Gardner Book Award winner discusses writingTweet
Good literature casts a spell, novelist Meg Wolitzer told an appreciative audience March 19 at Binghamton University.
Wolitzer visited campus to accept this year’s John Gardner Fiction Book Award, which she received for her 2011 novel “The Uncoupling.”
She began by saying that not only does she admire Gardner’s work; he also played a role in supporting her mother, the novelist Hilma Wolitzer, many years ago during the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont.
Wolitzer read two sections of “The Uncoupling,” which explores female sexuality and desire. The novel follows the women and girls of a New Jersey town where the high school is staging “Lysistrata,” the Greek comedy in which women stop having sex with men in order to end a war. With what Wolitzer described as “a touch of magical realism,” the women in the book succumb to a spell that robs them of their interest in sex.
“I wanted to write this book to explore changes in desire over time,” Wolitzer said. The cast of characters includes husband-and-wife English teachers, a disaffected 15-year-old and a veteran of the Iraq war.
After the reading, Wolitzer took questions from several students, part of an audience of about 50 people who gathered for the reading.
One asked why she incorporated magical realism into the novel, given that it’s not a style she has used in the past.
“I knew I wanted to write about female sexuality and desire over time,” Wolitzer said. “… But I didn’t want it to be ‘The Book of Women Whining.’ I felt that the magical realism seemed organic to the book. I didn’t just pull it off a tree.”
She said she realized after writing the book that literature casts a sort of spell of its own, as does love.
What is the feeling you have when you think about a book you read a long time ago, if not a kind of magic? Wolitzer asked, mentioning Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” as one that might evoke a certain kind of memory.
And if love isn’t a spell, why is it that when you fall in love you feel a need to send someone little notes and talk to them a hundred times a day?
Many of the students were looking for writing advice, which Wolitzer dispensed carefully, taking off her glasses and leaning over the podium as if to size up the questioner. A few highlights:
• Write the first draft as if everyone you knew were dead. Give yourself the space to write 80 or so pages before you decide if it’s good or bad.
• “Look to the tiniest detail” to breathe life into your writing. (This is an excellent bit of wisdom from a writer who gets lots of small things right, including the odd contents of that one drawer in your kitchen where batteries and gift certificates go to die.)
• Challenge yourself to ensure that the sensibility you have in your writing is in line with your true self, the version of you that your closest friends would recognize.
• There’s more to writing than the old adage “show; don’t tell.” “Without exposition, we’re just hurtling through the night,” Wolitzer said. “I’m hoping that there’s something other than showing and telling.”
Wolitzer’s talk was part of a series organized by the Binghamton Center for Writers. Visit http://www2.binghamton.edu/english/creative-writing/binghamton-center-for-writers/readers-series.html for more details on other authors coming to Binghamton this semester.