Portrait

Talking The Wife, The Female Persuasion and the female gaze with novelist Meg Wolitzer. By Kirsten Krauth.

Author Meg Wolitzer

As American novelist Meg Wolitzer winds her way into the dingy heart of Sydney’s Carriageworks – a maze of open staircases, exposed metal beams and factory floor – the building seems a far cry from the glamorous life she portrays in The Wife, her novel about an award-winning and feted fiction writer and his wife, an unassuming woman in public, at least. Glenn Close’s magnificent performance, nominated for an Oscar, drew international attention to the film and the novel. But it’s Wolitzer’s latest book, The Female Persuasion, that has brought her to Australia. It was written before the Me Too movement came to light, but it embodies the “where are we at” and “where have we come from” discussions bringing to the forefront all aspects of feminism.

Wolitzer is light on her feet with a sharp and well-honed humour. Her early novel This Is Your Life, about a stand-up comedian and her two daughters, was adapted for the screen by Nora Ephron in her directorial debut. Ephron became a mentor, earning a dedication in The Female Persuasion, which focuses on female friendship and the complexities of the mentoring relationship.

“Nora was very inclusive,” Wolitzer says. “She said ‘come along and be part of it’, and we went to comedy clubs.” But when I suggest that Wolitzer’s novels – like Ephron’s films – have great comic timing, she is ambivalent. “I would never try to attempt comic flourishes. I think novels are not like – ‘insert joke here’. If something comes up and it’s arising innately from the material... it’s a humour that comes out of character, how people live.”

Wolitzer says another crucial mentor was Hilma Wolitzer, her mother, now 89, who also writes novels. Hilma’s name comes up often in our conversation and I wonder whether this relationship influenced the writing of The Wife, whether the novel spoke to the idea of the successful male writer who stomps on others’ dreams. Watching her mother’s writing career had a profound impact on Wolitzer: “I had seen some of the experiences that she had when her first novel was published. A review said something like, ‘Housewife turns into novelist’, and it seemed condescending.” She took note and filed it away for future reference. “You could see a certain heat and excitement around the big male writers, the Updikes and Norman Mailers; there was a feeling about it, a gravitas around them.”

In The Female Persuasion, there is a sense of frustration that advancements raised in the ’60s and ’70s by the character Faith Frank – cheap childcare, safe abortions – are still being fought for. While the book carries feminist themes, Wolitzer doesn’t see her role as being to spur people to action.

“The beauty of fiction is that people take their whole histories into reading a book, and you can’t control what they think, what they like, what they don’t like, what they respond to,” she says. “They might like something because they had an experience like it, or they might hate a character because it’s frightening to them because of something that happened. So, it’s a conversation that you are not really privy to.” But she believes fiction still remains crucial, “particularly in this world of nonfiction and our anxieties”. She argues for a slow pace to really explore ideas. “But what people will do with it – it’s up to them.”

One of the most powerful scenes in The Female Persuasion is a televised debate between Faith Frank and Holt Rayburn, reminiscent of Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer’s standoff – which is on YouTube – where Faith bypasses the host and Rayburn, speaking directly to camera. In Faith’s world, this is a radical act.

All of Wolitzer’s novels seem to reflect on the female gaze. “Yeah, I’ve never not thought of it that way. I’m interested in writing about women,” she says. “I write about men too, but so many of the books I’ve read and loved really examined women in so many ways, Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison … that female gaze is compelling.”

Wolitzer also explores the notion of public and private selves, and finding the courage to speak up. Any parent these days will know the term “inside voice”, a plea with the kids to keep it down inside the house. In The Female Persuasion, Wolitzer playfully turns the notion on its head, speaking of women embracing their “outside voices”. For Wolitzer – and her characters – this notion centres on speaking her mind without being afraid of repercussions, and it’s as much about fiction as about being in the world.

“You know how on television shows, sometimes they’ll have a seven-second delay if someone’s being interviewed? It’s not worrying about the seven-second delay,” she says. “You go on and you really try to be honest, to get at something. It’s not private. It’s not just between you and a friend. It could go on Twitter, it could go anywhere, and it’s a voice that becomes in the world, especially now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Leap of Faith". Subscribe here.

Kirsten Krauth
is a writer and editor. Her novel Almost a Mirror, shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize, will be published by Transit Lounge in 2020.