PW: What inspired you to write about the star-crossed lovers in your 16th novel, The Third Child?
Marge Piercy: I was eating in Georgetown, and there was a mother and daughter—the mother was very elegant—and she was berating her daughter for the way she was dressed in a deadly tone, and that stuck in my mind. Also, someone I know who comes from a well-to-do family and has never felt good enough, and then [there's] Romeo and Juliet. I always like playing with literary precedents.
PW: Your "Juliet" is the emotionally neglected Melissa Dickinson, daughter of Dick Dickinson, a prominent politician, who falls in love with Blake Ackerman, the adopted, mixed-race son of one of Dickinson's adversaries. Why did you choose Melissa as the single narrator?
MP: Because if you told it from the standpoint of Blake, he knows who he is, so things don't gradually unfold. If you're in the viewpoint character, you can't legitimately withhold the information. In most of my novels I use multiple viewpoints. [But in this book,] I preferred to be in Melissa's viewpoint, a little behind her.
PW: Was it difficult getting into the mindset of a 19-year-old?
MP: It took a little while. I'm on college campuses a lot, giving readings and workshops. I went to Wesleyan, spent some time there, just talking to students, to get a notion as to how things are now. The dating scene is entirely different. It seems like there's very little in-between. You're either with somebody or it's meaningless.
PW: What influenced the chilling characterizations of Melissa's power-obsessed mother, Rosemary, and Alison, her devoted assistant?
MP: One of the things that interests me as a feminist is how some women totally subsume themselves. They don't give up power. They don't give up getting their way. Rosemary's basically a very traditional woman with modern needs. [She and Alison] are women who only act through other people, but they act in their own way with tremendous power through the other people they serve.
PW: How long did it take to write this book?
MP: Two years. I've used Philadelphia in previous novels and will probably use it again. Washington, who knows? The novel I'm writing at present is set in the 19th century shortly after the Civil War and most of it occurs in New York City. I never do sequels. When I finish a book, I go on to something else.
PW: Does your poetry ever feed your novels' development?
MP: They don't really feed each other. Mostly the poetry comes out of my life or the people around me in a very direct way. Writing novels is a way of entering very different characters from yourself and looking at the world through their eyes.
PW: How do politics affect the construction of your novels?
MP: All fiction has a political dimension because fiction embodies attitudes that the writer has about what's male and what's female and what ought to be; what is permissible to do with other people; who are the good people; who are the bad people; who deserves to win and lose; what does living mean; what does losing mean; who is it permissible to make fun of? These are all attitudes that are built into every piece of fiction. All fiction contains political ideas.
PW: Are political issues as important to you as they were when you first began writing?
MP: Yes, because you see society being torn apart. You see people's lives being undermined. What's going on upsets me a great deal.