Best-selling novelist Meg Wolitzer (The Uncouplings, The Ten-Year Nap, The Position) specializes in witty, knowing takes on contemporary marriage, divorce, and relationships. Her ninth novel, The Interestings, is smart, nuanced, and fun to read, in part because of the effervescent evocation of New York City from Watergate to today, in part because of the idiosyncratic authenticity of her characters. The core six—Jules, Ethan, Ash, Goodman, Cathy, and Jonah—dubbed themselves “The Interestings,” when they meet in their ironic teens in the summer of 1974 at an artsy summer camp called “Spirit-in-the-Woods.” Beginning with this “long evaporated year,” the summer Nixon resigned, Wolitzer creates a rainbow of narrative arcs spanning nearly four decades.
Your six main characters, “The Interestings,” meet at an artsy summer camp called “Spirit-in-the-Woods.” Is there such a place? (I was reminded of the MacDowell Colony, where we first met.)
In the summer of 1974, I attended a summer camp in the Berkshires that no longer exists. It was an extraordinary place, and I feel a little self-conscious saying "It changed my life," but I think it did. I came home quivering with excitement about my new friends, and about art, which I suddenly thought of as "Art." Like my main character Jules in my novel, I'd grown up in the suburbs. Unlike her, my mother was a writer, so I came from a house filled with good books. And my parents had always taken us into the city to MOMA and to see what were known as "arthouse" movies. But you probably can't do all that with your parents and have it change your life; you have to do it on your own. It wasn't until I could go off and enter that world by myself that I came to really love it and feel excited by it. My closest friend, to this day, is someone I met that summer. And I think I took that early experience and tried to replicate it all over the place over the years, so that in fact when I went to MacDowell and Yaddo, I suppose I did in a sense think of them in a similar way to how I'd thought of the summer of 1974. I made close friends at those artists' colonies, too. There's something about being in a place where everyone takes their work seriously that can lead to sudden, surprising closeness.
Jules is Ethan’s first love, but doesn’t find she has the right chemistry with him. She gives up her artistic dreams, becomes a therapist, marries a man troubled by depression, yet remains close to Ethan and his wife Ash, who was her best friend at Spirit-in-the-Woods. How do you account for her constancy?
She loves her friends and they love her. It's not that I think friendship and love can always transcend differences and compromise. But friendships don't always have to be about differences, even when they're present. Sometimes there's a thing in the air, an ineffable thing, that just makes it all work. And of course you want a place to go--a friendship--where it doesn't matter how successful you are, where "product" isn't an issue, and where maybe you can give yourself a temporary break from taking your own pulse.
What was the inspiration for Ethan, the most outwardly successful of the group over the years, and for Figland, the hugely successful TV series he created?
I think I'm part Jules and part Ethan. The part of me that's like Ethan was just sort of unselfconsciously creative as a kid, talking to myself in bed at night and hosting a talk show there called Meg's Treasure Box... a name that I find ripe for analysis. Figland stands, for me, for the expression of the self that isn't afraid to seem ridiculous or sometimes disgusting, and is perhaps sometimes charming, even if you yourself can't see it. I took those ideas and blended them with a kind of "Simpsons-ish" sensibility, and Figland appeared.
You write of envy, and the difficulty of remaining friends after one of the set (Ethan) has surpassed the others in terms of “fame and fortune.” What sustains friendships over the course of artistic ups and downs, even rivalries?
I was interested in looking not at outright, obvious envy, but the quieter kind that you can feel even for people you're truly close to, and really love. I think everyone is always measuring themselves against other people to a certain degree; it happens automatically, and it's hard not to be this way at least some of the time. There are a thousand ways to feel inadequate.
Yes, I've certainly felt that way in relation to other people. I have an old friend who moved to a pretty wealthy suburb, and she remarked that people there tended to be friends with people who lived in the same size houses. I realized that maybe this was a way of keeping envy at bay. It's such a depressing and unproductive feeling, and it makes you unable to enjoy your own happiness, or even regard it as happiness. But I think powerful, long friendships often are elastic enough to incorporate envy into them, and not destroy the friendship. Shared history is worth a lot, and I think it's a sustaining force, and helps remind people of the fact that life is short, one's friendship-making time is limited, and so friendships with people we know well–– and who know us well––are meaningful.
You and your mother, Hilma Wolitzer, are both novelists. Do you see a generational difference in how the ups and downs in an artistic career are experienced among groups of friends?
Both my mother and I have close groups of friends that include other writers, and these friendships are very important to us. I actually don't find her world all that different from mine. I think all the novelists I know, regardless of their age, struggle with some of the same questions. We're all working in what I consider a "non-fiction" era, in which 'true" stories are often valued more by the culture. And yet sometimes you need to ignore all that and, in order to be both buoyant and productive, you need to pretend you live in an arty kind of School of Athens, which all the arts are celebrated, and are an integral part of the society, and everyone knows it.