Arts & Culture

Q&A: Alum author discusses prize-winning novel

Wolitzer ’81 discussed how her time at Brown influenced her development as a novelist

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, November 8, 2013

Last April, New York Times best selling author Meg Wolitzer ’81 published her ninth novel, “The Interestings,” which won an Amazon Best Book of the Month. The book follows the lives of an artistically talented group that meets as teenagers at summer camp, where they face the challenges of pursuing their talents in the real world. The Herald spoke with Wolitzer about the book, her time at Brown and her writing process.

 

The Herald: Did you draw inspiration from your days here? Are some of the characters based on people you met during your time at Brown?

Meg Wolitzer: Nobody is based on anybody from Brown or anybody, really. I really love making up characters — it’s one of my favorite parts of writing. The creative environment at Brown is not dissimilar to the kind of environment I imagined for these kids, but it’s closer really to my own time at summer camp when I was young.

 

How did your time at Brown affect your writing style?

I was in a wonderful writing workshop with (Professor) John Hawkes. He was an experimental writer, a very different kind of writer from most of the students in the class, and he was always so respectful of everyone’s work and the different styles we all did. I think we all felt really appreciated by him. As I was struggling to figure out how to write, I tried different things, and my writing became freer probably during my time there.

Did you always know you were going to be a writer?

Pretty much. My mother is a writer, and when I was really young, she would always be incredibly encouraging, and I would show her stories. I have a moment in the novel that I drew from life: A woman stood up during the ‘Q and A’ (of) a talk I gave and said her daughter wanted to be playwright. She didn’t know what to tell her, since she knows how hard it is for someone to make it, and I basically inquired whether her daughter was really talented and whether her daughter needed to do this, and the answer was yes. I said I thought the world would probably whittle her daughter down, and the mother shouldn’t. My mother didn’t, and I think that was important to me when I was young.

 

What are your creative process and work habits like?

I work all the time. That is sort of my thing, I guess — I just love to work. I think that writing, for a lot of people, myself included, is very hard. It’s hard to solve the problems you create for yourself. …  It’s a way in which you’re free of the trivia and anxieties of the real world that I love so much. … When I’m writing a book, I try to give it precedence over everything else. … If you can keep your writing inviolable and have a time when people can’t reach you, that really works.

 

What was your concentration, and have you found what you learned relevant to your life after Brown?

It was English, and reading is so important. What you take in as a writer is so essential to what you put out. If you haven’t read great things, how can you write? Not that you’ll necessarily write something great yourself, but you have to remember why you’re doing this. I think reading wonderful fiction allows you to remember that there are moments of great and profound beauty in literature.

 

What advice would you have for anyone interested in being a writer?

Taking classes is really great, because you do find a world of other people who are doing this, too. It’s really hard for beginning writers, or at least it was for me, to recognize when something’s good and not good. Sometimes you need an outside eye to look and tell you. … Often it’s just a friend who likes books, who likes to talk about fiction with you, whose taste you like. Give them something that you’re writing, maybe just a paragraph, and see what they think about it.

 

What inspired this particular novel, and how is it similar to or different from your other ones?

I had gone to this summer camp in the summer of 1974 when (President Richard) Nixon resigned. I was from the suburbs, and many of the kids I met were from New York City. They seemed more sophisticated than me, some of them were taking themselves so seriously about different art things. …What interested me was following what happened to talent over time, following it for a very long time. I couldn’t have written it when I was young, because it would have been only a small slice of life. I was really looking at what happens to people, talents, friendships, and I realized I was interested in writing about envy, the kind of quiet envy you can feel for people you really care about where you feel you don’t measure up in some way. … I was also influenced, in part, by “7 Up” (and) “28 Up.” It’s a British filmmaker who (films the same) group every seven years, starting when they were 7-year-old (British school children). The most recent film was called “56 Up.” It was incredible to see the trajectory of how people change and also the ways in which their selves were there when they were 7.

 

How did you accrue the awards for an Amazon Best Book of the Month and New York Times bestselling author, and how do you feel about getting them?

They’re not actually awards — they’re designations of some sort. But I was very happy about the book being appreciated. The thing with being a writer is that there isn’t a lot of instant gratification. A lot of things are done quietly and alone. … If you’re lucky, when a book comes out there’ll be a little noise — and that’s few and far between because you’re writing for years. As a fiction writer, we live in a very nonfiction era where people think about what’s true, and they don’t know that fiction, really, when it’s good, can contain what’s true. It’s up to writers to remind them of that through their work. When you have something that seems to penetrate … it’s very gratifying.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think very fondly on my time at Brown. … It gave me the freedom to write while at school. I was back there, actually, a summer before last, because my son was in a summer program at Brown. I remember I felt a strong wave of nostalgia, which is not dissimilar from what I’m describing in the book in terms of  the camp. I felt I remembered myself being younger and carrying books across campus, which was a very good feeling.