There are ambitious people, and there are people who define ambition. Meg Wolitzer—whose 10th novel, The Female Persuasion, will be published by Riverhead in April—is in the second category. Her first novel, Sleepwalking (Random House, 1982), was written on a typewriter while she was still an undergraduate. (She graduated from Brown university in 1981.)
A lot has changed since Sleepwalking was published. Back then, “you really could imagine yourself with a high collar, sitting in a leaded glass window,” Wolitzer says, sitting on the couch in her book-filled Upper West Side apartment. “I just gave a presentation at the Mount [Edith Wharton’s home], and we went on a tour and saw her library. There’s a photograph of her with her two dogs on her shoulders. They looked like they were a part of her clothes. The idea of imagining yourself sitting with a pen as the night dies, writing, that whole thing has fallen away.”
What hasn’t vanished, however, is a hunger from readers for stories that they can lose themselves in. Wolitzer writes big, immersive novels (she describes her ideal reading experience as wanting to be “marinated in the book”) that tackle themes she can’t stop thinking about through compelling characters. “Pleasure is a word I think about a lot, as opposed to entertainment,” Wolitzer says. “They are very, very different. We all want to write the kind of book that we want to read. If you put in the things that you are thinking about and create characters who feel like they could live—at least for me, that’s the way I want to write.”
The Interestings (Riverhead, 2013) deals with envy and creativity, and this latest novel, The Female Persuasion, addresses “ideas about misogyny, ideas about power, ideas about feminism,” she says, as well as the political climate we’ve found ourselves in: “a darkening of the moment.” It’s also about “the person you meet who changes your life forever.” She adds: “The title was a North Star for me. It’s a pun, really, because there is a persuasive woman in [the book], and it’s the idea of the slightly icky female persuasion, the coyness of that phrase. It means women, but also how women influence one another. What does it mean to have power in the world? What does it mean to influence people?”
The novel centers around several characters: Greer, a young woman who, during her first semester of college, meets the legendary Faith Frank, author of the book The Female Persuasion, “which essentially implored women to see that there was a great deal more to being female than padded shoulders and acting tough”; Greer’s best friend, Zee, a lesbian with a passion for social activism who introduces Greer to Faith’s work; Greer’s boyfriend, Cory; and Faith herself, a sexy-boot-wearing second-wave feminist.
Greer and Cory are described as “twin rocket ships” because of their intelligence and ambition. “They shared a single-mindedness that you couldn’t teach someone; a person had to have it as part of their neurology,” Wolitzer writes. After college, Greer works for Loci, Faith’s speaker forum and charity funded by a venture capitalist; Zee wants to work for Faith, but ends up teaching for a nonprofit in Chicago. Cory, meanwhile, gives up a high-paying consultancy position because of a tragic accident.
“What I wanted to do in the book is look at success and meaning in different lights,” Wolitzer says. “On the one hand, you can go to work for the famous feminist Faith Frank; on the other hand, you can be like Cory and clean houses and take care of your mother and do what has been seen as women’s work, domestic work, and give up your more conventional goals. That’s another life that may really be a valuable one.”
In a story that deals with political content, the characters, not the themes, have to lead the way, Wolitzer notes. “You have to humanize people and give them weird little quirks.” She writes flawed characters (“Imperfection: my specialty!” she says), which makes them feel real.
Hesitant to define her book by a single category, Wolitzer says: “There’s a really nice Grace Paley line that Mary Gordon told me: ‘Do you write like a woman?’ someone said to Paley, and she answered with, ‘If a horse could write, it would write like a horse. I’m a woman, so I write like a woman.’ I’m a feminist, so I write like a feminist.’ ”
The Female Persuasion couldn’t be more timely, as the #MeToo movement calls out men who have abused their power and privilege to take advantage of women, whose accounts of mistreatment have been diminished or disbelieved. Greer’s experience mirrors that of many #MeToo activists: a man sexually assaults her, and she is immediately silenced. “I started thinking about having language for things; it’s not even just about having the right words. Some people are uncomfortable saying what they feel,” Wolitzer says.
Part of Greer’s journey is learning how to speak out. Wolitzer’s journey, too, involved developing a more authoritative voice. “I think my writing changed when I put the in front of my titles,” she says. “It had more command. This is The Wife, there is no other, this is the one. Before then my books were Sleepwalking and Surrender, Dorothy. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I realized it at some point, and it was funny to me.”
In August, Wolitzer published an essay in Lenny Letter, the online feminist newsletter created by Lena Dunham and Jennifer Konner, called “Learning to Feel Powerful,” where she talks about the evolution of her own sense of agency. The first moment she remembers feeling some sense of control was at five, when she placed a bunch of magnets in her mouth. As she matured, she drew power from things she excelled at. But in January 2017, she felt the sudden power of objects again while taking part in the Women’s March in D.C. “Our [pink] hats were objects, symbols, shields, and they remain inextricable from everyone’s memory of that day.”
Objects take on a charged significance in Wolitzer’s book, too. Faith’s sexy suede boots and a letter that Zee writes to Faith and entrusts Greer with play significant roles in the novel. Readers, Wolitzer says, “want things that make the world bristle with life. It’s not just the characters who do this. It’s the inanimate objects as well.”
The Female Persuasion is ultimately a realistic and hopeful book. The ideal world so many women envisioned when they voted for Hillary Clinton is something Zee wants, too: “To live in a world of female power—mutual power—felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open, and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.”
Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and on the board of the National Book Critics circle.