It has been a couple of months since the winter holidays and life seems to have finally calmed down enough for many of us to get back to some serious reading. I have been happily immersed in some very good books. I finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ( which I loved -- more on that later), reread Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, and am now almost finished with The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. This book begins at a summer camp in 1974 and follows six teenagers who remain friends over the next forty years. It is about the moment in life when we meet "our people," the ones we admire and want to be like. It explores the topic of friendship and how it is affected when some of the friends reach a startling level of success and the others do not. This book is excellent and I can't wait to talk about it with my book club on Wednesday night.
In the meantime, I was able to go to a literary event to hear Meg Wolitzer speak. She talked a bit about "The Interestings," but mostly she talked about the writer's life. It was such a wonderful and inspiring talk. Meg Wolitzer happens to be very funny and very smart. Her topic? The creative life of the writer. She was so encouraging to the aspiring writers in the audience. And I think there were many. Because I do believe that in every passionate reader beats the heart of an aspiring writer. We were all ears. Here are some of the highlights of what she said:
She told us she feels so fortunate to make her living as a writer. Writing can seem a bit like an illegitimate life. I have heard other writers say this as well. She grew up in a house filled with books and a mother who was a writer. Her mother's first short story was published in the Saturday Evening Post and Meg reflected about a time when women's magazines were literary.
She talked about what a writer is doing when he or she writes a novel. A novelist is creating an entire world. And that world can be very different from the one that he or she inhabits. It has to be believable. A sense of story is very important for any writer since story is how we all make sense of what happens to us. A narrative gives experience shape and form. We tell about what we see, we shape it, and inevitably we change it in some way. And people seem to respond well if they think the story is true. She asked how writers can be important in this new post 9/11 world. That event created a lot of anxiety in people and a need to make sense of the world. Anxiety creates a need to know and to learn about people who live differently from us. It creates a culture of empathy. This is where the novelist comes in.
She recounted some advice she received from the writer Mary Gordon: Write about what is important to you, what you care about, what preoccupies you, what obsesses you. The books we love are about the things the writer cares about.
She went on to say that the book you write should be about a way of being in the world. The reader should not have to ask "why are you telling me this?" And then she talked about that pesky issue of a writer's voice. Establishing a voice is very important. Think of "voice" as a particular feeling that shines from a friend. Books need this. A novel is a concentrated version of who the writer is; it is a version of that person, but even more so. Meg Wolitzer knows she is humorous by nature and so she keeps humor in her books. Put your sensibility into a book; that is what makes it special.
When she talked about her characters, she talked about the idea of one thing contrasting with another. She said that "Middlemarch" does this very well. The contrast makes the other thing stand out. People are complex. For example, although some people may see a person as funny, that person may see himself as melancholy. Her advice was to keep it all in in your book.
I think most of us left Meg Wolitzer's talk feeling enlightened about her book and also inspired creatively. This doesn't happen all the time, but when it does there is magic in the air. It reminded me of hearing Helen Simonson speak about Major Pettigrew's Last Stand a couple of years ago (read more here). Like Meg Wolitzer she was smart, funny, and inspiring. I remember feeling very motivated to push myself creatively.
By the way, I loved "The Goldfinch." I believe it is one of the best books written in recent years. Apropos of what Meg Wolitzer said about the novelist creating an entire world, Donna Tartt has done this so well. And it is a world with so many layers. I am not surprised that it took her ten years to write. There were passages that moved me to tears, startling and breathtaking events that I never saw coming, and beautiful sections about life and art. I wrote about the book's Dickensian qualities here. Not surprisingly, it is going to be made into a film. I wonder if it is possible to capture this kind of a book in a film. Maybe a mini-series would be better. What do you think?
Please tell me what you are reading right now. And I would love to know if you liked "The Goldfinch."