Before Meg Wolitzer sits down to sign your books tomorrow, she had half an hour to tell me the best life lesson yet. Except, it’s not actually a lesson and just the realest #realtalk on talent and heartbreak that I wish I got when I was a hormonal teen.
I sat with the author of The Interestings and Belzhar in her hotel room yesterday, slightly uneasy to throw my questions at a jetlagged lady. But for somebody who’s been making her rounds in local media since Sunday, Meg shows as much eloquence as she does in her writing. What did I expect from a Brown-educated, Princeton lecturer-slash-critically acclaimed author who were inspired by Virginia Woolf and Ian McEwan anyway?
You’ve written several novels so far. What real-life affairs and events compel you to create your stories?
Whatever it is that I’m thinking about a lot is a good idea to write about. In terms of real life stuff… Well, in my book The Interestings, I followed a lot of historical things that happened in America from the 1970s on. We have the Watergate and the Reagan years, even 9/11. These were events that were a big part of the American psyche and my life. I think if you try to rip something from the headlines, it might not work. But I think fiction is about more than just a good plot—it has to be about things that you care about a lot.
The Interestings has a valid point on talent and self-made success. Is the novel, in some way, a reaction to our generation that’s obsessed with being special and succeeding for it?
Yes. I was looking at how things change over time. I wrote a piece in The Financial Times, talking about how we sometimes confuse talent and success and Susan Boyle —the idea of how she excites people. She’s talented, but they couldn’t make her into a big star.
Are you an artist if you don’t have an audience? But how about somebody so talented that you knew and didn’t? Are you an artist if you don’t produce? Are you artist if you write for yourself? They’re valid to ask. It’s complicated because what we thrive for in America, and everywhere else, is success, and the idea of it coming together so you have an audience that will see it.
In your most recent novel, Belzhar, there’s a shift to a younger demographic since it’s young adult fiction. Was there any difficulty in easing into a teenage persona?
I was a teenager, so I think I’m already starting ahead. I think what I liked about the young adult audience is the fact that I could have access to those feelings and thoughts, the intensity of it all. This girl is sent to a boarding school because she tragically lost her boyfriend and when she’s there, she writes in a notebook in a special class and she’s reunited with the things she’s lost. Thinking back on adolescence, it’s hard to take a long view. Things that you feel won’t get better sometimes. I wanted to have access to that feeling again. Well, that’s just not pleasant! (Laughs) It put me definitely in touch with teens.
Jam, Belzhar’s protagonist, deals with heartbreak dramatically here. Was it an effort to deepen or unravel this common experience, or is it to mock the mundane worries of young ones today?
We experience heartbreak in different ages and ways, but the thing about writing about adolescence is that you’re writing a time of first experiences. I think that’s all very compelling to me because you have that first heartbreak in your life that most of us have had. The first time you have it, it’s not like any other time. After the first heartbreak, you’ve been initiated into it. But when you’re a teenager, you feel like the world is going to collapse—and the world usually doesn’t.
Which character reflected you the most here?
Mrs. Quennell, the English teacher. She knows things she’s sort of not telling. She’s got wisdom that comes with living for a while. I admire her, I like her. (laughs) As a teacher, I feel love for my students, too.
If the Belzhar journal existed here, what would’ve been your Belzhar moment, or the time you wish you can go back to and relive?
Good question. I didn’t have trauma in my life, and this wasn’t an autobiographical novel. But I think I enjoyed the time where I can be more playful, and play is just the most important part of being a human. In my journal, I would’ve goofed around a little bit longer.
Art by Dorothy Guya
Meg Wolitzer will be speaking and signing books at the Philippine Literary Festival on Aug. 29, 2 p.m. in Raffles Makati. Her novels Belzhar and The Interestings are available in National Bookstore branches nationwide, and online.