Five Questions For Author Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel The Uncoupling explores what happens when the women in one New Jersey town start saying “no” to sex. Zoomer chatted with her about female desire, casting spells and the writing life.
Athena McKenzie: What was the thought process that lead to The Uncoupling?
Meg Wolitzer: For a long time before I wrote this book, I think I was marinating in it without knowing and finally I was tenderized. I was talking to a friend who’s a therapist and I asked her what she observed with patients and she said it’s all about patterns. I think that in terms of coming up with an idea for a book – it’s probably very similar. I did a piece in the NY Times that started with this comment I heard – “I would pay someone to have sex with my husband.” That harsh remark seemed angry about being in mid-life. I don’t know what was meant by it but I thought about it a lot and wondered, “How do people change? What’s the novel version of it?” The novel version is a story that looks at female desires across the spectrum. Then I’m in my territory. Even though I’m venturing into a little bit of magic realism, I’m safely in my territory because I guess I’ve staked out the world of men and women, domestic lives and marriage, parents and kids and that stuff. I’m safe there.
AM: Are you comfortable turning your eyes inward when you explore this?
MW: I’ve never written autobiographically, I don’t think. There’s this great Zadie Smith line that she wrote in this essay called Fail Better and she talks about how she writes to express her way of being in the world. I think you almost can’t not write from yourself. I’ll have an observation here and there about things I feel but I would never cannibalize my life or marriage for a book. I don’t think it’s interesting enough.
AM: Is there a character you identify with more than the rest?
MW:No. I definitely go into all of them because if you can’t love your characters, who will? Even the irritating ones. It is sort of a motto. But I actually like the daughter Willa, the teenage girl. Having been one, I feel particularly tender toward her having this newness of experience. Especially since I’m so much older than that now and don’t have that newness of experience. My life resembles very superficially Dory’s life. I’m happily married and in the same profession as my husband. I feel that I can say something about long marriages perhaps from having been in one but I can also say something about coming of age because I’ve done that too. So certainly I look inward in that way but probably not in revelatory moments.
AM: Did you intend to use the element of magic realism when you started?
MW:I never would have thought I would have done that. The overlap between me and Marcia Marquez? There is none. I knew I wanted to incorporate Lysistrata into this novel but I wasn’t going to do it just as an update. I struggled a lot with how to use it and then I had this epiphany about it. Falling in love is kind of like a spell. Why else would two people need to call each other hundreds of times a day? Falling out of love is a kind of spell too.
I even took it further thinking about my interest in this play. As a writer, literature does cast a spell. Here’s a play performed in 411 BC and we all know it as the sex strike play. What does it mean that it’s lasted so long? Everyone is worried about the death of the book and the death of reading but there are some things that are embedded in our society and in our minds and I think literature is one of them.
When I realized that I was so spell-oriented, in a sense, I thought, “What if I did it this way? What if I had the play sort of going on in the background?” I sort of dared myself to do it. I think if you don’t push yourself as a writer, then what is the point really?
The magic in it needed to be handled very rightly and I realized early on that none of the women could know they were under a spell. Just like we don’t know. We don’t know the forces that pull us.
Since I started writing about the younger generation, the idea of the Internet as a spell was very interesting too. We are so drawn to check our email. Why? What do we think it will say? Yet we feel the pull of it, away from human interaction. It was all right in front of me in a way and I just needed to have the nerve to do it that way. For me I guess I split the difference by having no one acknowledge it [that they were under a spell.]
AM: Do you have a writing routine that you stick to?
MW:It’s variable. A friend of mine who is a writer and also teaches noticed that the students who ended up being successful had one thing in common – they just worked all the time. That’s exactly what I do and what my friends do. So my routine is work when you can. I like to work in the mornings. I like to work when I feel like the world is asleep, which it isn’t but very late at night or very early in the morning, when my family isn’t crawling around.
Sometimes what I’ll do is work all day then print it out and take the pages and go to a coffee shop and just sit somewhere and take a pen to it. Taking a pen to it is either defiling it, improving it, saving it – whatever. It always has a craft-like quality when you get to cross things out and say, “My god, what were you thinking?” I try not to waste the days but there are some days you just need to read or see a movie or see a friend.