Photo credit: Nina Subin
What was your favorite book as a child?
. This was the first novel I cried over, while sitting in my mother’s lap. The characters were so real and textured and knowable; I came to continue to look for this quality in fiction as I got older, and I still look for it.
When did you know you were a writer?
I loved to write from the time I was very young. My mother, Hilma Wolitzer
, who is also a writer, encouraged me; and I had a teacher who invited me up to her desk in first grade to dictate stories to her that she would write down. I also told myself a serial novel on the way to school, about two brothers who were heirs to the Kraft Cheese fortune. This clearly came about because of all the boxes of macaroni and cheese that were meal staples in my early years. (And macaroni and cheese might well be the easy meal of choice of a parent who is trying to write novels.)
What does your writing workspace look like?
After many years of not having an office in my home, and instead working on my bed, or in a local diner, or in a library, I finally do have one. It has a lot of books and a big desk that used to be my parents’ kitchen table, and I love being in there.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Scrabble. I play a lot of online Scrabble — not Words with Friends, just Scrabble — and I will give myself a reward of a few Scrabble moves after, say, completing a page of fiction or even a paragraph.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Someone wrote me that a medical detail in one of my novels made him go see a doctor, and it turned out that the symptom he was experiencing was something serious, and it proved really important that he had gotten it treated. So you see? Fiction matters.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I love Evan S. Connell, in particular his brilliant novel Mrs. Bridge
, about a Kansas City housewife before WWII. I feel that I know her so well. I laughed and felt deeply emotional reading this book. I recently wrote about it
for the NY Times
, in fact; appropriately for their Enthusiast column.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
I once had a job in my early 20s inventing toys as part of a toy think tank. None of my ideas (or anyone’s, I don’t think) actually got chosen, though I had an excellent idea (I thought at the time) for dolls called Sleepaway Pals. The idea was that kids could carry them to sleepaway camp in a little knapsack, so as not to feel homesick. And then at night, the knapsack would turn inside out to become a little sleeping bag. Describing it here again for the first time after all these years, I still like it and think it would’ve been a hit. Oh well... Back to fiction.
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
There’s an essay by Zadie Smith
called “Fail Better.” And I’ll quote her here: “When I write, I am trying to describe my way of being in the world.” That is exactly right; it’s so simple, but really accurate about what “sensibility” is.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Mary Gordon, an early teacher of mine, told our college fiction class, “Only write about what’s important.” What she meant is, “Only write about what’s important to YOU.” This made the class start to think about what was important to them, to really think about it. I have often given my students this same advice over the years.
Top Five Books I Have Recommended to Fiction Students
Over the course of a class, I find myself mentioning titles of books that have moved me, changed me, thrilled me. I find that, if a writer is blocked, it’s helpful to read a passage in a book that you felt the writer was excited by when he or she was writing it. These books all include such passages.
by Evan S. Connell
To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf
Reading this classic, beautiful novel again and again, I marvel at how unusual it was for its time, and how unusual it remains. Brilliant and sad, and necessary for anyone thinking about time, mortality, and the possibilities of what a novel can do.
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
I find the plaintiveness of this novel almost unbearable — the teenage voice, the dreams dashed –– and yet I think about it all the time, years after reading it. It truly is a haunting work.
by Toni Morrison
A slender, powerful novel propelled by extraordinary language. While Song of Solomon
have perhaps come to define her body of work, this one is also vivid and essential Morrison reading.
by James Joyce
These perfect stories just kill me, especially the extremely short and subtly devastating "Clay," as well as "Araby," and the novella at the end, the symphonic "The Dead." There is so much in this book that can serve as an example to a writer of when something in a piece of fiction “works.”
÷ ÷ ÷
is The New York Times-
bestselling author of The Interestings
, The Uncoupling
, The Ten-Year Nap
, The Position
, The Wife
, and Sleepwalking
. She is also the author of the young adult novel, Belzhar
. Wolitzer lives in New York City. The Female Persuasion
is her most recent book.