“A Time of Firsts” — Meg Wolitzer on Her New Novel, The Female Persuasion

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A recent profile on novelist Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times noted that “at a time when our attention is so easily splintered, [Wolitzer] writes big, substantial, old-fashioned books that allow her characters room to breathe, change and grow into adulthood and beyond.” While Wolitzer’s 10th novel, The Female Persuasion, may feel retro in size and scope, read it and you’ll see it delves into themes both timeless and contemporary.

Read more about The Female Persuasion from our Salon@615 media partner, BookPage — “Meg Wolitzer: Take Them Seriously”

In fact, The Female Persuasion will go over equally well with both your book club and your mom’s, because at the center of this coming-of-age story are women representing two generations. Greer Kadetsky arrives at Ryland College, her safety school (her parents screwed up her financial aid application to Yale), without a vision for her future. Then she meets Faith Frank, a Gloria Steinem-esque figure in feminist media who’s speaking at an event on campus. Faith hands Greer her business card, and Greer gets in touch soon after to apply for a job at Faith’s magazine. Over time, Faith becomes Greer’s professional mentor and idol of sorts. Greer keeps Faith in mind not only as she makes job choices, but also as she navigates relationships with her best friend, Zee, and her boyfriend, Cory — asking of even the most personal decisions, “What would Faith Frank have to say about this?”

It’s a novel about many things, but more than anything it’s about Greer’s ambitions — for both professional success and personal fulfillment — and to what degree her friendship with Faith shapes her life’s path. Greer’s story explores questions such as: Do we honor our mentors more by making the same choices they did or by making independent choices of our own? And is honoring our mentors even the point of living?

Parnassus Books is thrilled to welcome Meg Wolitzer to Nashville for an in-store event as part of our Salon@615 series on Thursday, April 19, 2018, at 6:30 p.m. We hope you’ll come join the discussion. To get things rolling, Wolitzer answered a few questions for our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott.

Many years after they first meet, Greer considers writing a letter of thanks to Faith that reads, “You made my head crack open.” Who made your head crack open early in your career, and how so?

20935079_1461905103885034_1606974020190760280_oMW: Nora Ephron was one person who did. She was such an enthusiast, and she had a way of paying attention and really bringing people out. She definitely had an effect on my writing in different, important ways. One way is that her free and sharp humor made me want to explore my own humor more freely and sharply myself; I think I had been somewhat tentative about doing that. To me, getting great encouragement — and laughter– — from this person I admired was a kind of head-cracking experience.

The Female Persuasion starts with Greer in college. People are so malleable as young adults, as we’re leaving home and being exposed to new people and ideas. Is that part of why you’re drawn to that stage of life in your fiction?

MW: Adolescence is a time of “firsts,” and to me it’s always exciting to witness a character confronting experiences for the very first time. I think it’s true that we’re malleable. Big things happen to people at that time in their lives, and because they are not fully set in their ways yet, what happens to them might end up taking them in any direction at all.

On inspiration, Wolitzer says: “I read a great deal, and I am always thinking about the kind of novel I want to write. The idea of a novel as an immersive experience is very important to me. Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels, which explores family trauma over time, was one such reading experience for me. It’s a tremendous achievement.”

There’s a betrayal that happens between Greer and her friend Zee, something Greer carries around with her for years (I don’t want to give too much away here), and I love that it’s not a romantic betrayal. The women in this book have compelling love lives and personal aspirations, but their platonic and professional dramas arguably take center stage. Is that a dynamic you felt was lacking in fiction — and were you writing what you wanted to read more of?

MW: I don’t think I write books to address any kind of general gaps out there in fiction; I mostly just write the books that compel me. I am very interested in friendship as a theme; it has endless variations. And as for the “professional lives” part of it all, ambition is something else that I’ve explored in different ways in my books, and it seems to me to be a tremendously durable topic.

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Looks like actor and producer Nicole Kidman loves The Female Persuasion as much as we do! She just announced she’ll be adapting it for the screen.

This novel would have been timely even if it had come out years ago, but it does have a certain additional relevance now. How do you hope it’s received as part of the cultural conversation around women’s lives?

MW: While I spent a few years writing it, it’s definitely coming out at a heightened moment. As a result, I’ve been having some good conversations about female power, and misogyny, and making meaning in the world. But of course I also love talking about the things a novel in particular does that, say, the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t. The slow, deep dive into a world that a novel gives you. The story, the ideas, and, of course, the characters who populate the story. There’s a great intimacy to novels — writing them, reading them, even talking about them.

Let’s talk about your cultural intake. What books, movies, TV, art, or music do you turn to for . . .

Veep; Fleabag; Patricia Marx; the funny parts of one of my favorite novels, Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

MW: Virginia Woolf; Toni Morrison; Lindy West; Katha Pollitt; Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Kazuo Ishiguro; Vermeer; the Beatles; Billie Holiday

MW: The Scrabble dictionary; Masha Gessen’s work; Adam Phillips’ work; countless books by terrific authors

MW: BBC America; Acorn Media; Charlotte’s Web; All-of-a-Kind Family

And finally: Your favorite thing about indie bookstores?

MW: The excitement about books that everyone who goes into these stores clearly feels. So you always feel like you’re in the right place.

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Ticketing and other details: This free event is presented as part of the Salon@615 series, a partnership among the Nashville Public Library and Foundation, Humanities Tennessee, BookPage, and Parnassus Books. In order to join the signing line after the author’s talk and have any books signed at this event, you must purchase a copy of The Female Persuasion from Parnassus Books either in-store, over the phone, or online at parnassusbooks.net. Your purchase will include a ticket that will serve as your admission into the signing line. As a Salon@615 patron, you’ll receive 10% off!