In author Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, “The Uncoupling,” the women in an American town begin to lose interest in their men after a local high school performs Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” a comedy featuring a revolt instigated by women. Crimson arts editor Rebecca A. Schuetz discussed the writing process, texting, and modern romance with the author.
The Harvard Crimson: Did you have an idea for the general shape of the story when you began? Or did you just pick a theme and feel your way through it?
Meg Wolitzer: I knew I was interested in female desire. I felt that there’s this notion that everybody wants sex all the time. Since [famed psychoanalyst Sigmund] Freud we’ve had this idea that to be sexual is to be healthy, and therefore to be unsexual is to be neurasthenic, ill. And I thought, that’s not really true as far as I can see, looking around me. But there are changes, there are patterns. And what would it mean to sort of want to have a low-ebb or to have a higher period? So that came about at the same time that I was sort of interested in the Lysistrata story. I realized very quickly that the thing that struck me was how do women feel about all this. The notion—because there are still sex strikes in places around the world—that denying men sex would bring society to its knees is sexist, because it means that men need this thing that women have and women can tolerate living without it. So I thought, how can I sort of use that text, because I was also interested in saying something about books and book culture and the internet age and its relationship to books. And it seems like when you’re writing a novel, different ideas dovetail. So that you’re not writing a polemic. I don’t like books like that. And I hope I haven’t written one.
THC: Jumping on the idea that the notion that men need this thing that women don’t is sexist, I noticed that this book does show women falling out of love with their husbands and the men’s reaction. And I was wondering if you think it tends to happen that way.
MW: That’s really where I put my lens, I think. I think the male story about all of this would be really different. I’m not sure what it is. I’ve tended in recent years to sort of look at women’s lives more closely. And the men here in this story are far more reactive than the women. And I feel that there is pain for them and I think that, if it were the other way around, I don’t know what it would be, and I would be really interested.
THC: I know that in “The Uncoupling,” there’s a lot having to do with the irreversible technological changes between generations, such as a subplot involving text messages. Could you expand on how technology dovetails with other themes in your book?
MW: I think that it occurred to me when I started really writing. I mean, I write—not exactly blindly; it’s a little bit like being spun around to hit a piñata, but fairly soon you rip off the blindfold. At least, for me, that’s what’s the process of writing a novel. I wondered about our relationship to intimacy, and the relationship of technology to intimacy. You know, people can reach each other so much more quickly and express things to each other that they couldn’t before in the same way. But they’re doing it sometimes in much more staccato verse. Are things being left out? I have a teenager and a 20-year-old. I think they love their friends, and they really want to express things and convey things. So I don’t think that all that is lost. But there is something about patience that is lost. And I think that there is almost a connection between the patience to sit and read, say, a long novel, and the patience to have a relationship that you have to give a lot of attention to and to have the rest of the world fall away.
THC: Has watching things like “The Sopranos” and things with multiple storylines that were published serially influenced you as a writer at all?
MW: Not that I’m conscious of, but who knows? I’m steeped in the culture, like we all are. We spend our days being dipped in the world, and some things really stick. And they may not pop up like something in a bingo tumbler for years. But it may be actually that the kind of visceral quality of certain films is inspiring. To want to grab that in the story or in the novel. Somebody said that I was afraid of drama, a friend of mine who was a very good reader, this was some years ago, confronted me on that. That it always seems like the scene where they empty the dishwasher and talk about their childhood and suddenly we’re back in their childhood and I’d forgotten that we were back in the kitchen with the dishwasher. I may be more aware now that we’re in the kitchen with the dishwasher, and I want some drive forward. But I think that it’s something that I have been, and I’m not sure where I think the influence is, but I think that I have been much more compelled by the notion of imperative. That you want the novel to have an imperative; that the reader is going to ask, “Why are you telling me this?” and really know that and have a reason. Otherwise, there’s this kind of formlessness that I think is related to the impatience that a lot of people have with a lot of novels.
—Staff writer Rebecca A. Schuetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.