Author Interviews
4:52 am
Sun April 7, 2013

'The Interestings': An Epic, Post-Summer Camp Coming-Of-Age

Originally published on Sun April 7, 2013 9:08 am

Meg Wolitzer's new novel is an epic exploration of friendship, coming-of-age, talent and success. The Interestings follows six artistic friends who meet as teenagers one pivotal summer at a camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods. Over the next 40 years, they grow up to find some of their talents developing into grand success, while others don't.

Wolitzer joins NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about the convergence of talent and luck, envy-inducing gremlins and her own experiences at summer camp.


Interview Highlights

On Jules, one of the six friends, and why she doesn't pursue her artistic dream

"She is a girl from the suburbs who has been plopped in the middle of this camp and doesn't really have a sense of herself yet. And when she gets there, she meets these other teenagers who seem, to her, so sophisticated. She describes them as being like 'French movie stars, with a touch of something papal.' They are so beyond anything that she's experienced in her life before. They're all from New York City and she falls in [with] them and feels as if she's discovering life.

"She's one of those kids — and I was one of those kids, so I feel that I have a little right to know something about it — who have a kind of small amount of talent in this field, acting. They're good in the plays they put their heart into it, but they probably can't make a full life out of it. And I've always felt, really looking back on the passions that people have when they're young: of course they should be supported in a huge way and not really have to dwell on will [it] become a full career. But for her [Jules], acting is a kind of way into feeling, is a kind of way into personhood, into being who she ultimately will be."

On Ethan and Ash, the most successful of the friends

"Ethan Figman is the creative genius of this novel. He's one of those kids who just has a kind of brilliance that's there and is nurtured in his childhood. It's the kind of talent that you can't give or teach to anyone. He just sort of has it. And he's an animator and he becomes a huge star. He becomes richer than, you know, anybody ever imagined. And his wife is a very beautiful, lovely best friend of Jules. Her name is Ash. She's a theater director when she becomes an adult and she has a kind of subtler talent. So maybe if you know someone who always was very, very good and serious at what they did, but it wasn't that kind of popping out of your guts, amazing talent that Ethan has.

"I guess I felt, when I was writing this novel, that talent is this sort of interesting, strange, 'slippery' thing, as a character describes it in my novel. Are you talented if there's no product to go with it? If you don't become really big? Are you still the same artist that you would've been if nobody recognized you? All those questions are very much present."

On the importance of luck and family connections

"[Success] is so much about luck — that's the real thing — or it's often about class. I mean, if you were born into a family with connections, that is huge.

"[Jules] doesn't [have family connections]. And she doesn't understand that in the beginning when she thought that they all started out the same and that their lives would have a trajectory in sort of lockstep — like the Rockettes, going off into the world kicking at the same pace. ... When my friends and I first moved to the city, everybody lived in these junky little apartments and we all had takeout from Chinese restaurants and we all just sort of lived the same semi-marginal lives. But as time went on, and this is true in this novel, certain things could somehow take effect. Like if you were an artist, instead of getting a job as a paralegal, maybe your parents would give you money and you could go off and rent the cottage of a friend in Maine and you could really write a novel there. Whatever it was, she didn't understand that that was going to happen. She thought it was all even and it was all fair, and of course nothing's even and nothing's fair."

On Jules' struggle with envy for Ethan and Ash

"I was really interested in the subject of envy. But not that kind of big, overt envy, but instead the kind of quiet envy that you might feel for people you really love. She doesn't have — Jules — a big, big talent. So she becomes a therapist. She actually is pretty good at it and her patients love her. But then she looks over and over there in the distance are Ash and Ethan and they are living a life that she always thought was possible for her. So, can you enjoy your life? Is it enough if you're the therapist married to the really nice husband? What's enough to do with your talent and your brain?

"If [Ash and Ethan] weren't there, she would be, probably, much more content with her life. She would think it was great. But the fact that they're there — they're like little gremlins saying, 'You haven't achieved what you should have.' But you know, the thing is, almost nobody really gets to live the way they were told or had a dream about living when they were very, very young. Going the distance in it, you know, so that you become the best finger-painter in the world as an adult — or whatever it was you did as a child — is so, so rare. I think this kind of summer camp they go to changes their lives, but it may not necessarily be changing their lives so that they become actually the thing that they wanted to be. Of course there's going to be a downslope because lives do get smaller. It's like your life gets put through a funnel, and you see what remains."

On Wolitzer's own experience at a camp

"It really had the same impact [as Spirit-in-the-Woods]. I went to this camp in Stockbridge, Mass., and I, for the first time, was taken seriously and started to think about the world and become probably a little pretentious. You know, I walked around carrying novels with the titles facing out so everyone would see what I was reading. I positioned myself on stone walls with a journal — a quilted journal.

"I made wonderful friends and that, actually, is as much a part of it as anything else. My closest friend is someone I met that summer in 1974. And my closest friend sort of talked about the world in a way that, you know, none of my friends back in my suburb did. And I began to be a little different and to sort of think of myself differently. And at the end of the summer, you know, going back home, as in my novel, it was like a tragic thing. My parents showed up in their Rambler and took me away and I felt like I was being kidnapped. Like, 'Why are you making me live in that house?' Of course, I had great parents who had a house full of books, but something had been lit in me that never got unlit again."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Take a minute and go back in time to yourself as a 15-, 16-year-old. What was your thing? The special talent you were known for? Maybe you played Hamlet in the school play or maybe you drew cool cartoons. Maybe you had a killer three-point shot or spent hours holed up in a practice room with your cello. That talent may have defined you as a teenager, but odds are that talent has become something else over time - just one piece of an adult identity. Author Meg Wolitzer's new book, called "The Interestings," explores that journey for six friends. It begins in the summer of 1974 when they meet as teenagers at a summer camp. The story follows their lives over the next 40 years - through college, marriage, children, through success, disappointment and unmet expectations. Meg Wolitzer joined us from our bureau in New York and I asked her to describe the main character, Jules Jacobsen, and her first impression of the artsy summer camp called Spirit in the Woods.

MEG WOLITZER: She is a girl from the suburbs who has been plopped in the middle of this camp and doesn't really have a sense of herself yet. And when she gets there, she meets these other teenagers who seem to her so sophisticated, like, she describes them as being like French movie stars with a touch of something papal. They are so beyond anything that she's experienced in her life before. They're all from New York City and she falls in with them and feels as if she's discovering life.

MARTIN: Of course, camp eventually ends, yet this group of six young people stay close. And all of them have some kind of artistic bent; some of them pursue those talents, others do not. Jules decides not to. Why?

WOLITZER: She's one of those kids - and I was one of those kids, so I feel like I have a little right to know something about it - who have a kind of small amount of talent in this field, acting. They're good in the plays. They put their heart into it. But they probably can't make a full life out of it. But for her, acting is a kind of way into feeling, is a kind of way into being who she ultimately will be.

MARTIN: There are, of course, a couple of people in this group who have wild success, actually. Two characters named Ethan and Ash. What happens to them?

WOLITZER: Ethan Figman is the creative genius of this novel. It's the kind of talent that you can't give or teach to anyone. He just sort of has it. And he's an animator, and he becomes a huge star. He becomes richer than, you know, anybody ever imagined. And his wife is lovely, best friend of Jules. Her name is Ash. She's a theater director. And she has a kind of different talent, a subtler talent. I guess I felt when I was writing this novel that talent is this sort of interesting, strange, slippery thing, as a character describes it in my novel.

MARTIN: You're saying in your book also that talent, or the realization of talent, is also sometimes about luck and circumstance, right?

WOLITZER: It is so much about luck. Or it's often about class. I mean, if you were born into a family with connections and those connections helped grease the wheels, that is huge.

MARTIN: Is that something that affects Jules's destiny? She just doesn't have the same familial connections as the others.

WOLITZER: No, she doesn't, and she doesn't understand. She thought that they all started out the same and that their lives would have a trajectory in sort of lockstep, like the Rockettes going off into the world kicking, you know, at the same pace. But actually, you know, I mean, when my friends and I first moved to the city, everybody lived in these junky little apartments and we all had takeout from Chinese restaurants. But as time went on - and this is true in this novel - certain things could somehow take effect. Like if you were an artist, instead of getting a job, you know, as a paralegal, maybe your parents would give you money and you could go off and you could rent a cottage of a friend in Maine and you could really write a novel there. Whatever it was, she didn't understand that that was going to happen. She thought it was all even and it was all fair, and of course nothing's even and nothing is fair.

MARTIN: On the one hand, she doesn't pursue her talent in comedic acting. She chooses a far more stable, in some ways, career as a therapist. But she's resentful. I mean, through the book, she really grapples with envy.

WOLITZER: I was really interested in the subject of envy. But not that kind of big, overt envy, but instead the kind of quiet envy that you might feel even for people you really love. She doesn't have - Jules - a big, big talent. So, she becomes a therapist, which isn't something she felt she was born to do. She actually is pretty good at it and her patients love her. So, can you enjoy your life? Is it enough if you're the therapist married to the really nice husband and the two of you don't have this big, big splashy life? You know, the thing is almost nobody really gets to live the way they were told or had a dream about living when they were very, very young. You know, the childhood fantasy and taking it and going the distance in it, you know, so that you become the best finger-painter in the world as an adult or whatever it was you did as a child is so, so rare.

MARTIN: I've also read, Meg, that you went to a similar camp, a camp similar to Spirit in the Woods, which you write about.

WOLITZER: Yes.

MARTIN: Did it have the same deep impact on you that that camp did on this particular group of characters?

WOLITZER: It really had the same impact. I went to this camp in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and I, for the first time, was taken seriously and started to think about the world and become probably a little pretentious. You know, I walked around carrying novels with the, you know, with the titles facing out so everyone would see what I was reading. I positioned myself on stone walls with a journal - a quilted journal. You know...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I have no idea what you're talking about.

WOLITZER: No, nothing, not at all. I'm sure you don't. I made wonderful friends and that, actually, is as much a part of it as anything else. My closest friend is someone I met that summer in 1974. And sort of talked about the world in a way that, you know, none of my friends back in my suburb did. And I began to be a little different and to have aspirations that were maybe bigger. Something had been lit in me that never got unlit again.

MARTIN: Has your ambition changed with age?

WOLITZER: Yeah. I mean, I guess it's gotten bigger but probably because of mortality more than anything else. But what you want is writing characters and something that I call imperative, a reason to be. When I'm writing, like, why are you telling me this? I ask myself that, and I ask myself that when I read a book. I didn't used to do that. And, you know, we live in this very, very non-fiction world where people are frightened and anxious about a lot of things and they want to know about the world. It's up to the fiction writer to make the sale that a novel can give you what's true. It can, you know, let you know about how other people live and therefore can create empathy. And it's not like I sit there when I'm writing now and think is this novel creating empathy? I mean, I don't do it that way. But something more has been, you know, put in me. The desire not to be afraid and not care what people think of you in the same way that you maybe do when you're a 25-year-old writer.

MARTIN: Meg Wolitzer. The book is called "The Interestings." She joined us from our bureau in New York. Meg, thanks so much for talking with us.

WOLITZER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.