DATE May 10, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Meg Wolitzer discusses her book "The Position"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Meg Wolitzer's new novel "The Position" opens in 1975 when four children, ages
six to 15, discover a book written by their own parents called "Pleasuring:
One Couple's Journey to Fulfillment." It's a manual, kind of like "The Joy of
Sex," illustrated with sketches of the couple demonstrating the positions.
Wolitzer's novel follows these characters over the next three decades as the
parents divorce and age and the children grow up and form their own
relationships. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan wrote, `By its end, "The
Position" turns out to be a poignant elegy to the fleeting health and
pleasures of the body, as well as to the fleeting emotional and physical
togetherness of the family.' Meg Wolitzer's other books include
"Sleepwalking," "Surrender, Dorothy" and "The Wife."
Let's start with a reading from the opening of "The Position."
Ms. MEG WOLITZER (Novelist): (Reading) `The book was placed on a high shelf
in the den as though it were the only copy in the world. And if the children
didn't find it, they would be forever unaware of the sexual lives of their
parents, forever ignorant of the press of hot skin, the overlapping voices,
the stir and scrape of the brass headboard as it lightly battered the plaster,
creating twin, finial-shaped depressions over the years in the wall of the
bedroom in which the parents slept, or didn't sleep, depending on the night.
The book sat among the collection of unrelated and mostly ignored volumes:
"Watership Down," "Diet for a Small Planet," "Building A Deck for Your Home,"
"Yes, I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr.," "The Big Anthology of Golden
Retrievers" and on and on and on. It was causally slipped in, this one copy
of the book that the parents brought into the house. Of course, they'd stored
all their copies, including the various foreign editions, in taped-up boxes in
the basement marked `kitchenware' or `odds and ends' that would have sent a
message to the children: Sex is filth or, at least if not exactly filth, then
something unacceptable to think about anywhere except beneath a blanket in
pitch darkness between two consenting, loving, lusty, faithful married adults.
This, of course, was not the view of the parents, who for a very long time had
loved sex and most of its aspects, loved it so dearly that they found the
nerve and arrogance to write a book about it. When they thought of their four
children reading that book, though, they brooded about what kind of effect it
would have on them over time. Would it simply bounce off their sturdy,
sprouting bodies or else be absorbed along with the fractions and canned
spaghetti and skating lessons, the things that wouldn't last, wouldn't matter
or perhaps would matter, coalescing into some unimaginable shape and gathering
meaning inside them? But the parents' concern was mostly overshadowed by
confidence. So why not put the book on a shelf in the den, a high but
reachable shelf where the children could get to it if they wanted to? And the
chances were good that they would want to and that no one would be struck dead
by it and life would just go on as it always had.'
GROSS: That's Meg Wolitzer reading from the beginning of her new novel, "The
Of course, Meg, after the children do discover this book, life does not go on
the way it always had.
Ms. WOLITZER: No.
GROSS: It really changes all of their lives. And I'm wondering what made you
think about having this sex manual at the center of a book and thinking about
what the consequences might be for the children if the parents had written a
Ms. WOLITZER: Well, for me, reading "The Joy of Sex" when I was a kid was a
pivotal moment. My sister and I took my parents' copy and went off and read
it. And the thing that struck us at the time was that this couple--he looked
kind of like Kris Kristofferson, Alan Bates, the sort of bearded look that
was popular at the time.
Ms. WOLITZER: And she was kind of closer to my mother's age than mine. It
could be your parents. I mean, there was something about this couple that was
adult, and it kind of gave you a little bit of an aperture into the world of
adult sexuality, ready or not. So...
GROSS: Excuse me for sounding dumb, but I actually never read "The Joy of
Ms. WOLITZER: Oh, well, you must.
GROSS: Is it actually--is it actual, like, photographs of people?
Ms. WOLITZER: It's drawings.
GROSS: It's drawings.
Ms. WOLITZER: And I wondered at the time...
GROSS: Like in the sex manual in your book?
Ms. WOLITZER: Yeah.
GROSS: Now your mother
is a writer, Hilma Wolitzer. And I'm wondering, like,
when you were young, did you come across sex scenes of hers? And what impact
did that have on you?
Ms. WOLITZER: Yes, that had an impact as well. I mean, these things all kind
of came together in my mind to gestate for a long time until I wrote "The
Position." But when I was a teen-ager in junior high school, actually, my
mother sold her first novel, "Ending." And it was a wonderful literary book,
but it did have a pretty graphic sex scene in it. And I remember going to
school that day and a bunch of boys had a copy of the book, and they ran down
the hallway shouting, `Read page 108. Read page 108.' And I pretty much went
home to my mother and said, `Why couldn't you be a travel agent?' I wanted--I
mean, in the suburb where we lived, nobody's mother was a novelist.
Everybody's mother was a travel agent or a real estate agent or a housewife.
This was something pretty unusual that she did.
GROSS: You know--so when the children discover the sex manual that their
parents wrote and illustrated, it's not only kind of embarrassing and
unsettling for them; it's also kind of baffling. Like, one of the sons,
Michael, says--or Michael thinks, `Apparently, no one could ever get enough of
sex. It needed to be replenished again and again, filled up like a bucket in
a well. It wasn't enough for people simply to have sex with each other. They
also had to examine pictures of it and read about it and hear it described in
agonizing and exhilarating detail.' Do you think it would be baffling to a
child finding one of these books to think like, `What--why do they have to be
so absorbant? Why do they have to, like, read about it and write about it
Ms. WOLITZER: Yeah, because up to a certain age it just simply seems
disgusting. You know, I guess that's called latency, the period at which it
really would kind of seem like this animalistic thing that has nothing to do
with you. But, of course, one day it will have everything to do with you, and
I think maybe some part of your mind realizes that when you see it and you're
GROSS: Now one way of thinking about the impact such a sex book would have on
the children of the parents who wrote it is that it would be sexually
liberating because it would mean they were growing up in a sexually open
environment; that they got a good education from sneaking a peek at the book.
But the book really becomes a burden to most of the children in your novel.
And then as they grow up--this may or may not relate to the existence of the
book, but as they grow up, they each have their own sexual issues. One of
them is on antidepressants, and that's made him less sexually responsive and
more sexually frustrated. One of the sons is gay. Nothing in the book speaks
to his condition. And one of the daughters feels so unattractive she doesn't
think anyone would ever think of her as sexual. And I just find it really
interesting the way you use sex in the book to get at character and to get at
how people's lives are shaped, the things that shape them, the way they turn
Ms. WOLITZER: I...
GROSS: Why did you want to use...
Ms. WOLITZER: Go ahead.
GROSS: ...sex as a kind of organizing principle around the book?
Ms. WOLITZER: Well, I wanted sex to sort of heighten all of the emotional
drama in the book, about childhood and growing up and coming into your own. I
realized that I couldn't think of a book that dealt with the uncomfortable
relationship between sex and family. Here we all are in a family and the
adults are sexual, and the kids are secretly becoming sexual and have to hide
their feelings about sex and their experiences. And everyone's living under
one roof. This is all going on. But for the most part, unless you're in one
of those real, you know, hippy families that I did know of, it's not really
So using sex essentially as a kind of catalyst or as a bomb, really, to sort
of show how it's sort of too much exposure to sex in this family, the Mellow
family, who I invented, sets off a lifetime of feeling. I think it just
heightens what was already there. You know, Claudia, the younger daughter who
wants to stay trapped--you know, wants to stay in childhood--not trapped in
childhood; she wants to stay in childhood because her parents were the sexual
ones. She feels so unattractive that she's saving her money as a child in a
Pillsbury Doughboy bank hoping to save it up, so that maybe someday she can
pay a man to love her. You know, sex belongs to the parents, not to her.
GROSS: One of the things you get at in your novel is the reality of sex as
compared to the way it's presented in romantic literature and erotic movies.
And the reality of sex is different. What are some of the differences you
want to get at in the book?
Ms. WOLITZER: Well, it's often awkward, I mean, speaking from personal
experience and from discussions with others, but you don't really read that
very often. It's a kind of navigation between people. If they're new to each
other, there's a kind of shyness of awkwardness. There's a certain
stylization that we see in so much of the media about sex. And in this book,
each of the children as they grow up has to kind of find their way in the
world of sex that the parents really trailblazed before them. And the
parent--the illustrations of the parents actually making love--the
illustrations were so, you know, beautiful and done in pen, inked so
elegantly. How can the kids live up to that? How can any of us live up to
that? Things go wrong. People fall off beds. Bodies don't fit. You know,
all kinds of things happen in real life.
GROSS: Well, one of the great things in your book is that the parents, the
couple whose illustrations are in the book--in other words, the book has
illustrations of them making love--this couple doesn't live up to their own
illustrations. Let me just read another passage here, and this is basically
about how absurd and silly-looking the reality of sex can be. You know, at
first this couple thinks that they should take pictures of themselves in the
positions that they want to discuss in the sex manual, so they set up a camera
on a tripod with a timer. And then the woman, the wife, looks at the photos,
and here's what she thinks.
(Reading) `As far as she was concerned, she was all double chin and breast,
and Paul was a shapeless Monet haystack of body hair. Everything unattractive
was accentuated, and everything at all appealing seemed to have been
airbrushed out. Their bodies joined together in standard missionary sex
looked grotesque, their faces screwed up in pain and courage as though the act
in which they were partaking was excruciating and required a sort of personal
heroism in order to endure it.' (Laughs)
Ms. WOLITZER: Well, the idea of a book of pictures of you having sex is so
horrible that I might have to faint right now even thinking about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WOLITZER: You don't mind if I do. I just think that that's the truer
version of sex, really, if we're not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. You know,
we're these human beings. And coming upon a book of your parents having sex
in various positions--and I would like to say that the parents invent the
position which they wanted to kind of give their book a certain cachet. And I
really wanted to come up with the worst sort of '70s name that I could. And I
spent a lot of time on this, and I came up with the name electric forgiveness.
So the parents come up with some ridiculous position called that. It's
GROSS: And you also write about how life gets in the way of good sex. One of
the daughters, Holly, starts off really loving sex, but it doesn't quite last.
You write, `She saw her parents going at it like monkeys, telling the universe
that sex was a pleasure, a thrill unlike any other, a view she'd shared for
about a minute when she was a teen-ager and which became harder to support as
she aged--and men aged, too--everyone seeming to flatten against the beds they
lay in, exhausted and angry in addition to being aroused.'
I'm wondering if you think a lot of people are dishonest about sex and--in an
attempt to kind of live up to, like, what the expectations are.
Ms. WOLITZER: Oh, yeah, I think there's so much anxiety associated with sex.
I remember when I was at camp as a kid lying in bed at night. We had all
these conversations about sex. And one thing that really frightened me was
that this girl, Rhonda, said that when you had sex, do not lie on your back
because your breasts flatten out to the side. And I thought--well, I was
really worried about this. It sort of haunted me over the years. I thought,
`Well, I'll try a kind of side angle maybe. You know, can you have sex
propped on one elbow?' I really thought--you know, I feared this.
I think people are very dishonest. I think they're anxious, and they want to
hide their anxiety. They want to sort of cover up their real selves. But the
notion of sex is supposed to be about truth, I guess, isn't it? It's supposed
to be about pleasure. And that is something that we've moved away from
culturally so much. I mean, the parents' book, the book that the parents
write within my novel, is called "Pleasuring: One Couple's Journey to
Fulfillment," which, again, is another horrible title that I wanted to come up
with because there's something embarrassing about talking about pleasure. I
mean, it seems masturbatory and greedy and like you're asking for too much.
GROSS: My guest is Meg Wolitzer. Her new novel is called "The Position."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Meg Wolitzer. Her new novel is called "The Position," and
it's about a married couple who write a kind of "Joy of Sex"-type sex manual
in the mid-'70s, using themselves as the illustrations to illustrate the
positions. And the novel kind of charts what happens to this couple and to
their four children over the decade.
Meg, in order to write this book, you had to write about sex. And, I mean,
it--there isn't really all that much writing about the actual acts, but there
is some of it. And I'm wondering what it was like for you to get comfortable
writing in a, you know, semi-explicit way about sexuality.
Ms. WOLITZER: It took me a long time. I think that--I look at my career
over--you know, as this book and the last book, "The Wife," I think are part
of a sort of newer period for me and the period that I'm most interested in.
I heard once long ago in a writing workshop, and I'm sure it's a famous line,
`Write as though everyone you know were dead.' And I think that's really the
way to go. I mean, if you're writing for an audience or if you're writing
because you know your mother's going to read it, and what will she say, what
are you doing? Why are you writing?
It's not that anything in here, in fact, is anything my mother--my mother, of
all people--would be upset by. But you start off writing to please someone,
you start off writing to please your teacher or your mother or a friend or a
lover, and then you have to abandon that, and you have to write what you want
to write about. I started to think that men had been bolder sometimes writing
about some of these issues. Philip Roth is a writer I've always loved, and he
just doesn't seem to care what people think. And I found myself stuck in a
kind of writing class lyricism that I was getting upset about, in which there
was very little drama and momentum. And I wanted to write more about things
that mattered to me, about big things between people, and one thing between
people is sex. And in this book I wanted to sort of write about a kind of
array of sexual lives.
GROSS: See, I think it's really interesting. You said that you had heard the
advice, `Write as if everybody you know were dead.' But the advice people are
often given is, `Write as if this were a postcard or a letter to your best
friend or to your parents.'
Ms. WOLITZER: Oh! Oh, I would hate that because I think that unconsciously
you sort of style things toward what the other person wants. And you have to
really try to not do that. I mean, I--when I write a novel, I write the book
that I want to find on the bookstore shelf. And I don't know what that is for
most people because these days, it seems to me, fiction itself has become
something kind of obscure. I feel sometimes like it's like being a Mennonite
or doing scrimshaw, being a fiction writer in America. People seem to want a
story that's true. But I feel that fiction is the most true thing I know.
And I can only write what I want to read and what excites me.
GROSS: What are some of the things you had to figure out in coming up with
the right tone and language to actually write the more explicitly sexual parts
of the book?
Ms. WOLITZER: Well, you know, it seems to me that writing about sex is hard
to do and usually pointless because we've all had sex. What are you going to
tell me that's new? Are you telling me this to titillate me? I mean, I'm not
Anais Nin. I don't want to do one of those Anais Nin, Henry Miller jags.
That's not what I'm after here. So if there was going to be a sex scene, it
had to have a reason to be. I had to say to myself, `Why are you telling me
this?' And in each case, with the different characters, sex had a meaning
that propelled the story forward and also gave us information about who they
GROSS: How does this compare with how you previously wrote about sex in your
Ms. WOLITZER: I wrote about it as though there was a misty veil over a camera
of a movie. I think my own embarrassment got in the way, and I faded to black
very, very quickly. Someone would kiss or--I think, I mean, if I did a word
search inside some of my books, I might find references to `clavicle': `He
kissed her clavicle,' and then it's the next day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WOLITZER: Really. You know, I didn't want to do that. It seems, to me,
cheap, and what are you afraid of? I think people are uncomfortable with sex.
I mean, they still are uncomfortable with it--maybe written by a woman, I'm
not sure. I mean, you know, I have to wait until all is said and done to find
out if that's true. But, again, it's not an erotic book, and it's not a
particularly graphic book. But I guess it just treats sex the way it would
great going to the movies, I mean, or--well, no, not really. I mean--or it
would treat it the way it would treat something important between two people,
a conversation involving, you know, bodies and clavicles and other body parts.
I just wanted to put it in there the way it's in life. That was my goal.
GROSS: We talked a little earlier about some of the things--about the impact
that this sex manual has on the children in the novel as they grow up. And we
talked a little bit about what it was like when you were a girl to find that
your mother had written a novel with a sex passage in it. You have two
children. How will you feel when they read your book? Have you thought about
Ms. WOLITZER: Yeah, it's come up a little bit. My 14-year-old son has asked
if he could read it. And first I said, `No.' And then I thought, `Oh, I see.
The more I say "no" the more I'm going to turn this into a hot object in some
way,' and I don't want to do that. I said to him, `Well, you know, I think
you would enjoy other books of mine more. This one has some sex in it. I
think it might be embarrassing to you.' And then the conversation just sort
of ended a little bit.
I mean, I think the thing that always strikes me as funny is that the children
of writers aren't all that interested, for the most part, in their mother or
father's work. They're sort of interested in their own lives a lot more. But
when they do kind of look up from their own self-absorption now and again and
they ask about it, I mean, I bring it up as a possibil--they bring it up as a
possibility. And I sort of respond in a kind of vague way, which is not
unlike the way the parents in my book sort of responded. They left the book
around for the children to see.
Now I'm not an exhibitionist, and this book doesn't feature pictures of me
having sex in it. But I think that it's important that he knows that it's a
novel and that this comes from the imagination because I think that that's the
thing that's kind of falling away, the idea that a book you can write is made
up and that it's not a true thing; that it's fiction, and it's a work of the
imagination, and their mother is really proud of it. But I certainly
wouldn't, you know, ban it.
GROSS: Meg Wolitzer's new novel is called "The Position." She'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, having a mother who was a writer and being a mother who
writes. We continue our conversation with novelist Meg Wolitzer. And Maureen
Corrigan reviews "Them: A Memoir of Parents" by Francine du Plessix Gray.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Meg Wolitzer. We've
been talking about her new novel, "The Position." It opens in 1975 when four
children discover that their parents have written a sex manual, kind of like
"The Joy of Sex," illustrated with sketches of the parents demonstrating the
positions. The novel follows how the sex book affects the lives of the
parents and their children over the next three decades.
You know, another thing you try to get at in your novel "The Position" is the
cultural meaning of sex in the '70s as part of the counterculture--you know,
what people thought sex would be and mean and how, you know, things were
different now. It's the sexual revolution. People were open and not
embarrassed, and, you know, it was a beautiful thing. And now in the
2000--you know, what does sex signify in terms of popular culture or, you
know, of home life? And I'm wondering about some of the differences you
started thinking about between then and now.
Ms. WOLITZER: Well, I think that kind of openness lasted about a minute.
You know, there were all these books, "How to Be Your Own Best Friend" and,
you know, "Free To Be You and Me." This was all about discovering the self
and the pleasure that had begun in the '60s somewhat through, you know, the
commune or drug use or group sex or, you know, kind of groups together,
perhaps through anti-Vietnam activities; people sort of exploring who they
were and what they felt. And there was a bit of a hangover of that in the
But I think now there is a real shame attached to personal pleasure. I mean,
pleasure that we have, as far as I can see out there in the culture, is
attached to objects. You get excited and show off your kitchen, you know,
with its stainless-steel counters or a car. There's really not so much about
personal pleasure. It seems to have sort of gone the way of the tie-dye.
GROSS: What do you think about when you watch, say, the Cialis ads, you
know, which advertise--I think I have the wording straight--a stronger, more
Ms. WOLITZER: What do I think? I find it such an odd moment because there is
this shame, as I say, and this incredible sort of outcry against sex right
now, you know, with the sort of quashing of the idea of gay marriage or the
outcry over, you know, Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction--even that
phrase. That is going on at the same time as sex is all over the place on
commercials: drugs to enhance sexual experience and "Desperate Housewives"
with all of its innuendo. But there's a kind of crude wink-wink attitude
that I find very depressing. And maybe in a way even though the '70s and
the sex that I talk about in the '70s is kind of embarrassing and was done in
bad clothes or without bad clothes, it was lacking that continual sort of,
you know, kind of wolfish, jokey, ironic, embarrassed quality.
GROSS: Your novel "The Position" is written from multiple points of view.
There are chapters from the point of view of each of the parents and each of
the four children. Why did you want to write it that way?
Ms. WOLITZER: Well, my last novel, "The Wife," was the first novel that I'd
written in first person. It had really taken me a long time to kind of move
away from what I referred to earlier as that kind of writing class lyricism.
And that was a sort of angry, funny book, "The Wife." And I realized it's
time to do this. It's time to let the character tell her story and have it be
sometimes shrill, sometimes angry, sometimes funny but undiluted. Don't let
it get diluted by the kind of, you know, A+ writing that you could do. Don't
do that. So I wrote it that way.
And when I started to write "The Position," I thought I want to also write an
undiluted book, but this one I want to go into different places. How can you
go into all these beds and under all these roofs and different houses and
different lives if you don't write it in multiple points of view? But then I
thought, `Oh, God, I'm--you know, it's going to take me into a lesbian scene.
It's going to take me into the 1950s when the parents first meet, when he's
her psychoanalyst. It's going to take me all over the place.' And, again, I
thought, `If not now, when? What are you waiting for?' I mean, you have to
try to challenge yourself as a writer. It's boring otherwise. I mean, I know
some writers like to kind of write books that are similar to each other so
that when you pick up their book, you get a certain kind of feeling, maybe a
cozy boxed-set feeling. And I've never been that way. I just want to engage
myself as a writer each time.
GROSS: The novel's written in multiple points of view, and that lets us see
how different characters see one another. And one of the things I found
really interesting about that was the different ways that the husband and the
wife see each other. You know, he is a very sexualized person, and he finds
his wife quite beautiful, thinks she's really, truly the most attractive
person he's ever met and the person who he's most sexually attracted to. And
you read that and you find yourself thinking, `Oh, how lucky she is to have a
husband who finds her so just constantly and undyingly attractive.' And then
we read things from her point of view--and let me read what she thinks--what
she is thinking about regarding her husband.
(Reading) `Paul was slightly obsessive and anxious, she realized, and he had
always approached sex with her with the kind of interest that men sometimes
had in wine or stereo equipment or cars. How did they taste, sound, run?
Which was the best one, and what was the best way to try it out?'
And you realize that his obsession with her is really not something that she's
happy with. It doesn't translate well for her. And I...
Ms. WOLITZER: No, it...
GROSS: ...love that description, too, of his sexual obsession being kind of
like a person who collects stereo equipment.
Ms. WOLITZER: Well, I've seen a kind of sort of collecting or cataloging that
some men do. And I think it comes from a certain kind of anxiety, sort of
like looking at what you've got. And it might feel good to a woman in the
beginning to be one of those collectibles, but after a while, I think, it
would make her uneasy. It would make her objectified. And that, in fact, is
what happens to this character. And this is coming around the time of the
women's movement as well when there's probably more awareness of the gaze and
how you're viewed by men. And she can't take it anymore.
GROSS: Speaking of the women's movement, what impact did it have on you?
Ms. WOLITZER: The women's movement had a really big impact on me. I started
a consciousness-raising group when I was in ninth grade, and we wrote away to
the National Organization of Women for a pamphlet on topics. And they were
all like, "Orgasm and You." And we just wanted...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WOLITZER: ...a topic like when your mom makes you clean your room. I
mean, it was really so beyond us. But I was very, very aware of it, again,
, who went through this metamorphosis from housewife to, you
know, marcher and Birkenstock wearer in our suburb. And it was wonderful for
me to see. I mean, I really grew up with it as a given. It never occurred to
me that there were things that I couldn't do. I was going to be a writer;
that's great, be a writer. But I loved the trappings of it. I mean, it got a
little bit much in college. There was a class that involved a speculum
and--not on us, but the teacher brought in a woman who showed us what a
self-examination was like, and we got college credit for this. I couldn't
As much as "The Joy of Sex" was on our shelves, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was
there as well. And this was another book that seems like this sepia relic
from another time. I mean, I feel like I'm--like, when my mother talks about
Deanna Durbin movies or Adolphe Menjou, who are these people? Who are these
people from her past? These are things that meant so much to me. And they're
inside--what's interesting is that they're books. Books were really exciting,
electric objects to me. I think that's happened--that's kind of sort of
stopped in the culture. But what you could find in "Our Bodies, Ourselves," I
remember, you know, photographs of splayed women, people having sex, birth
control, babies being born.
You know, when I was younger, another book that had a lot of stuff in it was
"The Family of Man," all those photographs from around the world. And you
learn about the world through these moments of shock and astonishment and
secret pleasure and excitement. And I think for a writer, these things all
get cataloged. There's, like, this intricate filing system. And from my
mother's book that she wrote to seeing "The Joy of Sex" to even a moment where
I remember my parents book a hook and eye on their door--you know a tiny
little hook and eye from the hardware store. And I remember hearing the sound
of my father's drill (imitates drill sound). And it's like, `Why don't they
just hang a sign on the door that says `We have sex in here." You know, I
don't need to know this, and yet I know it, and I'm learning it.'
But I'm somewhat defusing it. I'm thinking about something else. I'm going
to watch "The Partridge Family," I'm doing something else, but it's staying in
me to the extent that I can accept it. And I think for the characters in my
book, it's staying in them to a greater extent than they want it to be.
They're overstimulated by it. It serves as a springboard to all of their, you
know, sexual and emotional, professional, intellectual lives for the rest of
their life. At least that was the conceit as I planned it.
GROSS: My guest is Meg Wolitzer. Her new novel is called "The Position."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Meg Wolitzer, and her new novel is called "The Position."
As we've mentioned, your mother, Hilma Wolitzer, is a novelist who--we talked
a little bit about the impact of reading a sex scene in her book when you were
young. But I'm interested in the broader impact it had on you to read your
mother's books. At what age did you become interested in actually reading
what your mother had written?
Ms. WOLITZER: Very early because I don't think I really understood it. Her
first short story, which was published in the old Saturday Evening Post back
when they ran fiction, was called "Today, A Woman Went Mad in the
Supermarket." And I seem to remember that it had a drawing of a woman in a
supermarket with a very white face putting her hand over her face. And for
about a minute I worried whenever we went to King Kullen that my mother was
going to have a kind of breakdown in the market because I didn't understand
what fiction was.
But I got it as time went on. I mean, I--books and reading was so much a part
of my relationship with her. We cried together over "Charlotte's Web." When
I saw her writing, I don't think I respected it at first. I mean, I would
leave the house in the morning to go to school, and she'd be sitting there in
a bathrobe with her hands poised above the keyboard of a Smith Corona. And
I'd come home at the end of the day, and she'd be there in that bathrobe, with
her hands poised above the keyboard of the Smith Corona. And I wanted to say,
you know, `Pull yourself together, woman.'
What is it to be a writer? It's a slow process of acceptance on the part of a
child to realize that your parent is really doing something wonderful, being
an artist. It was tremendously exciting. But, again, you want--I think kids
do want their parents to be a little bit boring. And she had enough of that
suburban stuff making, you know, salads in the shape of a girl's face and
going on field trips so that it wasn't like she was so bohemian. She really
I think that being around a writer when you're a child, you know, can be bad
sometimes. My children, I think, sometimes wish that I did something else.
Years ago, when my son was little, we were walking past a McDonald's, and
there was a sign that said `Now hiring,' and he got all excited and said,
`Look, Mom! Look! Maybe, you know, you could do this on the side.' He
wanted regular hours for me. He wanted a life that seemed stable. And I had
to say to him, `No, this is what you've got. I'm sorry.' And I think that
they've come to see that it's unusual and can be fun sometimes.
GROSS: You know how, like, when you read a book by someone you know, you look
to see: Is any character based on you? Are there any secret messages here
regarding how this writer actually feels about you?
Ms. WOLITZER: Yeah.
GROSS: So when you were reading, like, books by your mother, did you look for
clues about how she really felt about you?
Ms. WOLITZER: Oh, yes. In fact, there was a short story that she wrote, one
of her early short stories, in the New American Review, this wonderful
literary magazine in the '60s and '70s. And the character, a young unhappy
mother again, is sitting on the side of a bathtub washing her son's hair, and
she's saying, `I don't love you, kiddo.' And I remember reading that and
feeling some kind of deep pang, `But how could it be possible? You know, she
had just worked all night on my costume for "Peter Pan." How could it be
possible? It can't be possible?'--which, I think, gave me a sort of early
understanding, a precocious understanding of the way writers make things up.
But I think the way ideas come about is so sort of circumlocutous. It doesn't
come directly. You don't have to not love your child in order to write that
scene. But everyone is filled with ambivalence, and that's really hard for
kids to see--that their mother is ambivalent, is not just an all good, benign
cookie baker, has some dark moments, has some muttering times. And I think as
kids get older, they see that that's OK.
I began to love it and to really respect it in my mother that she was
interesting; that she has this sort of wonderful talent that came--sort of
seemed to come out of nowhere. Back then she was called a housewife turned
novelist, as though she'd done this incredible transformation freakishly. It
was so amazing to reviewers that a housewife could write a novel.
GROSS: Now I think you edited your high school and junior high school
literary magazines. Is that right?
Ms. WOLITZER: Yeah, I put myself on all the pages. It's horrible. Like,
every page is, like, a poem with a picture of an hourglass. `The sand falls
slow, oh, so slow. Meg Wolitzer.' And then if you look at the hourglass,
like, in the corner, it says, in a tiny little signature, `M. Wolitzer.' I
was perfecting my signature. A lot of haiku, an experiment with villanelles,
some woodcuts. It's essentially the all-Wolitzer issue, kind of like the
Hiroshima issue of The New Yorker.
GROSS: I know when I was in junior high school, the people who I thought,
`Oh, they really know how to write,' they always seemed to use words like
`myriad' and `plethora.' So instead of there being, like a lot of books on a
shelf, there would be, like, a plethora of books on a shelf. Or instead of
there being, like, you know, a bunch of ants, there would be a myriad of ants.
And I thought, `Man, these people are really smart. They really know what
they're doing.' And I finally realized you don't want to throw around words
like myriad and plethora unless you really need them, you know. And I was
wondering if you saw a lot of that when you were editing your school
Ms. WOLITZER: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, there were--I remember one
phrase that I saw a lot, which was, I think, you know, `Love fell into her
arms like so much water.' `"Like so much water," oh, that sounds like a
writer did that--really, really good.' You know, we really were big on--oh,
different colors in the spectrum were important, like the mauve range. You
know, all you had to do was go to a Sherwin-Williams catalog, and you could
write poetry when you were in eighth grade. There was a lot of that. In the
beginning you think it's good, and that's how you learn to write.
I mean, I've taught writing. I don't teach now, but I taught years ago. And
when you're teaching writing, you find that students will write some hideous
sentence right next to something absolutely fresh, and they don't see the
difference. And they pretend to, but they don't get it until one day they do.
And then the bad sentence stays inside and doesn't come out and only the good
But when you're starting, you're in love with words. You have to be in love
with language. You know, reading "Charlotte's Web," reading "Harriet the
Spy," the books that I absolutely loved as a child, the language was so great.
It was so--it seemed effortless. And that's what--when you start writing,
it's full of sort of portentous sentences, and you're in love with yourself.
It has to be like that. It's this little show of which you're the star.
I used to lie in bed at night and have a TV talk show that I called--and this
is--for the sexual imagery alone, it's called "Meg's Treasure Box." And I
would sort of talk into my hand as a microphone and, `Now our guest tonight,
our very special guest, we're really lucky to have her, is Meg Wolitzer.' And
I would, you know, do this because you want to have a show starring yourself.
And when you start writing, you are starring yourself.
I don't write autobiographically now. I mean, I haven't really ever, now that
I think about it. But the thing you can't get away from in fiction is that
the sensibility is yours. So even though people want to know, `Is this
autobiographical?' you can say, `No.' The sensibility and the humor, for me,
because humor's important to me, all comes from a lifetime of watching and
listening and being your own personal `Harriet the Spy' and taking notes.
GROSS: Do you yet have another novel in the works?
Ms. WOLITZER: Yes, I'm just starting a novel right now, and it's such a
pleasure. This one will be in the first person again and is much more in the
vein of "The Wife." It's a sort of, I hope, intense, funny, dark thing about
gender, among other things.
GROSS: And when you start a book, is that a very good time or a very bad
Ms. WOLITZER: Starting a book is the happiest time in life. It's so
wonderful. The possibilities are endless. You can really think, `Maybe this
time it will turn out OK. Maybe this time'--you know, I feel like Liza
Minnelli starting to sing here. `I'll get lucky.' It's really a great
moment because it's all up to you. That's the feeling. You don't have to
think about giving readings. You don't have to think about reviews, you know.
I mean, I feel like reviews are something that are bad for writers because you
take your pulse, although I have a relative in my--an aunt who you can get a
terrible review in The New York Times, and she calls you up and says, `I saw
your cute article.' So you're loved by your family. But to be free of that,
to be in a period where none of that matters, and you're on this island of the
imagination, that is better than sex.
GROSS: Meg Wolitzer, thanks so much for talking with us.
Ms. WOLITZER: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: Meg Wolitzer's new novel is called "The Position."
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Francine du Plessix Gray's new
memoir about her parents. Her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, was the
editorial director of the Conde Nast magazines. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Francine du Plessix Gray's "Them: A Memoir of Parents"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Francine du Plessix Gray is a contributor to The New Yorker magazine.
Throughout her long career she's also written many novels and works of
non-fiction, including a biography of the Marquis de Sade. Now du Plessix
Gray has turned her attention to subjects closer to home. Her new memoir of
her parents is called "Them." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
Of course, it reads like a Russian novel. How many times in the coming weeks
will reviewers like me grab hold of that cliche to give a shorthand sense of
the dazzling too-muchness of Francine du Plessix Gray's memoir "Them"
subtitled "A Memoir of Parents." In addition to the fact that the two main
players in this saga are Russian emigres, whose tangled lives and loves toss
them across the map of continental Europe, there's also the Tolstoy touch
here, where history cruelly intrudes in the form of the Russian revolution and
World War II upon the affairs of the heart.
And then there's the eccentricity of character. Most families may have one
odd duck; du Plessix Gray can boast a whole flock. Take the gambling
grandfather who once designed opera houses for the czar and then, after the
revolution, moved to upstate New York to work for the rest of his life on a
Kodak assembly line; or the gypsy stepgrandmother who, well into her 60s,
hungrily picked up men for one-night stands; and the parents, particularly the
In keeping with the hectic excess of the world she resurrects, du Plessix Gray
memorializes not two but three parents. Her biological father, Bertrand du
Plessix, who was a hero of de Gaulle's Free French forces, died in the summer
of 1940 when his fighter plane was shot down over the Mediterranean. The man
who would become her stepfather, Alexander "Alex" Liberman, had been having an
affair with Francine's legendary beauty of a mother, Tatiana, who claimed
descent from Genghis Khan. She'd also been the muse of the Russian
revolution's greatest poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky.
When France fell to the Nazis, Alex, Tatiana and Francine fled to New York
City, where Alex went on to reign for decades as the editorial director of the
Conde Nast publishing empire. And Tatiana became Tatiana of Sax, a famous
women's hat designer at a time when hats still mattered. In their Upper East
Side town house throughout the 1950s and '60s, they presided over power
parties that included famous friends, like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo,
Salvador Dali, Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, as well as other friends who
Alex and Tatiana ruthlessly dropped when they were no longer useful.
And what of young Francine? She went on not only to become, as we know, a
famous writer--all the principal players in this memoir are famous for
something or other--but to survive growing up in the savage company of her
erratically loving, yet fundamentally narcissistic, larger-than-life parents.
Clearly du Plessix Gray doesn't have to venture farther than her own
cosmopolitan back yard to dig up fabulous stories of romance, deceit and
grief. But though her family lure is intrinsically fascinating, it's du
Plessix Gray's sensibility, her weathered intelligence as a writer that really
makes this memoir more than a curious who-was-who list of the 20th century
beau monde. Reading it made me think that perhaps all writers should be
required to wait until, ideally, they attain the classical distance of old
age--Du Plessix Gray is in her 70s--before they start in on their parents in
In her introduction, du Plessix Gray says that she strove for a `compassionate
severity' in recalling Tatiana and Alex, and that superb phrase characterizes
her tone throughout. For instance, one telling detail among the thousands
that she reveals about her mother really stayed with me. During her heyday,
Tatiana was famous throughout New York society for a stunningly huge ring
composed of a mound of rubies resembling a bishop's crosier. After her
mother's death, du Plessix Gray had her jewelry evaluated and discovered that
the outrageous ruby ring was nothing but a pile of garnets. Social climber,
pretender, generous and hard-working career woman who hoodwinked a fashion
world in which appearances were all, Tatiana, like most people, just more so,
was a nest of contraries.
To her credit, du Plessix Gray grants Tatiana and Alex and all her outsized
subjects here an unruly and, yes, an occasionally repugnant humanness. You
wouldn't have wanted to have lived with `them,' but, oh, what brazenly big
lives they led.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Them: A Memoir of Parents" by Francine du Plessix Gray.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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