Growing up in Syosset gave Meg Wolitzer plenty of material to write short stories, screenplays and seven successful novels - two of which were made into movies. Wolitzer recently visited her childhood hometown during Syosset Public Library's third annual author luncheon at Fox Hollow Inn restaurant to discuss books, writing and her latest novel, The Position, available from Scribner in bookstores now.
Meg Wolitzer speaks during the author luncheon at Fox Hollow Inn.
Wolitzer referenced Charlotte's Web as one of her favorite childhood books. "Wilbur says to Charlotte, ...it's not often that someone is a good friend and a good writer." The same could be said of Wolitzer herself.
"The suburban life in Syosset was a good place to grow up and feed my active imagination," said Wolitzer. "Even as a young child, I used to look at my neighbors' houses on Ann Drive, which were named after the builders' wives, and create stories about what was going on, or not going on, in their homes. I would try to imitate what I thought the adult world was about."
The adults in her world were very influential in her life. Her father was a school psychologist and her mother, Hilma Wolitzer, is an author. Hilma's new novel Doctor's Daughter will be out soon.
Listening to Wolitzer speak feels like hanging out with your best friend and talking about life. There's a warmth to her. One immediately gets the sense that her observations about life are dead-on, witty and yet have a fresh, new quality. She has a knack for depicting the '70s so well in many of her novels and said she didn't have to research anything. It was all from memory.
Wolitzer reminisces about Syosset of yesteryear. Down Jericho Turnpike where Lollipop Farm was, is now Border's and the UA Cinema is a Marshall's and the wide-screen theater near Route 135 is gone.
"My parents encouraged me to expand my horizons. My friends and I would take the train into the city and go to Washington Square Park to play guitar. I remember seeing The Exorcist at the Zeigfeld Theater," said Wolitzer.
"It was fun to have a writer for a mom, too," Wolitzer said of Hilma Wolitzer. "I remember the librarian Adrienne Fluckiger, who is here today, would give my sister and me extra books." Wolitzer said. "We read a lot and played Scrabble and even watched television. I loved Bewitched."
With her seventh novel The Position, Wolitzer gives us a look into the family of the Mellows - whose parents Paul and Roz wrote a how-to sex manual. Wolitzer takes the reader on a 30-year journey of the family, chronicling the children's reactions then, at ages 6 to 15, and now, into their 30's and 40's when the publisher wants to reprint the bestseller.
Wolitzer discussed her motive to write The Position as "... intrigued by the book, Joy of Sex and its tame, 1970's shielded view of sex. In these modern times there's no innocence to sexuality. Young adults are like characters in a video game being bombarded by everything. Some things are scary and dangerous." Wolitzer also wanted to capture the irony as the children entered the adult world of their parents.
Very early on, Wolitzer had aspirations of being a writer. Even before she could put pen to paper, she was dreaming up stories. "My first-grade teacher Mrs. Gerbe, at South Grove elementary school, would ask me to come up to her desk to dictate stories to her."
By age 11, Wolitzer was published in a kid's magazine. While in Syosset High School, Wolitzer was involved in many literary and creative endeavors such as musicals, plays, writing for Ken magazine and the debate team.
"I remember Meg as a mature, warm, accessible young woman who joyfully embraced life," said Syosset High School English teacher Lydia Esslinger. She added, "Even young, she was a good writer and creatively involved in the world around her."
Wolitzer, always an avid reader, gave the audience a list of her favorites. "When I was very young I enjoyed Harriet the Spy, Secret Garden, Charlotte's Web. As I got older, I loved books about emotionally disturbed teens going through problems like Judy Blume books, My Darling, My Hamburger or Go Ask Alice. I enjoy reading Virginia Woolf, J.D. Salinger and contemporaries like Ian McEwan, Endless Love by Scott Spencer and Mary Gordon," said Wolitzer.
After graduating from Syosset High School in 1977, Wolitzer went first to Smith College for creative writing and then to Brown University, graduating in 1981. Her first novel Sleepwalking was published that same year. Wolitzer received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994 and many other awards including The Pushcart Prize. She has written five other novels, including Hidden Pictures (1986), This is Your Life (1988), Friends for Life (1994), Surrender, Dorothy (1998) and the highly acclaimed The Wife (2003). Two of Wolitzer's novels were adapted for movies: This is Your Life, Nora Ephron's 1992 directorial debut and Surrender Dorothy starring Diane Keaton on CBS this spring. Wolitzer's other works of fiction have appeared in Best American Short Stories. She contributes to NPRs The Next Big Thing. Wolitzer also has taught writing at University of Iowa's Writing Workshop and Skidmore College. Wolitzer enjoys living in Manhattan with her husband and two sons.
Syosset Public Library's continuing effort to offer outreach programs includes book discussions at the local senior housing communities in Woodbury Cove, Woodbury Gardens and Woodbury Meadows. The library's author luncheons have featured Susan Isaacs in 2003 and David C. Major and John S. Major in 2004. They wrote 100 One-Night Reads: A Book Lover's Guide.