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Meg Wolitzer’s new novel explores life-changing importance of female friendship

In her first months of college, a young woman has a harrowing encounter with a male student -- and a life-changing one with an older, renowned feminist writer. Meg Wolitzer's "The Female Persuasion" is about friendship, womanhood, ambition, and other issues that are very much of this moment. Wolitzer joins Jeffrey Brown for a book conversation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Author Meg Wolitzer has a habit of tapping into the cultural moment. Her latest book asks big questions about women's power and feminism in the time of MeToo.

    Jeffrey Brown has this latest edition of the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In her first months of college, a young woman has a harrowing encounter with a male student and a life-changing one with an older renowned feminist writer and activist.

    The new novel "The Female Persuasion" is about friendship, womanhood, ambition, and power, and addresses issues very much of this moment.

    Author Meg Wolitzer joins me now. Welcome to you.

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, right off the bat, in this book, we have an encounter that one can't help feel the kind of moment that we're in. But you were writing before all that.

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    Well, these are old issues.

    I mean, issues around female power, misogyny, the treatment of women, how do you make meaning in the world, these are all issues that I have been thinking about and writing about for a very, very long time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is a story, as we were saying, about an education of a young woman and her peers and also about different generations of women, right, and how they see each other.

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    You know, there's a second wave feminist and younger women who are feminists. And I was thinking so much about my childhood and my mother, who is a novelist named Hilma Wolitzer.

    When I was growing up, she hadn't been to college when she was young and her parents didn't encourage her in a big way. She was helped so much by the women's movement. And I saw that happen. I saw it in my home.

    I started a consciousness raising group. I was part of one and continued it when I was in junior high school. And we were so earnest. And we wrote away to the National Organization for Women asking for a list of topics. And they gave us a list that included things like sexual fulfillment and you, when we wanted things like when your parents won't listen.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    But we were these budding feminists. And it was exciting. And I thought about the different generations. And I'm very moved by how different people come to make that kind of meaning.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Where do you get the ideas, inspirations, models for people in the things you write about?

    I mean, what — these are these are just ideas that you're — that are in your head and somehow you pull out into a novel.

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    You know, it's a strange kind of thing that's so hard to explain.

    I have a sort of an idea or a problem that I want to kind of work on in a, book and in this case some of those issues that I mentioned.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Oh, really? So, the issues were there first in a way?

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    Well, the idea — well, the one main one, I would say, is, who is the person you meet who can change your life forever?

    There's sometimes someone when you're young who sees something in you and that you may not even see in yourself, but also around those other issues that I mentioned. But that one in particular occurred to me. And I saw this young woman, Greer, who is really hot-faced, who whenever she tries to sort of sort of speak up, her face goes really, really red and hot.

    And she can't articulate what she feels. And then there's this older, kind of chic, renowned feminist who sees something in her and sort of taps her and sets her on a path that she never thought she'd be on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But it's interesting in your case, because reviewers and literary critics have often noted how you're sort of hitting the Zeitgeist in various books of yours.

    Is it — so, is it intentional or is that just sort of what happens?

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    I think that people — people say all the time, write what you know, but I think that really it's much more like, write what obsesses you.

    And these are the things that I have been thinking about forever. There's one way to really know what obsesses you as a writer. Just look at everything you have Googled for the past 24 hours, which is sort of a horrifying idea for most people.

    In my case, it would kind of be a combination of Virginia Woolf and does this mole look suspicious? So I don't think that those are good novels.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    But other things that I have been thinking about in serious…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. But that can help you think about a character, I suppose.

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    Well, it's true, because I had these ideas. And then I saw these people. I saw this older, charismatic woman, and she kind of steps up and says, I will take those ideas.

    And that's who you let the book…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And why is fiction a good way to do that? Beyond that — I know I ask some writers and they said, well, I'm a novelist, and I write fiction. But what's your answer?

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    For me, look at this moment we're in. It's the moment of hot takes and people sort of in fever about ideas and kind of putting things into the 24-hour news cycle.

    I kind of think of myself as the master of the warm take. I love the intimacy of a novel and how it lets you get to know people. It doesn't have answers. At least my novels don't. I just want to kind of let them unspool and say, what is it like? What is it like for women right now? What is it like for young women?

    What is it like for these older women who came of age in a different world? And my novels I hope just show a little bit of, what is it like?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, in the world of literature, especially in discussions of big social novels of the kind that you're writing, and a lot of the discussion has been around the lack of recognition of women writers.

    And you yourself have participated, contributed to that in your own writings, thinking about it. Where are we now?

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    I wrote an essay in The New York Times called "The Second Shelf," which was kind of a pun on the second sex.

    And I talked about the sort of different levels of recognition that literary men, literary women have received. And one of the things that I talked about was book covers and how sometimes — and it's sometimes — there, of course, exceptions to this — a book by a man might have big, bold typeface that said, this book is an event, and a book by a woman might sometimes have what I jokingly called a cover that you could call little girl in a field of wheat.

    And the idea of imagining two men sort of standing on a train platform, what's that? What's that you're reading, Bill? A little girl in a field of wheat? I love it.

    No, that's not going to happen, because the book cover seems to suggest that this isn't for one gender. And I feel that books are for everyone. But there's a long way to go. There's a lot to be done.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So that's the world of literature, and then the larger world you see of MeToo and the kinds of issues you're writing about in this novel?

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    I definitely see it. It's all sort of swimming around us.

    I feel like we're in this swirling moment. And, as a novelist, I just want to kind of go into a corner and keep looking at things. And it's not the definitive thing.

    I mean, this can't be the novel of the MeToo movement. It can't be. I want it to — these are timeless issues, as well as being timely. We have been talking about them forever.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the new novel is "The Female Persuasion."

    Meg Wolitzer, thank you very much.

  • Meg Wolitzer:

    Oh, thank you.

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