By Mary Carole McCauley
The author Meg Wolitzer remembers a day when, as a pre-teen, she first had to run the invisible gauntlet made up of the sharp gazes of men.
She was about 12, she recalls, and was strolling through a shopping mall when she became aware of a cluster of older teens staring at her and muttering something under their breaths.
“Before, I had been in a dream of myself, feeling good and free,” she said over the phone. “But I began thinking, ‘Wow, is there something wrong with how I’m looking? What is it?’ And I continued to think differently about myself after I went home. I learned that as a woman in the world, there will be moments when you will be sexualised in an unwanted way. And that’s a feeling I tried to put into the book.”
Wolitzer has an eagerly anticipated new novel, The Female Persuasion. The novel begins with an incident that will resonate with anyone familiar with the #MeToo movement — Greer Kadetsky, a shy college freshman, is groped at a frat party by a serial abuser. Her feelings of rage and helplessness get heightened when college administrators turn a blind eye.
Though sexual harassment seems very of-the-moment, Wolitzer has written about feminist concerns for her entire career. This Is Your Life (published in 1988) deals with a comedienne torn between her art and her children, The Wife (2003) takes on the male-dominated American literary world and The Uncoupling (2011) is about female sexuality.
“The themes that run through all my work,” Wolitzer said, “are questions about female power and ambition. They are questions about how the person you meet might change your life. And they are about how you find meaning in the world.”
More than anything, The Female Persuasion is about female mentorship. Greer gets taken under the wing of Faith Frank, a 63-year-old, second-tier feminist icon and the founder of a women’s liberation-themed magazine called Bloomer. As Greer matures, her relationships evolve with her financier boyfriend, Cory; her best friend, the rights activist Zee; her ineffectual, stoner parents — and ultimately, with Faith, Greer’s much-admired mentor.
Though Wolitzer has been a published author for nearly half a century — she sold her first short story to a children’s magazine at age 11 — it’s only been in the past five years that her writing style took a leap forward, and that her name began being mentioned in the same breath as such A-list authors as Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt and her Brown University classmate Jeffrey Eugenides. If her 2013 book The Interestings vaulted Wolitzer into the rank of America’s literary stars, The Female Persuasion, released last week, cements her status. Each sentence is a miniature world: deep, rich and packed with scenic views. You could set up camp inside one of Wolitzer’s sentences. You could pitch a tent, pull on your hiking boots, grab a pair of binoculars and go exploring.
Wolitzer spoke with The Baltimore Sun about hitting her stride as a writer and exploring women’s issues in the #MeToo era.
Something seems to have clicked into place for you when you wrote The Interestings. Do you know what it was?
I’m a writer who started really young, but I think I found my voice later in life. When I began work on The Interestings, I finally made a connection between the novels I love to read — novels that make worlds that I want to be in deeply — and the novels that I suddenly wanted to write. I took stock and asked myself, “Can I marshal all the things that I obsess about and make an immersive world?”
One of the big themes in The Female Persuasion is the relationship between female mentors and their proteges. Tell me about one of the women who helped you along the way.
My mother, Hilma Wolitzer, is 88 years old and is a novelist and a poet. She taught me everything about writing. When I was about 11, I started telling myself a serial novel on the way to school about two brothers who were the heirs to the Kraft cheese fortune. I would write it down, and then I would come home and show it to my mother.
The approval that you get from someone you admire who admires something you’ve done is a powerful thing. But my mother could be critical, too. I remember getting a big suggestion about a story I wrote. I was startled because it wasn’t just approval. But pretty soon, I realised it meant she was taking me seriously and that was something I wanted. There’s a detail that I put into The Interestings that felt as though I was channelling the way my mother treated me when I was young.
During a Q-and-A session, a woman stands up and tells Ash [a character who is a feminist theatre director] that her daughter wants to be a playwright. What should the mother tell her?
“Ash says, ‘I think you tell her, “That’s wonderful.” The world will whittle your daughter down, but a mother never should.’”
My mother instilled in me the confidence to make a leap, and that’s been really important in my life.
In the book, Greer becomes disenchanted with Faith when Faith fails to live up to her own values. Has a mentor ever disappointed you?
Yes. It wasn’t a big and shattering thing, but I took note of it. After my first book came out, I gave a reading in the town where I grew up. One of my teachers from when I was young came to the reading and she wanted me to look at her writing. I suddenly thought, “I still want to be the young one. I don’t want to have to pass judgment on you.” Now, I’ve come to see that those relationships are more mutable than I thought.
As you change and get more mature, there are different things that get asked of you. Why shouldn’t a teacher who’s writing ask a former student for help?
Given the birth of the #MeToo movement, could the timing for The Female Persuasion have been more fortuitous?
It’s true that the book is landing during a really heightened moment, but I began writing it three years ago before any of this happened.
Did you ever talk about what happened in the shopping mall with your mom or anyone else?
No, no. It was a really different era. The idea now that so many things can be articulated freely is so powerful.
Did you revise your manuscript to reflect current events?
I never want a novel to feel like it’s written for the 24-hour news cycle. The one thing I added isn’t from the #MeToo movement. There’s a Donald Trump nod in a very big way in the very last chapter.
“The big terribleness” as someone calls it, involves this dark moment in which Trump is elected and everyone is surprised and moves forward from there. I felt that it was important to go back and acknowledge the election, because the idea that things might get a little better for women or a little worse suddenly seemed to have changed. What if everything got ripped out from under you, like a tablecloth in a magic trick?
It sometimes seems as though every man in America who holds even a shred of power has recently been called out publicly for sexist behaviour. Do you think attitudes are really changing, or do you think that once the furore dies down, powerful men will resume behaving badly?
I think things are always mixed. I don’t think it’s one way or another. We have elected a president who is terrible for and about women, and at the same time we have a new wave of women who are becoming activists. I think we are all holding our breaths to see what will happen, and we will be holding them for a long time.—The Baltimore Sun/TNS
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