By Joe Tash
“The Interestings” is a novel about many things — jealousy, envy, talent and its pursuit, love, loyalty, secrets and lies. And over a period of more than 30 years, the reader watches the main characters grapple with these elements of their lives as they grow into themselves.
New York writer Meg Wolitzer’s novel came out in 2013, published by Riverhead Books. “This is my first ‘hah’ epic,” she said, although she has previously written eight books, including “The Uncoupling,” “The Wife” and “The Ten-Year Nap,.”
In her newest work, Wolitzer, the featured speaker at the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society luncheon on Feb. 20 at The Grand Del Mar Resort, tells the story of a group of teenagers who meet at an arts-themed summer camp in the 1970s. Over the next decades, Wolitzer follows the friends as they marry, pursue careers, have children, and decide what they want to do when they grow up. Some become fabulously wealthy, while others struggle both financially and emotionally.
The author said in an interview that one of the themes she wanted to explore was talent, and what happens to it as we grow older.
“One thing about talent, luck is a big part of it too,” she said. “Did somebody throw some money your way so you could take a few months off to write? Did you know the right people? Connections and money do come into play.”
The camp was important to the characters, said Wolitzer (who attended a similar camp in her teens), because it marked the point when they went out on their own into the world, and began to form their own identities. Young people can relate to the story even if they don’t recognize some of the cultural and political references, such as Richard Nixon’s resignation, because they experienced a similar transformation in their own lives, she said.
“Coming of age is about breaking away from your parents, finding your people, what you want to do,” Wolitzer said. “Finding your talent.”
Finding one’s talent can also be a slippery slope, as Wolitzer portrays in her book. Wolitzer said she was encouraged to pursue writing by her mother, novelist Hilma Wolitzer, but, unfortunately, her mother didn’t receive the same support from her own parents.
The topic comes up in “The Interestings” when Ash Wolf, a theater director and one of the main characters, participates in a question-and-answer session following a performance. A woman asks if she should encourage her daughter to study directing in graduate school, or to find a more practical career path.
“Well, if she’s thinking about going into directing, she has to really, really want it. That’s the first thing. Because if she doesn’t, then there’s no point in putting herself through all of this, because it’s incredibly hard and dispiriting. But if she does really, really want it, and if she seems to have a talent for it, then I think you should tell her, ‘That’s wonderful.’ Because the truth is, the world will probably whittle your daughter down. But a mother never should,” Ash tells the woman.
Ash’s best friend, Jules, another of the original group from the summer camp, had her own aspirations of becoming a comedic actress, which never came to fruition. Jules, who marries and becomes a therapist, harbors great envy regarding the lives of her wealthy, talented friends, Ash and Ethan.
“People have flaws, this is one of her flaws,” said Wolitzer. “If she never met these friends, her own life would be a lot more agreeable to her. She wouldn’t know what she is missing.”
Jules “can’t see that being a social worker and helping people is a talent. She’s stuck in that original fantasy,” Wolitzer said.
Wolitzer began writing at an early age, dictating stories to her first-grade teacher. She sold her first novel, called “Sleepwalking,” when she was a senior at Brown University. “It was the most exciting day of my life,” she said of being published, and receiving $5,000 for her book.
She lives in New York City with her husband, Richard Panek, also a writer, and the couple’s two sons are in college. Wolitzer said she has started working on a new novel, but didn’t want to discuss the details yet. She tries to find time to write at airports and hotels, as she has been on the road speaking and promoting “The Interestings.”
She said she enjoys the chance to interact with readers.
“It’s moving for writers to meet readers, people who really care about books,” she said. “When people come out in large numbers to hear a writer talk about literature, I think that’s fantastic.”