mothers

The Rumpus Conversation Between Jennifer Gilmore and Meg Wolitzer

By

I met Meg Wolitzer when she was doing something nice for me. I know being “nice” is a horrible description of someone, especially someone with so much else to recommend her, not least her prodigious talents as a writer and novelist with a substantial body of work. But Meg’s generosity toward my work and me is what began our friendship.

It just so happened that we both had the same publication date for our novels, April 9th. And we were both writing books that were slightly different for us—Meg had written a big, broad, beautiful, and nostalgic novel that takes on deep themes of money and envy and the possibilities and limits of talent, with a cast of characters moving through several eras. I had written nearly that book’s opposite: a first-person narrative that takes place over the course of about a year, chronicling a couple straining beneath the stress of open adoption, in which issues of race and class and what it means to be a parent emerge.

We talked about our books all the time. I mean, we talked about the writing of these books and how we had come to write them and why, and what they meant to us. We discussed what leaps we had to make in our own minds to cover new and exciting terrain. And we discuss all that here, too.

—Jennifer Gilmore

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Jennifer Gilmore: You have this special and unique talent of using humor and wit to take on—and make “unputdownable”—essential issues of gender and politics. The Interestings is a huge, broad, meaty novel that addresses those previous themes as well as themes of money and talent and friendship and betrayal. Meg, how does this book connect to, or expand on, or even deviate from your previous work?

Meg WolitzerMeg Wolitzer: ”Unputdownable” is, I suppose, something we all dream of, maybe without knowing it. I realized, some time ago, that a novel can hold a lot, and it made sense that this one was not of the sleek and economical variety, but instead the “full” type. Novel as piñata. And the reader does the whacking. I had a central idea, which is to look at what happens to talent over time.

Gilmore: So is this an “idea-based” novel?

Wolitzer: Well, only partly. For me, a novel relying too heavily on a single idea might be a dry, deadly thing unless it possesses an animating force, which in this case I think is the characters: six people who meet as teenagers in 1974 at a performing arts summer camp. The novel tracks them over the next thirty-plus years. The book is longer than any book I’ve written, and maybe more co-ed, and maybe more inclusive in that I move the characters across different eras, taking a look at how New York has changed from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and onward.

Your novel, on the other hand, is lean and incredibly tight and powerful. I know that the book—which is the story of a couple’s strong desire to adopt a child—has autobiographical elements. Were they hampering to you as a fiction writer, or somehow liberating?

Gilmore: Novel as piñata. Reader as whacker. I like this metaphor, though it sounds a little violent… Your characters really do move all over—you handle time in a marvelous way. And what happens to your characters—and to us, really—over time is sad and glorious here.

As for your question, it was hard for me to write this particular novel. I had to shift my normal mode of writing: third-person, a sweep of ideas, writing about the past. I thought taking on ideas was the only way to write serious books. But those were not the only books I read or find important. I was resistant to a first-person narrator with contemporary concerns. Jesse has an inner life that terrified me to write. It was very self-hating of me, actually, to feel that writing about a woman’s life, someone whose situation was tracking very close with my own, was not fiction-worthy.

The InterestingsWolitzer: We sometimes drive ourselves crazy with how our books will be “seen,” when in fact we already know what they’re about, and where our obsessions are. If we can spin those obsessions into fiction, then there’s a decent chance they will be “fiction-worthy,” as you call it.  The idea of the “sweep of ideas” is a complicated one.

Gilmore: You mean because it’s so seductive to imagine writing something that might be seen as big?

Wolitzer: We do seem, as a culture, to fetishize the “sweep.” But I know there’s room for “big” short, fierce novels, and “big” solid ones. Objectifying your own novel while writing it never really helps. Instead, I guess while you’re writing you need to think: This is the novel I want to write. And when you’re done you need to think: This is what the novel I wanted to write feels like and reads like and looks like. Other people might call it sweeping or small, but it’s the book you chose.

Gilmore: And why did you choose to write your book?  Like mine, your book takes from your life, yes? Summer camp?

Wolitzer: I did go to a summer camp like this one in 1974, yes.

Gilmore: Can you talk a little about why you chose that moment to mark the beginning of this book? How did that moment inform this very compelling idea about talent, and who has it and who uses it and who squanders it?

Wolitzer: At my now-defunct summer camp in the Berkshires, I met a group of kids who dazzled me. I was from the suburbs and they were from the city. They were more sophisticated than I was. But after the initial, sort-of-pivotal scene, the book springs off into the “invention” territory that makes writing a pleasure for me.  The characters become my way in to questions of talent, as well as envy, luck, fortune, and class. I chose that time in life is because I think when you come of age remains the most vivid and visceral time in your life forever.

To dwell on the subject of talent for a minute: it’s so interesting to track who has it and what happens to it.  There are many ways it can appear, and many ways it can play out over time.  I find myself returning to these questions: why some highly talented people who I knew when I was young never made a life from their talent. I wonder: did they try? Did they not try? Did they try, and give up because it didn’t work out? Do they still play their instrument, or draw, but on their own, not publicly? What are the forces that help, or else get in the way?

In The Mothers, the notion of want burns as deeply as maybe the notion of talent does in mine. Did you keep this idea close at hand when you were writing it, or did you forget about the fact that this was what you were writing about, and simply let the story take over?

Jennifer GilmoreGilmore: I think of Sylvia Plath, who in her journals talks often about the “peanut crunching crowd,” in reference to how difficult it is to rid one’s self of thinking about audience when writing. It is a distraction, the constancy of thinking outside of one’s work.

But I lived deeply in this book to avoid living deeply in my life. My husband and I were going through a protracted and rather tragic adoption process. The most awful things kept happening to us. And we were absorbed in paperwork and handing out money we didn’t have to a head-spinning number of people. I was more aware of grief than want. It already felt as if something had been taken.

I thought I was writing—truly—about the sanctioning of motherhood in our culture. I thought I was writing about race and class. And I was writing about those things around the edges of my protagonist’s unstoppable desire. She’s had more time than most people to think about what motherhood means. Just the word “family” undoes her.

Wolitzer: I can feel all of that when I read the book. It’s very evident and immediate.

Gilmore: Your protagonist in The Interestings, a clinical social worker who once dreamed of being an actress, looks back at this one moment at summer camp as the brightest, sparkliest moment in her life. She goes on to live fully, but it is never like that moment when she met the Interestings. And so there is a poignant nostalgia to the book.

Wolitzer: I was aware, when I was writing, of how much nostalgia I felt, but it was always a mixed sensation. It was always partly about loss. And there, I think, our books overlap.

I want to get back to something you said—you mentioned that you lived deeply in your novel to avoid living deeply in your life. It seems like you’re really describing the absorptive power of literature. Would you say that your book saved you from the worst of your grief? I guess the idea of book-as-saving-grace leads me to ask whether it actually did teach you something you didn’t know. Or made you feel something you hadn’t expected to feel.

Gilmore: I did learn something while writing this book, something about what it means to lose control—narratively, in life—and how the world goes on despite this.

One of the books I read while writing was by Elena Ferrante. My friend, the novelist Hyatt Bass, told me to read this because of my great anxiety over tackling issues of domesticity, of being seen as “female” in my work. The Days of Abandonment alleviated my fears. There is nothing more “domestic” or “female” than Ferrante’s book about a woman who is left by her husband for a younger woman. And yet! And yet. She writes with a very big penis. It is just enormous.

Wolitzer: Yes, I saw that in the author photo. I’m kidding!

the mothersGilmore: There is no author photo! Ferrante is very mysterious, perhaps for this very reason. Anyway, when I was doing revisions, reading Edward St. Aubyn’s “Patrick Melrose” series—recommended by the ever-insightful Meg Wolitzer—was also helpful. He writes in such a personal manner, so detailed about one particular life, so visceral. Both of those books gave me permission, I think.

Books do give us permission. Black Tickets, which I read when Jayne Anne Phillips was my professor, gave me permission to write about whatever I wanted, in whatever voice I chose. A man, a serial killer, any sort of “other.” And it gave me permission to write about sex. Like, really write about sex.

Wolitzer: I’ve been waiting for someone to sign the permission slip for me to write about sex. In the meantime, I’ve written about sex in all my books anyway.

Gilmore: I’ve noticed. And there are really vivid sexual moments in The Interestings too.  There would have to be, because sex is such a big part of coming of age. I wondered: did anything in particular in your life or your thinking or your reading tell you, This is your time, this is your moment to write this book? Because that is the sense I get. That this was the exact moment for you to tell this story.

Wolitzer: I realized some years back that I had a tendency to go for the lyrical, for the sentence that might’ve been admired in one of the undergraduate workshops I took. And that I’d sort of lost sight of the whole of the enterprise. With my novel The Wife I think I bore both sides more in mind, and then I think I continued that with The Position, which looks at sex and the family, and the ways in which the two often intersect so awkwardly. In The Interestings, I think I was aware of micro and macro at the same time. When I started writing it, I was also really aware of getting older, my parents getting older, my kids getting older, people dying, and the idea that this is it, and I had no idea of how the book would turn out, but I had to jump in. I really only want to write what would excite me if I found it on the shelf.

Gilmore: A combination of mortality and recklessness.

Wolitzer: That sounds about right. So what now, Jennifer Gilmore?  You’ve written the tight, fierce, frantic novel about very strong and essential feelings. And you are now yourself a mother. Do you have a fantasy about what you might write next, or is it too soon?

Gilmore: I do want to write a big, broad novel again. I am more of a messy thinker. It’s strange that a book that was more lived experience than my previous books—my last book was about the decline of radicalism in a family over several generations!—was so exhausting. There is something beautiful to me about being out of one’s self to write. Not in a dissociative way, but in a way that I can learn. Writing is not therapy, but I am someone who likes to always be learning. Perhaps, also, it is a safer place.

How about you? You’ve probably written three new books already…

Wolitzer: Nope, not true. I’m waiting to see what grabs me, and I do hope I’m grabbed soon, because as I think we’d both agree, being at the point at which a novel in progress feels like a thing of infinite possibilities is an enviable—if fleeting—moment.

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Photograph of Meg Wolitzer © 2013 by Nina Subin.

Photograph of Jennifer Gilmore ©  2013 by Amanda Marsalis.


Jennifer Gilmore is the author of the just-published The Mothers, as well as Golden Country, a 2006 New York Times Notable Book, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Jewish Book Award, and Something Red, a New York Times Notable Book of 2010. Her work has appeared in magazines and journals including Allure, Bomb, BookForum, The Los Angeles Times, Nerve, the New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Salon, Tin House, Vogue and The Washington Post. Currently she teaches at Barnard College and Princeton University. Meg Wolitzer's novels include The Wife, The Position, The Ten-Year Nap, The Uncoupling, and her new book, The Interestings. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. In the fall, along with singer-songwriter Suzzy Roche, Meg Wolitzer will be a guest artist in the Princeton Atelier program at Princeton University. More from this author →