RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Take a minute and go back in time to yourself as a 15-, 16-year-old. What was your thing? The special talent you were known for? Maybe you played Hamlet in the school play or maybe you drew cool cartoons. Maybe you had a killer three-point shot or spent hours holed up in a practice room with your cello. That talent may have defined you as a teenager, but odds are that talent has become something else over time - just one piece of an adult identity. Author Meg Wolitzer's new book, called "The Interestings," explores that journey for six friends. It begins in the summer of 1974 when they meet as teenagers at a summer camp. The story follows their lives over the next 40 years - through college, marriage, children, through success, disappointment and unmet expectations. Meg Wolitzer joined us from our bureau in New York and I asked her to describe the main character, Jules Jacobsen, and her first impression of the artsy summer camp called Spirit in the Woods.
MEG WOLITZER: She is a girl from the suburbs who has been plopped in the middle of this camp and doesn't really have a sense of herself yet. And when she gets there, she meets these other teenagers who seem to her so sophisticated, like, she describes them as being like French movie stars with a touch of something papal. They are so beyond anything that she's experienced in her life before. They're all from New York City and she falls in with them and feels as if she's discovering life.
MARTIN: Of course, camp eventually ends, yet this group of six young people stay close. And all of them have some kind of artistic bent; some of them pursue those talents, others do not. Jules decides not to. Why?
WOLITZER: She's one of those kids - and I was one of those kids, so I feel like I have a little right to know something about it - who have a kind of small amount of talent in this field, acting. They're good in the plays. They put their heart into it. But they probably can't make a full life out of it. But for her, acting is a kind of way into feeling, is a kind of way into being who she ultimately will be.
MARTIN: There are, of course, a couple of people in this group who have wild success, actually. Two characters named Ethan and Ash. What happens to them?
WOLITZER: Ethan Figman is the creative genius of this novel. It's the kind of talent that you can't give or teach to anyone. He just sort of has it. And he's an animator, and he becomes a huge star. He becomes richer than, you know, anybody ever imagined. And his wife is lovely, best friend of Jules. Her name is Ash. She's a theater director. And she has a kind of different talent, a subtler talent. I guess I felt when I was writing this novel that talent is this sort of interesting, strange, slippery thing, as a character describes it in my novel.
MARTIN: You're saying in your book also that talent, or the realization of talent, is also sometimes about luck and circumstance, right?
WOLITZER: It is so much about luck. Or it's often about class. I mean, if you were born into a family with connections and those connections helped grease the wheels, that is huge.
MARTIN: Is that something that affects Jules's destiny? She just doesn't have the same familial connections as the others.
WOLITZER: No, she doesn't, and she doesn't understand. She thought that they all started out the same and that their lives would have a trajectory in sort of lockstep, like the Rockettes going off into the world kicking, you know, at the same pace. But actually, you know, I mean, when my friends and I first moved to the city, everybody lived in these junky little apartments and we all had takeout from Chinese restaurants. But as time went on - and this is true in this novel - certain things could somehow take effect. Like if you were an artist, instead of getting a job, you know, as a paralegal, maybe your parents would give you money and you could go off and you could rent a cottage of a friend in Maine and you could really write a novel there. Whatever it was, she didn't understand that that was going to happen. She thought it was all even and it was all fair, and of course nothing's even and nothing is fair.
MARTIN: On the one hand, she doesn't pursue her talent in comedic acting. She chooses a far more stable, in some ways, career as a therapist. But she's resentful. I mean, through the book, she really grapples with envy.
WOLITZER: I was really interested in the subject of envy. But not that kind of big, overt envy, but instead the kind of quiet envy that you might feel even for people you really love. She doesn't have - Jules - a big, big talent. So, she becomes a therapist, which isn't something she felt she was born to do. She actually is pretty good at it and her patients love her. So, can you enjoy your life? Is it enough if you're the therapist married to the really nice husband and the two of you don't have this big, big splashy life? You know, the thing is almost nobody really gets to live the way they were told or had a dream about living when they were very, very young. You know, the childhood fantasy and taking it and going the distance in it, you know, so that you become the best finger-painter in the world as an adult or whatever it was you did as a child is so, so rare.
MARTIN: I've also read, Meg, that you went to a similar camp, a camp similar to Spirit in the Woods, which you write about.
MARTIN: Did it have the same deep impact on you that that camp did on this particular group of characters?
WOLITZER: It really had the same impact. I went to this camp in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and I, for the first time, was taken seriously and started to think about the world and become probably a little pretentious. You know, I walked around carrying novels with the, you know, with the titles facing out so everyone would see what I was reading. I positioned myself on stone walls with a journal - a quilted journal. You know...
MARTIN: I have no idea what you're talking about.
WOLITZER: No, nothing, not at all. I'm sure you don't. I made wonderful friends and that, actually, is as much a part of it as anything else. My closest friend is someone I met that summer in 1974. And sort of talked about the world in a way that, you know, none of my friends back in my suburb did. And I began to be a little different and to have aspirations that were maybe bigger. Something had been lit in me that never got unlit again.
MARTIN: Has your ambition changed with age?
WOLITZER: Yeah. I mean, I guess it's gotten bigger but probably because of mortality more than anything else. But what you want is writing characters and something that I call imperative, a reason to be. When I'm writing, like, why are you telling me this? I ask myself that, and I ask myself that when I read a book. I didn't used to do that. And, you know, we live in this very, very non-fiction world where people are frightened and anxious about a lot of things and they want to know about the world. It's up to the fiction writer to make the sale that a novel can give you what's true. It can, you know, let you know about how other people live and therefore can create empathy. And it's not like I sit there when I'm writing now and think is this novel creating empathy? I mean, I don't do it that way. But something more has been, you know, put in me. The desire not to be afraid and not care what people think of you in the same way that you maybe do when you're a 25-year-old writer.
MARTIN: Meg Wolitzer. The book is called "The Interestings." She joined us from our bureau in New York. Meg, thanks so much for talking with us.
WOLITZER: Thank you.