Teen years are sort of a “rehearsal” for adulthood, author Meg Wolitzer tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, and that’s particularly true at the performing arts summer camp where her latest novel begins. It’s 1974, and the main character, Jules, a newcomer to the camp, is invited into a circle of 15- and 16-year-olds who nickname themselves — with knowing irony — The Interestings.
The novel follows them through middle age, as Jules continues to see her life as ordinary, while a couple of the friends she made at the camp continue to seem special, lit by the aura that talent and recognition bring. The Interestings — a novel about lifelong friendship tinged with jealousy — comes out in paperback in March.
Wolitzer’s other novels include The Position, about how the lives of four siblings are transformed when they accidentally discover that their parents have written a sex manual; and The Ten-Year Nap, about a group of highly educated working women who gave up their careers to raise their children.
On her own teen summer camp experience
I went to a summer camp … in the summer of 1974 when this book takes place. … I just felt that I came alive seeing these other kids who seemed just so much more articulate than I was and who sort of knew what they wanted to do. Some of them were wonderful actors, there were serious musicians. We listened to music in something called the Charles Ives Room. … It was just thrilling to me. It wasn’t peer pressure, but the idea of wanting to be like that — wanting to make yourself a little bit better, was something that I felt very strongly.
On writing teen dialogue
It’s the kind of way you speak to sort of develop your humor and your irony. You have to develop it, you have to practice with things that aren’t necessarily funny but they sound like they’re in the neighborhood of ironic or witty.
… I used to think that conversations, that dialogue in a novel was like a bouillon concentrate, was sort of meant to suggest a whole conversation, but then I started reading some novels where you were allowed to sort of listen in on a long conversation and I realized that I liked that. I liked seeing the world that those two or three people or four people had with one another, and I felt that I was part of it. And even when they embarrassed themselves, if you knew them and you were allowed in the room, it was bearable. You could let them embarrass themselves a little bit because there was kind of an overarching care on the part of the writer.
On how adolescence is a rehearsal for adulthood
I think that if you are away from adults you can be yourself. Again, it’s that rehearsal idea, trying to sort of find the way that you will be as an adult. And when I think about myself, basically, as a teenager — and I’m embarrassed by some of it, like the strawberry body lotion that my friends gave me that I wore every day and sort of stank up the house with, or calling myself Woodstock [after the Peanuts cartoon bird] or rehearsing plays in a kind of bad voice, or being a little pretentious, or having emotional outbursts, or whatever it was — that’s all a rehearsal for adulthood. And I am different, but of course, it’s in the same shell.
On her mother, writer Hilma Wolitzer, as a writing mentor
She was great. I remember once she told me that something needed work and I promptly burst into tears. I was 38 — no, haha, not true. She was wonderful about it. She liked a lot of what I did and maybe she was positive — more positive than a writing teacher might’ve been — but I think she tried to be honest and it’s difficult when someone doesn’t love something you’ve done. There’s that awkward moment, but I think she tried to sort of help me through those things which is that [out in] the world — there will be moments, there will be people who don’t love what you do, there will be lines that aren’t as good as other lines. You know, I had seen that with her, how hard it is to be a writer.