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Surrender, Dorothyby Meg Wolitzer
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Meg Wolitzer
Q: Your books all offer highly detailed depictions of day-to-day life as many of us live it today. In this sense, your work follows the prescriptions of Jane Austen — who saw fiction as a mirror held up to reality — and Sir Walter Scott, who defined the novel as just a reflection of the everyday doings of ordinary people. Do you see your novels as mirrors of reality? What sorts of novels do you imagine Jane Austen would be writing today?
A: Trends in novels have changed a great deal since Jane Austen's time, and the big, realistic, "mirror" novel is only one kind out of many being written today. But it happens to be the kind that I'm drawn to again and again, both as a Writer and a reader. I'm not sure fiction "should" do anything in particular, but when I read a book that really shows me the inner mechanics of people's livesthe moments of tedium and epiphany — I feel extremely grateful. It's not that I consciously set out to provide a mirror of reality when I write fiction, but because I myself am so curious about other people-the way they think and talk and the complexities of the world they've constructed for themselves — I always end up putting some of this into my books. If I hadnt been a writer, I think I would have enjoyed being a psychoanalyst — just so I could have these stories told to me all day. lf Jane Austen were writing today, I think her novels would be as wry and knowing as ever, and would provide a guide to the customs and intimacies of an increasingly strange and difficult world.
Q: How do you feel about the popular critical practice today of sorting contemporary novels into neat categories: women's fiction, men's fiction, gay fiction, romantic comedy, literary fiction, etc? To what categories have you most often found your books assigned?
A: Sorting novels Into categories can be a reductive act, because it keeps readers away from certain books. My books have sometimes been classified as "women's fiction" and while I don't mind this classification, I don't want to put off male readers. I've also been shelved in bookstores under "literary fiction," and that's fine with me, though lately it seems that "literary fiction" basically means anything that's not written by Danielle Steel.
Q: Who are your favorite novelists? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
A: My favorite novelists are Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Colette, and Philip Roth. As for shorter fiction, I'm a fan of James Joyce, John Cheever, Anton Chekhov and a contemporary of mine who's also a friend, Lorrie Moore. It's not that the influence of any of these writers can really be seen in my writing, but each of them has made me so excited about fiction that I just want to go write. I would say that Virginia Woolf has exerted the strongest influence on me in terms of language and memory; Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books ever. It's a perfect novel.
Q: Your previous books have been called "seriously funny." But Surrender, Dorothy, which begins with the sudden death of its central character, clearly emphasizes the tragic over the comic. What inspired you to make such a major thematic departure?
A: Perhaps it's a by-product of getting older, but I've been giving a certain emphasis to the darker aspect of my characters' lives. A close friend of mine died suddenly some years ago, though under different circumstances, and I think the experience was so overwhelming to me that I simply needed to turn it into something, to try to understand it better. So I wrote about the first death among a group of friends, though the actual story of Surrender, Dorothy is completely invented.
Q: Woody Allen has said, "Comedy writers sit at the children's table." But many authors feel it is harder to write comedy than tragedy. Do you agree? What are the challenges of blending humor and drama? Why do you suppose "comic" and "slice-of-life" novels, no matter how wellcrafted and accomplished, are generally perceived as separate from the "serious" literary canon?
A: Written comedy is tremendously hard because, for one reason, you can't rely on "shtick" — the funny voices, the facial expressions, the physical stuff-that stand-up comics or comic actors do to heighten the effect. It's just your words, left on their own to live or die. Voice becomes central in comedic fiction. I agree with Woody Allen's comment, but I also happen to think that a lot of comedy writers are secretly glad to be banished to the children's table, because they know that's where the action is. Blending humor and drama is a great challenge, because you run the risk of readers saying, "Well, I liked the funny parts, but not the sad parts," or vice versa. You can't please everyone when you write, so you shouldn't try to please anyone. Ideally, the humor and pathos will come out all in one burst. I'm not sure why funny writers aren't taken as seriously as their more highbrow counterparts, because I know they've contributed a great deal to literature. There are exceptions, of course, although generally these serious writers who are given credit and recognition for writing in a wildly funny way tend to be men (think Roth, Pynchon, Waugh). When wit is absent from a book, I worry. I like books to be deeply observant, and often those observations will end up having a slightly hilarious edge to them, like life itself
Q: How did you begin writing? Did your parents play a role in your aspirations?
A: My mother, Hilma Wolitzer, is a novelist, and I grew up watching her sit in her nightgown at her Smith-Corona typewriter all day. In the beginning, I was slightly embarrassed by her "job" — actually, it didn't seem like a job at all — and I kind of wished at the time that she'd do something more normal, like be a travel agent. But gradually I began talking about writing with her, and she was a great influence and supporter of my earliest efforts, encouraging me to think that I could become a writer someday too. And now I am, and I suppose my children are equally embarrassed by my pseudo-job.
Q: Adam, Natalie, and Maddy are all wonderfully developed and consistently surprising characters. Are they based on any real-life models?
A: None of my characters are ever really based on actual people, although I do borrow certain traits and idiosyncrasies from people I know. But I tend to mix them together to make a more interesting hybrid. While I don't "know" any of my characters in real life, per se, I do sometimes know their "type" — the kind of men and women they are, who live certain kinds of lives that I've tried to understand.
Q: One of the most compelling things about Surrender, Dorothy is how each character is initially armed with a false sense of immunity to mortality and loss. And after Sara's death, much of the struggle for your characters — the young mother Maddy, most poignantly — seems to have to do with losing their "sensation of immortality" and recognizing how tenuous and random life is. What inspired you to tackle such a universal theme, and how did you go about shaping it into a narrative so personal and immediate?
A: As I said earlier, the death of my friend years ago was in some definite way the catalyst for the book. But the notions of mortality vs. immortality were inspired by many factors, one of which is simply that I'm getting older and I experience life in a different way. Having children has contributed to this shift greatly; it's slowed down my life while at the same time expanding it. As I watch my children grow tip, I feel as though I'm witnessing one of those fast-action "growth of a flower" films we used to watch in elementary school. Everything is whizzing right by me, though 1 never really knew it before. Of course this is going to make me a bit more existentially driven as a writer, though without losing my irony, I hope. I'd like to be a bit like the late Alice Adams, with a dash of Camus thrown in for good measure.
Q: Peter is, perhaps, the most likely to elicit mixed emotions from readers. As you were writing, what were your feelings about him? Did you struggle with his emotions and choices?
A: Since I have ambivalent feelings about many of the people I know in real life, presumably I ought to have such ambivalences about my characters too. Peter is a good example, a man who wants to be good but who has qualities that are less than stellar, causing him to dissemble from time to time. I can relate to this aspect of him, and I think if I couldn't, I wouldn't dare to write a character like this one. It's a great challenge for women writers to create believable men, ones who aren't either romanticized or demonized in our portrayals. I think in the past I've sometimes tended to romanticize my male characters, to make them sensitive in a poetic way that might disregard their other, more difficult sides. As I was writing Surrender, Dorothy, I tried to force myself to stay true to who Peter was, and not try to wrap him in a kind of "goodness" that would make me lose sight of his complexities, no matter how uneasy they might make me feel.
Q: At the end of the novel, Natalie seems to be moving away from her Sara-obsessed stasis: she simply tosses her daughter's things into a bag, abandons her plans to visit Japan, and vows to "go someplace her daughter had never been." How far along is Natalie in the healing process at this point?
A: I would say very far along, with one important exception: yet to test her healing outside ofthe laboratory that the summer house provide d her. She's come quite far in terms of facing various issues with the people ill Sara's I life, but now she needs to see what it's like to be Sara-less among the people in her own life. She needs, ill effect, to get a life. And I know how wrenching a prospect this is, as it would be for anyone who has experienced such an enormous loss and trying to reinvent his or her life.
Q: What do you hope readers will come away with after reading Surrender, Dorothy?
A: I hope they see that the book is meant to be funny as well as dark, and that these two qualities have some sort of satisfying balance. We can't choose the balance of light and dark in our own lives, of course, but we can choose it when we write novels.
Q: To what degree do you draw upon your own experiences with family and friends as you create the characters and situations for your novels?
A: I've never written truly autobiographically. Everything has been processed, put through one of those Play-Doh shapers so that it is thoroughly transformed. This keeps writing interesting for me. I love the strange ways in which experience can be altered and translated in fiction; some of the things I've written have been based on things that have actually happened, but usually it's the small moment's that are from life, as opposed to the over-arching plots. My writing "voice" is probably similar to the way I speak — at least I'm told by friends that it is. I think I may be more irreverent in person; something happens when I write that creates a slightly hushed and muted voice. I'm not sure why this happens.
Q: Give us the inside scoop on your writing regimen: How many hours a day do you devote to writing? Do you outline the complete arc of your narrative early on? Do you draft on paper or at a keyboard (typewriter or computer)? Do you have a favorite location or time of day (or night) for writing? What do you do to avoid distractions?
A: What a difference having children makes. It used to be that I'd stay up until all hours watching ridiculously bad movies on TV, and sleep exceedingly late, starting my writing in the late morning or early afternoon, and going as long as I pleased. But after I had children and my time was totally sucked away from me, I began to take schedules seriously. I now work from the minute the house is quiet to the minute it's noisy again. I like to talk on the phone sometimes during work, just to give me a needed distraction and break up the solitude. And I also like to take an occasional walk, or exercise on the treadmill to get those weird endorphins flowing. But mostly during the day I write, and this is the most pleasurable way to spend the day that I can think of. I'm fairly disciplined without forcing the matter. I usually have a large sense of what I want a novel to be "about," and a few notions of the characters who will populate it, and I proceed from there. I never create outlines — I stopped doing those in fourth grade, when I had to hand in an outline of Greek civilization — but try to trust my structural instincts and hope that the collection of chapters I put out will somehow feel like a book. If it doesn't, I rewrite it. And even if it does, I still rewrite it. I always work at the computer; I'm as fast a typist as they come, though I never took touch-typing in high school (it was either typing or creative writing; both couldn't fit in my schedule), and I have no idea where the different keys are located. I sit and actually look at the keyboard as I work, and yet my fingers fly. But my favorite stage of writing is when I get to print out what I've done and make some changes by hand in the margins. I usually do this in a different setting: in a library, on a park bench or in the booth of a coffee shop, enjoying the freedom of being away from my desk yet still feeling productive. And I have a huge collection of finepoint magic markers that help me along. I almost never write at night (except to do re-writing) because I'm kind of wiped out by then, and I like to reserve weekends for my family. I don't really go out of my way to avoid distractions, but instead embrace them in small quantities. The occasional movie during the work day or lunch with a friend can be the best tonic in the world, leading to a tremendously productive week.
Q: What is your sense of who your readers are? What do they want from a novel? Who is your ideal reader?
A: I'm not really sure who my readers are, although I have a vague sense of them as being in their 30's and early 40'S, and predominantly female and well-educated. I sense this from the letters I receive and the people who come to my readings. They remind me of my own friends. My ideal reader, of course, is myself. I've always said that I try to write the books I wish I could find on the bookstore shelf. This is advice I have given my writing students: write the kind of fiction that you would love to read.
Q: Have you met many of your readers at book signings or through letters and e-mail? What sorts of feedback do you most appreciate?
A: I've met some readers at readings I've given and through the letters they've written me, but I haven't really gotten to know any of them. Still, it means a great deal to me when someone tells me how much he or she liked a particular book of mine. I think almost all writers feel this way, though readers sometimes imagine that compliments or comments aren't of great interest to writers. They are wrong; writers love to hear substantive commentary or praise. It may just be because it feels good to have your ego stroked, but I think it's also because writing so often delivers delayed gratification, and the sudden pleasure of a reader's reaction is a welcome burst of immediacy. Unsolicited criticism, while valid, is of course less fun to receive. Mostly I just enjoy getting hard evidence that people who aren't my mother or my relatives or my friends are actually reading what I've written.
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. In the particular emotional realm of Surrender, Dorothy, the issue of "growing up" is central. Sara feels that her mother "has not prepared me for being grown up." Adam is obsessed with losing his identity as a precocious young artist-and the idea of becoming a washed-up, "one-hit wonder" terrifies him. What does "growing up" mean to the novel's other characters?
2. In what ways has the summer house always offered its inhabitants a sort of month-long respite from these concerns about "growing up"? What else has the summer house represented to Adam, Sara, Maddy, and Peter? After Sara's death, how does this change?
3. Surrender, Dorothy begins with a powerful internal monologue: "Immortality was the vehicle that transported me, every summer, to the squalid little house we called our own. Immortality was the thing I rode in, barely noticing." Who is presumably speaking here? To what degree might the thoughts expressed here — that "death was not for us, certainly not for me" — be attributed to every character in the novel? Explain.
4. What does Meg Wolitzer achieve by opening the book with such a rueful and elegiac Prologue? How does it color the tone of the rest of the novel?
5. With which characters in Surrender, Dorothy do you most closely identify? Why?
6. How would you describe each of the main characters in this story? What are the motivations underlying their choices and actions?
7. What can we learn about Natalie's character from the fact that she continues to think of her 30-year-old daughter and her "irresponsiible teenagers, instead of this crew of friends as careful, faithful friends hurtling in a pack toward the middle of their lives"? If Natalie were to recognize them as adults, how would she then have to adjust her own sense of self?
8. What are the dynamics of Adam and Sara's friendship? What are the advantages and disadvantages associated with their platonic relationship, one that is "freed from the netting of sexual love, from the calamities that regularly plagued their more predictably coupled-up friends"? How does Natalie seem to feel about their relationship?
9. What does the future hold for Maddy? Do you think the marriage with Peter will last? Do you think she should stay with him? Why or why not?
10. Adam is not so much attracted to Shawn as he is flattered that someone so good-looking wants him. Who suffers more as a result of this affair? To what extent is Shawn's self-image damaged and/or modified by this relationship? Adam's?
11. Surrender, Dorothy climaxes with an emotional argument between Adam and Natalie. What compels Adam to lash out the way he does? Is his behavior justified? How much of what he says about Natalie is true? And what does his personal attack reveal about his own frustrations?
12. In the middle of this scene, Wolitzer's omniscient third-person narrator ruminates on the tension underlying her characters' anger: "Of course it was [a contest], a heated, furious competition, and the theme of it was: Who owned this broken girl now, her mother or her closest friends? There were no rules, no reference book in which to look up the answer." How does this unspoken "competition" bear out?
13. Describe the nature of the relationship between Maddy and Sara. How does it begin? What roles do competition, jealousy, and rivalry play at different points in their friendship? How do these ambivalent feelings color Maddy's mourning process?
14. What do you think about Peter and Sara's mutual decision to not tell Maddy about their brief affair? How does this deception contribute to Maddy and Peter's estranged marriage after Sara's death?
15. The ghost of Sara is very much a part of the sexual moment that flickers between Natalie and Peter on the beach. Why is her presence so significant?
16. What effect does Kenji's translation of Sara's Japanese diary seem to have on Natalie? Consider her actions and behavior once she hears Sara's posthumous request to "leave me the hell alone...enough is enough."
17. Discuss the author's writing style. How does Wolitzer's use of dialogue serve to develop and distinguish each of the novel's characters?
18. Chart the different grieving processes acted out by each of Wolitzer's characters. By the end of the novel, to what degree has each of them begun to heal?
19. What is the likelihood that the characters in Surrender, Dorothy will remain close friends in the future? Without Sara as their glue, what will hold them all together? What would an Epilogue have in store for this group?
20. What are the central themes in Surrender, Dorothy? What does Wolitzer seem to be saying about the shifting notions of family in modern life?
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