Meg Wolitzer on Her New Novel, The Female Persuasion, and the Future of Feminism

Nina Subin
Nina Subin

Meg Wolitzer is one of those extraordinarily rare writers who not only understands the human experience but can also fully articulate that experience on the page. It's for that very reason that her 2013 novel, The Interestings, became a cult phenomenon; by dissecting the shared experience of summer camp and the cascading effect it has on the maturing adolescent, she tapped into a rich vein of many generations of American women, telling a story that has rarely been told in such beautiful, resonant detail.

Now, Wolitzer is back with an equally compelling and thought-provoking tale. The Female Persuasion tackles the ideals of feminism as seen through the ever-shifting lens of power, influence, and passion. At heart, the book is centered around two characters — feminist icon Faith Frank and a young, ambitious woman named Greer Kadetsky — but equally important are the individuals they meet along the way.

From Greer's high school sweetheart, Cory Pinto, to Faith's complicated ex-lover turned business partner, Emmett Shrader, each individual in the central narrative is given an extensive inner life. And as readers travel through decades of character-based history, a richly woven web of characters and causal actions emerges, one that ties up every last loose end yet leaves you guessing until the very last page.

In early 2018, POPSUGAR caught up with Wolitzer for a wide-ranging conversation about The Female Persuasion, the questions facing modern feminism, and the 2016 election, an event that occurred well after most of the book had been written but, as a backdrop to the book's release, is impossible to ignore. A transcript of that conversation — lightly edited and condensed for clarity — appears in full below.

Nina Subin

POPSUGAR: Let's start at the very beginning. I'd love to hear what made you decide to tackle such an incredibly difficult subject matter, especially during such a complex moment in history.

Meg Wolitzer: You always want to challenge yourself as a writer, of course. But more than that, I think you write about the things you keep thinking about again and again. People always say "write what you know," but I've always felt that it's really more "write what obsesses you." And I realized that there are some things that I kept returning to. Female power — who has it, what does it mean? What about mentors and protégés? Making meaning in the world but also the person you meet who can change your life forever. All of these things were ideas that were kind of percolating in my mind for a long time. And, of course, feminism. As a feminist, that's somewhat of a given in me, but at the same time, a story that could address some of these things just sort of began to reveal itself to me.

PS: To that end, which of the storylines do you think was easiest to write — and which was the hardest?

"Who are these people? How do they want to make meaning in the world? What is it like to be them?"

MW: I don't think I distinguish them in that way. Writing a book that takes place over time, that goes back and forth into different characters' lives, it's always going to be difficult in its own way. But I'll say this: it's not more difficult, but it's more interesting to me to write younger characters as well as older ones because you really have to try to sort of absent yourself and say, "Who are these people? How do they want to make meaning in the world? What is it like to be them?" It is very moving going outside myself and into other characters, so I don't know that one is more difficult than another, but it's all hard.

PS: With the characters, was there one in particular that you felt you related to most? Or were you truly just inhabiting an altogether different world?

MW: I mean, you have to be able to imagine your characters' interior lives or else you can't write them. They have to be human; they have to feel like there's that sense of one's own inner life. I don't know that there's anyone in particular, since I like standing in the middle, age-wise, between Greer, my younger character, and Faith, my older one. I like the vantage point.

I'm a daughter of a writer-mother, Hilma Wolitzer, and she was always incredibly supportive of my work, speaking of older women helping and teaching younger ones. I saw her struggle to become a writer at the same time that second-wave feminism came about. I saw how the women's movement helped her work up the courage to say, "I can do this; I can write freely." I watched that when I was a child, a young person. And when I got older, she was always encouraging to me, and it gave me a kind of energy and self-reliance that I wouldn't have had, I don't think, if I hadn't had a mother like that.

"It's like when you stop at one of those roadside places and they have a machine that you can put a nickel in, and you can see all over the valley; you can turn it around."

As I got older and became a mother myself, I tried to sort of pass that on as well. So I think that the young person wanting to make meaning and an older person wanting to make meaning — having both experiences and looking both ways — it's not that I related to one or the other, but [I] had a vantage point of looking all around. It's like when you stop at one of those roadside places and they have a machine that you can put a nickel in, and you can see all over the valley; you can turn it around. It's kind of like that. I put the nickel in, and I got to turn the viewer in a bunch of directions. So that's how I wrote the book.

PS: What research did you do in order to give these characters such incredible depth, to put all the pieces together in a way that so intricately represents so many different times, so many different feelings?

MW: Listening to people is something that I always want to do. I spent a lot of time listening to people and talking to people, even before I knew I was writing the book about these issues, though this book is landing in a very heightened moment, of course. Obviously, I wrote the book before that became the moment that we're in — most of the book, anyway. But these were things I've been thinking about for a really long time, so it's not like it was just new. I'd been thinking about them for years before knowing I was going to write about them.

I think that that's what often happens, since it also happened with The Interestings. You're marinating ideas about something, and then one day you think, "Right. These are the things I keep returning to. There's something to explore in them."

PS: How are you feeling about the book being released in such a different moment than the one in which you wrote it?

"Somebody said to me, 'We're in a time of so many hot takes,' and I joked that I was the master of the warm take."

MW: It's a novel. And because of that, I don't want to satisfy the 24-hour news cycle, happily. If you ask me a question, realistically, I should get back to you in three years [laughter] because I really give things a lot of thought, which is why I'm a novelist and not writing for a newspaper. I think I really appreciate having the time to go in a very interior direction. Headlines don't allow (or often don't allow) for the nuance that I, as a fiction writer, really crave. Somebody said to me, "We're in a time of so many hot takes," and I joked that I was the master of the warm take. And it's true because, I mean, I just want the time to think it through. I want to go deep with the characters, to ask, "What does it feel like now?"

PS: So was it intentional that the book was set outside of the then-Trump frenzy and now-Trump fatigue?

MW: I wrote most of the book before the election, with an assumption that Hillary would win and the book would be out in a time when we would have a woman leading us, yet even that was sort of in the background. But when at the very end of the book we plunge forward into the dark, into that darker time, that was when I was working on the book still, and I wanted to kind of acknowledge the future a little bit because the idea that feminism — really, any social justice movement — the notion that you'll have a little progress and then maybe a little slippage . . . it isn't necessarily always true. Sometimes the whole thing can be taken out from under you. How do you think about it then? And what happens to my older character, to my younger character in those moments?

"I wanted it to feel like when you go into the book, you're deeply experiencing this book, rather than just thinking, 'This is our society.'

I wanted to give a nod in that direction, but as a whole, the book was written outside of that. I think that I live in a society and in a culture, like all novelists, where I'm not off the grid (I'm on the grid!) but trying to create a world that has a lot of things in common with our world but is also very much its own textured, nuanced world. I wanted it to feel like when you go into the book, you're deeply experiencing this book, rather than just thinking, "This is our society." But, of course, the book does comment on many things from our culture as well.

PS: Yes, I have to ask you about that. At times, it felt a little bit like every character represented a larger issue that we're currently grappling with as a society.

MW: If you make yourself open to your characters, what's important about them and what the dominant ideas are for them start to sort of organically come out — and you follow those trails. I certainly tried to do it that way, rather than sort of having characters stand for something that they might not. The writer Mary Gordon — who was an early teacher of mine and one of the people who taught me so much — she always said to our class, "Write what's important. Only write what's important." And what she meant there, I think, is write what's important to you. And in writing what's important and what you care about, it becomes important to the characters, and what they do on a page also in a kind of micro way seems to come out a little bit. So it's not that I saw them as representing these ideas. But these were the things that we should illustrate how they are in the world, how these people are in the world.

PS: Right, so with Emmett Shrader, in particular, I'd love to hear a bit more about him as a character and as an idea. He feels like a stand-in for the patriarchy, but at the same time he is a sympathetic character in certain ways . . . particularly because of how incredibly misguided he truly seems to be.

"As with most characters and with most people in our lives, as people say on Facebook about their relationships . . . it's complicated, right?"

MW: As with most characters and with most people in our lives, as people say on Facebook about their relationships . . . it's complicated, right? It's complicated because no one is one thing or another. In fact, when I teach writing, sometimes I'll talk about characters and how there's a feeling when you're at home and you want to talk to a friend and you don't know exactly why you want to talk to them. You don't have a particular need to say anything to them, but you want the feeling that you get around them, which is hard to describe. And I feel that way about characters. When a character is successful, there's a feeling being around a character. So you want that. If you're not feeling that, then maybe it's not working.

Emmett is definitely an establishment patriarchal figure, without a doubt. But for me, I just want to know him. I think the theme of this conversation is immersion, really. It's the idea that if you immerse yourself in a world, with a little luck, the most important aspects of things about it will come to the forefront. And once you start looking at people and who they really are, often sympathy will arise, too. Or sometimes rage. I mean, it depends on the character. But I think that as the writer, I'm not writing polemic; I'm not writing a parody. I'm trying to create fully lived-in characters, so they're never all one thing — they're many things. I try to just do that again and again, book after book.

PS: I'm curious about Faith as a character. I liked her a lot more than I liked Greer, and she felt so original and striking and had all these characteristics that we all know and understand but don't typically see put together. So I was curious to know why you decided to make her fail, in the larger sense, by having these big ideas and not really being able to take it to the next level — and whether you felt, in retrospect, that it came across as something of an analogy to Hillary Clinton. It's how I read her, frankly, in many ways.

MW: Again, I just tried to really know her. I mean, I certainly would never want to have her do things, to succeed or fail, just because I was making only a larger point. I couldn't do that. I wanted to know her; she's poignant to me because she comes from a very different time than the younger characters. She's not perfect, but she struck me as, you know . . . she's kind in the way she reaches out to this younger woman and to other young people. And she's more genuine in that forum and more comfortable in that forum than she necessarily is one to one. So, therefore, she's a kind of person with particular qualities that maybe you don't love or even find maddening. But yeah, I mean, with Hillary Clinton, it's certainly true that we've had images of powerful women who can go the distance or not go the distance, seen the intersection of a powerful woman and the impositions of society. To me, that's an interesting topic — but a topic isn't a character. We need to flesh those characters out.

"I want to live in a world where there's a lot of famous feminists. So I have to create one. I have to create more."

Faith grows up during second-wave feminism and is from that time. And therefore she learned about the world in a different time from the younger characters. So she's going to be different. Her perspective is one that, as a student of feminism, I certainly was like, "Yes, I know this part. I know where this part comes from, and I can't wait to see what others — who maybe don't have that sort of education — if it sparks a new understanding of that time and place, which I think people have looked over for quite a while now."

It's moving to look at the history of feminism, the fights that were fought, the mistakes that were made — it's moving, and a lot of other things. But Faith is not Hillary. But, look, I want to live in a world where — and I've said this to friends and said it before — I want to live in a world where there's a lot of famous feminists. So I have to create one. I have to create more.

PS: More people who, even if they are flawed, give back to a younger generation and teach them what they wish they knew at certain points in their lives — the mistakes they made — and tell the story they have to tell.

MW: Yeah, because I think that the mentor story — I haven't seen it represented or spoken about that frequently in fiction. Is there a kind of positive story that we're not hearing? Even though it's complicated and they fall apart at some point, so many women I know have an older woman — at least one — who at a pivotal moment gave them something, and they think about that a lot. I wanted to capture that, and Faith seemed like somebody . . . as I thought about that character, she just sort of got filled out for me. In my own life, those relationships are still so powerful to me. They are so important to me. That, again, is something that I was thinking about anyway for a long time.

PS: It's hard in this moment in time, specifically, to be a young woman trying to grow up, trying to learn lessons. Who do you turn to, and how do you speak your mind without being lumped in with 50 other people who maybe don't have the same views? I think it all becomes a much bigger question, and I think — I hope — it will ultimately lead to a new wave of feminism.

MW: I mean, I have the very young character at the end, Kay, the babysitter — she sort of stands for the future . . . going into a moment we don't know yet, a moment we don't understand, filled with all the feelings that a young woman would have. And I like imagining that.

PS: From your perspective — and I know this is a very complicated question — what does the next wave of feminism look like?

"We're in a moment right now where we're all watching, listening, speaking, learning, [and] feeling surprised at the speed at which things have picked up."

MW: I mean, while the media definitely is interested in the frictions between generations — which is real and there — I think that, generationally, women want so many of the same things. And intergenerationally, certainly, that will continue. Imagining equality, fighting for it. Continuing that fight, broadening that fight. A lot of the things are going to just be continued, and maybe the fight will take different forms. Who knows? We're in a moment right now where we're all watching, listening, speaking, learning, [and] feeling surprised at the speed at which things have picked up. But I couldn't possibly say that I know where it will go.

PS: But where would you hope it would go?

MW: Well, equality is the word that one comes back to. Equality. That's what it's all about.