Meg Wolitzer is the author of The Interestings, a novel chronicling the thwarted -- or achieved -- ambitions of a crew of gifted summer campers. Her latest novel, Belzhar, tackles similar themes, but is geared towards the Young Adult audience. Told with an immediacy granted from its teenage, first-person narrator, her newest book sheds light on the genre's unique offerings.
Your previous novel The Interestings mostly concerns itself with young, ambitious characters. How does writing young people in an adult novel differ from writing a young adult novel?
While The Interestings takes place over almost 40 years and is told from a few different third-person points of view, Belzhar takes place over one semester, and is written from a single, first-person point of view. My decision to write Belzhar this way came from my innate sense of how I wanted the narrative to feel. I needed the narrator to be breathless and have her story seem immediate. That struck me as right. She's young, she’s been shaken, she can’t take the long view, and she needs to say things right now.
Why did you decide to write a young adult novel?
Because I often include adolescent characters in my adult novels, it wasn’t a big leap to think of doing this. I like writing about adolescence because it’s a time of firsts, and the experiences are so strong, which all lends itself pretty well to fiction. Also, I had a teenager in the house at the time, and I would pick up some of the YA books he was reading, and I found myself drawn right in to the good ones.
What did you want to be when you grew up (besides an author)?
For about two minutes as a teenager at summer camp I wanted to be an actress, but I was extremely bad, and essentially had one acting voice –– a strained and artificial voice –– that I used whenever I had to speak onstage. What I realized eventually was that I didn’t love acting, but loved being part of a big project. And to this day I think of writing novels as being part of –– well, making from scratch, I guess –– a very big project.
What books might your readers be surprised that you enjoy?
Patricia Highsmith novels. She’s so dark and unsparing, and I tend not to be that way as writer, particularly, but I am always very excited reading her work. The Talented Mr. Ripley has an inevitability about it; the story unfolds so disturbingly, and everything just gets worse and worse, and the reader can do little but keep reading. This is true of her lesser known books too, and also Strangers on a Train, which everyone knows about because of the Hitchcock movie, but the novel is even darker.
Who are your literary heroes?
Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, E.M. Forster, Evan S. Connell, Grace Paley, Maurice Sendak.
What is the first book you remember reading?
What is the first book you truly loved?
Charlotte's Web. (And if you asked me what was the first book I cried over, the answer would again be Charlotte’s Web.) The intensity of that first reading experience is something I think about sometimes when I'm writing. Most people start out being read to, or reading a book with another person; and reading gets connected with intimacy. For me, novels are always intensely intimate. When things go well, the world falls away and is replaced by this concentrated new world.
Which classic have you not yet read? Do you intend to read it?
The Brothers Karamazov. And yes, yes, I am filled with shame about this, and I plan to read it soon. Please give me a Brothers K quiz in a couple of months.
If you could only recommend one book, which would it be?
Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. I have recommended this book so many times over the years to friends and readers and students. For people who don’t know it, it’s a 1959 American novel about a Kansas City housewife, set not long before the start of WWII. Mrs. Bridge is a woman who strives for more but is limited not only by outward circumstance but also by the specifics of her own self. The novel is hilarious and tragic, filled with small domestic drama and dips into existential territory. I really don’t know anyone who hasn’t admired this book. For me, it’s a thrilling novel.
What, if anything, do you read while you're working on a project?
Books that feel like the author was excited when writing them. Anything that feels like the author was really invested in working something out, figuring out an idea, turning it over and over, experimenting and trying new things -- even if the book that resulted ended up being imperfect because of those experiments -- these are the kind of books that remind you of how invested you need to be in your own work, and how open you need to be when you write.