DATE June 16, 2006 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"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Meg Wolitzer's novel "The Position" has just been published in paperback. The
story begins 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."
Terry Gross spoke with Wolitzer last year. Let's start with a reading from
the opening of "The Position."
Ms. MEG WOLITZER: (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. For is 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'd 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 teenager 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 exorbitant? 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, and nothing in the book
speaks to his condition. 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
Ms. WOLITZER: I...
GROSS: What did you want to use...
Ms. WOLITZER: Go ahead.
GROSS: ...sex as? 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 things--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 or 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 a
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.
BIANCULLI: Meg Wolitzer speaking with Terry Gross. We'll get back to their
interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let get back to Terry's interview with Meg Wolitzer, author of the
novel "The Position." It's just been published in paperback.
GROSS: 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 act, 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: 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 were.
GROSS: 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 thinks, `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 circumlocutious. 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: 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, thanks so much for talking with us.
Ms. WOLITZER: Oh, thank you.
BIANCULLI: Meg Wolitzer speaking with Terry Gross last year. Wolitzer's
novel "The Position" has just been published in paperback. I'm David
Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Review: Film critic David Edelstein reviews "The Lake House" and
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Summer begins officially next week, but film critic David Edelstein says two
new movies opening today offer just the kind of escapist entertainment we
expect this time of year. "The Lake House" is a love story that reunites
"Speed" co-stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in a time travel romance.
The other film, "Nacho Libre," stars Jack Black as a masked Mexican wrestling
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: Romantic time travel fantasies are the refuge of fools
who'd rather dream of ways to rewrite the past than to solve their problems in
the present, and, like most people, I'm a total sucker for them. I even love
one of the dumbest, "The Lake House," in which architect Keanu Reeves and
chief hospital resident Sandra Bullock share an isolated retreat outside
Chicago two years apart, and, for some reason--the filmmakers never even
bother to cite sunspots or Indian burial grounds--they end up being able to
mail each other letters. Down goes the red arm on the mailbox, and up bubbles
another missive from the past or future. Keanu, in 2004 asks, `Is it
different in 2006?' and Sandra says, `Oh, it's pretty much the same,' and you
wonder what planet she's on. Iraq? Katrina? The tsunami?
You can see the climactic revelation limping its way towards you about 90
minutes before the near-sighted heroine does, but who cares? As they proved
in "Speed," Keanu and Sandra have so much chemistry, you happily wait for them
to overcome their daunting temporal hurdles. She's all perky
self-deprecation, and she has better hair than in years. It frames her face
like it did on that runaway bus. And his peculiar combination of engagement
and beautiful blankness appears to be ageless.
After my screening, an older gentlemen peppered a publicity assistant with
questions of logic while the poor young woman stared into the middle distance.
What could she say? The movie makes no sense. Really, folks, there are ways
to fry your synapses that are much more fun than trying to diagram time travel
romances. As the Buddhists might say about the river that is time, just go
with the flow.
And then go see "Nacho Libre," which is even more entertainingly ridiculous.
It's directed by Jared Hess of "Napolean Dynamite," the deadpan story of a
stringy Idaho mouthbreather with eyes that are perpetual half masts. I'm not
sure why, but this zombie comedy became a sort of teen anthem. This time Hess
has a truly dynamic Napolean in Jack Black as Ignatio, Nacho for short, an
apprentice Mexican orphanage friar turned masked wrestler. Deadpan does
wonders for Black, who's sometimes so extroverted he gets tedious. Here he's
piously immobile, but with a devilish glint in his eyes, and he's given to
striking would-be heartthrob poses and erupting into American Idol-style
crooning. That is, he's given to explosions of Jack Blackness.
The crazy, slapstick head-banger wrestling matches are another good outlet for
his talents, like this battle in an alley between Nacho and a skeletal street
kid known as Esqueleto, played by Hector Jimenez, who steals day-old tortilla
chips meant for the orphans and who proves unusually limber.
(Soundbite of "Nacho Libre")
(Soundbite of fighting, punching, and grunting)
Mr. JACK BLACK (As Nacho ): Today, I have the chance of a lifetime, but
first I need a man.
Mr. HECTOR JIMENEZ (As Esqueleto): Get off me. Ah!
Mr. BLACK (As Nacho): Don't you see, your skills plus my skills in the ring.
Mr. JIMENEZ (As Esqueleto): You're crazy!
Mr. BLACK (As Nacho): Aren't you tired of getting dirt kicked in your face?
Don't you want a little taste of the glory, see what it tastes like?
JIMENEZ (As Esqueleto): No.
Mr. BLACK (As Nacho): If we win, we get 200 pesos.
(End of soundbite)
EDELSTEIN: "Nacho Libre" is semi-infantile camp, and there are one too many
fart jokes. But it's also gorgeous with pop-out reds and electric blues and
the purposely cheesy wrestling scenes which summon up an era of superhero
Mexican wrestlers like Santo and the Blue Demon. As in "Napolean Dynamite,"
Hess puts his characters in the center of the frame to make them look more
awkward, only this time, behind them are storybook Mexican vistas. It's a
surreal fairy tale. Black's Nacho makes moo-cow eyes at the pure,
breathtaking Sister Encarnacion, embodied by Ana de la Reguera. And his
accent is forever slipping from the Frito Bandito to Maurice Chevalier to, I
think, Slobodan Milosevic. He curls his eyebrows, he twitches his manly
buttocks, and he leaps into the ring with a belly that might have been
designed for bouncing off ropes. He makes you want to holler `Viva Nacho!
Viva la estupides!"
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is TV critic for New York Magazine.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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.