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SAM SANDERS, HOST:
From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.
Today we're talking to Meg Wolitzer. She is a fiction writer out with a new book. The book is called "The Female Persuasion." And the hype for this book has been spectacular. The Washington Post called Meg, quote, "the novelist we need right now." This book is on virtually every 2018 must-read list. And already, Nicole Kidman has announced that she'll be in the film adaptation of this book.
So here's the thing. I read the book. It is seriously worth all the hype. I'll tell you a bit about it. "The Female Persuasion" tells a story of a young woman named Greer who was sexually assaulted in college. And while she's dealing with that on campus, Greer meets an older, famous feminist who was giving a talk at Greer's college. Her name is Faith Frank. And this opening scene becomes a start of this relationship between the two of them that ends up lasting for years.
Greer ends up working for Faith Frank at a feminist organization she runs. And the book goes on to reveal how the relationship changes and ultimately falls apart over time. The book deals with these really fascinating ideas - what it means to have a true, cross-generational relationship, what it means to be a woman and help other women, what it means to make compromises for success and why sometimes relationships just have to end badly.
But even besides the book, Meg said she wants to, quote, "wear the sandwich board for fiction." And she does. She offers this really strong argument for why, in times like these when the speed of the news can drive you crazy - why now we need fiction more than ever. All right, here's Meg Wolitzer and me in our Culver City studio. Enjoy.
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SANDERS: So you are - OK, so you came here from - what? - KCRW?
MEG WOLITZER: Yes.
SANDERS: You're busy on book tour. Which hosts are you talking...
WOLITZER: I'm in the middle of it. I was on All Things Considered.
WOLITZER: I was on "Amanpour"...
SANDERS: Oh, OK.
WOLITZER: ...On TV. That was scary.
WOLITZER: And I don't even - like, you know, I'm just going from thing to thing, doing a lot of readings.
SANDERS: Do you like it?
WOLITZER: Yeah, you know, I do actually. This time, it's very - there's a lot of energy around it. And yeah, I do. Yeah.
SANDERS: Yeah. So this is going to be so weird, but go with me.
SANDERS: I was on vacation last week, so I was finishing up your book while on vacation. I was at a friend's wedding on a ranch in the middle of the hill country in Texas. It's one of those weddings where they tell everyone, come out, like, Wednesday, Thursday. We have a series of activities and events planned before the wedding on Saturday night.
I brought your book to read because I didn't want to hang out with folks that long (laughter). I was like, I'll sit in the cabin and read. But the bride asked me one of the days, where were you? We didn't see you today for field day. And I was like, I was reading a book. And she said, well, which book? And I said, "The Female Persuasion." And she goes, it's on my list. I want to read it. I said, well, I'll give it to you next. But I'm going to give it to you after you - her after you sign it.
WOLITZER: All right.
SANDERS: So before we leave here...
WOLITZER: I promise.
SANDERS: ...I'm going to have you sign this book. It'll be my wedding gift to my friend.
WOLITZER: A set of flatware and "The Female Persuasion."
SANDERS: (Laughter) That's all you need.
WOLITZER: (Laughter) Yeah.
SANDERS: And it was also weird reading a book that is, in so many ways, about how people, without fail, eventually let you down. It was weird to read that at a wedding (laughter).
WOLITZER: Yeah, I know. Well, we'll have to give that couple a chance. They might be different from everybody else. They're going to be different.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.
WOLITZER: I can just feel it.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. So I want you, I guess, to describe this book, if you could, in 30 seconds for people hearing this conversation that haven't read it yet.
WOLITZER: Sure. It's a book about female power and making meaning in the world and also about the person you might meet who changes your life forever. It's about the relationship between a young woman who meets a famous feminist who kind of takes her under her wing, and it goes from there. It's just sort of looking at how we live, how people live their lives.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
WOLITZER: Was that 30 seconds?
SANDERS: That was even better. You have a career in radio.
SANDERS: Some have called your book, this new book, a #MeToo book. Would you agree with that?
WOLITZER: You know, the book has come out in a moment where a lot of the themes in it are being talked about in a very new way. And the #MeToo movement is happening, and all of this is happening. But of course I've been thinking about these for a long time. I mean, it took me over three years to write the book. So I think these are old, ancient ideas - misogyny and female power and assault, that...
WOLITZER: ...You know, exploring some of those things.
WOLITZER: They're there.
SANDERS: Well, yeah. And it's funny. Like, I had a question written for you where I wanted to ask about how, like - in the book, a lot of the conversation is about generational and other divisions...
SANDERS: ...Within the feminist movement.
SANDERS: And my first crack at the question was like, well, how was Twitter exacerbated these things? Because there are little nods in the book where these critics of the foundation in the book use the hashtag #fingersandwichfeminism. And I thought, oh, that's so of the moment. But then I stepped back, and I was like, those divisions have probably been there from the start - before social media. We just see them in a different way now.
WOLITZER: Yeah. I mean, the thing about writing about two generations...
WOLITZER: ...As I do - because the relationship between this young woman who is groped by a frat brother on campus and meets a famous feminist and then goes to work for her, which I should have used during my 30 seconds - did not add that.
SANDERS: No, it's OK. It's good.
WOLITZER: These two women, who are - you know, Faith, the older, famous feminist, is 63 when they meet. And Greer Kadetsky, the young woman, is 18. They grew up in different worlds.
WOLITZER: That's the thing about different generations. They saw - the world that they came of age in - which I think really, really matters - is a different world. So of course there's going to be a divide. We understand that. And, you know, to some degree, there's a sense of the-media-likes-to-heighten-a-catfight idea. But there, of course, are real differences and real mistakes and real things that can be corrected in all generations. But I think the idea of the desire for equality runs through the generations here and out there in the world.
SANDERS: Yeah. I mean 'cause, by the end of the book, a new, younger...
SANDERS: ...Character is introduced. And her whole thing is, like, none of the old ones get it.
WOLITZER: No, right.
SANDERS: None of the old ones get it.
SANDERS: And it's like, everyone feels that way when they're that young.
WOLITZER: Yeah. Everybody does and feels like you have thoughts for the first time. And it's just sort of like...
SANDERS: No one else ever had this idea.
WOLITZER: Nope, no. And I love that about - you know, writing about young people allows you to be young yourself - for about a minute.
WOLITZER: But you can really think about idealism that you might have had. But it's not that all young people are idealists. I mean, there's different kinds of people within social justice movements. People approach things differently. And I'm trying to kind of give a panoply of - what is it like for these different characters?
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, I was thinking a lot after I read the book about, you know, this older feminist that takes a younger woman under her wing.
SANDERS: And I wanted to ask you, first off the bat - was there a person like that for you?
WOLITZER: There were a few people like that for me. I think that I have been very, very fortunate that when I was young, a series of older women were very, very generous to me. One of them was the writer Nora Ephron, who was, you know, as you know, just a wonderful, interesting, accomplished woman. But she was just very, very kind and interested. I mean, I guess that's the thing. So I had written this book, and she turned it into her first film that she directed, called "This Is My Life." And very few people saw it. And we should put them all in one room and have a focus group and talk about it...
WOLITZER: ...Although when you start telling people what it is, they remember it. They didn't remember the name. It was about a stand-up comic, Julie Kavner, and her two daughters. And it was really, for her, a very personal story about the sort of tensions between work and motherhood. And she saw something in it. And then, over time, we became friends. And she always asked about my work, wanted to see it. And I would write novels and send them to her and, like, wait by the phone, like waiting for a date, you know.
WOLITZER: No, because it - the idea of someone you admire somehow admiring you is like a - whoa, did that really happen? That's kind of amazing. And she was very, very supportive if she was sort of, you know, felt interested. And she had lunch with people. We played Scrabble. I just really loved her. And it meant a lot to me because it made you want to see - sort of, it made you want to be better, I think, when someone is waiting for something that you've done.
SANDERS: Yeah. Do you think that that kind of thing - someone in an older generation taking a youth and helping to guide them - is that happening more or less in the time we find ourselves in now?
WOLITZER: I think right now so many things are going on that I have seen - I don't have any quantification for this. But I have seen a lot of acts of generosity among people. And, you know, sometimes - often - it is older people saying, here's what I know. You know, 'cause, like, without thinking, I might say - oh, call this editor at this magazine. That piece sounds good. I don't want to get anything out of it. Or people have said that to me because you do at least remember when you were young and starting out...
WOLITZER: ...And didn't know anything. And how did you get a way in? It required that somebody took the time to not say, hey, I'm busy, I'm busy, you know, get out of my way, kid - but just sort of said, oh, right. Yeah, that's funny what you did or I like what you did. Call this person.
WOLITZER: And I think right now, where our tensions have been so fractured and we're frightened about a lot of things going on, it may feel extra good to do that to somebody. It may feel like you're doing something. You're helping in some way.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And, like, I've found in my career, it's never just a meritocracy. It's never just how good you are. Someone has to like you. Someone has to want...
SANDERS: ...You to go to that next step.
WOLITZER: And some of it is luck. Some of it is being there with that person who likes you at that moment.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
WOLITZER: It's a whole range of things. So as much as you can sort of be there in some way and see different things - even - you know, you meet people who say, that thing you said to me meant something. It's not that you help them, but then they saw something in themselves and maybe did something, were a little braver to do something else. So it's, like, a weird range. You don't know how - we don't know how our lives are affected by other people. It's, like, a weird, interconnecting system.
SANDERS: It is. It is.
WOLITZER: In fact, I'm going to hit you up today for some references, yeah.
SANDERS: That's fine. I'll offer you whatever I have.
WOLITZER: Slip my resume across the table right now.
SANDERS: As long as you sign this book for Angela (ph), we're fine.
WOLITZER: As long as you look at my resume.
SANDERS: So a friend of mine who covers books for NPR - had a chat with her months ago about what things should be on my radar for the show. And before she'd even read your new book, she said, you got to do this one. It's going to be great. I feel like the expectations for this book have been so high because of your previous work. How does it feel to be a writer at this phase, where we're all waiting for the next thing you write, as opposed to earlier?
WOLITZER: I don't think anybody ever forgets the earlier. I don't think you ever forget when you were sort of waiting to find out - did you sell your first novel? Did anybody like it? You know, I sold my first novel for $5,000. And...
SANDERS: In what year?
WOLITZER: In 1981.
SANDERS: Not bad money.
WOLITZER: Not bad. And I thought that money was going to last a long time. And in fact, I'm almost out now, you know.
WOLITZER: So - but I remember that sort of uncertain self - excited, uncertain, cocky but really, like, afraid. Like - and then, you know, I have to sell it. Will anyone like it? Will anyone read it? Can I keep doing this? You don't lose that. I think that you keep these selves inside you like one of those Russian nesting dolls.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
WOLITZER: You know, so there is that sense in me. But then, of course, if you have a readership - look, I am incredibly grateful. I think fiction writers, we are grateful for readerships because we live in a nonfiction world where, you know, things are happening so fast, and people are afraid and looking at the news. What can fiction writers give? I mean, I ask myself that. Like, you have to make it that fiction isn't a luxury item but is another place to go for truth. And I think that that's always something incumbent upon us. Like, I want to wear the sandwich board for fiction because I believe in it.
The way I think about it is, imagine if it were taken away. You know, if you lived in a world where people - no one read novels, like, what would that be like? I get so much from it. I mean, there was a study that The New York Times ran years ago about how fiction teaches empathy or gives people the capacity for empathy. We all knew that, but we finally had the science to back it up, and that makes sense to me. But I think that when you do have a readership and there is an expectation, the danger there is, well, what am I giving them? Do I give them the thing that I did last time but with different names?
WOLITZER: ...You know, same but different - or will they still be my readers if this new one is about an asteroid hitting those kids who went to summer camp? You know, and I think finally, what I - the way I approach it is that I want to kind of wipe all of that away and say, what is the book that I want to find on the shelf? And that's ultimately the thing that I think you really have to do, that - look, it's wonderful to have readers. You don't know how long they're going to be around for. Writers want to be read, and the conversations around one's book are very heartening because people are talking about your characters. They use their first names as if they are co-workers.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah.
WOLITZER: You know, hey, Greer.
SANDERS: I was straight up talking to Zee this morning.
WOLITZER: Oh, excellent. How's she doing?
SANDERS: She's doing good.
WOLITZER: I haven't spoke to her for a while.
WOLITZER: Yeah, it's a little demented, right? But I think that that is really the way it is sort of ideally supposed to be - but I think, finally, just sort of kind of saying, I'm clearing the decks, and I'm thinking about the next book that I'm passionate about because if that's not what it is, it's not going to be good.
SANDERS: Yeah. You mentioned earlier in your response fiction helping us find truth.
SANDERS: What is the biggest truth in this new book?
WOLITZER: I think that the path to making meaning can be helped by other people, but ultimately, it's never going to be the path that you thought it was going to be. Novels are not - they shouldn't be polemics. They probably follow a twisty road, and I think again and again, I'm surprised by where people end up. But it really is about people who sort of want to make meaning in the world, but it's never going to be - it's never going to wind you up at the place that you thought it was.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there were so many truths I found in this that I am still thinking of. You open this book with a young woman who is very driven and wants things and is let down in a certain way by her parents. And as her career blossoms and her life becomes a full one, what I saw happening for her and for all of the other major characters in the book is that, like I said earlier, everyone you love, given enough time, will let you down.
WOLITZER: Oh, yeah. I'm just waiting for that to happen here.
WOLITZER: I'm just, like, sticking around (laughter).
SANDERS: So you're admitting you love me (laughter).
WOLITZER: No, I mean everyone. Not everyone you love - everyone. I'm broadening it to everyone. Sorry. Forgive me.
SANDERS: (Laughter) No, I'll accept it.
WOLITZER: I - no, I'm teasing you.
SANDERS: I know, I know.
WOLITZER: I think that if you follow an arc of characters, you're going to be surprised; you're going to be disappointed. One of the things that I have to do as a writer is allow my characters to essentially disappoint each other and tolerate readers kind of saying, wait a minute, that's annoying to me, and writing to you on the various platforms at which they can reach you. But you have to let people be disappointing. You have to let that happen. I guess...
SANDERS: Because that's human nature.
WOLITZER: That's really human nature, yeah. It is. I mean, it absolutely is because this idea of perfection doesn't happen. Closure, even, doesn't happen. You have to leave characters sort of dangling off a cliff, and you have to let readers know that what you're trying to get at - you're trying to grapple with how we strive, how we disappoint, all of those things. And what novels can do, I think - I mean, they're snapshots of a moment in time or a bunch of moments in time. There's no way into a novel. Novels, to me, are kind of like Advent calendars. There are a lot of doors that you can enter.
WOLITZER: And I think that the ones that I've chosen here are I hope ones that show us who these people are because in a novel, I think the ideas - at least, for me, the ideas could never be bigger than the characters. They really need to work in concert with each other. And I want to write a novel with ideas in it, but - big ideas in it. But I want it to come through the characters because I think what you remember of the novels you love is character, finally. And that's - these characters, I'm haunted by them.
SANDERS: And you do this wonderful thing several times throughout the book where you tell the same story through different characters' eyes.
WOLITZER: I love to do that. I love to do that.
SANDERS: How long have you been doing that?
WOLITZER: I'm Rasho-Meg (ph).
WOLITZER: Oh, I think that I've often done that because there is no one truth about what an experience is like. And as you reprocess it, you see little details that you didn't see the first time. And I just - I'm thrilled by the small details and how revealing they are of a person. You know, because novels don't take place on any day. They take place on the concentrate of a day. So these are heightened moments that you're writing about, and they're going to look really, really different from different perspectives - female perspective, male perspectives. So I...
SANDERS: The Cory and Greer courtship told through both of them...
WOLITZER: Yeah, yeah, I...
SANDERS: I was like, whoa.
WOLITZER: Well, especially, in that case the boyfriend and girlfriend who were experiencing sex together as teenagers, they have very, very different ways that they've approached it, and we only learn it when we keep filtering it around. I think that fiction writers have to let themselves be really, really open to the way a story is revealed. And then, I mean, one of the greatest weapons, I think, in a writer's arsenal is revision because I can just make horrible mistakes again and again, and you still have a chance to sort of repair them when you see them anew when you print them out. What I like to do is I sort of go and I print out what I've written, and I go sit somewhere, and I look at it. A friend says, put your prose in a different font, and then it looks like a whole new book.
SANDERS: Really? (Laughter).
WOLITZER: It's very exciting, yeah - tip to your writer listeners. But you seem - you see things that were, like, overkill or really overdetermined, and then you can pull back, and you have a chance to do it because you can't do everything as you're writing, but you try to do a lot. And then you just continue to sort of fix, fix, fix to get to what you - what's most important that you want to get across.
SANDERS: When you're doing that thing where you are speaking through the eyes of so many different types of people in this book, will you ever say, all right, I'm writing this scene as a 17-year-old boy; do I need to consult a 17-year-old boy?
WOLITZER: You know, I like to show things to people to make sure I got things right later as opposed to having them have input early on because I want it to be a real invented experience. I want the characters to just not be Everyboy or Everygirl (ph), but to really be who they are very much. So I try to kind of let it go through that. I mean, I was a teenager once. And, you know, that's the thing. It's, like, we're writing about different generations. I mean, I will call young people sometimes. Like, when I was doing some of the intense scenes on college campus in 2006, I would call my editor, and her assistant would answer, and I'd be, hey, before you patch me through, when you were at college, what kind of a feminist were you? OK, great, thanks, now patch me through. You know, you're looking - it's - you're looking for help getting things right, making sure that nothing seems wrong so that it stops the whole narrative. But I kind of want to be as free as I can to have invention early on.
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SANDERS: All right, time for a quick break. When we come back, why you won't read the names Obama or Trump in Meg's book. BRB.
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SANDERS: So much about this book feels perfectly situated in the here and now. But then at some moments when I was reading the book, I was like, oh, she's not trying to be totally in the today. For instance, this book is about this modern era, but you don't mention Trump by name. You don't mention Obama by name.
SANDERS: Why not?
WOLITZER: You know, again, people read your books in the way that they do.
WOLITZER: I would just say that while it's come out in this Me Too movement time, what I want in fiction is something that feels like these are things that we've been wrestling with and that we will wrestle with, and you can continue to wrestle with them. Unfortunately, some of them, we've been wrestling with forever - some things about men and women, misogyny, some of these ideas about female power and a country's ambivalence toward that. The minute you mention people by name - like, leaders by name - the reader knows and can picture them perfectly. Everyone has the same view in their mind.
SANDERS: And their focus is taken away.
WOLITZER: And their focus is taken away from the characters of Faith, and Greer, and Cory and Zee and moved into these - you know, funnily enough, public figures are like the characters in the novel that we all share. We don't know Hillary, but look, I'm calling her Hillary. Hi, Hillary.
WOLITZER: I don't know you. Why am I call you Hillary? You know...
SANDERS: And if you were - and, like, if someone asked you to write a Hillary short story, you could do it right now.
WOLITZER: Yes, exactly. You could. And there are certain tropes and there are certain things that we feel we understand about them because they have become the characters in our lives and in our dreams in a way.
SANDERS: Yeah. Everyone can imagine a conversation with Donald Trump or Barack Obama.
WOLITZER: That's right. That's right.
SANDERS: You can do it. Yeah.
WOLITZER: And I think that I want the characters in my novel to dominate the novel and the narrative in the novel. And I want the idea of what's going on in the culture and what's going on politically to be there sort of unnervingly. I mean, at the end of the book, the one thing that I did do was go back into the novel after I'd finished it - after the election. I didn't - I never planned for this book to be up-to-date. I mean, it's sort of like writing about technology when suddenly it's dated in about one second - hey, put on Napster or whatever you're going to say. You know, it sort of cheapens it. It makes it be, like - the other things that might be truths in the book are then thrown away with the eight-track tape deck.
WOLITZER: And no writer wants that. But I did go back into the book after I'd finished it because the election happened, and I was pacing my house, feeling - my apartment. That's a short pace. I live in New York City. I was pacing the house kind of like a bull, like, on election night, thinking, what does this mean? What is going to happen? Is this real? And I started thinking in the sort of days and weeks after that - I was editing "Best American Short Stories" as well at the time, and I was thinking about fiction and what we want fiction to do. And with regard to this book in the last chapter, I thought, I want to dip back into my characters, thrusting them forward into what someone calls the big terribleness because it's not always that things are going to maybe be a little better for women and a little worse but you keep going. What if things really sharply, darkly change?
So I took a moment to go back into the novel and speak to a world that was still whirling and unfinished, and I didn't even know what it would look like a few years into the future. And I was very, very glad to do that because no one knows. So I really wanted to sort of thrust forward and keep out the names. I mean, I'm saying the big terribleness, but we know what that means. But I'm going to show what it feels like, rather than naming names.
SANDERS: Do you think this current political moment, real life, real time, represents for you and for others a, quote, unquote, "big terribleness?"
WOLITZER: It does. Yeah, I think it does. And one of the ways that it does for me is that it is so dominant, it is so present, you can't turn it down. I remember there was a - do you remember the short story by Vonnegut in that collection "Welcome To The Monkey House" "Harrison Bergeron" where they had to wear headphones? And I think when they had a thought or an interesting thought, like, loud sounds would come in.
WOLITZER: That's how I feel all the time...
SANDERS: With our politics right now?
WOLITZER: With our politics - loud, booming narcissism that's coming to our heads makes it so hard to traffic in nuance. And I think what novels can do and what I hope to do in a novel is to sort of be an antidote not to politics and not to the current moment but to things that feel un-nuanced. And that's, I mean...
SANDERS: And to the constant stream of yuck.
WOLITZER: Yeah, the constant stream of that - to control the stream. When you read a novel - I mean, what I love about fiction, I mean, among the many things I love about it is the idea that this book is sort of waiting for you when you need it, when you're there. It's the...
SANDERS: At the cabin in the hill country at the wedding.
WOLITZER: At the cabin at the wedding. Yes, this is all leading back to your wedding that you went to.
WOLITZER: But the book by the bedside at night, for instance, to me is a source of great solace.
SANDERS: It's a friend.
WOLITZER: It's a friend, whereas Donald Trump is not my friend. And the politics of this moment upset me...
SANDERS: Aren't friendly...
WOLITZER: They're not friendly politics. They're sharp-elbowed politics.
SANDERS: And if you like the current president or not...
WOLITZER: It doesn't matter.
SANDERS: ...There still is a certain level of frenzy that has not stopped since Election Day.
WOLITZER: It goes beyond where you stand politically. It's that it's very, very loud and it's dissonant and it's relentless. And I think the relentlessness also makes it hard for fiction writers to think, where do we fit in? Because remember, these people have become these inflated characters, they've become as big as, like, Macy's Day Parade floats floating through our dreamscape, floating through our daily life.
He's, you know - the characters in fiction ask something different of us. They ask us to think about nuance and about moral ambiguities.
SANDERS: And then, like, it makes you stop. It makes you stop and think. Like, there were moments reading the book where I had to stop reading and think about moments in my life or people in my life that were, like, trigger - like, those thoughts were triggered to me by this text. And then you - I found myself mentally working through some stuff while reading the book.
WOLITZER: Oh, I'm glad to hear that.
SANDERS: And that's not a thing you do when you're watching cable news.
WOLITZER: No. You are passive before the scroll of stuff that comes out there. Fiction - there's a collaborative nature to fiction, really, in that what you just described. When you're reading, I can't control what experiences you've had and therefore you bring to the book, whatever things interest you, what things don't interest you. I'm just putting out there what interests me the most.
I mean, people say to writers, write what you know. I've always felt for me what's more germane is write what obsesses you. What are the things that you think about all the time? And I say to students when I teach, what are those things because if you're keeping them out of your work, I wonder why because that's where, like, the heat is. But, you know, in this moment, that's the thing it's - Mary Gordon, the novelist, who is a great friend of mine, said that the novel is the opposite of a tweet.
And I think that's really true. You know, look, the novel sometimes is called, you know, a 19th century thing, the story told. But I love another - to quote another writer I love, Emily Dickinson, who had that great line, tell all the truth but tell it slant. I think novels are tell the truth slant. They do tell the truth. They show what is it like? What is it like out there or in here? But they do it in a way - what art does is not give it to you straight on but give it to you in a sly way, kind of curving, showing us something, say, as you brought up, through one character's point of view.
But now wait a minute, we're seeing it through someone else's point of view, and it doesn't look like that at all.
SANDERS: And a good one, you finish it and you say to yourself, I didn't know this one book was going to give me so much, you know?
WOLITZER: It feels like a gift when a novel does do that.
WOLITZER: I mean, you get very excited. You kind of jump around for a while.
WOLITZER: And I just love that about fiction. A good novel to me is, you know, it's not a place of escape. But it's sometimes you escape but sometimes it's about diving into things that are happening anyway.
SANDERS: Yeah, you explore.
WOLITZER: You explore, yeah.
SANDERS: The book made me think a lot about the politics of all these people. It is inherently personal.
SANDERS: Everything that Greer is doing at that place and then after that, it is informed by her personal life. It is informed by the attention she lacked as a kid and what Faith gave her. It is informed by the college snafu. Like, and just thinking back today about the state of our politics - I feel like we as Americans are not seeing the personal in others' politics. We're very good - and this is everybody on all the sides saying if you voted that way...
WOLITZER: You are...
SANDERS: ...If you did that thing, if you like that one, you're bad or you're good. And that's it.
WOLITZER: Right. I think that, you know, in this time of hot takes...
WOLITZER: ...I have a desire to be a master of the warm take. And that is really...
WOLITZER: ...What I try to do here because these characters are not meant to be representative of all young feminists or older feminists. They certainly - they couldn't be. And I wouldn't want them to be either because then it's not a novel. But that's right. You know, look; this time of Twitter and saying what you feel, people who can do it well, it is incredible. There are powerful things being said. I mean, it's not only novels or tweets. They're important.
WOLITZER: There are - of course. I mean, it goes without saying. But to slow down, to write about the intimate ways that people interact and how that informs their politics, how that informs the decisions they make that are really, really important for the rest of their lives, that's something that I want more of, especially in this moment.
SANDERS: Yes. Yeah. Did writing a book that seems to speak so much to feminism make you think anything differently about feminism or lead you to a new realization about the current state of the feminist movement or not really?
WOLITZER: I think talking to people on - I've, you know, been on book tour - talking to young women and older women and hearing stories of just this kind of urgency and desire for things to be better.
SANDERS: More than usual?
WOLITZER: Well, there - I talked - I can't say because I'm talking to them now in a way that usually I'm at home in my bathrobe, you know, going, what's a word for whirlpool, you know?
WOLITZER: You know, what's - 'cause I used that word twice in that paragraph. I can't use it a third time. But when I'm out, I don't know. I mean...
SANDERS: More than last book tour maybe even?
WOLITZER: It's different certainly. The last book, "The Interestings," you know, dealt with issues about talent over time. And I had a very personal connection to that book because the characters meet at summer camp when they're young, and it follows them over almost 40 years. In this case, with "The Female Persuasion," it was instead of the characters all being the same age, there was really a relationship between two generations in the book. So right away I'm in conversation in a sense about different eras between people who've had different experiences.
So that is - I will say this. It's tremendously moving to me to talk to readers and to hear things. You know, what people think you got right, what their experience was, what feels different to them about the world now. I think that the desire to make change and to sort of speak up about it is tremendous and fabulous. And I - you know, look; when I was growing up, my mother was someone who was very affected by second-wave feminism. She had only had some college courses. Her parents didn't think it was important for girls to go to college, so she didn't. She became a writer. She's 88 years old now. She started publishing stories...
SANDERS: She's still living?
WOLITZER: Yeah, she's still living. She started publishing stories in the old Saturday Evening Post, sold her first album when she was 44, encouraged by the women - by women in the women's movement. I saw that happen. I saw that really happening to her.
SANDERS: So there's some of her in this book.
WOLITZER: Oh, without a doubt. I mean, I'm very grateful to her. She's one of the women on my list of eight dedicatees because she's someone who basically sort of never held me back as a writer. And I think that was really, really important. I was very excited as a young feminist talking about things for the first time. I was in a consciousness raising group. Now, there's a term...
SANDERS: I love it.
WOLITZER: ...That you don't hear very often, right?
SANDERS: So that scene, it's real.
WOLITZER: The conscious - well...
SANDERS: When she's with the ladies for the first time and she's like, this is my...
WOLITZER: Well, consciousness raising groups are real, certainly. That is a made-up scene when they - yeah, they sing this kind of I get to decide - no, it's totally made up. But when I was in my group, we were - you know, we're like 14 years old. We're wearing, you know, little tie-dye shirts and, you know, Buffalo sandals and...
SANDERS: What's a Buffalo sandal?
WOLITZER: Oh, gosh. Yeah. Oh, I was - I tried to - listen. This is really pathetic because I switched from saying Earth shoes because I thought you wouldn't know what that was.
SANDERS: Jerusalem cruisers?
SANDERS: The Jesus sandals.
WOLITZER: You don't even know what I'm talking about. We're like...
SANDERS: OK (laughter).
WOLITZER: No, Buffalo sandals - I'll draw you a picture.
SANDERS: I'm Googling now.
WOLITZER: You're going to have to Google. They were like - I can't describe them. They were, like, tan colored.
SANDERS: Buffalo sandals.
WOLITZER: Buffalo sandals. This is so sad. I'm now going to start...
SANDERS: Those are low-key Jerusalem cruisers.
WOLITZER: Are they?
SANDERS: So basically...
WOLITZER: All right, but low-key. All right.
SANDERS: (Laughter) So in high school, we used to call any kind of leather-bound sandal that could resemble something that you might see...
WOLITZER: In the Bible?
SANDERS: ...In, like, Nazareth...
WOLITZER: Or - yeah. Right, right.
SANDERS: ...It's a Jerusalem cruiser.
WOLITZER: All right. Well, the ones that we had were a little more - like, the leather was a little fuzzier. So they looked a little different from that. But...
SANDERS: (Laughter) OK.
WOLITZER: So there we were, these girls...
WOLITZER: ...Sitting around somebody's living room. And we had to make sure that, like, the parents weren't listening.
WOLITZER: Oh, yeah.
SANDERS: Well, yeah - you're 14 (laughter).
WOLITZER: And there was an implicit sense that what we were saying would not be discussed outside that room. And right away, that was incredible. And it wasn't going to be gossiped about with your friend. It was not - it was OK to talk about anything.
SANDERS: It was AA.
WOLITZER: AA without...
SANDERS: What were y'all talking about?
WOLITZER: But - well, that's the thing, actually. We wrote away to the National Organization for Women and asked for a list of topics. And they sent us, like, a brochure that had things in it that were, like, Your Sexual Life. We were - a lot - you know, innocent of most things in the world. Like, most of us were just sort of starting out in the world. We wanted things like, "When Your Parents Won't Listen" or "What Does It Mean When That Boy Looks at You?"
We were - we just didn't - you know, we were 13, 14, however old we were. I can't remember exactly. And I don't know, we talked about a lot of things. But I think what mattered was this sense of kinship. And I use the word sisterhood lately, which is not a word that I've gotten to use without irony for a long time. But it's a word that I really believe in because I have been really helped by other women.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: OK. Time for a break. When we come back, more about Meg's mom and what made Meg the writer she is today. BRB.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: I've been thinking a lot about the foundation in the book and how some of the frustration that Greer has over time is that they are in a place where their work is only really words. Right?
SANDERS: It's people talking. We both work in fields where we really only have words. You write. I talk. Sometimes that can feel limiting. And it can make you say to yourself - at least me to myself - am I having an impact? What am I doing?
SANDERS: Do you get like that sometimes?
WOLITZER: Oh, absolutely. It's really, really hard to know, what kind of a life should I be leading? Am I making meaning in my life? I mean, the characters really struggle with that. And in fact, actually, it was interesting for me to sort of let them do what they need to do. But Cory, the boyfriend in the novel, ends up having a really different kind of life than he anticipated that he would. I think there are a lot of different ways of making meaning.
I mean, you can't take your own pulse and say, am I doing well? But I don't know. We're all - we're trying in different ways, I hope. But yeah...
WOLITZER: ...You question it as a writer, absolutely. You question, is this the way - what I should be doing? Is there something more immediate that I should be doing?
WOLITZER: But if I'm going to do the thing that I think I can do better than other things that I tried to do, it would be writing novels.
SANDERS: What else did you try to do?
WOLITZER: Oh - no, I mean, thought about trying to do.
SANDERS: Well, what did you think about trying to do?
WOLITZER: No, no - nothing so - I - the minute I said that, I thought, I'm backing away from that, yeah.
WOLITZER: Like the time that I was a physician - no. I...
SANDERS: I mean - but, like, I guess...
WOLITZER: I thought about...
SANDERS: What'd you think about before writing?
WOLITZER: OK. I thought about going to medical school...
WOLITZER: ...Actually. And I really can't do science or math, which is an...
SANDERS: Same. You know, I used to be really good at math. And then I just stopped caring.
WOLITZER: You were good. But, you see, you had it in you to be good at it.
SANDERS: I was good at math. And then around high school, I was like nah, buddy, it's English class. That's where it's at.
WOLITZER: That's right. Well, it's kind of - the idea of having to choose one way, sort of that road, that - right...
WOLITZER: ...And the idea of - are you a word person, or are you a numbers person?
SANDERS: It's this whole Myers-Briggs industrial complex.
WOLITZER: Yes, yes. You're this. You're that.
SANDERS: You're this. You're that. You're that. You're this. No, you can be a lot of different things.
WOLITZER: You can be a lot of things. And I - you know, I had a lot of excitement about things. But I think the idea of medicine - I don't know. Do you think it's too late for me?
SANDERS: No. What kind of doctor would you have been - or would you be?
WOLITZER: Yeah. I - yeah.
SANDERS: I could see you being really good at that because I can already tell you're the kind of person that is very, very good, one, about using her words very judiciously and, two, like, never passing judgment.
WOLITZER: Well, I'm so - great to hear you...
SANDERS: I've tried a few times to get you to...
WOLITZER: To get me to pass judgment?
SANDERS: No, to say something...
WOLITZER: When you said...
SANDERS: ...Incendiary about politics.
WOLITZER: Or - what did you think of that pair of shoes that that woman was wearing?
WOLITZER: And I just did not rise...
SANDERS: You didn't bite the bait.
WOLITZER: No, I think - you know, but it's not about rising to the occasion. I think I'm kind of, like, looking at the occasion. That's what I...
SANDERS: Which is necessary now.
WOLITZER: And I think that - and also with a psychiatrist, sort of people in emotional pain - it's not like you can come in and, I think, take people's pain away. But I think that my - I have a couple of friends who are psychiatrists. And I've - it's been really interesting to me to talk about their work with them. The idea of getting people to sort of look at things more directly than they've been willing to do is - again, it's not that dissimilar to the project of fiction. So passing judgment, what that does for me is it closes doors.
WOLITZER: It closes doors right away.
WOLITZER: So the questions that you've asked me - I mean, I like looking at them. It's like examining something from a lot of different angles. And I think that that's something that I do like to try to do.
SANDERS: I like that.
I do want to talk more about your mother...
SANDERS: ...Who you mention a little bit. I heard somewhere that because she was a writer when you were a kid, it, like, helped you get access to books.
WOLITZER: Oh, yeah. I grew up - I was really fortunate...
SANDERS: Where'd you grow up, for one?
WOLITZER: I grew up on Long Island?
SANDERS: OK. Where on Long Island?
WOLITZER: Exit 43 off the LIE.
SANDERS: OK, OK.
WOLITZER: I grew up in this house in the suburbs. And my mother was trying to be a writer when I was young. And my father - both of my parents are living. My father's a retired psychologist and a school psychologist. And they both loved fiction.
WOLITZER: So I don't know if some of it is sort of in my brain. But, you know, there was a - you know, in the den, we had some of my father's books that were, like, you know, like "Sexuality: 18 Case Studies" - and I really got an education reading those...
SANDERS: I bet.
WOLITZER: ...And Salinger and all different kinds of books that I read when I was young. And...
SANDERS: That's a gift.
WOLITZER: It's an incredible gift actually because they're there, although someone said - and I'm not sure if - who it was who said this. It might have been Jonathan Franzen, but probably not. I don't know - that the idea of the book as something that is a sort of like an illicit thing that people might take away from you - like, if parents say, shut that light off, you then want to go back to the book. So there's a way in which my parents were, like read; festival of reading; here...
SANDERS: Everything you want.
WOLITZER: ...Everything you want - you need to find your way in that sometimes involves things that they may not want you to read, like my sister and I reading, you know, sort of junky books for a while, you know, or salacious books, things that we wanted to read as well as reading the good stuff.
SANDERS: And your parents wouldn't ding you for those either?
WOLITZER: Well, they didn't know.
WOLITZER: They're going to know now. But I am too old for them to be mad at me for reading "The Happy Hooker" by Xaviera Hollander, which is something I did read.
SANDERS: It's OK.
WOLITZER: I'm telling you.
SANDERS: What was that I heard? Y'all had, like, a special dispensation at the library.
WOLITZER: Yes. Oh, right, yes.
SANDERS: ...Because your mom was a writer. That's what it was.
WOLITZER: So because my mother was a writer, we - on Friday nights, we had this big sort of Wolitzer family thing that we would do. We'd go out for Chinese food. And this is, like, before Chinese food was sophisticated. It was, like, egg foo young era of Chinese food, very...
SANDERS: Fine with it.
WOLITZER: You know, it was delicious. And then we would go to Baskin-Robbins, and then we would go to the library. And because my mother was a writer, they let us take out as many books as we wanted. So I would just have everything from, you know, Judy Blume and all - books - one of my favorite series of books - you - "Cherry Ames, Student Nurse," "Cherry Ames, Cruise Nurse," and they let us take out as many as we wanted. And I felt so sophisticated. I felt we were kind of like the Kennedy family kind of like sauntering around Hyannis Port, you know.
SANDERS: After Baskin-Robbins (laughter).
WOLITZER: Right, exactly. Right. I felt so important that we were allowed to do this. But, you know, not everybody feels about books the way readers feel about books, and not everybody cares about them in that way.
SANDERS: Yeah. When I was a kid - so I had a "Boxcar Children" kit.
WOLITZER: Oh, I love "The Boxcar Children," yeah.
SANDERS: And we were raised black Pentecostal and apostolic, so church services were long. And I would love to bring "The Boxcar Children" to church because for whatever reason, the way the covers of these books I was reading were colored and written, everyone thought I was just reading the Bible the whole time.
WOLITZER: Oh, that is really great. Right - because they had the - that's right. That's so - that's amazing.
SANDERS: It was like, oh, he's reading a children's Bible.
WOLITZER: Very, very, very clever.
SANDERS: I was so proud of myself.
WOLITZER: The books that you read as a child I think stay with you forever. I mean...
WOLITZER: The - "Charlotte's Web" was the first book I ever cried at because the idea of, you know, a pig and a spider being friends - you make that narrative leap to, wait a minute, these have - these are human characters. And again, there's that idea of sort of creating empathy, the idea of sort of crying over the death of this spider - I mean, being inconsolable about it where you're, like, thinking about it forever - it's so strong. And I don't know any writers who weren't big readers when they were young, whether they read, you know, because the books were taken away or people who had no - who had very few books in their houses discovering books later - those stories are incredible, too.
SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The one for me that is always, like, related to everything else - everything else - is probably "Animal Farm."
WOLITZER: Yes, where just...
SANDERS: I think, like, everything can be drawn back to some of the lessons and morals and themes in that book.
WOLITZER: I know. The books that you read - I mean, I think about them all the time. They thread through my dreams, through my life forever, really.
SANDERS: So the climax of this book is this really intense scene where Greer and Faith, they have this big blowup in their relationship, and it is driven by all of these generational differences and conflicts we've been talking about. But what that scene confirmed for me is that sometimes people don't just slide out of your life. Sometimes it has to end badly. Sometimes it has to be a blowup. What were you trying to do with that scene where this relationship falls apart in a nasty way?
WOLITZER: Well, can I answer that by reading you one line from the very beginning of the book?
SANDERS: Yes, yes.
WOLITZER: Because I...
SANDERS: I'm glad I brought it in here.
WOLITZER: Yeah, me, too, because I - you know, I don't have any copies.
WOLITZER: I don't read this kind of thing. I don't care for fiction.
WOLITZER: Yeah, so it's actually two lines, I'm sorry.
SANDERS: No, it's all good.
WOLITZER: Oh, three lines - it's actually 90 lines. Is that all right? Do you have 40 minutes?
SANDERS: Well, we got time.
WOLITZER: Can I read?
SANDERS: It's a podcast. Take as long as you want.
WOLITZER: OK, cool. It's actually a week. It's a marathon. It's kind of Bloomsday reading right now I'm going to do. OK. Greer - this is when they first meet, when Faith comes to speak at the college. And she shows an interest in Greer, who is just electrified.
(Reading) Greer didn't really know why Faith took an interest, but what she knew for sure eventually was that meeting Faith Frank was the thrilling beginning of everything. It would be a very long time before the unspeakable end.
So first of all, I'm sorry if I...
SANDERS: So you call it unspeakable right there.
WOLITZER: I call it right there.
SANDERS: I didn't catch that till you read it for me.
WOLITZER: I - yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, but you caught it without knowing it. See this is - this was my evil plan.
WOLITZER: What I wanted to do at the beginning was - that kind of line is really what I sort of sometimes jokingly call the little-did-she-know school of writing.
SANDERS: Yeah (laughter).
WOLITZER: ...That I did very, very infrequently because it's just jumping ahead there. But what it says to the reader - and then you didn't remember it - but it puts something - it just sort of plants it...
SANDERS: Plants the seed.
WOLITZER: ...Plants the notion in there that this relationship - we - it allows me as a writer to go in a lot of directions because somehow, we're going to get back to the unspeakable end. We know right away it's going to end. And you may have forgotten it, but it was there.
WOLITZER: And most relationships in life don't end in a fiery way. They, as you say, just kind of, like, sometimes they drift away. One thing that they don't tell you in childhood, in fact, about friendship - if you look at - if you were to sort of look at television and film to understand friendship, you would think that you and your friends get together in a group, like, every Friday night like "Sex And The City."
SANDERS: Friend time.
WOLITZER: Friend time and drinks, and then you track - and you're always there for one another.
WOLITZER: No. You can go a very long time without seeing someone, but it doesn't mean you're not friends. And then you pick up, and then maybe you never see them again. There are a lot of different trajectories. Here, I think because the relationship starts with such a - there's such a fixedness of who they are to each other, how can it last at that way? It's going to change.
SANDERS: That's (unintelligible).
WOLITZER: It's going to be fluid. And I think that - in fact, the funny thing about the relationship between - and I'm using these terms loosely - a mentor and a protege is that first of all, it's all about the young one. You know, it's not like, Faith, tell me, you know, things about you. No, you - because you wouldn't dare to ask the older person you admire personal questions.
SANDERS: Because they're up on a pedestal that you don't need to be on yet.
WOLITZER: There's not a lot of room on a pedestal for movement, for realness. There isn't.
SANDERS: Or for two people.
WOLITZER: ...Or for two people, right - no room. You're up on the ped - that one person's up on the pedestal. The other one is looking up and saying, tell me how to live, and while you're at it, who should I call? Will you look at my resume? Will you give - will you write me a recommendation? You know, the older ones are writing the recommendations for the younger ones, so the flow goes in that direction. I think for a narrative arc to be - for a narrative to be satisfying, you're going to see some kind of change at the end.
SANDERS: And it happened.
WOLITZER: It happened. It really happened. I remember when I was young and I sold my first novel, I went back to the school where I grew up, my elementary school. And my favorite teacher was there, and I fully expected her to kind of, like, celebrate and sing me - you know? - that I - and she did. And that was wonderful. I had sold my novel young, and it was wonderful. But then she pulled me aside, and she said, would you look at my writing? And I was really taken aback because she was changing the terms. Wait a minute, that...
SANDERS: It doesn't work this way.
WOLITZER: I didn't sign on for that. Doesn't work that way, lady. Who are you? But, in fact, why shouldn't she? Why shouldn't she ask me to do that? Because the notion that we have a fixed role and we have to carry out that role forever, that's not reality.
SANDERS: That's not life.
WOLITZER: That's not life. And I was threatened and moved, ultimately, by that. And I thought about that, I think, when I had to have them kind of have - of course, this - that wasn't a showdown. I didn't have a showdown with her. But I wanted to show change, and there - something had to shake them up at the end of the book.
SANDERS: There's this quote in the book where you talk about the way that when you get older, you have to be so much more guarded with intimacy. I remember being in college. I wanted to be everyone's best friend.
WOLITZER: That's right.
SANDERS: And I wanted to have such deep connections with everyone I met. And now I'm like, I don't have...
WOLITZER: You don't have the...
SANDERS: I can't give you all that.
WOLITZER: Well, you start to think as you get older, how do I want to spend my time?
WOLITZER: Like, I - when I remember - my husband and I have been married a long time, but when we were first living together - and we're both writers - it was, like, the middle of the day, and we were watching the Game Show Network. Now, it's the middle of a beautiful workday, right? And we're, like, watching not only the Game - we're watching, like, old...
SANDERS: Which one?
WOLITZER: The worst...
SANDERS: I like...
WOLITZER: OK, you never heard of this one. No.
SANDERS: I would - used to watch a lot of old stuff.
WOLITZER: "Bumper Stumpers."
SANDERS: Nah, never heard of that one.
SANDERS: What is "Bumper Stumpers"?
WOLITZER: Horrible. It had, like, license plates, and you had to guess, like, what they were referring to. It was, like, some - it didn't last.
SANDERS: Yeah. See, my favorite...
WOLITZER: "Let's Make A Deal."
SANDERS: I love that one. My favorite old one was "Press Your Luck."
WOLITZER: Oh, you know...
SANDERS: No whammy, no whammy, no whammy, stop.
WOLITZER: Well, you remember the "Press Your Luck" scandal, right?
WOLITZER: ...That this - they game - one of the contestants was able to game the system about, like, where the whammies would be or when to press.
SANDERS: No way.
WOLITZER: ...And was able to win some amazing amount of money. Yeah. So you - it actually, probably would've behooved me to continue to do that because as a writer, I could've made a lot more money had I understood where the amount - whammies were. But all I wanted to say about that is that we thought we were immortal. I mean, when I was young, I wanted to write and be ambitious partly because I, you know, thought life would never end. Now that I'm older and I know it does, I still want to do a lot. I still want to do a lot, but for a very, very different reason.
SANDERS: And you've got to - and you just got to protect it more.
WOLITZER: You definitely protect your time more. You can't talk to everybody. One of the things about writing a novel is that people can read it, and it's not exclusionary. It's sort of saying, you know, if people find your book in a library or a bookstore or somebody passes it on to them, books are for everyone, and you don't have to be guarded. But books are a conversation, and it continues.
SANDERS: I am so glad that we got this time to talk. I thank you for your book and the feels it made me feel.
WOLITZER: Oh, thank you so much.
SANDERS: Thank you. I'm going to have you sign this book now (laughter).
WOLITZER: All right, for real.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: That was Meg Wolitzer. Her book is called "The Female Persuasion." Special thanks to two NPR colleagues - Rose Friedman and Barrie Hardymon. They steered Meg our way. Thanks for that. Listeners, as always, want you to share with us the best thing that's happening to you all week. Record yourself. Send the file to me - firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. All right, and one more thing - if you haven't heard already, we're doing a live show soon. It's going to be in Chicago live on May 15 at the Old Town School of Folk Music. We're going to have special guests. Join us. Tickets are already on sale. From what I've heard, it's probably going to sell out, so get them quick. You can go to WBEZ.org/events to get yours - WBEZ.org/events. All right, I'm so excited to see you all there. It's going to be a great time. I love Chicago, and I love meeting all of you in person. All right, we are back on Friday. Thanks for listening. Talk soon.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
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