Carolyn Polis '18
Novelist and previous Smith student Meg Wolitzer began her discussion April 16 by reading a passage from one of her novels, “The Wife,” which takes place at Smith College during the 1950s and mentions Seelye Hall and Neilson Library. The narrative has a reflective, humorous quality that does not detract from the serious themes of the piece, which focus on a young woman discovering herself through literature and an eccentric young professor.
Wolitzer attended Smith for two years before transferring to Brown University. Although she feels that Brown had stronger creative writing resources, she said that the courses she took at Smith and the Five Colleges significantly improved her ability to analyze texts and ultimately played a role in shaping her writing style.
She is a Sylvia Plath fan and said that Plath’s novel “The Bell Jar” helped her understand the escape that reading provides and the impact the “right” book can have on a reader. Her new young adult novel “Belzhar” draws heavily on her knowledge of and experience with Plath’s works; it centers around a special school for emotionally delicate teenagers who only study one author every year. During the timeframe of the novel, that author is Plath. The novel explores how the characters use Plath’s literature to learn about themselves.
Wolitzer also spoke of her childhood. When she was in the first grade, she dictated short stories to her teacher, and they often included subjects with which she had no experience. She tried to keep a journal but found it boring; then, thinking she would need documentation of her life for when she became famous, she filled in all the blank pages with “nothing happened today.” These anecdotes introduced the writing process behind her novel “The Interestings,” which spans about 40 years in the lives of a group of friends. In order to write the novel, she had to be able to write about people getting older, which sometimes include the childhood quirks a person eventually outgrows.
Members of the audience asked questions at the end of the discussion. One woman—in response to a comment Wolitzer made on how current fiction focuses less on style than older literature does—asked what she feels gets lost when fiction writers are less concerned with style in their writing. She replied that fiction begins to read like nonfiction, with readers searching for “the point” instead of using the style as a guide to interpret the themes.
In response to a question about her relationship with her mother, who was also a novelist, Wolitzer replied that her mother’s support and encouragement influenced her decision to pursue writing. Wolitzer shared that she once advised a mother to support her child who dreamed of becoming a playwright because the child would face enough adversity without the disapproval of her parents. After answering questions, Wolitzer signed copies of her books.