In Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, “The Interestings,” she explores what happens to youth’s unfulfilled talent and the pressures that come with it, as well as the survival of a friendship tainted with envy and jealousy. It was recently bought by Sony Tri-Star Pictures, who sold it to Amazon, where it will be turned into a TV series. “Two writers are working on it, we’ll see what happens. It would be really fun to see how they handled the time passage, which is really a challenge. The TV aspect of all of this is like icing on the cake, I hope it happens, but you never know,” says Meg.
She adds, “‘The Wife’ is supposed to be a movie shooting in January, a partly Swedish film with Glenn Close and Frances McDormand, so we’ll see. It’s really fun to see how actors inhabit your characters, but it’s so removed from when you’re writing, you don’t even think about any of that.”
Meg is one of those rare writers who are both naturally talented and capable of bringing out that same talent in others. The author also holds writing workshops; and while her event for the Philippine Literary Festival this weekend will be a signing session only, she’ll be available to answer questions during the panel. If you’re an aspiring writer, you still have a chance to pick up her books and attend her event, you won’t want to miss it.
Check out Inquirer Super’s interview with Meg, where she shares valuable and practical tips for writers and talks about “The Interestings.”
How did National Book Store get you to come here?
They may have heard that I might be somebody who would be good to come here through E. Lockhart, who was here. She told them that I wrote both for adults and for a YA audience too and that that was something that might work here and I got the invitation through my publisher. I’d heard about her visit, and Gayle Forman and Jen E. Smith were here, too—they’re all my friends—I liked the adventure of it, it sounded great, they said it was a terrific trip.
A big theme in The Interestings was unfulfilled talent or trying to drum up talent where there really is none; how did that idea come to you?
I had gone to a summer camp when I was a teenager, very much like Jules in the book and it changed my life. It was the moment when I met my people. In the Philippines, do kids go to summer camp? A lot of the countries I’ve been to, they don’t. It’s about the moment when you find your tribe, your people and you say this is how I see myself and I was very interested in that and the idea of talent.
That was an experience that I knew was so important to me. In fact, my best friend to this day is someone I met that summer and she’s my closest friend. I was just living the feelings of what happens to talent over time and friendships and envy, all of those were interesting things to me.
Speaking of envy, Jules was beyond green with envy in the book. Do you think it’s possible for friendship to survive when envy or jealousy is present?
Yes, because I think that it’s not always the kind of envy or jealousy that you see in a movie or a television show where it’s portrayed as being this destructive thing. There’s another kind, which is the quiet envy you feel for people you love and it doesn’t necessarily hurt your friendships—it might eat away at the edges, but you have to work against it and I think that that is more realistic than what you see in a movie.
I think that’s hard when people feel envious or jealous of each other, I think it’s difficult because it’s depressing because it’s less about what you think about them than what you think about yourself because what you’re saying is, “I’m not adequate” and I think that’s hard for anybody, not even just in a friendship but in a person.
You wrote that envy is wanting something and wanting to take it away from the person who has it whereas jealousy ends with just wanting what that other person has. Have you been on the receiving end of envy or jealousy?
There was an experience where somebody told me that she had had certain feelings having to do with our writing lives and it made me uncomfortable but on the other hand it was honest.
And have you ever felt envy or jealousy?
Of course. Absolutely. I think sometimes those feelings allow you to not really take responsibility for what you really need to do with your own life. When I first began writing, I and my group of friends were writing at the same time and we really had the idea that we would be the same, but then some go ahead and then some stop writing and what happened to them you don’t know… nobody’s life is a straight road. I mean I’ve come to really see that and you know what? People’s lives are so complicated and you can be envious of someone, but they might have a secret unhappiness you don’t know about, people’s lives are not just how they look on the outside ever.
You write both for adults and a YA audience. How do you keep it real when writing YA?
I think that any book you write, whether it’s for adults, whether it’s for teenagers, you have to write the book that feels most true to you to what you’re interested in. People say, “Write what you know.” I really believe it’s “Write what obsesses you.” And I think that readers, regardless of their age, will respond to the energy of your absorption in that subject, at least I have to feel that way. I think the books that people love are the books that the writer was so obsessed with having to work on every day. I think that for teenagers, they can smell something fake a mile away. They’re very attuned to what’s real, to being talked down to, to adults who kind of want to sound young. What I can keep up with is what goes on inside people because truthfully, while I’m different in a lot of ways from when I was 15, which is how old my character in “Belzhar” is, I relate to her. I had to write the book that I wanted to find on a shelf when I was that age and it has something in common with books I want to find now. You can’t game the system, you can’t think “Oh, this is what they want.” Because “they” have to be you. You have to write the book that you’re passionate about.
Write what obsesses you. How does an obsession start in your head that makes you want to turn it into a novel?
I start thinking and thinking and staying up at night thinking and not sleeping, waking up with dark shadows under my eyes and I start working it out like a math problem. “What if this girl whose boyfriend died was sent to a boarding school?” And then I remember how much I loved books that take place in a boarding school, in a separate world. I think for me there’s something very exciting when I was young reading books that took place away from the world, whether it’s a frightening, violent place like “Lord of the Flies,” or even when I was a kid watching “I Dream of Jeannie.” Jeannie had a bottle and all I wanted to do was live inside a tiny bottle because it was this world away, and I think we want to live in a bottle, an island or something away from the world that is different. That’s what I’m trying to work out when I write.
“The Interestings” spanned so many decades in the friends’ lives. How did you keep track of all that information?
Here’s how I write novels. I have a very specific plan which I’ll be happy to tell you for a price (laughs). I have what I call an “80-page plan,” and I’ve spoken about it a lot. I think when you’re writing a book, you should write the first 80 pages. You have an idea and then you write without worrying what anybody’s gonna think, what it is, what your family’s gonna think, whether it will get published, anything. You just explore and do a period of discovery…and I say 80 pages because it’s a good amount of pages that you could print it out and look at it and say, “Wow, that’s a lot of pages,” but it’s not so many pages that if you go, “Oh I need to put this aside,” you’ll feel like you wasted your life. You’re not going to feel that, but it’s a decent amount. And then you sit somewhere with it, and you look at it, not for the fantasy of what you were going to do, it’s not what you hoped to do, but you look at it for what you actually did. And that’s when I start making a novel out of it at that point. Once I see what I did rather than the fantasy of what I was going to do, I see, “Oh, it’s not just about talent, it’s also about envy, it’s also about friendship.” Have I given those themes enough time? And then I start making a novel based on what I’ve actually done.
Have you had 80-page plans that you’ve scrapped?
Yeah. I had an interesting experience. I wrote about 80 pages of a book based on Freud’s patient Dora who was a teenage girl. And I went to Vienna and I walked around and I wrote it and sold the book and everything and then I realized I didn’t want to do it because there was no room in the book for humor and it was a part of my sensibility, I couldn’t really put it in there. I put it aside. I felt very devastated. But then, the next book I wrote was this book called “The Wife,” it was the first first person book I had written and the wife was funny and angry and it was almost in response to the way I had felt corseted by the previous book. Because of that book, I had given myself permission to write in this other voice. So even things you put aside lead to other things, definitely.
Are you on social media? When your first novel came out, social media wasn’t a big thing then. How did that change your interaction with fans?
It didn’t exist. I was on the butter churn (laughs). I was on the horse and buggy then. I have one foot in social media and one foot pre-social media. I’m not like one of those people who took to it so quickly that they’re tweeting everything. I’m still such an editor of my own work that that’s not the perfect form for me. I will do things but very sparingly, not in a very big way.
I also kind of guard my writing time so much. Interesting things happen on Twitter and I’m on Facebook more, I know, Facebook’s so uncool already, it’s like basically saying I wear a girdle. But I don’t wear a girdle. Social media is just this amazing revolution that’s happened, the Internet really, more than social media per se. It changed everything in great ways, but it has also distracted many a writer from when they want to be focusing on work. The problem for us, as writers, is that the machine that brings us to other people’s lives and all kinds of fast-moving stories is the same machine we need to use to make our living and that requires that you be so removed from that.
You write and you teach. Is writing something you can teach?
Writing is something that I do teach but I’m very aware of how that by the time people come to a writing class, they’ve already lived, and they’ve written for school, they have thought a lot of things. They’re not coming to me from birth.
Here’s the thing, what I can do, what happens in a workshop is people are exposed to a lot of writing and one thing that happens in a workshop that’s amazing and I know it happens because it happened to me—I took writing workshops—is that they start to see when something works and when it doesn’t. Because sometimes beginning writers have less of a sense of a sentence that just blows everybody away. They thought, “Oh that was just like any other sentence.” And if you start to show them why that works, they start to be able to create it. But it did come from them, I didn’t create that sentence, I don’t write for my students and no teacher wrote for me, but there’s a lot that happens in a workshop that’s very important to a writer. Reading other people’s work is just as important as when you read yours. The thing that happens also is that you’re not alone, because writing is so solitary. It’s like, go into this room, don’t talk to anybody and come out with a masterpiece, okay? Done. That’s hard. We are social beings—social media arose for a reason. I think writing workshops provide a community, they provide solace, they provide guidance and sometimes they take somebody and give them a spark.
People are vulnerable when they’re writing and you want to create a safe place, a place where nobody’s going to laugh or mock you or say, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” It’s a combination of charity and honesty. There are famous teachers who say “You should never write again.” Now why would you say that to anybody? Everybody has a chance for redemption, everybody has a chance to grow as a writer.
What was the best thing you learned from your novelist mom about writing?
She is amazing. I think the best thing I learned from her is that encouragement really goes a long way. It really does. If I like something in a student’s work, I’m going to really point it out. You’re capable of things. If I can honestly say that to a writer, I think it can be meaningful to them. She allowed me to be playful, she allowed me to figure stuff out. When you start writing it just has to seem like pleasure.
Meg Wolitzer’s signing event will be on Saturday, August 29, 2PM, Ballroom 1 at Raffles Hotel Makati. Find out more about the event by visiting National Book Store on Facebook: http://bit.ly/nationalbookstore. Follow them on Twitter/Instagram for updates: @nbsalert. Check out the hashtag #PLF2015 to see what’s happening at the Philippine Litfest 2015.