February 18, 2014
Guest: Meg Wolitzer
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Lots of us have had this experience as a teenager: You become friends with people who seem smarter, more talented, more interesting than you, you want to be part of their group, and you also want what they have and you don't, so friendship can take on an edge of jealousy.
This is the kind of friendship that opens Meg Wolitzer's "The Interestings," which comes out in paperback next month. It begins at a performing arts summer camp in 1974, where the main character, Julie, a newcomer to the camp, is invited into a circle of 15 and 16 year-olds who nickname themselves, with knowing irony, the Interestings.
The novel follows them through middle age, as Julie continues to see her life as ordinary, while a couple of the friends she made at the camp continue to seem special, lit by the aura that talent and recognition bring. Wolitzer's other novels include "The Position," about how the lives of four siblings are transformed when they accidentally discover that their parents have written a sex manual; and "The 10-Year Nap," about a group of highly educated working women who gave up their careers to raise their children.
Meg Wolitzer, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to start with a short reading from the beginning - not the very, very beginning - but from the opening chapter of "The Interestings."
MEG WOLITZER: Sure. This part takes place at summer camp, and it takes place in a boy's tepee, these kind of wooden tepee structures. And my main character has been invited in with this group of kids who she thinks is very sophisticated. And this takes place in that evening.
(Reading) Here she was now planted in the corner of this unfamiliar, ironic world. Irony was new to her and tasted oddly good, like a previously unavailable summer fruit. Soon she and the rest of them would be ironic much of the time, unable to answer an innocent question without giving their words a snide little adjustment.
(Reading) Fairly soon after that, the snideness(ph) would soften, the irony would be mixed in with seriousness, and the years would shorten and fly. And it wouldn't be long before they all found themselves shocked and sad to be fully grown into their thicker, finalized adult selves with almost no chance for reinvention.
(Reading) That night, though, long before the shock and the sadness and permanence, as they sat in Boys Tepee 3, their clothes bakery sweet from the very last washer-dryer loads at home, Ash Wolf said every summer we sit here like this. We should call ourselves something. Why, said Goodman, her older brother? So the world can know just how unbelievably interesting we are? We could be called the unbelievably interesting ones, said Ethan Figman(ph). How's that? The Interestings, said Ash. That works.
(Reading) So it was decided. From this day forward, because we are clearly the most interesting people who ever lived, said Ethan, because we are just so compelling, our brains swollen with intellectual thoughts, let us be known as The Interestings, and let everyone who meets us fall down dead in our path from just how interesting we are.
(Reading) In a ludicrously ceremonial moment, they lifted paper cups and joints. Julie risked raising her cup of vodka and Tang, V&T they called it, nodding gravely as she did this. Clink, Cathy Kipplinger(ph) said. Clink said all the others. The name was ironic, and the improvisational christening was jokily pretentious. But still, Julie Jacobson though, they were interesting.
(Reading) These teenagers around her, all of them from New York City, were like royalty and French movie stars with a touch of something papal. Everyone at this camp was supposedly artistic, but here, as far as she could tell, was the hot little nucleus of the place. She had never met anyone like these people. They were interesting compared not only with the residents of Underhill, the New York suburb where she'd lived since birth, but also compared with what was generally out there, which at the moment seemed baggy-suited, nefarious, thoroughly repulsive.
GROSS: That's Meg Wolitzer, reading from her novel "The Interestings," which comes out in paperback next month. So Jules, the main character, and it's a girl named Jules, wants to be interesting like her friends are, her friends who she perceives as being more talented, more special, more interesting than she is. What did interesting mean to you at that age, when you were 15, 16?
WOLITZER: Oh my God, I went to a summer camp, in fact in the summer of 1974, when this book takes place, and I didn't even know from interesting until I went to that camp. I just felt like I came alive seeing these other kids who seemed just so much more articulate than I was and who sort of knew what they wanted to do.
Some of them were wonderful actors. They were serious musicians. We had - we listened to music in something called the Charles Ives Room.
GROSS: Oh wow.
WOLITZER: How could you not be interesting sitting in a Charles Ives room? It was just thrilling to me, and I think that, you know, it wasn't peer pressure but the idea of wanting to be like that, wanting to make yourself a little bit better was something that I felt very strongly.
GROSS: Did you think that you were interesting and that you were talented or just that they were?
WOLITZER: I didn't think I was so interesting, but I realized that what I had maybe was a kind of little suburban quirky, funny self that I could sort of parlay into something a little bigger than I had done in my real life. So I sort of built it up a little bit. I wisecracked somewhat. But no, I think I gave the interesting attributes to them.
GROSS: So the camp in the book is an arts camp, and the camp you went to was an arts camp. Was your art writing?
WOLITZER: No, it was acting. I mean, but I'm so embarrassed saying that because I was really bad. I sort of believed that projecting was the same as emoting. So I'd be like mother, where are you, you know, making your voice that way, kind of like the equivalent of the poetry voice, I come into the room.
WOLITZER: You know, I did the - the oranges are on the table.
GROSS: I k now that voice.
WOLITZER: I was in the "House of Bernarda Alba" by Lorca. You know, I did the definitive version, of course, of the grandmother walking around singing little lamb. I just remember being so excited. I'd never heard of that play or Lorca. We also did "Six Characters in Search of an Author." I had never sort of - you know, growing up where I did in the junior high school and high school, you know, it's like a world of, you know, God what other plays, like "Fiddler."
It's like "Fiddler" 24/7 in the kind of - you know, in high school in a big, suburban high school, or "Oklahoma." And this was not musicals. This was acting. I wasn't good. I couldn't get good. I couldn't get that natural thing. But I loved being around it, just sort of lying on the grass in front of the theater building, painting a set, just remembering lines. It just felt like, you know, you were part of something, like I'd find my cohort, but I wasn't good.
I mean, there was a girl who was so incredibly talented, and I could see the difference, believe me.
GROSS: So the camp you went to sounds like it was mostly a performing arts camp with painting.
GROSS: Because you could paint sets. So I don't know if you realized yet that you were a writer, but did writing seem to have that kind of, like, artistic importance to you that the performing arts had?
WOLITZER: Yeah, you know, I think I...
GROSS: Because you're not doing it in front of an audience. There aren't rows and rows of people admiring you as you do your thing.
WOLITZER: I know, but if I went on with the acting, there wouldn't be rows and rows of people admiring me. And with writing, it was interesting. Because my mother is a writer, when I was young I would write something and sort of, you know, rush in to show it to her. So maybe we're always looking to please somebody.
And I think some people start - a lot of writers, I think, start off writing for someone, whether it's a parent or a teacher or just the fantasy ghost of Jane Austen. And then eventually of course you have to give that up. You have to give up those training wheels in a way. But writing for someone, instead of writing into a void, I mean, I think is tremendous.
So it's not the same thrill of applause and taking a bow, but there's something to it, about the connection with someone else, I think, when you write that I always did love. And having that with readers now, of course, is the extension of that.
GROSS: Your mother is the writer Hilma Wolitzer. And I'm wondering how honest she was with you about your writing when you showed it to her.
WOLITZER: She was - she was great. I remember once she told me that something needed work, and I promptly burst into tears. I was 38 - no.
WOLITZER: Not true. She was wonderful about it. She liked a lot of what I did, and maybe she was, you know, positive, more positive than a writing teacher might have been, but I think she tried to be honest. And it's difficult when someone doesn't love something you've done. There's that awkward moment. But I think she was - she tried to sort of help me through those things, which is that the world, you know, there will be moments, there will be people who don't love what you do.
There will be lines that aren't as good as other lines. And, you know, and I'd seen that with her, I mean how hard it is to be a writer. First of all, just getting it done, sitting there every day. I mean I would go off to school in the morning, and she'd be at her typewriter. This is back in the days when, you know, you'd sit at a typewriter that was as loud as a blender, and you'd do everything with White-Out. It was like sort of doing crewel work or scrimshaw.
And I'd come home and she'd basically be in the same position that she'd been in when I'd gone to school. So I saw how hard it is. And then of course there's when it comes out in the world and that feeling of vulnerability. So she was kind of like my royal taster. I saw what all of that was like through her.
GROSS: There's an opening quote in your book. What's that opening quote called before the book actually starts?
WOLITZER: Oh, an epigraph?
GROSS: Epigraph, yeah, it's a line from a novel or a poem, somebody else's. So you have two epigraphs, and one of them is a line from a short story by Mary Robeson, a story called "Yours," and the quote is to own a little talent was an awful, plaguing thing. Being only a little special meant you expected too much most of the time.
When you thought of yourself as trying to be an actor, were you plagued by having only a little talent?
WOLITZER: No, I wasn't plagued by it. I think I knew in some way that acting was kind of like a Mad Libs fill in the blank for doing something expressive and that I wanted to do that. And I had started writing short stories, you know, much earlier than that, on my own, and showing them to my mother. So I think I knew without knowing, in that way that you know something without knowing, that I wanted to kind of be in the world in that way.
I loved being around art. I loved being able to try something myself, and I loved when I would read a line in a book, like lying in bed reading "Harriet the Spy" as a kid, or later, you know, reading Carson McCullers. And in fact I had a Carson McCullers book with me that summer, in addition to a copy of "The Magic Mountain," which I liked to carry around with the title facing out to kind of look important and pretentious at the camp.
But to sort of feel that you want somehow, you want in, and you don't know exactly which way you want in. But I knew that I wanted some place in it. And it was OK to be me to know that I wasn't going to be an actor.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Meg Wolitzer, and her latest novel, "The Interestings," comes out in paperback next month. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Meg Wolitzer. Her latest novel, "The Interestings," which begins at an arts camp for teenagers, that novel is about to come out in paperback. It comes out next month.
In the reading that you did at the beginning of our interview, the main character is very excited by getting introduced to irony because of all the, you know, the hip and talented teenagers at this camp use irony a lot. And I'm wondering what it was like for you to discover irony and try it on and if you tried to do the kind of witty retorts that you'd hear in movies.
WOLITZER: Oh yes, I'm still trying, I'm still trying constantly.
But you know, coming out of teenagers' mouths, it was - it can be painful. There's a moment in the book, actually, sort of early on, when Ethan, who is one of the main characters, a very homely boy who's a genius of an animator, and we follow him over the next almost 40 years, along with the other characters, but he comments that Gunter Grass and Anais Nin both have umlauts in their name. And he says I'm going to get one for myself, you know, maybe that's a great thing to have for my own name, that's a fabulous thing to have. And just that kind of thing, which isn't really funny, but they all laugh and think is funny, it's the kind of way you speak to sort of develop your humor and your irony.
You have to develop it. It's like you have to practice with things that aren't necessarily funny, but they sound like they're in the neighborhood of ironic or witty, and that's how you get that way.
GROSS: Was it hard to write ironic things for your teenagers to say in this novel that you knew didn't quite make it?
WOLITZER: Oh yeah, yeah, it was really hard to do that, and yet, you know, you have to kind of let characters, let them speak in whole conversations. This is something I learned. Like I used to think that conversations, that dialogue in a novel was like a bullion concentrate, was sort of meant to suggest a whole conversation.
But then I started reading some novels where you kind of - where you were allowed to sort of listen in on a long conversation, and I realized that I liked that. I liked seeing the world that those two or three people or four people had with one another, and I felt that I was part of it. And even when they embarrassed themselves, if you knew them, and you were allowed in the room, it was bearable.
You know, you could let them embarrass themselves a little bit because there was a kind of overarching care on the part of the writer.
GROSS: Your writing at the beginning of the book, about the teenagers, quote, before they grew into their thicker, finalized adult selves with almost no chance for reinvention, unquote - do you see adult selves as being finalized with no chance for reinvention?
WOLITZER: Well, I was recently at a checkup, my annual physical, and I said something to my doctor about was it possible to, like, lose weight and just suddenly, you know, become like this really athletic person. And she kind of said, well, you know, it became harder and harder as you got older.
And I think that, you know, I was asking for others, for a friend. I think that it's harder and harder to change in all kinds of ways as we get older, at least it is for me. Comfort and familiarity become so important in your life, I think, and the idea of really reinventing yourself, I mean - but I think - is tough.
But I think what is important is not to think that it's not possible because certain changes can happen, that Grace Paley idea of enormous changes at the last minute. I mean, certain changes can happen and surprise you but maybe not in this way like - we're a culture that wants to say, you know, 20 ways to do this in the new year, this idea of becoming happier, becoming more fulfilled.
Maybe the changes that happen are you read a book, and you start thinking a certain way, and then your habits change a little bit. And it's subtle, and it's non-linear. But if you were to look at it, you'd see that you had changed.
GROSS: Are there ways you tried to reinvent yourself when you were a teenager?
WOLITZER: Oh, yeah, I definitely did. I mean, you know, one involved wearing a beret.
GROSS: Oh no.
WOLITZER: Just briefly, but hat hair does not suit me. Yeah, I did try to - oh, I had a friend, and we called ourselves by nicknames, and I wanted to be called Woodstock. And, you know, like we'd call each other up and say, hey Woodstock, like that was my nickname.
For a while I wanted to draw, and I took the inside of my closet door, and I drew the heads of famous people in pencil, T.S. Eliot and James Taylor, of course those two are always mentioned in the same sentence. And I drew these heads on the inside of my closet door, and they meant a lot to me.
And I sort of fashioned myself an artist for that one day. Of course they looked almost entirely alike, T.S. Eliot and James Taylor, because I had one way that I could draw, just like I had the one way that I could act. But maybe I knew I was a writer because I sort of had more than one way. I had different ways that at least I wanted to try.
But I think, you know, I mean teenagers have to reinvent themselves. It's constantly flexing muscles. And then you see which ones give you gratification, which ones have meaning.
GROSS: Why did you nickname yourself Woodstock?
WOLITZER: Well, I'm very embarrassed to say this. I have a feeling it wasn't so much of - it wasn't so much about the festival as it was about the bird in the Peanuts cartoon.
WOLITZER: I think it was both. I liked - maybe in a way, and I'm just sort of trying to look at it as a writer, there's the exciting music festival that I was too young to go to but, you know, fetishized in some way; and then there's the safe childhood part, the bird, the thing from the cartoon that I was so happy lying in bed reading Peanuts cartoons.
It sort of encompassed feelings that made me, you know, happy.
GROSS: How important was it for you in terms of creating the teenage self that you thought was your true identity, the kind of self-transformation that teenagers do, how important was it for you to have an opportunity to do some of that at a summer camp that was away from your family, away from your family for weeks?
WOLITZER: Well, I think that that is really the important thing about transformative moments when you're an adolescent, is that they take place away from adults. It's like I had spent my childhood, my parents were very good about taking us into the city. We would go to MOMA and, you know, we would go to a Lebanese restaurant my father had read about back when, you know, I didn't know people who did this.
And we went to see, you know, what was called an art film. But I would sort of sit there kind of bored and a little angry sometimes because I wasn't on my own with my friends. So after I went to this camp, which by the way the owners apparently really kind of called a summer workshop, a school more than they called it a camp, but I always called it a camp - when I went to the city after the summer and met some of these kids in their city lives, we went to movies, and we went to see the new print of the Marx Brothers movie - "Animal Crackers," I think, like at some great New York theater.
And I remember just sort of fibrillating with pleasure at being in this world, and it was a world in which my parents had kind of fallen away. Like I was waving to them. They were on the shore, and I was waving to them from some, you know, place on the water where I - to which I had embarked with these friends of mine.
I think that if you are away from adults, you can be yourself. It's like again that rehearsal idea, like trying to sort of find the way that you will be as an adult. And when I think about myself, basically as a teenager, and I'm embarrassed by some of it, like the strawberry body lotion that my friends gave me that I wore every day and sort of stank up the house with, or calling myself Woodstock, or rehearsing plays in a kind of bad voice or being a little pretentious or having emotional outbursts, or whatever it was, that's all a rehearsal for adulthood.
And I am different, but of course it's in the same shell.
GROSS: Meg Wolitzer will be back in the second half of the show. Her latest novel is called "The Interestings." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Meg Wolitzer. Her latest novel, "The Interestings," begins at a summer camp for the performing arts, where the main character, Julie, or Jules, is accepted into a circle of friends she sees as more talented and interesting than she is. At the beginning of the novel, Julie and her friends are trying to invent the selves they want to be. But the novel follows them as they develop into what Wolitzer calls their thicker finalized adult selves.
So how many children do you have?
GROSS: When they became teenagers, I think they already have both gone through that...
WOLITZER: One is 19, but the other is older. Yeah.
GROSS: OK. So were you understanding of them wanting to be away from you and to work out who they were independent from you?
WOLITZER: It's always harder. At least it was hard for me at times. Nothing makes you happier than seeing your children contented away from you. It's a very satisfying feeling to see them in a group and to feel they don't need you now. And if you can take that moment and run with, I think that you can get a lot done and they can do that very, very necessary separation. But there are moments that I think that you have your own parental narcissism and you perhaps remember the closeness that you once had.
I mean I realized what kind of happiness I had when I would take my sons to the library and sit with them in my lap with a book, because it's like all you need. It's like you're like a machine - a two-person one book machine. It all works; everyone is having their needs met. And now you can't meet your child's needs. And I think there is a loss; I think there's a sorrow. And if you're an OK parent, I guess you tolerate the sorrow and are able to move on. I'm sure I had a spotty record in this department, but I tried.
GROSS: And did you feel insulted when your children needed to be away from you?
WOLITZER: No. I think by the time they really need to be away from me, with a little luck you need to be away from them, that there's some kind of symbiosis of I know that I can't give him exactly what he needs. But at least let me put him in a place where he can get what he needs and that's, you know, called college for some teenagers, or camp. Like I send my son off actually to a performing arts summer camp. And as soon as I went there it was really this kind of mandolin dipping moment for me, you know, he did his thing. It was very different from mine. He did a lot of visual arts and then he started doing electronic music. And he loved that and he kind of came alive doing that. It was very different. It was in a different idiom. It doesn't speak to me in the way it speaks to him, but I loved seeing that he liked that.
And I saw - one thing that was sort of touching too - is I saw the facilities which are, you know, rustic and there's like a loom out in the fields, that kind of feeling. And I'm sure that my summers were like that too, but to me it seemed like I was in Lincoln Center.
GROSS: There's something in your book that reminds me of something my mother once told me.
GROSS: I once complained to her - and I think this was in high school - that one of the many people I sat next to smelled kind of like salami and it was just really annoying and I didn't like having to sit next to him. And my mother said something to the effect of, you know, some of the people who you think of now as being nerdy - she didn't use the word nerdy, but whatever the word was at the time - nerdy or homely, whatever - they're going to grow up to be really interesting people and you're going to be surprised. And I said I really doubt it. And he did grow up to be an interesting person. And I thought of that when reading your description of Ethan - Ethan Figman, who is the very talented animator at this summer camp who goes on to really big things. But at the summer camp you describe him looking like squat and homely with eczema running along his forearms like a lit fuse. And I'm wondering if you knew people like that who were just like physically unappealing to you but had this like special gift.
WOLITZER: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean if I sort of take a tour through my junior high school yearbook and you can see the way people look, because no one is quite finished yet. People - it's amazing how much better people look later on but you don't really know this when you're young because you have the beauty of being young. I had in my mind, of course, not a particular person when I created Ethan, but the idea of this person who has this sort of talent that you can't give someone, you can't teach it to them, they're born with it and they develop it on their own. But he's very physically homely. But he's such an original that you're drawn to him.
But, you know, Jules starts off as Julie and becomes Jules, she can't love him, although he loves her. I mean she loves them in a certain way, but they have a kiss early on at the summer camp and she's kind of repulsed by him physically - although she recognizes that he's a genius and she wishes she could love him. But I think that teenagers figure out that sexuality and love, you know, it all can't be scientifically explained, you don't know why you're magnetized to certain people, why you even want to be around these teenagers when other kids would only want to be around a group of jocks. I mean who knows? It's this kind of mystery of coming of age. But for me I felt very protective of him. He's sort of my favorite character. And I guess watching the characters grow older, knowing that I would, it wasn't just, you know, a teenage novel, they go into middle-age - as you said - he would always be that way in my mind. Even though his eczema would sort of get better and he would become a wealthy animator and his clothes would be expensive as he got older, he would still have that vulnerable homely boy heart. It would still be there. And whenever I would write those sections about him, it almost didn't matter what age he was, I would picture the same kind of figure.
GROSS: One of your previous novels is called "The Position," and it's about a couple who writes a sex manual and what happens when their children discover that sex manual and how their lives are kind of forever changed by this sex manual.
In your latest novel, "The Interestings," when the characters are 22, you write: Sex at 22 was idyllic. What seems so special to you sexually about that age?
WOLITZER: When I think back on being 22, you know, my friends and I were all living in these little boxlike apartments in New York City. And the city was more affordable then and we lived in little walk-ups. And I remember the pleasure of going to somebody's house, or I had a little loft bed and a fireplace and almost nothing else. Like I never used my kitchen, we went out for Indian food every night. But the idea of going to somebody's apartment, you know, having a new person that you're involved with or the new possibility of that, it just felt like a series of open doors into little apartments and little transitional lives. It was very impermanent, and I think there's something about that, that sort of light, that's not about the heaviness and permanence that we often seek later on, you know, looking to set up a life. I didn't lie around fantasizing about, you know, where my children would go to college one day. I didn't think about any of that. I thought about the next day and feeling kind of light and free and, you know, wondering what was going to happen, and that involved people..
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Meg Wolitzer and her latest novel, "The Interestings," comes out in paperback next month. Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Meg Wolitzer. And her latest book, "The Interestings," comes out in paperback next month. And "The Interestings" begins at an arts summer camp - a performing arts summer camp - where a teenage girl meets these people who she feels are just like much more interesting and talented than she is and she wants what they have. And then the story follows these people as they get older through the next few decades and it sees what happens with their lives.
You have this description of the difference between jealousy and envy which I think is really interesting. And you write, jealousy is: I want what you have. But envy is: I want what you have, but I also want to take it away from you so you can't have it. How did that distinction come to you and, you know, what is underneath that distinction?
WOLITZER: I've read about that and I've heard about that. I've read about it online and I've heard about it, the distinction being made. I always get confused which is which. One of them is really about destroying something. It's not enough that you don't have it. It's about the pleasure of seeing that no one else can have it, and that's the deeper, more dangerous one. The other one, I think, is just sort of more common. I mean there's this thing where you have a friend who calls you with some good news and you're genuinely happy for them, you're really, really happy. But I feel that after a certain point it's kind of common to then think a little bit about yourself. It's like that feeling, that egotism kind of, sort of inserts itself into the room like a moose head mounted on a wall, and there you are, you're thinking about yourself again. So it's not so much that you want to take away what someone you love has, but really that you're thinking about what you lack because you're thinking about yourself. And you know, the book definitely deals with some of those issues which she - Jules - can't quite let go of.
I was talking to my editor, really, about the characters in the book when we had one of our long lunches when I was writing the book and we were editing it. And she made a comment about how if Jules had never met her friends who go on to have a life that's much, much bigger than hers and Dennis's, then she probably would have been much happier with what she had. And I think that's true. It's that comparing yourself. It's that taking your own pulse and taking someone else's that can make people really feel bad.
GROSS: Now, when Jules becomes jealous of two people who she was both very close to in camp and these two people become a couple, and one of them is Ethan, the talented animator who Jules had rejected because she wasn't sexually attracted to him, she says: Being jealous of a couple who seems to have everything, it wasn't easy to understand how the love between two other people could diminish you if those two people were still accessible to you, if they call you all the time. Did you experience that ever, where you were jealous of a couple, even though you were close to both of them and felt somehow diminished by their couplehood?
WOLITZER: I probably have in some way. I'm not thinking of a particular couple at all, but I think that probably when you're single and you see people coupling off and you realize that they've entered a new world that you're not in, there's something about that. Like they figured out something - something sophisticated and sort of - it's like they're speaking a language that you don't speak. But it's more, it's not that you want to be one of them or that you want that thing, but it may be that you feel perhaps unfinished. In "The Member of the Wedding," the Carson McCullers book, you know, the famous speech about they are the we of me, she wants to belong. She wants to be part of something and her brother is getting married and she just feels the pain of being sort of left behind and imagines going off with them on their honeymoon and for the rest of their lives, like the three of them being together in this couple. And I think that that's feeling.
There's a kind of strange feeling that happens when you go from childhood and adolescence into adulthood, you're leaving the sort of single beddedness world of your childhood where every night was spent kind of, you know, lying alone and dreaming about things. And Ethan, Ethan Figman, the creative genius in the book, he lies in bed as a child and that's where his ideas come from. He imagines a little world in a shoebox beneath his bed called Figland, and if you take off the cover of the shoebox, there's a little spinning globe and the world exists in there.
I remember lying in bed at night and I had a show - a talk show - called "Meg's Treasure Box." Perhaps you're familiar with it.
WOLITZER: Merv Griffin took over for me for a while in the '70s. But I would have this show and I would talk, you know, into my balled up fist like a microphone talking to guests. And I think looking back on it now, it's about not wanting to be alone. It's about sort of, you're not really ready to join into a couple yet, but you want to be in one. You want to be in the world of people and maybe the world of intimacy and the world of future beds in which you will not be alone but you're not ready for it. And then you grow up and you, you know, you go out into adolescence and post-adolescence and you try these things on. But it all sort of starts in that yearning, I think, in that being young and trying to figure out, I'm alone and great ideas are coming up in my head and I can think about this and I can figure out my friendships and the baroque structure of my social life. But then there's a moment when you might feel a yearning when you see someone else who's gone to what you think of as the next stage, which maybe involves a couple.
GROSS: Obviously the summer you spent in performing arts camp really like defined you in some way. Did you have other groups that defined you, like when you were in college, for instance, when you started writing?
WOLITZER: I sold my first novel when I was a senior in college and I came to New York. I sold it for $5,000. And I actually remember this great moment. I went to meet my editor for the first time and I was carrying my manuscript with me and I got onto the elevator in the old Random House building and a priest got on. I was carrying my little manuscript in a kind of copy store box and he was carrying a huge manuscript tied up with rope. And he said to me, do they know you're coming? And I said yes. He said, they don't know I'm coming, which I sometimes think of as a great metaphor for fiction writers today. But back then my group of friends were writers. There was this feeling of all of us sort of going out into the world, you know, to meet different fates. You know, we had cheap apartments, we ate at those Indian restaurants. We wrote all day. We worked temp jobs. It was a thrilling, exciting time and we shared work with one another which was really terrific.
GROSS: Well, Meg Wolitzer, thank you so much for talking with us.
WOLITZER: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: My interview with Meg Wolitzer was recorded last week. Her latest novel, "The Interestings," will published in paperback next month. You can read the first chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org. Last night at midnight Jimmy Fallon made his debut as the host of "The Tonight Show" with The Roots serving as the house band as they did when Fallon hosted "Late Night."
The leader of The Roots, Questlove, wrote the new "Tonight Show" theme. Before we hear David Bianculli's review of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," let's listen back to what Questlove had to say last June on FRESH AIR when he was anticipating moving to "The Tonight Show" and writing the theme.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
QUESTLOVE: This is my dream job. I guess you could say this is kind of my destiny. You know, I didn't think, like, back when I was a kid, like, man - I would've been watching "The Tonight Show" more than "Soul Train" if that was the case. Like, you know, I didn't think that, oh, this is what your future's going to be like, you know, taking the baton from Doc Severinsen.
GROSS: Do you have to write a "Tonight Show" theme?
GROSS: Do I note a little anxiety in your voice?
QUESTLOVE: Oh, boy. I'm having these nightmares of dad a da - waking up in the middle of the night. Or I got - yeah. This is - I'm going to - we're going to write a new theme. And I'm thinking about it every second. Even now as I talk to you I'm thinking of that theme. Like we will be the first thing that is heard when the world is watching that new "Tonight Show."
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
QUESTLOVE: In February.
QUESTLOVE: Like the music's going to be. So the music has to be inviting. Like, you think of Johnny Carson - (hums). Like, that's stuck in your head. It's the pop song challenge. That is going to have to be the one.
GROSS: You know, is it going to have a lyric? Like Jimmy Kimmel has a lyric?
QUESTLOVE: Nah. I mean, Tarique might write something for it but, you know, right now it's just, I have to visualize it and see it. I have to figure out when the curtain opens and Jimmy walks out, like, what's that song? What's the song that 90 years from now when, you know, they're talking about "The Tonight Show" from this era, like - but I also know that over-thinking it, it's not going to happen by over-thinking it.
So I'm literally - it's going to come to me. And, you know, I have time. Well, OK. I have six months, which is like a blink.
GROSS: How long is that in dog years?
QUESTLOVE: I have 24 weeks.
QUESTLOVE: And I have three days to come up with something.
GROSS: Oh, I really look forward to it.
QUESTLOVE: Pressure. No pressure.
GROSS: No pressure.
QUESTLOVE: No pressure.
GROSS: No. Exactly. Exactly.
GROSS: So that was Questlove recorded last June. We'll heard Questlove's new "Tonight Show" theme and David Bianculli's review of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, stayed up late last night to watch Jimmy Fallon's first time as the new host of NBC's "Tonight Show." It's now called "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." It's been transplanted from Los Angeles to New York and it has a new theme written by Questlove. Here's David's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON")
STEVE HIGGINS: From Studio 6-B in Rockefeller Center in the heart of New York City, it's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." Tonight join Jimmy and his guests Will Smith, musical guest U2, and featuring the legendary Roots crew.
And now here's your host, Jimmy Fallon...
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Opening nights of new incarnations of late-night TV talk shows are good, mostly, for first impressions - or, in the case of Jay Leno, sometimes a second impression. It's not fair to make strong judgments on the content alone, because a first show always is top-heavy with ideas, special guests and nervousness. But it is fair game to judge the set, the environment, the overall mood, and how well the host fits into the history of late-night television.
Jimmy Fallon, at age 39, fits into it very well. For one thing, he knows the history. He also appreciates it and even is able to make fun of it, without saying anything too caustic.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JIMMY FALLON")
JIMMY FALLON: Welcome to "The Tonight Show." This is the first "Tonight Show" broadcast from New York in over 40 years.
Welcome. I'm Jimmy Fallon and I'll be your host - for now.
Of course, I wouldn't be here tonight if it weren't for the previous "Tonight Show" hosts, so I want to say thank you to Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien - and Jay Leno.
In just a few short sentences in last night's inaugural opening monologue, Fallon covered 60 years of "Tonight Show" history while claiming his own place in line. He's now holding court on a brand new stage - with a new opening credits sequence filmed by Spike Lee, a beautiful new set by Eugene Lee, and his old "Late Night" cronies, announcer Steve Higgins, and his fantastically adaptable house band, The Roots.
BIANCULLI: But it's a new stage with lots of old ghosts. Jack Paar, the second host of "The Tonight Show," performed his shows from the same Studio 6-B at Rockefeller Center's 30 Rock. And Johnny Carson did too, for the first 10 years of his reign, until he moved his show West in 1972. And now it's back.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON")
FALLON: It's a moment in TV history right here and even if I weren't involved, I would be so psyched to watch it. So I'm glad that you're watching at home. I'm glad that you're here. Because this is important. This is fun. This is what we're - this is what it's all about. I remember being a kid and being (unintelligible) and asking my parents, can I stay up to watch Johnny Carson?
It was a big deal, like, you know, to stay up late, you know. And they would let me watch the monologue and then I'd just try to pretend I wasn't there so they could let me go to the first guest or whatever bit they were going to do before they told me to go to bed.
And I just think there's going to be a kid out there asking their parents to stay up to watch me. It just means a lot to me and I just hope I - I hope I do well.
I hope you enjoy this. I just want to do the best I can and take care of this show for a while. If you guys let me stick around long enough, maybe I'll get the hang of it.
BIANCULLI: The ascension of Jimmy Fallon to "The Tonight Show" desk, and the show's relocation to New York, are two important elements of this new 2014 version of "The Tonight Show." Another is that the producer taking control of the show, and the time slot, beginning last night, is Lorne Michaels, who already pulls the strings at "Saturday Night Live" and at "Late Night," which returns next week with its new host, former SNL "Weekend Update" anchor Seth Meyers.
That gives Lorne Michaels control of about a dozen TV hours a week, which makes him a producer it's hard to say no to. If there's a late-night booking war ahead, don't expect Lorne Michaels to lose.
On last night's opening show alone, the featured guests were Will Smith and U2, but there were enough cameos to make it feel like an event called "Celebrities on Parade." Seated at his desk after his opening monologue, Jimmy Fallon joked that one of his buddies, who bet that Jimmy would never host "The Tonight Show," owed him $100.
To the delight of the crowd, Robert De Niro came out unannounced from behind the curtain, slammed a $100 bill down on Fallon's desk, then exited without saying a word. After that, doing the same thing in rapid succession, so did Tina Fey, Joe Namath, and a string of others, from Mariah Carey, Joan Rivers and Seth Rogen to Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Tyson and Lady Gaga.
And then, as the capper, Stephen Colbert came out, with a bucketful of pennies which he poured all over Jimmy Fallon, while taking a selfie and giving him an appropriate welcome for someone who's a new competitor in his "Colbert Report" time slot.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON")
STEVEN COLBERT: Welcome to 11:30, bitch.
BIANCULLI: The first show moved quickly, and well enough. The interview with Will Smith was nothing special, but a pre-taped segment, in which he and Fallon performed a history of hip-hop dance, pointed to what is sure to become the key appeal of "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon": a lot of guests won't be coming just to talk with the host or to plug a project. As when Fallon hosted "Late Night," they'll show up just to play.
Another secret weapon of Jimmy Fallon's, as it has been from the start, is his unbridled enthusiasm. When he introduced U2's first number, it wasn't just the group that excited him, but the location too. And with good reason.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON")
FALLON: We're here at the world famous Top of the Rock, at the top of Rockefeller Center, 70 stories above the city. I couldn't think of a better way to show off our beautiful city, and I can't think of a better band to be up here with. Here to perform their new song, "Invisible," ladies and gentlemen, U2!
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVISIBLE")
BONO: Good to be back! (singing) It's like the room just cleared of smoke...
BIANCULLI: Outdoors, atop Rockefeller Center, with sunset coloring the New York skyline, and U2 performing what may be the coolest rooftop concert since The Beatles filmed "Let It Be," it was indeed, quite literally, a view from the top. Which, based on first impressions, may be exactly where "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" belongs.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You'll find links to my interviews with Jimmy Fallon and Questlove on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.