Novelist Meg Wolitzer was already in possession of an enviable string of literary successes — from the sly feminist fable of The Wife to the Lysistrata update of The Uncoupling. After 2013’s The Interestings — a bestseller and critical hit that chronicled the adult lives of a set of teenage arts camp friends, it’s perhaps only natural that her encore would be a novel aimed at, not just about, younger readers. Belzhar, released last week, takes its title from Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, published in 1963. Caveat lector: While Wolitzer pays homage to that literary predecessor, this is no Dead Poets Society. Belzhar is entirely its own story, using Plath’s difficult and charged account of a young woman’s mental illness to illuminate the impact of trauma on a group of high school students.
Wolitzer has long been fascinated by the ways in which women of all ages negotiate their life choices. That first, pre-college-graduation novel, Sleepwalking, was about “death-girls,” female college students obsessed with dead poets (there’s Plath, again). 2003’s The Wife returned to the Smith College campus (where Wolitzer spent two years before transferring to Brown University), this time during the 1950s and focusing on how a star male professor’s career affects his spouse. The Uncoupling and The Ten-Year Nap also detail how women’s choices — to work or not, to raise a family — have consequences that can reach beyond their own journeys and into the lives of others.
I spoke to Wolitzer over a leisurely lunch at Manhattan’s Candle Cafe — leisurely because it took place early in August, weeks before she had to think about the publication of Belzhar. The following interview is an edited transcript of our discussion. —Bethanne Patrick
The Barnes & Noble Review: You’ve now written two books that involve Sylvia Plath.
Meg Wolitzer: I was thinking about it recently, about how struck by Plath I was when I attended Smith. I read her journals, her diaries, everything that I could get my hands on, and both then and now, the living presence of past writers fascinates me. There’s a sort of beautiful element to really being built on by so many other artists the way Plath has been.
BNR: That’s true, and each of those artists reaches a different audience.
MW: Yes, there are things about Sylvia Plath that are adolescent — like The Bell Jar — and things about her that are absolutely adult, like “Ariel.” The thing that fascinated and fascinates me still is that she is a writer who has meant things to me in both of those stages of my own life.
BNR: What about The Bell Jar shouts “adolescent”?
MW: Let me start by saying that I think the average YA reader is wide open to a book, if she loves it. And to love it, she has to feel it’s speaking to her own experience. Things in a book can come from out in the world, like references to a novel written by a dead poet in the 1950s, but if they don’t convey anything to a more universal feeling for that reader, the YA novel will fail. I read The Bell Jar as a high school freshman, riding the LIRR, and I will never forget the kind of inevitability it had. You can’t read it the way you would any other book. I think of it as a catalyst into a lot of very different places. For me, The Bell Jar was born of adolescence, a time that really is, for each of us, our own “bell jar” experience.
BNR: Did writing YA prove challenging for you in any way?
MW: Yes, in two ways, actually. First, I tried to write a not-jaded book, because I’ve lived a lot longer than my characters, and that led to the second way, which is the tension between the adult novelist and the adolescent narrator. I did not want to impose my adult consciousness on the sense of choices that go into Jam’s [Jamaica Gallahue] experience at The Wooden Barn.
BNR: What drew you toward the genre?
MW: Having kids! Seriously — my son had read Looking for Alaska by John Green and passed it on to me. I read it, loved it, and thought, Wow, my son is thinking about intense things! These books that they call “YA” aren’t simple. Alaska just felt direct and powerful, and those are words that apply to the best “adult” novels. It was an intensely interesting muscle to flex, and it taught me that people put their wit and their gracefulness into all kinds of writing — if they’re allowed.
BNR: Was the actual writing process different for you, this time?
MW: A little bit, but mostly because I was writing in the first person — the only other book of mine that’s first person is The Wife, and Jam’s voice needed to be quite unlike Joan’s — Jam’s voice is sort of breathless. What I believe about first-person narration is that it’s necessary when it’s a very voice-based book, as this one is.
BNR: But that doesn’t make it easier.
MW: Nothing is easy — sometimes things are fast, but they’re not easy. I think revising is the great, most important thing in writing. If people aren’t revising, it makes it more difficult for the reader to see changes over time, as there are in Belzhar. I don’t like tricky books; tricky is not positive, for me. If a character does not come out of a deep emotional well, she can seem superficial. Things come out of character, needs and limitations. I wanted my story to develop around those things.
BNR: What about an adolescent narrator is essential, here?
MW: One of the things that’s fantastic about an adolescent is that person is essentially learning on the job. She doesn’t have enough world experience yet to make sense of her unvarnished pain. In Jam’s case, that pain is specifically about love, and how she was in relation to another person. How is it that we get to the point where we don’t see what’s really happening with someone else. Also, Jam’s age and station made this a more plot-driven book than I usually write, because it’s all about her need to tell what happened, like pulling a cork out of a bottle.
BNR: Without giving anything away, may I say that there is a bit of magic realism in this book?
MW: [Laughs] I’m married to a science writer; there are so many things that are so weird in the universe! That said, I used the device I used because it was true psychologically; I tend to be very psychoanalytically minded, anyway, but in this story, I wanted to explore the way letting one’s self be known creates a kind of magic — individually, and in community. We all have this desire to be known, and being known, having a voice, is a durable thing.
BNR: Each student in the class has a distinct tale.
MW: That was a surprise, as I wrote, that each one of them really had something completely different about them. The thing about character traits, as we discussed earlier, is that they are applied when they are applied — your choices as a writer have a long half-life.
BNR: Did you relate to any character more than the others — Jam, for example?
MW: I became Mrs. Q., their English teacher, the shepherd of these kids who were screwed up — but not fatally. It’s kind of a dream boarding school where they are, a school without really dangerous delinquents, but also without a lot of social pressures. These kids in this English class together — you know how something happened to you and it felt so big, but really wasn’t? That’s what this book is about.
BNR: Let’s talk more about becoming Mrs. Q.
MW: She has a lot of tenderness and respect for her charges, a word I use because she’s selected these students to be in her Special Topics in English class. I’ve had relationships like that, and I think anyone who has relationships like that in their life is lucky. It’s about being with somebody who doesn’t want anything from you.
BNR: That sounds a bit like some of the relationships in The Interestings.
MW: Yes, because it’s about the moment when you find “your people.” These kids, in Belzhar, recognize something in each other. They don’t know, although Mrs. Q. does, that it’s unprocessed experience. She’s someone who creates a safe place for them, then stays out of the way. I kept her off the page quite a bit, which wasn’t easy since I did connect with her. But I knew that if she orchestrated things even a tiny bit more that it would be a totally different book.
BNR: Why have your characters kept their experiences “unprocessed,” if you will?
MW: It’s self-delusion: If you don’t look at something honestly, you don’t have to face the pain of what it really is. You can keep looking at the surface without effecting any desire for change. It was very moving to me to realize that Mrs. Q. was going to ask this group to read The Bell Jar; I got a chill that day, knowing not only that I would be connecting my book to Plath’s in this way, but also that I was going to be successful in drawing a character who could offer a solution through literature without providing cut-and-dried answers from it.
BNR: Because Mrs. Q. was young once, too, wasn’t she?
MW: Yes! There’s this bookish girl . . . even if she has an AARP card, she’s a recognizable type! We can’t assume that she’s the writer, even if the writer is a recognizably bookish type, but it’s often the case. When she exists in a book, this girl, for me it’s like Meryl Streep: She may put on any number of different accents, but she’s still Meryl Streep. She’s a point of safety. You know there’s someone smart there who sees the world in a way that you find interesting — and you know that she’s backed up her own experience with reading.
BNR: One of the things that Mrs. Q. seems to understand innately is the power of writing as a tool for healing, something that has recently been explored in the news as scientists learn that people who write about their pain often come to terms with it more easily than those who don’t. Did that scientist husband of yours give you an insider’s tip?
MW: No, but this doesn’t surprise me. Re-experiencing something is voicing, by which I mean it helps to give you a voice, it helps you to be known fully, as I mentioned. I don’t think you can do this without some sort of narrative loop.
BNR: For Jam and her friends in Belzhar, this comes about through a set of notebooks. Were you a great journal keeper in your own adolescence?
MW: Hardly! I liked to write so young, and refined that muscle so well, that if I was going to spend my time writing it was going to be stories, not journals. I knew I wanted to write books, and books need to feel propulsive. I was a bookish girl — surprise! — and any diary or journal I might have kept would have said “Nothing happened” an awful lot. I did all of my own re-experiencing on the page, as fiction. It might not be the right way for someone else, but it’s worked for me.