It's rare that a 464-page hardcover—the ultimate literary slow cooker—has the ability to feel as current as a story in the daily news. But writer Meg Wolitzer has managed just that with her eighth novel, The Female Persuasion. It kicks off with a fateful moment: In 2006 college freshman Greer Kadetsky and her roommate go to a speech by celebrated feminist Faith Frank. Faith and Greer then meet-cute in the bathroom, an interaction Greer later realizes is “the thrilling beginning of everything” for her.
Persuasion is ultimately a grand work, with immense insight into the loss of idealism, the formation of identity, and the nuances of being a woman today. “Feminism has always informed my work,” says Wolitzer, 58. “You want your novel to be able to be read without a timeline beside it. But I did have a sobering understanding that what was happening to women in this moment was something I wanted to put in.”
How has your process for writing this novel been influenced by the changes in politics and culture over the past two years? It’s a strange and very rapidly moving time. One of the reasons I write novels is that they’re considered things. So it’s interesting to hold up a novel against a moment that’s changing restlessly. I’m in the world; I see what’s happening in feminism and in politics. And that must affect me in all kinds of ways. But this is not a book that was keyed to the moment. These are ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a really long time: women in power, feminism, mentors and protégées, and, more importantly, the person you meet who sets you on your path. I wanted to write about those things regardless. But the one thing I did was make the last chapter jump into the future. And it acknowledges the election of Trump.
What has your relationship to feminism been like throughout your life? Very close. I started a consciousness-raising group when I was a teenager in school, and we were earnest about what we were doing as we were moving from girls to women. My mother, novelist Hilma Wolitzer, started writing late; she published her first novel at 44. She’s someone whose education was not encouraged by her parents. But she was always really brilliant—she studied fiction as a reader. She was definitely affected by the women’s movement, and she had a lot of success in the ’70s and ’80s. I watched that happen.
That must have been really formative. It was. She was encouraged by the women she knew to write and to put herself out there. I mean, it wasn’t expressly stated that way, but I took that in. There’s a scene in my novel The Interestings that was based on this moment that happened in real life. Someone stood up at one of my readings and said, “My daughter wants to be a playwright, but I know how difficult it is to make it in that world. What should I tell her?” And I said, “Well, is she good?” And this woman said, “Yeah, she’s great, and she really wants to do it.” And I said, “Then you should say, ‘That’s wonderful!’ because the world will whittle your daughter down but a mother never should.” I see that as a feminist idea that you encourage people, you encourage young women. My mother did that for me. She never expressed her worries about the practical side of it. And look, there’s a case to be made for expressing your concerns. But her enthusiasm for her own writing was something I could model for myself. Seeing a mother who was excited by her work and then having her say, “Yes, you can try it too,” was tremendous for me.
Mentorship—and specifically the dangers of putting people on pedestals—comes up with your characters Greer and Faith. Pedestals don’t give you much room to move or dance. And I think that there are certain ways we want to view the world—but part of growing up is being willing to see that you weren’t always right and that people are nuanced. Romanticizing someone is insisting on a certain vision. And it’s limiting. I think when relationships are fluid, that’s when things start to get really interesting.
You wrote a piece for The New York Times in 2012 about why female literary writers aren’t taken as seriously as men. Six years later, have you seen a change? Yes, definitely. One thing that began to happen is that Vida [Women in Literary Arts], the organization that tracks women in publishing, started getting more attention. I think that opened up the conversation. The more you talk about things, the more they have the chance of changing.
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