Meg Wolitzer's new novel, the Interestings, takes a tight-knit group of friends from their experience at a summer arts camp through decades of changes. Along the way, she tackles the issues of talent and how to tap it, friendship and envy.
The engaging author sat down with NOW just before her appearance at Harbourfront Centre tonight (see listings) to talk about why this was her most pleasurable novel to write and how she still has crystal-clear memories of her days at summer camp. (See review of The Interestings.)
I know that you went to a summer arts camp - part of the inspiration for this book - and so did I. One of the things I learned there was the level of emotional connection you achieve through artistic collaboration.
I miss that as a novelist. When I was in plays at camp, you were humming with excitement from the collaboration. We think of art as springing from one psyche, but when you do something that involves other people, it can be quite thrilling. I'm working with Suzzy Roche [of the Roche sisters] in a program called the Princeton Atelier, and when we write stuff together, something happens that's not there when I'm writing fiction.
What is it about kids making art that interests you?
Being an artist requires the type of narcissism that children and teenagers have. If you're parented well, you think you're the most important person in the household. Then there's the great reckoning when you realize you're not the centre of the world - even your parents' world. They're married or have other interests. You also learn that the world won't treat you the way your camp counsellor or mother did. Those are shocking moments, too. To track that over time was a painfully interesting thing to write about.
Ethan, the big-hearted artist who becomes hugely successful, is an amazing character.
I'd always felt exploring the interior lives of women was something I wanted to do. But I see how hard I'd found it to write men as fully as I wanted. I tended to make them an idealized Sam Shepard figure, a manageable man, a fantasy man in a soft flannel shirt, which isn't that interesting as a character. I wanted to challenge myself by writing a more co-ed book.
What interested me about Ethan was his talent. What if there were somebody who has the kind of creativity you can't teach? You can't teach it, you can't give it, you can't send him to an expensive school and expect it to come out. It's just there. I guess you're born with it, but what matters is what you do with it, how you reach out into the world.
So do you think you can teach someone how to write?
It's not like classical music, where there's only a limited number of seats in the orchestra. There's always room for another writer. Teaching is never a waste. If students are invested in it, you're doing something neurological to them. You know who's talented and who's not, but you don't know where they're going to be in 10 years. Young writers have trouble distinguishing between what's good and what's not. If you start to see why something is good, you see where your own passions and predilections lie, and that's what you should write about.
You write with great skill about envy.
Envy has been portrayed in films as if we're aware of it, as if it's overt. But watching it in people, I see it more as low-level and chronic, something you can feel at any moment. It's an awful, animal moment. You have to fight it in order to be a good person. But we keep comparing ourselves. That's the terrible thing. "This story is not about you; it's about someone else. Do not put yourself into it." But there's this persistent, moose-head insertion into the room of ego.
There's a sense in The Interestings that life is passing your characters by.
What I wanted to address in this book is "Time passes." Time passes kills me. A few people I really loved have died in the past few years, and I said to a friend, "What did we think? Why is it a shock? You know all along it's going to happen and you still feel shock." The time passing theme includes loss in a big way, and I felt ready to take that on.
Which reminds me, an awful lot of stuff happens in this book....
Well, if 30 years pass in the course of a story, it's not going to be a haiku.