Meg Wolitzer started writing her new novel years before the #MeToo movement, but you wouldn't know that from the story.
The Female Persuasion centers on two female characters. The first, Greer Kadetsky, is an 18-year-old college freshman. At the beginning of the novel, Greer is assaulted by a guy at a frat party, though she doesn't initially think of it as assault.
The second character, Faith Frank, is a famous feminist in her 60s who has come to give a talk on Greer's campus.
"She's a very inspiring figure," Wolitzer says. "She's someone who's really comfortable talking to women and just sort of stirring them up, and that's exactly what happens when she comes to Greer's college."
Faith and Greer meet at the talk, and the rest of the book charts the relationship that develops between them; the ways they support and betray each other, and the ways they and other women struggle to raise their voices in the world.
Wolitzer tells NPR about what inspired the book, and how filmmaker and author Nora Ephron once played Faith to her Greer.
On how Greer initially reacts to when she's assaulted
She doesn't know what to think it is. She doesn't know what's happened to her, and she's a little embarrassed to try to give it words because she's not sure about what it is. And I think that's a feeling that, looking back on my own childhood, there were moments that something happened, not this, but there was some moment where somebody says something and you say, "Wait a minute. Is that right?"
On her decision to have Greer's assaulter get away with it and continue to mistreat women
We all would love the idea of people getting what's coming to them in books and in life, but sometimes the trajectory is a little more complicated than that. ... He's still out there. ... I don't want to turn him into a cartoon villain. I want him to have done this, you know, really horrible thing in the beginning of the book ... and [get] away with it and [march] through the world in a way that some men have been allowed to do. But he's still there. ... I think what we remember of the books we love isn't so much plot, but character. To me, he's a figure I know and he was always lurking around the edges of my mind.
On what inspired her to write this book when she did
I sometimes feel as if ideas for a novel kind of pop up like numbers in a bingo tumbler, and then they're ready to go. ... When I think back on myself as a young woman, or even a young girl like Greer, I was sort of hot-faced and ... I was not fully able to say the things I wanted to say, but I was full of things that I did want to say. And I was helped by a number of older women who were very generous to me, and I think it was a really useful thing. And as I reflected on that, that number popped up in that bingo tumbler and I felt like I had had enough time thinking about it that I now could, you know, put some of these ideas into a novel and into the minds and mouths of characters.
On why she chose to write a novel about two women from two different generations
I'm really interested in women of different generations. ... I think there is no one female experience.
When I was in junior high school, friends and I were in a consciousness raising group, a term that now seems quaint like a butter churn, but it was very powerful. It was a really wonderful experience. And we wrote away to the National Organization for Women asking for a list of topics, and they sent us like a brochure that had topics in it like "sexual fulfillment and you," when we really wanted "when your parents won't listen." You know, we were very innocent.
And then as I got older, being helped by older women myself and then finally being in a situation where I'm the older woman to younger ones — like, wait a minute. You see things from a lot of different vantage points, and I think one of the great things that a novel can do is show in different ways what is it like. ... What is it like being female in this moment?
On how Nora Ephron helped Wolitzer in the same way Faith helps Greer
Nora Ephron became someone tremendously important to me. ... I had written a novel that was published as the title This Is Your Life, and Nora Ephron and her sister, Delia Ephron, wanted to write a screenplay based on it, and it was called This Is My Life, because of the rights. And it was the first film that Nora directed. So she was a screenwriter and a writer, a wonderful essayist, and had written Heartburn, the novel, and she invited me into the process in a very generous way. ... And then after that, the friendship lasted. And when I had a new novel, I always wanted her to see it because she's someone whose taste I trusted and whose enthusiasm meant so much.
And I'm not the only one. After she died ... women spoke about how she would invite them to lunch to talk about their work. And I think being seen, something that it does is it makes you able to see yourself in a new way that you might have perhaps been a little afraid to do or embarrassed to do sometimes.
Justine Kenin and Becky Sullivan produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The very first page of Meg Wolitzer's new book describes a chance meeting between two women. One is very young, 18, a freshman on a college campus where the other, who's in her 60s, a famous feminist, has come to give a talk. The book charts the relationship - you couldn't quite call it a friendship - that develops between these two, the ways that they support and betray each other and the ways they and other women struggle to raise their voices in the world.
"The Female Persuasion" is Meg Wolitzer's twelth adult novel, and she joins me now. Welcome to the program.
MEG WOLITZER: Thank you.
KELLY: So talk about timing, Meg Wolitzer. What has it been like to launch a book about raising female voices and female empowerment in the middle of this #MeToo movement?
WOLITZER: Well, the thing is of course it's not as if I wrote this book over a period of weeks, you know? I would have to have, like, just sort of basically, like, the minute #MeToo started sort of, like, hired a roomful of Meg Wolitzers, and we all would have worked together to get this book out. But in fact...
KELLY: (Laughter) A publisher's dream but not a novelist's perhaps, yeah.
WOLITZER: Exactly, exactly - no cloning myself. But in fact these are issues of female power, misogyny in the world, how do you make meaning out of your life that I've been thinking about forever and in fact been writing about forever. And everyone has been thinking about them forever.
KELLY: That said, it is awfully timely. And I want to ask about a scene near the very start of the book. It is an ugly scene in which one of your two central characters - this is the younger woman, the 18-year-old Greer Kadetsky - she's assaulted at a frat party. She is drunk. The guy in question is drunk. They've just met, and he corners her. Would you read us this scene? This is page 15.
WOLITZER: Sure. (Reading) He reached out in a proprietary way and rubbed the color of her shirt between his fingers, and she was startled and didn't know what to do because this wasn't right. His other hand ran experimentally up her shirt, and Greer stood in shocked suspension for a moment as he found the convexity of her breast and circled it, all the while looking her in the eye - not blinking, just looking.
(Reading) She jerked back from him and said, what are you doing? But he held on, giving her breast a hard and painful squeeze, twisting the flesh. When she pulled away for real, he took her wrist and yanked her close, saying, what do you mean, what am I doing? Let go, she said. But he didn't.
KELLY: I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck going up as you read that. And I think part of what makes it so creepy is that your character Greer doesn't in that moment recognize it as assault. It's not rape. It's this gray area that women are so familiar with.
WOLITZER: Yeah. She doesn't know what's happened to her, and she's a little embarrassed to try to give it words because she's not sure about what it is. And I think that's a feeling that - looking back on my own childhood, there were moments that, like, something happened - not this, but, you know, there was some moment maybe where somebody says something, and you say, wait a minute; is that right?
KELLY: Now, enter from stage left your other main character, Faith Frank, the older, established, famous feminist of a different generation. And now she's struggling to stay relevant in the current...
KELLY: ...Feminist movement. What were you exploring with her character?
WOLITZER: I think there is no one female experience, but I remember as a child, my mother, Hilma Wolitzer, who is a novelist, hadn't gone to college. Her parents didn't think it was really important. But she was very encouraged by other women and became a novelist, really helped by the women's movement. And I watched that happen.
In fact when I was in junior high school, friends and I were in a consciousness-raising group, a term that now seems quaint like a butter churn. We wrote away to the National Organization for Women asking for a list of topics, and they sent us, like, a brochure that had topics in it like sexual fulfillment and you when we really wanted when your parents won't listen.
WOLITZER: You know, we were innocent. We were very innocent. And then as...
WOLITZER: ...I got older, being helped by older women myself and then finally being in a situation where I'm the older woman to younger ones - like, wait a minute; you see things from a lot of different vantage points. And I think one of the great things that a novel can do is show in different ways, what is it like? What is it like being female in this moment?
KELLY: Meg Wolitzer, we're talking about feminism and how the way women move through the world has changed so much generation to generation. And I wonder, you know, as you were writing these two central female characters, one who at the beginning of the book is still a teenager, one who is in her 60s, did you find yourself identifying with one of them more than the other? Did you have to dig deeper writing one or the other?
WOLITZER: No. I mean, I think that you have to get some of the facts right. And talking to younger women - sometimes when I'd call my editor and her assistant would answer, I'd say, like, before you patch me through, when you were in college - you know, you kind of want to get all the...
WOLITZER: What kind of a feminist were you? OK, great, thank you. But to write a novel that, you know, predates this moment and is trying to look at these different characters, I feel great compassion for both the younger ones but also the older one who is older than me - significantly older than me. And she is someone who the world, you know, occasionally sort of says, you're over the hill - your kind of way of seeing the world. What I look to do...
KELLY: I think that's what I found so interesting about about the Faith character - is this is a woman who had - she had found her voice. She had it. She had it going on, and she'd had it going on for decades.
KELLY: And then it's this experience that older women sometimes describe, a feeling like they are less heard as they age...
WOLITZER: Absolutely. You hear it in terms of...
KELLY: ...An experience that a lot of men don't relate to.
WOLITZER: Hearing or invisibility, certain kinds of issues like that - and she had been an editor of Bloomer magazine, which is a couple of steps down from Ms., and invented...
KELLY: It's a fiction magazine, right?
WOLITZER: Fictional magazine, yes. Don't try looking for the archive. It does not exist. And the idea of the world changing this way is bewildering to her, and yet she keeps going. And she's a very inspiring figure. She's someone who's really comfortable talking to women and just sort of stirring them up. And that's exactly what happens when she comes to Greer's college at the beginning. And women, even those who, you know, said, I don't call myself a feminist - some of them are really moved by what she has to say.
KELLY: One last thing - the guy who assaults Greer at that frat party, who feels her up...
KELLY: He kind of never makes another real appearance in the novel, but he's always lurking there in the back of Greer and her friends' minds. And he doesn't ever get what's coming to him. Why write it that way.
WOLITZER: Well, we all would love the idea of people getting what's coming to them in books and in life, but sometimes the trajectory is a little more complicated than that. He's still out there. These guys are still out there. There is that sense of, you know, something unfinished. And I think we are in the middle of a moment where a lot is happening, and so much is unfinished. I don't want to turn him into a cartoon villain. I want him to have done this, you know, really horrible thing in the beginning of the book, this sort of sense of himself assaulting these women and getting away with it and marching through the world in a way that some men have been allowed to do.
But there is an awareness at the end of the book about his presence and his sort of, you know, morphing into this new, older person at the end of the book. I like following characters. They aren't always predictable. They shouldn't always be predictable because at the end of the day, what I love to do is write a novel. And I think what we remember of the books we love isn't so much plot but character.
KELLY: Meg Wolitzer, thank you so much.
WOLITZER: Thanks for having me.
KELLY: Meg Wolitzer talking about her new novel, "The Female Persuasion." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.