Author of The Interestings, The Uncoupling, The Ten-Year Nap, and other acclaimed adult novels, as well as The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman for middle-graders, Meg Wolitzer makes her initial foray into YA fiction with Belzhar (Dutton, Sept.), which is set at a Vermont boarding school for emotionally fragile and highly intelligent teenagers. At its center is Jam, a girl grieving the loss of a boy she loved, who learns that the journals given to her and other students enrolled in a course on Sylvia Plath transport them to a world where they can relive a traumatic part of their past. Playing on the title of Plath’s celebrated autobiographical novel, Wolitzer names that world Belzhar.
A longtime fan of The Bell Jar, Wolitzer notes that her debut novel, Sleepwalkers, which she wrote while a senior at Brown, was also inspired by Plath. “Belzhar is about a lost girl who has to find a way to look ahead and not be stuck where she is, and it was important to me to write a frankly emotional novel about teenagers’ feelings without backing away from them,” she says. “Remembering being so moved by The Bell Jar, I think I naturally returned to Sylvia Plath. This is her turf, though the plot is completely made up.”
For more than one reason, Wolitzer views writing YA an unsurprising trajectory for her. “My son Charlie, who is now 19, started reading a lot of young adult books when he was 14 or so, so YA books were totally in the air in our house for years,” she explains. “I started looking at the writing that interested him, and found that much of it was very affecting.” Wolitzer adds, “YA was definitely also in the air and in my mind, because I often write about adolescence in my adult novels. It’s such an intense time of things happening for the first time.”
Wolitzer approached the writing of Belzhar a bit differently from that of her past novels, opting to tell the story from Jam’s perspective. “Writing in the first person is unusual for me—in recent years my only other first-person novel was The Wife—but I felt that Jam’s story required more immediacy, and it needed to be told by her. I didn’t want to rush it and go into everyone’s point of view. Hers was the one I wanted to get.”
Wolitzer will sign galleys of Belzhar this afternoon, 1–2 p.m., at Table 3 in the Autographing Area, and will then participate in the “Real YA” panel on the Uptown Stage, 3–3:30 p.m.