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The Joy of the 1970sby Meg Wolitzer
But if a novel isn't autobiographical, then where do its particulars come from? It's easy to say that something isn't from your own experience at all, no sir, but it's a lot more difficult to track and examine the subtleties of how, exactly, the thing came to be. Most writers would tell you that their ideas, while not necessarily autobiographical, do rise up out of some kind of stew of experience and intuition. Even in fiction, the theory of spontaneous generation doesn't have much credibility.
So I thought I would try to take apart the components of my novel, The Position, the way a child might take apart a telephone, looking at the tiny colored wires and wingnuts inside, in the hope of figuring out how the thing actually works.
The Big Idea
My parents did not write a sex book, not even close. However, my mother was (and is) a novelist who included a very brief but candid sex scene in her first novel, Ending. Couple that with my memory of the hook-and-eye on my parents' bedroom door, a small piece of hardware that spoke loudly to me, reminding me that this room was more than just a place that my sister and I could enter and flop down on the bed whenever we wanted while my parents watched TV or read the paper. I never recall actually turning the knob of my parents' door and finding it locked, but the catalyst of the hook-and-eye probably set off a chain of thought that I'd forgotten about for a long time, until I began thinking of writing a new novel. And, of course, the experience of reading The Joy of Sex with my sister still resonates; I recall that the couple in the illustrations were far closer to my parents' age than my own. The man looked like a cross between Kris Kristofferson and Alan Bates, and the woman was pale and Audrey Hepburn-necked and wore go-go boots in at least one of the drawings. Who were those people? I probably wondered at the time. Did they have kids?
I remembered a girl I had known when I was growing up. She was beautiful and angry, with long hair and Earth Shoes and a fixation on dangerous boys. Once, during gym class, we were all out on the field behind our junior high school, and we were doing an archery unit. This girl put down her bow and arrow and began to walk in front of the targets. She was stoned and oblivious as arrows flew near her head and girls began to shout at her to move away. Although I didn't put that scene in my novel, I imagine that this is something Holly might have done. I can see her with a hail of arrows all around her, walking out of sight, at least for a period of time. I guess my sense is that ambivalence might be someone's primary response to their family, but even so, we are all drawn to the family in some deep and reflexive way.
Or maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm drawn to the family, or at least to writing about it. I think everything happens in the realm of the family; it's a perfect petri dish for looking at slights and disappointments and love and loss. My character Claudia, the younger daughter, is far less beautiful than her sister Holly, and she has always tried to be a dutiful daughter, which in a sense has kept her removed from experience. Though I am neither beautiful like Holly nor clumsy like Claudia, I definitely put a piece of my child-self into Claudia the self that was timid and afraid of displeasing my parents or teachers. Claudia's trajectory takes her from being slightly removed from the world to really joining in, just the way growing up can force a timid child to wade into the action.
The oldest of the Mellow children is named Michael, and he is the conscience of the family, the worrier. I don't relate to him very much, though I feel sorry for him because he has trouble enjoying himself. I put him in a corporate environment because it was a way of highlighting his own loneliness. Lastly, the younger son, Dashiell, is a gay Republican, and while you might say this was a stretch for me to write, I found that he was my favorite character of all. I don't agree with Dashiell's politics, but I felt that his combination of sexuality and worldview reflect a deep conflict, and I see him as trying to resolve it endlessly, and I admire his tenacity.
Mary McCarthy once accused Salinger of loving his characters "more than God," and while I understand the complaint she leveled against him, I too felt a real love for all of the grown children in my novel, who were forced to confront sexuality in a way that wasn't of their own choosing, and whose lives have changed because of it.
I suppose it's fair to say that The Position didn't come out of any one experience, but was formed in different ways over time, a result of my occasional preoccupations with family, love, sex, forgiveness, guilt, loneliness, childhood, adolescence, death, and, of course, that strangely sweet and odd bracket of long-ago time called the 1970s.