Today's interviewee is the author of many novels, most recently the critically acclaimed, bestselling story of a group of summer camp friends who grow up and face their various levels of achievement and failure called The Interestings, (which recently just came out in paperback.) She's also the author of The Ten-Year Nap, about women who abandoned their careers in favor of full-time motherhood, and The Position, which follows the authors--and their children children--of a bestselling sex manual 30 years after its publication. A fiction teacher, she also wrote this thought-provoking piece for the New York Times in 2012 on gender roles in fiction-writing and why men's work is more frequently labeled "literary fiction" than women's. You can see if she's coming to read at a bookstore near you here.
In an interview with with Roxane Gay you talk about your interest in "returns" (like when Jules and Dennis go back to their old summer camp in The Interestings). What was the most recent real life "return" you've had, and what was the experience like?
A couple of summers ago, my son attended a high school summer program at my alma mater. Taking him there, and unloading the car and carrying his lamp up a few flights of stairs, etcetera, was a little disorienting to me. It felt strange not to be the one whose lamp was being carried, but it was also a relief, too; I was done with the "firsts" that come with the territory, and after a strange dislocation and a proverbial pang I was happy to acknowledge this and return to the middle, not the start, of my life.
You published your first novel Sleepwalking while still an undergraduate, but you told your editor for Slate, "I have the sense that even though I started young, I began to mature late." For you as a writer, what is the benefit of "maturing" versus "aging"? Because sometimes I can't get over the feeling that both in fiction and in the real world, getting older is inherently sad, which is a depressing construct.
Maybe with "maturing," you can feel a little powerful through your new awareness; with "aging" the operative experience is diminishment. Neither sensation is entirely real, because both depend on certain fantasies about yourself and your place in the world.
At what point while writing The Interestings did it occur to you that this would be a book where people would discuss its role as literary fiction versus "women's fiction"?
When I was writing it, I was very engaged in the writing and the technical issues and all the endless stuff I needed to do, so I objectified the book surprisingly little.
On average, have you received different input on the book from your male versus female readers?
It's hard to say if there's a general difference in their reactions. Though I have definitely heard from more men with this book than with any of my others.
How cognizant of other people's work are you when you write? I know I waffle between feeling inspired by good and related writing but also thinking "Well my work is just going to be inferior or derivative so why even bother."
Sometimes when I'm writing I feel as if I need to read something great. It's sort of like the way people used to talk about enriching "iron-poor blood." It's as if I think my own "blood" needs some enriching, and maybe, through some very subtle act of supplementation, I can get a dose of those good qualities into my work without there being even a trace of the derivative. I think, though, what I really want, in those moments, is to be in the presence of a writer being excited at his or her work; a writer sort of thundering ahead.
Since you've been publishing consistently from an early age, you must have real-life friends who are a little bit like Jules from The Interestings: how do you respond when you're interacting with a friend who confesses envy or frustration that his own creative ambitions didn't go the way he'd hoped?
My first editor always said, "Writing is not a horse race." And that's true. But people's careers do percolate and change (or stall) at different rates, and this can be unfair, and sometimes very painful. Rather than giving a big and perhaps fake pep talk, I think the best thing a friend can do for another friend is mostly listen well.
What do you do when it's time to write and you've either got nothing or you just don't feel like doing it?
Well, if that's the way I feel, then I don't actually think it's time to write.
What have you learned about writing from teaching it?
My first writing teacher, the novelist Mary Gordon, told our class to only write about what's important. There's an implied parenthetical in there: Write about what's important (to you). I often repeat this to students when I'm teaching, and I really feel how true it is. I would even extend it a little: write about what preoccupies you and obsesses you. Don't be afraid of those things. Fiction writing has to have an imperative. In saying these pretty basic ideas aloud, I do remember them myself.
I'm curious about your "80-page rule" when it comes to deciding when to pursue a writing project, because my computer is a graveyard of projects I wish I had been smart enough to just cut bait on. How do you know when it's time to quit--and how full is your writing cemetery?
I did start writing a novel years ago based on Freud's Dora, and I traveled to Vienna, and also wrote a few chapters, at which point I felt constrained by what seemed to be the parameters of her voice. And when I put aside the book, I immediately began writing what would turn into my novel The Wife, which is told in a fierce, funny (people say) first-person. I suppose The Wife was a reaction to the constraints of the Dora book--constraints that ended up being useful. So perhaps the interesting thing isn't really the book you put aside; it's the book you subsequently write. I don't have too many false starts on my computer, though I do have plenty of notes for lines, passages, thoughts about something I would like to work through in a novel sometime. Sometimes a writer works and works on a manuscript, and it eventually becomes a burden. At which point he or she keeps dragging it along joylessly, as if there are no other choices available. I guess I would say that if, over a period of months, there are no moments of excitement, no moments of feverishness engagement, it may indeed be time to set it aside, at least for now.
I read that you snack while you write; what do you most frequently snack on?
Nuts, chips, crap; also, I drink large quantities of Ito En iced green white tea.
What vocational paths do your sons seem to be pursuing at this point? How much influence did your and your husband's careers seem to have on their interests?
They are interested, respectively, in politics and music; though of course they are young, and we shall see what they end up doing with their lives. They grew up in a household in which their parents were always in the middle of writing a book, and so the environment could feel very project-based. Something was always being started, and something else being finished. A parents would be sitting bleary-eyed with manuscript pages, x-ing things out. More than anything, I guess, they saw two parents who were very absorbed by their interests and by their work, which of course is what we wish for them.
How does it feel to be the 381st person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Well, if you must know, I was angling for 382, but so be it...