In 1974, when Meg Wolitzer was 15 years old, she went away to a camp for aspiring young artists. Once that summer was over, Wolitzer never again thought of herself in quite the same way.
Unlike Wolitzer, most of the kids she met came from privileged backgrounds. They attended private schools, lived in apartments overlooking New York's Central Park, and sprinkled their conversations with literary allusions. In their still-forming personalities, irony mixed uneasily with idealism. They had big dreams of one day living a life of the mind.
That experience formed the springboard for "The Interestings," Wolitzer's ninth novel, a meditation on creativity, talent, success and luck. The book — a rare best-seller that also has been critically acclaimed — follows six teens from that first summer camp into middle age.
The 54-year-old Wolitzer, a New York resident, will read from "The Interestings" and discuss the inspiration behind her novel Wednesday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
"I'd been building up to this book for a long time without realizing that that's what I was doing," Wolitzer said over the phone. (The edited conversation appears below.)
"The kids I met at camp struck me as unusually self-possessed and talented and sophisticated in a way that I was not," she said.
"My closest friend to this day is someone I met at camp. I suppose that when I came home at the end of summer, I was a little bit pretentious. But I also was excited, and I began to take myself seriously for the first time."
Unlike some writers, you plot out certain themes you want to develop in your books. Do each of the good friends in "The Interestings" represent a different talent outcome?
Near the end of the book, Ethan goes through the friends and lists the kind of talent that each of them have:
Ethan is the real original, the person who has the one-in-a-million kind of talent that can't be taught.
Ash's talent is smaller than Ethan's. It's more reactive, and she benefits from her social class.
Goodman never gets a chance to develop his talent for a variety of reasons. He's stunted.
Cathy is a gifted dancer, but she has the bad luck to develop a body that makes her feel self-conscious.
And Jonah has musical talent that he feels gets taken away from him. That's a real question for an artist — are you a musician if no one ever gets a chance to hear you?
Does Jules represent a character born without talent? I know she's supposed to be based on you, but you portray her as much less gifted than you clearly were as a teen.
It was important for me to have a big disparity between the two couples. Ethan creates a TV show like "The Simpsons." After he and Ash get married, they live a life that seems magical to Jules.
She has become a social worker, and she is married to an ultrasound technician. She can't appreciate how much she gives to other people. Some of the questions I wanted to ask were: Does everyone have to have talent? What is a good-enough life?
There's a character in the book who is a cruel acting teacher. At one point, she asks Jules: "Does the world really need to see you act?" If you put it that way, almost nobody would ever do anything.
Your narrative switches back and forth between the point of view of three of your four main characters: Jules, Ethan and Jonah. Why don't you ever let the readers get inside Ash's head?
Because I didn't want the book to be fair. The point was not to give all my characters equal time. Jules is my protagonist. In a large sense, the book is about her relationship to Ethan and Ash, her feelings about friendship and talent, and her jealousy that over time becomes difficult for her to manage.