both in class and sort of on your own?
Wolitzer: It was a very big part. I studied with John Hawkes, who we call Jack, who is a wonderful writer and teacher. And everyone in the class really got, I think... I hope got so much out of him and out of the class.
I mean, he was a really experimental writer, published by New Directions in the '60s, he sort of came to prominence. But one thing that's struck me in the workshop was that he didn't need the students' work to be like his own in order to appreciate it. And that's something that isn't always the case in a writing workshop. But he was so open to various kinds of writing, and he took us so seriously and wrote very, very long commentary on our manuscripts. It was just great.
Margolis: Yes, that's the sign of a great teacher. Someone who brings out the best in students rather than asking students to imitate what the teacher's doing. That's great to hear. As you know, we're marking the 50th anniversary of Brown's Open Curriculum. Did that shape your Brown experience, or your time after Brown?
Wolitzer: Yeah, it definitely did. I transferred to Brown from Smith, and I had been in a really very, very strong English department. But they didn't let me take writing classes beyond just a couple for credit toward the English major. I really knew that I wanted to write and I transferred to Brown, and I kind of just studied and did what I wanted to do and that was right for me.
I was writing a novel while I was a senior, and I was taking a Japanese literature class and all kinds of things. And I didn't really at the time think about being well-rounded. Looking back, I might've done it differently. Of course, I think most people might make curricular choices differently later on, but I appreciated it very much at the time, yes.
Margolis: In 2012, you wrote about how female authors get less coverage than male authors, and no doubt this is especially pronounced for female authors of color. In the past seven years, how much has this changed or has it changed? And what can we do to accelerate that change?
Wolitzer: It's hard to quantify. The organization VIDA, whose website is vidaweb.org. It's V-I-D-A. Tracks the numbers of women represented in literary publications and publishing houses. And it's really pretty eye opening... you wouldn't necessarily know that women were underrepresented in certain places, but they are.
I heard from some people when the piece came out saying that there wasn't only a second shelf, but there was in fact a third shelf for women of color, where they really felt even less represented.
I think that calling attention to these discrepancies shines a light on it and, and can change it. I know that the editor of Tin House, which has recently folded, the wonderful literary magazine, he said that as soon as he saw what the numbers were, he made it his mission to publish 50% women.
I think that it has shamed some people, or some people are un-shamable, I guess. But we're in a strange time. I mean, there's so much conversation around feminism and women's issues in a way that is different even from when the piece came out seven years ago.
I would say it's a mixed bag. It can be depressing, but it's certainly a mixed bag and there are some encouraging signs. But you have to just sort of look at the long, long view. And I don't know what that looks like yet.
Margolis: We're all trying to figure that out for sure. Anything that we as Brown alumni, can do sort of as individuals, whether as readers or whatever role we play to accelerate that change?
Wolitzer: Well, I think supporting talented women and talented women of color in particular is always important. I mean, we need a lot of different voices. What fiction does, is show us what it's like to be someone else. And there was that study that the New York Times reported on years ago that said that people who read fiction had a greater capacity for empathy.
I feel those of us who read and write fiction already knew that, but we didn't have the data. And now we do. I guess, also write what's true and not care about what people think of you when you're writing. I guess those are things in addition to being advocates, and involved in organizations that help stop misogyny and sexism.
There's so much work to do, but what can you do more strongly? What can you do? What is it that you can say and contribute? I think for every person it's different.
Margolis: That's fabulous. Thank you. And I think writing and speaking what's true sounds simple, but it can be scary, especially in this time. And it's really important to encourage each other to do that. As an author who's written and published many novels, you've surely worked with editors, publishers, agents, people who've helped you reach your audience and helped you share your stories. What advice would you have for young writers on how to differentiate between colleagues who will strengthen and amplify their voices, and colleagues who might try to change or detract from their voices?
Wolitzer: It's a long learning process. I'm someone who has benefited a great deal from, I guess what I would now call mentors, although I didn't necessarily call them that at the time. But I did meet people along the way who had very strong ideas or were not encouraging, and it felt bad and I don't know that I knew right away that I was right or they were not right, and it took a while.
I think it's kind of...you really learn by doing it. There's no way around that. Those kinds of mistakes. People who don't necessarily have your best interest at heart, or have something that they feel like saying. It can be true, that something that a strong person wants, maybe something that should be brought out in you...we're not these isolated individuals. There's this sort of collective sense of what writers can learn from one another. And I know that I listen still very hard to my friends who are writers, and get something from that and I'm sure it changes my work in different ways.
Margolis: Can you say more about how you determine now based on the experience you've had, based on the learning you've done, how do you determine when someone gives you feedback? And maybe meaningful feedback that says you should really consider a significant change in something you're writing? How do you determine when to accept that, and when to say that, that doesn't fit with what I want to say, I'm going to reject that feedback?
Wolitzer: Well, I think there are two aspects that you would want to make sure are in place. One is that the person wishes you well, and two is that they share a sensibility. We talk a lot about voice and fiction, but I think sensibility is something just as important and kind of related.
Zadie Smith has a great line in an essay of hers called “Fail Better,” in which she says, "When I write, I'm trying to express my way of being in the world." I guess you could say, the thing that the person is urging on you, would it still allow you to express your way of being in the world? Or would you be expressing their way of being in the world, which is different?
If your way of being in the world remains in place, and they are someone who wishes you well and you admire, you might try it out. The thing about writing is that it's so much about rewriting. We make mistakes and we revise. We go back over it, we waste time. But it isn't really a waste because you have to go in a roundabout fashion.
I was writing a book about Freud's patient, Dora, and I realized I couldn't be funny and I couldn't be witty in the way I wanted it to be. And I had sold the book and my publisher was happy with it, but I put it aside and I wrote the book, The Wife. In the book, The Wife, was funnier and more in your face, probably because the character of Dora couldn't be. If I hadn't been writing that book that I put aside, I don't know that I would've written this one.
Margolis: It makes me wonder, do you feel like your books are done once they're published? Do you ever feel like, "I wish I could go back and change it?” Or it’s not really done?
Wolitzer: Yes. I mean, the ideal I guess would be to show up at somebody's house with a pen when they're reading and say, "Excuse me." But you can't do that. I kind of try to make my peace with it. I've gotten better at that. I've definitely gotten better at that. If I had my way, I would go on and on forever and I think a lot of writers I know would do that, too. We would just keep working on it, whittling it down, expanding it. I'm writing a novel now and I have a chapter that just doubled in length. I don't know where it will ultimately end up, but I like the freedom I feel now. Maybe I can do it now so that I don't have to do it later when they have to kind of pull it from my cold dead hands, when it's due.
Margolis: I think there's a lesson in there for all of us about finding the balance between continuing until you feel you've fully said what you want to say, and getting your voice out there. Do you feel that's a tension that you struggle with? The getting it out there versus getting it right?
Wolitzer: Yes. I mean I make my living as a writer and I am very, very fortunate to be able to do that. Books have to be handed in at a certain time. I have bills to pay and stuff like that. It's not like I can work on a paragraph for 10 years. I know that I can't.
And there's some sadness in that because what would I really do if I really didn't have to think about deadlines? Who knows? It's almost too painful and traumatic to even think about right now. Would the work be really different? It certainly might.
Margolis: That's a really powerful question. I think that, that can relate to all of us, whether we're authors or in whatever line of work we do. It's a really important question. Sort of related, how do you balance, as you said, you are a writer for a living. How do you balance the commercial part of your work with the creative part?
Wolitzer: I don't think about it. I guess I think that I'm not such a freak that the things I'm interested in aren't interesting to some other readers, and it’s worked somehow. You can't really game the system. If you could, maybe people should try. Maybe some people can, I don't even know what that would entail because I know that the work that I've written that has gone over the best, is stuff that is closest to what I care about. I'm just not going to change it.
Margolis: Where do you find your characters? Or do they find you?
Wolitzer: I think my characters come out of ideas really. I have an idea, a problem that I want to explore, which is different from solving. I want to explore a problem. For instance, in The Female Persuasion, I was interested in female power and also in the person you might meet who sees something in you and changes you.
I had that idea before I had characters. But once I had that idea, it's kind of like that children's book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you have that idea, someone might step up and say, "I can take that."
She was this shy college student. And if you have a shy college student who can't say what she feels, there might very well be an older woman who can say what she feels, and becomes a mentor to her. One sort of leads to another, it kind of becomes a chain.
Margolis: Let me ask you a question about The Female Persuasion, about Faith Frank, whom you describe, and please correct me if I'm not describing her as accurately as I should be. But you described her as a feminist, really adored by women across generations, but also criticized for emphasizing the needs and interests of women who have privilege or at least appearing to do that.
And today you're speaking to women who are all Brown University alumni. And though we're a very diverse group, of course we all have the privilege of being associated with Brown, of being a part of the Brown University community.
What are our opportunities? What do you believe our opportunities are, and perhaps our responsibilities to the broader community and to ourselves as people connected to this Brown community?
Wolitzer: Well, that's really an individual thing for each person. But for me to have it have meaning even generally, even sort of uncoupling it from Brown, I want to do my best work and I want to be a decent person in the world. I learned things at Brown that cemented that.
I very well remember the political activism taking place at Brown. I remember the anti-apartheid and divestment issues that were big at the time when I was at Brown. And I remember thinking about political issues for the first time in a different way, as if I might have something to add or say, or at least reflect upon.
Even though my character in my book, I felt sort of shy and I turned red easily. I guess I would say that for people, for different women, what is the way that you can be closest to yourself but also have an impact in the world?
I mean they should overlap in a Venn diagram. Being who you are means it will go best. That's kind of like what I was just saying about writing fiction. If you care about what you're doing, if you care about what you're saying, that is the way to go.
To have Brown as a place to think about what it meant to you, and to talk to other people, perhaps ones who can have influence, that's an important thing. But yes, I'm very, very aware of being lucky to have had it. Sure.
Margolis: Is it a luxury to have a job that you love?
Wolitzer: Yes, very much so. I've done all kinds of other things over the years too. I've taught a lot and I still do teach a lot, but yes, it absolutely is. I'm very, very aware of the luxury and unusual-ness, I guess of it. I never take it for granted.
Margolis: Thinking of our roles, many of us as mentors of young women and others, is it reasonable to tell young women that they should pursue their dreams given this question of perhaps it being a luxury to have a job you love?
Wolitzer: Well, I can only look at my experience with, say, my mother. My mother is a novelist, her name is Hilma Wolitzer, she's 89. She had parents who were not encouraging to her when she was a child. She grew up in a house with basically one book, Dr. Morris Fishbein's Home Medical Encyclopedia, but her parents really were proud of her.
But they didn't understand what she was doing when she started publishing short stories in Esquire in the 1970s. When it came time for me as a writer, she never said, "Oh, you should fall back on law school."
Even though she might've felt afraid, and I don't know, we haven't really discussed it at great length in that way, she was encouraging. And I once did an event after a reading, there was a Q and A, and a woman stood up and said, "My daughter wants to be a playwright and I know how hard it is to make it. Particularly as a woman, but for anyone, really, what should I tell her?"
And I thought about it and I said, "Well, is she talented?" And she said, "Yes, very." And I said, "Is she burning to do it?" And she said, "Yes." And I said, "I think you should tell her that's wonderful, because the world will whittle your daughter down. But a mother never should."
My mother never did. And I think that if she had, if her fears had lead, regardless of how accurate they would have been, I don't think I would be here talking to you. I just don't. It's a tricky thing. You want to protect young people, you want them to have a good life. On the other hand, there's a boldness attached to trying for something.
Margolis: Is there advice that you would offer to particularly young women pursuing careers as writers, whether playwrights, novelists, in a field with questionable financial security, but driven by their desire to share their voice and to do the work?
Wolitzer: A bunch of different pieces of advice, I guess. One, read a lot. Learn from the past. Get excited by places in novels or short stories or poetry, where you feel the writer was really excited because then you will kind of return to that feeling of love, which is I think something that happens at the beginning of a book. A kind of grandiose fantasy.
But I guess also be nimble, be adaptable, have other skills. See the world so that you can learn about things, know things. Teach other people, whether that's in an institutionalized way or just sort of person-to-person, and wish for the best.
If I had my way, I guess I would have more skills. Maybe that would be something good. But I've written a lot of reviews and essays and screenplays and children's books, and I've taught a lot. I briefly invented toys at a toy think tank when I was in my 20s. Go for the toy think tank, I'd say.
Margolis: That's fabulous. Thank you. That's wonderful. Well, let me ask you a followup question then about teaching. It's a really a question from my own vantage point as a teacher, and I'm committed to engaging students authentically and I think that that's what ought to happen in school.
In The Uncoupling, you write about the way Lysistrata engaged the audience and the actors. And you say, "Like any really good book, the play had held the people who ventured into it. And then when it was over it had released them." And I'm wondering, is this how you describe a reader’s experience engaging with one of your novels or with any novel?
Wolitzer: Yes, I kind of feel that, like love, a book is like a spell. When you're in it, you are so deeply in it. You know that feeling like you just want to rush back to it? Like to a new lover. You want to be in that world. It makes you feel something, it changes the room temperature. I absolutely would hope for that in my own work. But I certainly look for it in the books I read.
Margolis: Then given that, and I agree, I love your description of changing the room temperature. I feel that same way. When I read, I actually just finished The Female Persuasion last night, and felt that sense of “I’ve got to get back and connect with these amazing people.”
Given that, again, just thinking about this from a teaching perspective, what implications does this have for the way we do or should teach novels in school? Because I think of so many school settings where it’s, what was the name of the character introduced in chapter five?
And you're asking for recall plot information or you're sort of trying to do a gotcha, did you really read it or did you catch the symbolism on page 72? If indeed the goal is to be transformed and to have the room temperature change and connect with the story, what might that imply for how we should be teaching novels? Not just at the college level, but even in the middle and high school level?
Wolitzer: Well, I know that there has been a move because of standardized [test] concerns away from fiction. It's been very dismaying to so many teachers that they all have to teach nonfiction as if there's a primacy of nonfiction over fiction. I find that very upsetting, and I know teachers have spoken with great anguish at that, as if what really happened is more important than what might've happened in terms of how we process experience, and think about the world.
Maybe you're right though, when you say it this way, I kind of feel like, "Oh yes, I want to lead a charge of students talking about the room temperature change. The way fiction allows us to understand the other, the other person, other lives. That's not just a kind of a fancy, that's not a luxury, that's not an indulgence in this world.
There's so much cruelty and there's so much absence of empathy, that the idea of a person who feels as if they exist because you know them so well. How does that make you feel? How can you extrapolate from that into life?
I guess those kinds of questions are important and I imagined that a lot of teachers are asking them even if they're not told to in the curriculum.
Margolis: Yes. Empathy as you were saying before, there's so many studies now showing the importance of empathy, not only from a social, emotional perspective, but even as an economic skill that we really need it for our society, and it's so critical. You teach creative writing at Stony Brook, Southampton. What are your students curious about? What do they want to say?
Wolitzer: I currently, actually, I started a program with my friend and colleague Susan Scarf Merrell called Bookends, where we give people a one year novel intensive. Some of them have MFAs, some of them just have novels they've been working on for a long time, and they're good but not ready to go out into the world.
They're stuck at a certain place with their novels. And I think that they want to understand what is it that makes somebody want to read a book? I mean, it's as simple as that, really. It's not enough that it'd be "good." You have to want to be there. You have to want to be in the world and to put aside all of your other stuff, which is voluminous for most people.
Put aside all of the reading matter that makes you anxious in a given day that you feel you need to have to know the world. You need to stay on top of the election. You need to follow every poll. You need to see where the best resorts are, whatever it is you think you need.
A novel says "no, you need this,” but it's slower. It's longer, it's more intimate, it requires much more ongoing attention by virtue of its length, and sometimes it's ideas. I think that the writer needs to make the case for the value and necessity. The imperative of fiction.
Margolis: How has the way writers need to make that case changed in the...age of social media? And you certainly in your books as you talk, especially about high school and college students. I'm the mother of a 17 and 20 year old, so I see it in everyday life.
How they engage with the world and how social media impacts that. How has that changed? I guess I have two questions. How has that changed the way writers need to engage their readers? And also what can we hope to accomplish by getting people to sit down with a book, where you have to turn the page and you don't get the information all at once and you have to invest your time? How can we hope to influence sort of the minds and the experience, particularly of young people growing up with their phones attached to them?
Wolitzer: I'm heartened by the fact that some independent bookstores have been reporting real gains and a desire to return to the physical book and the object of the book, they miss it. The longing for that. Is it also connected to a longing for a simpler time? It may in fact be.
I wrote my first novel on a typewriter with white-out when I was in college. I wrote it with a little bottle of white-out, and I didn't think about what was going on on the internet because it didn't exist.
When the internet happened, my editor and I were talking about this very thing, and at the time we were talking about how people went to fiction to sort of escape the internet. But it isn't true anymore because it is us. We're breathing it, we're doing this interview in a high tech way. We are living it.
It's not about that exactly anymore. But I guess I think that, I still feel that whenever somebody writes a text in a novel and you have to go to that sans serif font to differentiate, something in me dies a little bit. Just that what we write in text, it may be important to the book. I've certainly included this in my book.
I guess I feel that there's a way that you can include the world as it is right now, but not have to just imitate it in its dullness, in the ways that we are enslaved to do it. Unless that is your point. Because it can be the fallacy of imitative form — a term you may have learned in an English class at Brown long ago, or recently.
The idea that you will bore people with your texts, which may not be the most interesting writing you do. I don't want to do that in a novel, but I do recognize that if I'm writing a book that takes place in contemporary society, that it will include some of that.
It's a thing that all writers have to confront, I suppose, in some way or another. Mostly I don't think about it, and it doesn't come up that often, because you don't have to include every single thing a person does in a day.
I mean, novels are not meant to be just showing a day in the life. They are kind of a concentrate of a life. The most important stuff that happens, it's not necessarily you on Snapchat, it isn't. I don't know what it is, but it would depend on the book. I'm certainly engaged in the world of the 21st century. But what matters to your novel is what matters, and not showing everything equally, not giving everything equal time on the page.
Margolis: When you decide which details of a character's life to share, how do you make that decision? How do you decide whether to share what they had for breakfast, or what they were thinking about? Or, what they wore that day? How do you determine that?
Wolitzer: Well, some of it really gets changed in revision, because revision is the greatest weapon in a writer's arsenal. You can really shame yourself. I have done so many, many times and it's almost like, "That's really good. That's really good." And then 15 is the charm. "Oh wait, that was terrible. Why did I almost put that in there?" Luckily, my editor probably would see it and agree.
I guess, I feel there's no science to it, but the details that stay for the most part are details that are not just furnishings, home decor. If I'm going to show home decor, it's probably to generate a feeling in what it is like to be in the world of that family.
If the old drawer that has batteries rolling around it gives you a sense of growing up in that family, which I remember writing a battery drawer detail in my novel, The Position. I remember it so well. I feel that people might connect to whatever the version in their family was, that made their family feel like their family.
What makes your characters feel more like their characters? What furthers story? What makes connections between things? A therapist friend said that what she looked for when she sees her clients is patterns.
Patterns seem to be important, not just the battery drawer on page one, but maybe something in a drawer on page 10. The notion that families harbor secrets, that they're closed away. You don't even know you're speaking metaphorically necessarily, until you've kind of taken it to its conclusion.
Margolis: Let me ask you. Let me pull from that and ask you about listening, which you talk a lot about in your novels, in your characters. And clearly it's an important part of your work as a writer and as a teacher. I want to share a quote from one of my favorite people, Alan Alda, who wrote in his autobiography, "Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you." How did you learn to listen?
Wolitzer: It's a great quote. I think it took a lot of time. It took a lot of time. I was once on a school trip with my kids class and I realized when they were at a museum, and the person leading the trip was sort of asked for questions. And everybody wanted to have a comment and they weren't really listening so much to the person speaking.
Because... I don't know, there were hearing the sound of their own voice. I think you have to go through that before you can really listen sometimes. You have to be told, you have something of value to say. Somebody has to want to hear you, but sometimes people don't ever get that. They don't ever have someone who wants to hear what they have to say. And it may be hard to listen because it's painful.
But if you can put yourself aside and say, not everything has to be about me, you can listen really well. I think that that's something that I've tried to do, because as a writer, you're just marinating in the world. You're just taking everything in, and there's so much in any given day.
I don't mean that that might end up in a novel, but it might change you or affect you. It might go through the filter of you. You really do need to listen. Not always be the one with opinions.
Margolis: I think that's a powerful point, that feeling heard really helps people to be able to feel comfortable listening. There's a confidence in being able to listen, knowing that I'm also heard. And so many of us I think, especially as women, are told to listen, but what that really means is be quiet, and there's a big difference. Related to that, how do you teach your students to listen?
Wolitzer: Well, we slow everything down, I think. When we talk about writing, we're really, really slowing the whole thing down away from the noise of the world. We're not talking about commerciality. We're not talking about relevance to some outside idea. We're looking at what the writer is trying to do. I think that's something I've learned from my editor.
When I start writing a book, my editor and I usually have a lunch and I kind of tell her what it is I'm trying to do, so that her edit isn't related to some abstract idea of what a novel should be, but is related to what I said I was trying to do. She'll say, "Well, you're not really doing that here, and I know you said that." I kind of try to apply the same thing to my students, and we listen for patterns that seem to help encourage the thing that she said she wanted to do.
Margolis: Do you have a mentor?
Wolitzer: I've had a number of them, although at the time I don't think I called them that, but my mother was certainly one. I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Kidder, who taught my high school English class, “The Bible as Literature,” and a creative writing class. She turned out to be the mother of Tracy Kidder, the writer, who I didn't know of at the time. And much later the writer, Nora Ephron, was something of a mentor to me.
The first film she directed was based on a book of mine. The movie was called This Is My Life, and we became friends until she died. And I really miss her and got so much from her about many things, particularly about humor, which is I think something that, it's hard for us to hold the idea that a book can be meaningful and also funny. But I certainly think that's the case.
Margolis: Connected to the question about a book being meaningful and funny, where do you see the line and I guess, how intentionally do you think about this? The line between reading for entertainment or enjoyment, and reading as a tool for social change and sort of a call to action. I guess, in all your writing, but particularly in The Female Persuasion, do you have something you hope people will do while reading the book, or after reading the book?
Wolitzer: It's funny because I sort of say with regard to what makes a good mentor. A good mentor has to have no expectations about how things turn out for the protege or mentee. It's sort of true with a novel. I can't really have expectations about what you might take from my book, because then I'm just writing it as a polemic.
I'm just writing it toward an end, and I guess what art does, or at least what I think it can do is broaden and expand the field of thought. I don't know what you might take from my book. You might take something from it really, really different than I ever thought about when I was writing it. But that's okay. That's fine.
If I wrote this as a call to action, it would be a polemic. I don't think it would be art. I don't know how to write a book like that. Maybe, I wish I could because there's so much that needs to be done. But I can only write what I know to be the best way, which is through people who feel real talking and thinking about things that matter to them.
Mary Gordon, my first writing teacher, said to our class, "Only write about what's important." What she meant was only write about what's important to you. I think for young people in a writing workshop, they might be asking themselves for the first time, "What's important to me? Nobody's ever asked me that before. I've never thought of that before."
That in itself can lead you as a writer and then perhaps relatedly as a reader, to thinking about what's important. Maybe it can do that, but I just don't know. When I write it, I can't plan it and I can't predict it, because I think it would weaken the work.
Margolis: Do you serve as a mentor?
Wolitzer: Yes, I do. It's happened also in a kind of almost accidental way, but I've had a number of students who I've gone on to work with and sort of shepherd their work, and they've come back and talked to me about what they want to do.
I know that a couple of them do think of me that way and it feels good, I have to say. It's not like, well, it's your turn now. I don't see it that way. It has to come naturally. It has to be something you want to do, not because generically you think that's good as a feminist. Although generically as a feminist, I do think that's good. But even more than that, it's going to work and have real meaning, if you care about the person and are excited about what they're doing.
Margolis: What benefits do you get from serving as a mentor?
Wolitzer: When they make connections that they hadn't made before, it's kind of thrilling. It's really thrilling. I take no ownership of it. I can't explain it. In fact, I'm having dinner tonight with a former student of mine and Brown graduate. Actually, Alison Fairbrother, who has her first novel coming out. It was very, very exciting when she sold her novel because, I liked thinking about the book with her, but I don't want any reflected anything from it.
I guess it connects me with feeling young, not feeling young, with being young and having things happen for the first time. It connects me with my own feelings too, which is what novels do, generally.
Margolis: Does mentoring push you in your work in thinking about your process when mentees ask you questions about why you do what you do?
Wolitzer: Yes, absolutely. I think that if you can be important to one person, if something you say can be important, you have to remember that your voice, any writer's voice can have authority and can affect people. Years from now you might hear from someone who said, "That thing you said in class 10 years ago made me go off and do this thing different." Or, "This thing you said to me when I heard you speak or when I met you at a diner." Or whatever it is. We affect each other.
We do replace each other. I mean, there's that theme at the end of The Female Persuasion, but before that happens, we affect one another. We change one another. There's something very beautiful in that to me that we're not really alone. We are kind of in this mess together some of the time.
I think people who understand that, perhaps partly by reading novels, partly by seeing injustice in the world, but who want to do something about it and change it. A friend of mine who's a novelist who's very involved in immigrant families, Courtney Sullivan, the novelist. Her books are so good.
Maybe, is it as a result of the empathy that she feels that she's wanted to really get involved with this organization and do important work? I can't know, but they seem all of a piece understanding, again, back to that empathy idea. What is it like being someone else?
Margolis: You talk about the interconnectedness we all have with each other in terms of supporting, in terms of learning from each other, in terms of sharing experience. And a big theme in so many of your books is the idea of power.
Especially, power and our relationship as women in different generations, at different points in our lives to power. Can you talk a little bit about that and sort of maybe how you've seen that change, or if you've seen that change over the past few decades?
Wolitzer: I would look at my mother's experience. When her first novel was published, one of the reviews said, "Housewife turns into novelist." And she joked that it was as if she was Clark Kent going into a phone booth. What? A housewife turning into a novelist, how can that be?
There was a kind of condescension in the way she was treated in that review, certainly. And I witnessed that. I think my novel, The Wife, really came out of looking at the mid-century, supposedly great male novelists and the different, not-level playing field.
Power has been really interesting to me, but it shifts. It goes back and forth. I don't think that it's only one way. I went to the Women's March, in January of 2017, the one in Washington.
It's so strange because like so many people I know, I felt both really powerless and really full of meaning and power at the same time, which is real, which is true. I don't think any one thing is. We're vulnerable, we live in a vulnerable earth. We live in an earth that is subject to terrible things that we'll die off if we don't change it.
And yet we have our power machinations all the time and we jockey for power within that. There's such a conflict, and it doesn't quite make sense even in the course of a day. Power, depending on how you look at it and what angle you're looking at it from, can look so different.
Margolis: Is vulnerability the opposite of power?
Wolitzer: No, of course not. I think that powerful people who allow themselves to be seen as real people, and not just sort of distant figures make the case for their cause. And some of it comes from vulnerability. Some of it comes from the pain that they've experienced.
The pain of being seen as other, the pain of being seen as less than. The pain of being marginalized in some way. If you tell your story and people understand your story, with a little luck, maybe they can extrapolate from it and say that there is a larger need to make change.
But it isn't to say that everybody has to tell their story that way. I mean, I would never prescribe what is the way to tell your story? Do you need to seem vulnerable? But if it's real and it's part of your story, I'm certainly not against showing it. No.
Margolis: Do you think that we all have some kind of a responsibility to tell our story, whether through writing or some other form? Is that something we should be encouraging young people to figure out how to do?
Wolitzer: I've been involved with the organization, The Moth, the storytelling organization. And they go into schools and communities and do storytelling workshops and it's very, very exciting. They have of these great nights and days where kids or young people, or just people in a community who haven't told their stories before can do so.
I don't think it's necessarily for everyone. Some people are very, very private about their lives. The story that they want to tell may not be their story per se. It might be something they've learned about. They want to explore that, but I guess I would just sort of change a little bit to say, what are you passionate about?
Wolitzer: I think we should be encouraging people to talk about what's important. Going back to what my teacher said, "What is important to them." Sometimes it's telling your story. Sometimes it's telling this story of a country, of the food chain, whatever it is. That may be just as important.
Margolis: It sends a powerful message to young people that there is something important they have to say, which is really important to hear.
Wolitzer: I absolutely think so. We're all different. We all have had a different upbringing. The characters in my novel, The Female Persuasion, I was talking about this with my editor at the time when I was writing it. The women of different generations grew up in different worlds. The world looked different to those second wave feminists than it did to the younger women. It just looked different. Their experiences were different.
What we have is unbelievably different experiences from one another. And when people come together and talk about that, there's something very moving that can come of it.
Margolis: What's your workday like? How do you spend your time?
Wolitzer: Talking to podcasts, hanging out. It depends on the day. It really depends on the day. I certainly like to get started in the early part of the day. I live in New York City. I have a dog that I usually am the one to walk first thing in the morning. And it kind of being outside, particularly being in a park helps, and I start thinking about my work right away.
It's kind of diminishing returns as the day goes on. I generally find that low blood sugar time of the afternoon, yesterday at three o'clock, I don't know why. For five minutes I watched Dr. Phil. It was the worst thing I could have done. I was like, "What? That's the opposite of a lyrical passage. What are you doing? Stay with your work." But you can't always work.
I guess, I tell students to not beat up on themselves if they have a day where they just go out for food in the middle of the day or read a book. They do contribute to things. I'm not sure that Dr. Phil will contribute to anything, but being in the world does. I mean, even sort of absorbing the culture, for better or worse, can affect something in your work too.
I always tell people to read a lot, they know that anyway. But read a lot to be excited as I was saying earlier. My work day's pretty...if I'm here, and I do travel a lot for writing. I was recently in Australia at the Sydney Writers Festival, and I'm going to Italy, to the Mantua Writers Festival in September. And to the Woody Point Festival in Newfoundland, this summer.
Traveling has mattered to me. I've had to decide, how do you want to live your life as a writer? As long as I am there enough of the year to really, really work in an ongoing way, I can justify to myself going off and meeting other readers and writers around the world.
Margolis: Meg, thank you so much for this incredible insight into your mind and your life, and your process. I really enjoyed hearing from you and I know that all of our listeners will too. As we finish up, is there anything else we should be thinking about? Anything else you'd like to share with these fabulous women, and perhaps even men who will want to listen to this podcast?
Wolitzer: I guess I would say that for me writing is sort of the best way to vanquish anxiety and particularly in this moment in time when we all feel anxious. There's something... I've heard that thing, I don't even know if it's apocryphal or only true for some people. But for some people who have a stutter singing sometimes removes that when they sing. They've said that they don't do that.
I think for me, feeling just sort of overwhelmed by the world, by what's going on right now in Trump America. Even if you're writing about it, when you're writing, which I am, sometimes the anxiety of that is sort of removed. I think it's removed by being generative. Making something new can make us feel like we have the reins a little bit, and maybe we do and maybe we don't. But that's only really to understand later on.
But to be free of that, to not be in a defensive crouch, is I think the best thing that one can do in the face of those kinds of feelings. For me as a writer, it's been a great relief to just get back to work.
Margolis: Thank you. That is an incredibly hopeful, yet grounded perspective and I appreciate it. And I know everybody listening will as well. Thank you so much. How wonderful to talk with you.
Wolitzer: My pleasure. Thank you.
The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent those of Brown University.