Take them seriously
Meg Wolitzer is the mentor we’ve always wanted. Since 1982, her novels and short stories have explored friendship, romantic love, sex, money, feminism, family and just about every emotion you can name.
Her 10th novel, The Female Persuasion, is an absorbing story of ideals and ideas, betrayal and loyalty. It’s a tapestry of relationships: parents and children, employers and employees, husbands and wives. But at the novel’s core are the winding paths etched by close friendships. “The maxim is to write what you know,” muses Wolitzer from her New York apartment. “But for me, it’s write about what obsesses you. I am so absorbed by my friendships—they have been the sources of such deep, deep pleasure and meaning in my life, how could I not write about it?”
The star of The Female Persuasion, Greer Kadetsky, is a shy freshman when Faith Frank comes to speak at her college in 2006. Frank has been a pillar of the women’s movement since the 1960s and created the Loci Foundation, a speaker’s forum dedicated to sharing women’s stories. During a chance encounter in a restroom, Greer introduces herself to Frank, who, much to Greer’s surprise, responds warmly. Their encounter sets Greer on a new path, and a few years after graduation, she is offered a job working with Frank. As Greer starts to establish her own voice as a speaker and a writer, she grows distant from her boyfriend and comes face-to-face with her ambitions.
For Greer, working for Frank signifies the first time she’s felt both seen and heard. Like her young protagonist, Wolitzer benefited significantly from adults taking an early interest in her creativity.
“I’ve always looked up to certain older people who knew what they were doing, who I admired,” Wolitzer says. “I don’t think I thought of them as mentors at the moment, but of course they were.”
She found one of her earliest mentors at home: her mother, the novelist Hilma Wolitzer, who encouraged Wolitzer to take chances without worrying about the outcome. With her mother’s support, Wolitzer began writing at a young age.
“I just always wanted to be a writer,” she says. “There was a brief moment when I wanted to be a psychiatrist, but given that my math and science skills were subpar, it probably wasn’t something I should have pursued.”
When she was 12, she sold a story to Kids, a national magazine for young writers. “I even went into their offices in the city to be a guest editor,” she says. “It was so exciting to be taken seriously.”
From grade school through college, she continued to benefit from the positive ways in which women influence and mentor one another. The Female Persuasion is dedicated to a group of such women, one of whom was her English teacher, Mrs. Kidder. “She treated the students with deep intellectual respect,” Wolitzer says. “It turned out later that her son was Tracy Kidder, the [Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction] writer. It is wonderful to see that as she was nurturing her students, she was nurturing a writer right at home.”
In college, Wolitzer studied writing under John Hawkes, John Irving and Mary Gordon. She later encountered writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, who directed an adaptation of Wolitzer’s book This Is Your Life. “Nora invited me into the process,” Wolitzer says. “I went to casting sessions with her, and we went to comedy clubs to hear women comics around the city. I saw the way Nora took such care and love for what she did.”
“Fiction allows you to ask more questions and not have the answer, to . . . move away from the fire of the burning moment.”
Mentorship is not the only hot-button topic in The Female Persuasion, which shines a gentle, probing light on ambition and power—and on the question of when to walk away. But these are not new issues for Wolitzer, whose earlier novels The Wife and The Ten-Year Nap touch on many of the same themes. “I have been struggling with questions about power, gender and misogyny for a very long time, both as a writer and as a person,” she says.
The novel’s opening chapter deals with an assault on a college campus, a topic that feels as if it’s taken from today’s headlines. But as Wolitzer is quick to point out, “A novel is not written in a 24-hour news cycle. It’s more like a three- to five-year news cycle. I was writing, and the world was moving fast. . . . Fiction allows you to ask more questions and not have the answer, to listen to people and move away from the fire of the burning moment.”
Although Wolitzer has focused on women’s lives before, the characters of Faith and Greer offer thoughtful insights into second- and third-wave feminism, and the intersectionality that continues to positively influence the women’s movement today. The introduction of Kay, a skeptical but spirited teenager, at the end of the novel is a reminder that political movements remain meaningful only when allowed to evolve.
When asked if different generations of feminists can learn from one another or are destined to battle it out, Wolitzer chooses to embrace the former vision. “I think the media embellishes the idea of a constant catfight between women. Yes, there are differences, but when I look, I see commonality, overlapping issues and a genuine desire to work for a fairer, more equitable world.”
Wolitzer’s novel acknowledges that people are working together to find unity and fuel change.
“One of the things that I loved about writing this book was that I could stand on my own little rock and look at the world through the eyes of the older generation and the younger generation. . . . I am genuinely moved by people who legitimately want things to be better, even if they are going about it in different ways. I wanted to capture that in my novel no matter what age my characters are.”
This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Author photo by Nina Subin.