author Meg Wolitzer remembers a day when, as a preteen,
she first had to run the invisible gauntlet made up of
the sharp gazes of men.
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
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 sexualized in an unwanted way. And that’s
a feeling I tried to put into the book."
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.
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.
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."
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 lesbian activist Zee; her
ineffectual, stoner parents — and ultimately, with
Faith, Greer’s much-admired mentor.
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.
her 2013 book "The Interestings" vaulted
Wolitzer into the rank of America’s literary stars,
"The Female Persuasion," released Tuesday,
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.
spoke with The 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
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
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
realized it meant she was taking me seriously and that
was something I wanted.
a detail that I put into ‘The Interestings’ that
felt as though I was channeling 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 theater director] that her daughter wants to be
a playwright. What should the mother tell her?
says, ‘I think you tell her, "That’s
wonderful." The world will whittle your daughter
down, but a mother never should.’ "
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."
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
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
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 behavior. Do you think attitudes are
really changing, or do you think that once the furor
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.
interview has been edited and condensed.