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.
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.
You don't see yourself as a writer of young adult books, do you? I used to think that was your target audience, because nearly all of your books start out with characters in their teens. But you follow those kids through the decades as they age.
I'm really interested in the adolescent years. Any time of firsts is ripe for exploring. Your feelings are so vivid, and you remember the things that happen to you forever.
I'm in my middle-50s. Maybe we can't change who we are after a certain point. But it may be that for me, when I'm writing a book, I can still be whomever I want behind the covers.
One of your characters, Jonah, is the musically gifted son of a famous folk singer. You're the daughter of a well-known writer, Hilma Wolitzer. Was it hard for you to compete with your mother in her own field?
I received a lot of encouragement at a young age. My mother was very supportive, and when I was in the first grade, my teacher called me up to her desk and invited me to dictate stories that she wrote down. A few years later, I sold a short story to a kids' magazine and became a guest editor and would go into the city and "work" in their offices. I sold my first book when I was a senior in college.
So, no, I don't think my mother's success was a problem for me. Though there's some overlap in our sensibilities without a doubt, the concerns in our stories and our styles are very different. Though my mother is extra-talented and really, really smart, her father didn't think it was important for her to go to college. She's something of an autodidact.
The world I write about, which is filled with arts camps and college, wouldn't be of much interest to her. She's written a lot about marriage, and she does it really, really well.
"The Interestings" is your ninth novel, and it expresses lots of ambivalence about fame and success. How ironic is it that this is the book that made you a literary star?
When a novel catches readers' eyes and has a life, it feels hard-won. We live in a culture where we're saturated with things to do and things to read.
Most books don't get enough attention. Most of the time, sales are disappointing. So writers have to train ourselves to find the whole experience meaningful, even if people don't read our book after we've finished. We have to really feel that there is great value in doing it anyway.
I really loved writing this book so much. I was sad to let it go because I spent all this time with the characters and I cared about them.
But yes, of course, when a long novel about people who don't exist does catch on, it is absolutely exciting and gratifying.