Acclaimed novelist Meg Wolitzer (The Ten-Year Nap; The Uncoupling) returns to writing fiction for younger readers with The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, a tale of three teens from very different families who find themselves immersed in the world of competitive youth Scrabble.
You’ve written nine books for adults. What made you decide to write a book for younger readers?
I’ve always been drawn to writing for young readers. The books that I read growing up remain in my mind very strongly.
What were some of those books?
Charlotte’s Web, which I read sitting on my mother’s lap, was the most emotional experience: that was when I made the leap from seeing how to untangle words to realizing how books both contain and convey strong feelings. I loved the All of a Kind Family series. I remember the scene where the girls were so poor that they bought broken pieces of cookies. And Sarah, the character I related to most, lost a library book and there was trauma in the family. I was always losing library books. Because my mother was a writer, we were allowed to take out extra books, and I would take out 20 library books at a time.
There was a piece I read once about music, about how the pieces you hear when you’re young you continue to love. The same is true for books you read when you’re coming of age. I think about those books all the time.
Your adult novels chronicle the intimate worlds of family relationships. In Fingertips you explore family quirks and eccentricities from the children’s perspectives. What about the writing experience did you find different — either more challenging or liberating — in writing about families for a younger audience?
I just spent a week going to schools in San Francisco, and the kids are like living needles on some seismograph—you can see how they respond. As a writing teacher I tell students to get it all down, then take a break and make it better. With The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, the first draft was slower, a little more inside voices. I was a little unsure, and I went back and thought, you want the language in any book to be alive, you want to feel the wind at the heels of the characters.
Some of my favorite writing is quiet, but what I learned on the job with this novel is that the yearning of the characters is so important. Like April yearning for the boy she met once, and who she’s always hoping to find again. Kids have to do what their parents say, but they have their own desires that go against the grain. Laura Miller, who writes intelligent book reviews for Salon.com, had a piece this year about looking at novels she loved to see what they have in common, and she found this commonality: somebody wants something, somebody does something. In the kids’ books I loved, that’s true. A Wrinkle in Time—that’s another one. Meg yearns for her father, and then goes to search for him. Wanting and doing. You have to respect the natural antsy-ness of kids, and their real intelligence and depth.
The New York Times recently ran a piece you wrote about your on-line Scrabble playing. Is it safe to say that you love Scrabble? When did you develop a passion for the game and what role does it play in your life now?
I really love Scrabble. I played it with my mother growing up. We took it everywhere with us. We didn’t know then about the two letter words. Who knew that AA, or more controversially, ZA, or QI were words? We were a games family generally.
My being a writer and playing Scrabble are connected. If I have a good writing day, I’ll take a break and play online Scrabble. My favorite word as a child was “carrion,” before I knew what it meant. I later created crossword puzzles, which was a lot about puns, and how words would create these strange, strange things. In recent years I’ve been putting wordplay into books. When I saw that Roast Mules could be anagrammed to make “somersault”: that was a revelation. It’s only a hop and a skip from that to being a writer.
What inspired you to write a novel based on Scrabble?
I went with my son Charlie— “Le Chair” —to a national Scrabble tournament with kids from all over the country, and they just kind of fell in with each other. They all spoke the common language of playing Scrabble; all they needed was a set and a timer, and they played a game and shook hands. I found it to be a thrilling environment.
I always feel when I’m writing that I should only write what interests me, the things I’m thinking about. Some of the stuff I think about is letters and words and puns, and mishearing things, like mondegreens.” Like in “Lucy in the sky with diamonds”… “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” can be misheard as “the girl with colitis goes by.” I like paying attention to the way words can be misunderstood and beautifully twisted around. This is not a book about having to love Scrabble, but kids are responsive to letters and words.
There’s an element of playfulness weaving throughout Fingertips, such as with the chain-smoking advertising executive, and the two men obsessed with a tournament they lost decades earlier. Can you talk about the role of humor and playfulness in your work?
I’ve been called a humorist and I don’t think I really am. Though I’ve done readings where suddenly the whole audience will laugh at something I didn’t realize was funny until I read it aloud. But there is a sense in the novel of the absurdity of everything. Nate’s father lost the same Scrabble tournament Nate’s signed up for, and now he’s homeschooling Nate in Scrabble. And Carl Slater’s mother, with her puffy lips, doing her evil cigarette campaign. The humor comes out of the absurd lack of self-knowledge in some of these characters.
Duncan possesses a special, magical gift in his fingertips that gives him an unfair advantage in the game, and forces him to wrestle with ethical conundrums. What made you decide to bring magic into the story?
In my novel The Uncoupling there’salso a light, fantastical element. It’s a metaphorical thing. In this case I wanted to use the notion that there’s a thing you want, a skill beyond the reach of what people can do. I remember when I was a child wanting to be able to do something no one else could do, that desire to stand out. I liked the idea of giving Duncan a special power, and then seeing how he deals with the ethical situations he encounters.
In their various and idiosyncratic ways, the parents in Fingertips seek to support their children’s passion for Scrabble, though one father inflicts his own passion on his son. Do you have any advice for parents about sharing their own passions, or cultivating their children’s?
If your kids see you really being involved in things, that can’t help but be good. And it’s good when parents who work hard show their kids how challenging it is to work. I was fortunate to be home with my kids when they were young, but I was also always working. Kids want you to be there for them but if you’re not always there, it goes a long way when you can show them the extent of your total immersion in doing what you love. My older son loved baseball so much when he was little that he couldn’t understand that I had no interest. I remember he asked what my favorite team was, and I told him I didn’t have one, so he asked what my second favorite team was. That’s how he saw the world. But he also saw how I ordered the world. I’m married to a science writer [Richard Panek], and we have a foot on the banana-peel kind of existence that the kids have grown up with. I don’t think they want to be writers, but they see us doing what we love.
Your mother, Hilma Wolitzer, also writes novels for adults and young readers. What kind of influence did your mother have on your becoming a writer, and on the type of writing you do?
She had a huge influence on me. She never said, “Maybe you should go to law school.” I remember one woman at a reading said her daughter wanted to be a writer, but she knew how hard it was to make a living that way so she wanted to discourage her. I responded that the world will whittle her down the way the world does—but a mother shouldn’t. My mother was my supplier. My first story was published when I was 11 in Kids Magazine, which my mother discovered, and she encouraged me to send my story in. I could read to her and show her my work.
I also had a wonderful series of teachers and librarians. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Gerby, would invite me up to her desk to dictate stories to her. Looking at those stories now, I really think that’s how I was figuring out the world. Often when you’re writing you’re writing for someone—even if it’s a writer you’ve never met. Then there’s another stage that you stop writing for other people, and that’s equally important. You imitate, you try to decode, but you also get a sense of what you think that outside world is like. That’s also why reading when you’re young is tremendously important. I had a serial short story that I told myself on the way to school every day. I was using the stuff I’d learned from fairy tales, and that’s how you begin to be a writer, when the ideas transfer from those pages into you.
Do you plan to write more books for younger readers? Anything in the works?
I have a two-book contract for Dutton, so I am doing a second book. I’m trying to figure out what it will be. I’ve been in world of boys and boy books, but I was also influenced by troubled girl books, like The Bell Jar, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and My Darling, My Hamburger —powerful, emotional books, about when you’re older and something’s happened that you can’t tell your parents. The next book might be something for a slightly older demographic. Duncan harkens back to books that made me want to be a writer and I enjoyed this so much I might want to stay in this stage too. I don’t really know what I’ll do. I want to write the book I want to read. No matter what age I write for, I think that what matters is that the writer is never writing cynically. I try not to think about audience. When you’re writing, you become the reader.