Meg Wolitzer grew up around books. Her mother, Hilma Wolitzer, published two novels while Meg was still in school, and weekly trips to the library were a ritual the entire family looked forward to. Not surprisingly, Meg served as editor for her junior high and high school literary magazines. She graduated from Brown University in 1981. One year later, she published her debut novel, Sleepwalking, the story of three college girls bonded by an unhealthy fascination with suicidal women poets. It marked the beginning of a successful writing career that shows no sign of slacking.
Over the years, Wolitzer has proven herself a deft chronicler of intense, unconventional relationships, especially among women. She has explored with wit and sensitivity the dynamics of fractured families (This Is Your Life, The Position); the devastating effects of death (Surrender, Dorothy), the challenges of friendship (Friends for Life), and the prospective minefield of gender, identity, and dashed expectations (Hidden Pictures, The Wife, The Ten-Year Nap).
In addition to her bestselling novels, Wolitzer has written a number of screenplays. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize, and she has also taught writing at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and at Skidmore College.
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In our exclusive interview, Wolitzer shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself:
"First of all, I am obsessed with playing Scrabble. It relaxes me between fits of writing, and I play online, in a bizarro world of anonymous, competitive players. It's my version of smoking or drinking -- a guilty pleasure. The thing is, I love words, anagrams, wordplay, cryptic crossword puzzles, and anything to do with the language."
"I also love children's books, and feel a great deal of nostalgia for some of them from my own childhood (Harriet the Spy and The Phantom Tollbooth among others) as well as from my children's current lives. I have an idea for a kids' book that I might do someday, though right now my writing schedule is full up."
"Humor is very important to me in life and work. I take pleasure from laughing at movies, and crying at books, and sometimes vice versa. I also have recently learned that I like performing. I think that writers shouldn't get up at a reading and give a dull, chant-like reading from their book. They should perform; they should do what they need to do to keep readers really listening. I've lately had the opportunity to do some performing on public radio, as well as singing with a singer I admire, Suzzy Roche, formerly of the Roches, a great group that started in 1979. Being onstage provides a dose of gratification that most writers never get to experience."
"But mostly, writing a powerful novel -- whether funny or serious, or of course both -- is my primary goal. When I hear that readers have been affected by something I've written, it's a relief. I finally have come to no longer fear that I'm going to have to go to law school someday...."
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In the spring of 2004, Meg Wolitzer took some time to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell -- this is the perfect modern novel. Short, concise, moving, and about a character you come to care about, despite her limitations. It reminds me of life. It takes place over a span of time, and it's hilarious, tragic, and always stirring.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell -- See above.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf -- She's better than anyone else, and this novel has simplicity and depth, (but you don't need me to say that...).
Dubliners by James Joyce -- It's got wonderful depictions of childhood, and also of loss.
Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger (particularly "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "For Esme with Love and Squalor") -- These stories are achingly good, and hold up over time.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh -- A moving look at paradise and then paradise lost, at least one man's version of it. Waugh is a great stylist.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro -- This is a great example of the "unreliable narrator" in fiction. It's probably my favorite contemporary novel.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert -- So devastating about vanity, among other things.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith -- Though a mystery writer, she's as terse and intense and psychological as Graham Greene. This is a really compelling and creepy book. Far better than the film.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath -- I have never seen as good a depiction of adolescence-into-adulthood, as well as despair.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Luminous, moving, teaches you everything about writing that you need to know. Less is definitely more, in this case.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Some Like It Hot -- Hilarious, and wonderful dialogue.
The Apartment -- The current print is so beautiful to look at, and it's still powerful even now, when sexual relations between men and women are so different from back then.
The Wizard of Oz -- Because nothing comes close in terms of the fantasy, and how well it's executed. The longing for home still feels visceral to this day.
The Lacemaker -- A French film with Isabelle Huppert. I loved it; if you can find it at a good video store, definitely see it. She's a wonderful actress.
Shadow of a Doubt -- A terrific Hitchcock film, filled with nuance. Not "scary" so much as disturbing, it deals with ideas of "the double" and, of course, good and evil.
The Lady Vanishes, also a Hitchcock film -- Quiet intensity and desperation build as an old woman, Miss Froy, is missing on a train. I am a great fan of Alfred Hitchcock's films from the ‘30s, ‘40s and early ‘50s.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I can't listen to anything when I work. I can't have any stimulation whatsoever. I can't even have rings on my fingers -- they're too distracting. But when I'm not writing, I tend to like to listen to things I loved long ago, namely the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as well as some Mahler and some British Invasion ‘60s music.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
It would read books that were daunting to try on one's own: Probably we'd read some Russian novels, the longer the better, as well as Henry James.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love novels of all kinds. If someone gives me a new, handsome, hardbound novel that I haven't yet read, I'm thrilled. I like to give friends books that I already love -- I've given a dozen copies of Mrs. Bridge over time. I can't wait to hear a friend's reaction to something that I care about so deeply. Giving book recommendations is something I like to do.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I think I'm a bit of an ADD type, in that I'm always popping up and getting a snack, making a phone call, taking a stroll around the apartment, etc. I like to have snacks handy, and I definitely like to have an available bed so that I can take a tiny nap (ten minutes or so) in the afternoon, and then keep going until my kids come home from school. And as for that desk, well, it's really a table, and the only stuff on it is my writing, and related books, and paper to doodle on between bouts of typing.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been publishing for a long time -- since I graduated from college in 1981. I've been lucky in that I haven't had too many rejections, but I also haven't exactly been a household name. I think I'm one of those writers who people have heard of, but maybe they aren't sure why. The Wife was a very gratifying publishing experience, because it seemed to strike a nerve with readers. It's important, when you're a writer, to know that there are actually people out there, waiting to read what you write. Without that, you can feel like you're writing only to amuse yourself and your circle of friends, and that can be depressing.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Well, I think they need to remember that it's a protracted process, and that you have to be in for the long run, and that you have to actually love writing, because the gratifications can be few and far between. But when they do come, these gratifications, they are... gratifying! You need to love the work itself, and to really be excited by writing, and comfortable being alone all day, and trusting your own instincts. For me, a good writing day is tremendously exciting, and provides a hefty dose of endorphins. And a bad writing day...well, you don't want to know about it.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Meg Wolitzer had to say:
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell -- This book is my favorite 20th century novel -- It's a really stirring, devastating look at the dreams and limitations of one woman's life, following her over time. It's great for summer because it's so worthwhile and also short -- the book can be swallowed whole on vacation, and you won't feel as though you've wasted your time.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro -- Another small classic, this one with an unreliable narrator. Compulsively readable and really tragic. I, for one, enjoy a little tragedy in the summertime to break up the monotony of all that fun.
Valley of the Dolls by Jaqueline Susann -- This is the height of summer junk, but it also has such a retro feeling now, that when you read it you'll be thrust back into the fluffy, trashy clouds of a long-lost era.
I Don't Know How She Does It by Alison Pearson -- She's so smart, and the intelligence and hilarity of the book keeps you very happy. And, as an extra plus, as far as I'm concerned -- it's British.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I know, I know, you're thinking -- How morose can you get, and in summer no less? But this sharp and unforgettable novel opens in New York City in the summertime, and you can still feel the heat and the agony of its protagonist, all these summers later.
Middlemarch by George Eliot -- Because you should always read one long, demanding classic every summer. And this one is a great choice. Althought you could also read....
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- Combining masterpiece with intense love story, it's just as great as when you read it in college.
What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg -- The famous Hollywood novel of 1941 is amazingly fresh and contemporary and sordid.
Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth -- Howlingly funny and brilliant. An angry writer at his peak, and I return to this book every summer, and most winters, too.
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc -- I was amazed by this chronicle of hopelessly troubled young men and women in the Bronx. This is the only nonfiction book on my list, simply because I'm a fiction writer. But it reads like fiction, with a compelling narrative and the most painful and extraordinary details in any book I've read in a long, long time.
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