By Erin L. Cox
NEW YORK—This week, novelist Meg Wolitzer releases her new book, THE UNCOUPLING, about a strange spell that is cast over the community of Stellar Plains, New Jersey that compels the women to stop having sex. Based on the comedy by Aristophanes “Lysistrata,” THE UNCOUPLING is signature Wolitzer as it tackles a serious issue that has deep societal and personal importance using her particular brand of wit and humor that makes the conversation fresh and fascinating. I talked to Meg this week about humor, film adaptation, and what it is to be a novelist:
EC: What I have always loved about your books is how funny they are. Though you write about serious subjects, it is always through a prism of humor. Some of my favorite lines of yours are those background details or asides that are, perhaps, texture for the story, but that make me laugh out loud. Do you always set out to write funny novels?
MW: No, I don’t. I never write with the purpose of ‘insert joke here,’ but there is a line from Zadie Smith’s Fail Better in which she describes writing novels as expressing her way of being in the world. I think that’s really right. I often have ironic takes on the world, like a lot of people. I think humorous novels get undervalued in our culture, even as humor is so important in other art forms, yet I myself crave reading something really witty.
My novels do address some serious subjects, or at least I hope they do. I think people don’t understand that within humor, pain can be written too. I don’t feel like the novel format lends itself well to a lot of jokes, but humor arises from the sensibility of the writer or the sensibility, say, of the character. I admire it when I see it done well.
EC: You mentioned humor in other forms, such as television and film. Since you have had some of your novels adapted for film and are currently in the process of having one of your novels adapted for television, how do you think your work and your humor translates from the page to screen?
MW: I was really fortunate to have an early novel of mine, This is Your Life, adapted for the screen by one of the funniest people around, Nora Ephron, but it was definitely her take on the story. I know her voice, and the film was definitely her project. A movie adaptation is always variations on a theme.
When you sell something to the movies or television, it depends on what particular aspects of the book the director is interested in. As the writer of the original material, I’m fine with certain changes. I like talking to people who option my work and seeing what they have to say. My books are not meant to be only funny books, but humor is one of the things I really respect. I’ve recently had my novel The Position optioned as an ABC half-hour comedy series. The novel is about a family in which the parents write a Joy of Sex like book with illustrations of themselves in various sexual positions. The story is really about sex and the family, which is innately funny because they don’t go together. Writing things that are dissonant often can lead in some part to a witty way of doing things.
EC: THE UNCOUPLING is unlike any of your other books because you use as the framework for your tale, Aristophenes’ Lysistrata. Was it hard to manipulate that tale to fit the suburban life you were chronicling? And, for the first time, you delve into a world of magical realism to explain the actions of your characters. Was that difficult to navigate?
MW: Lysistrata is a comedy and a very bawdy, dirty play with lots of wild humor. And, tonally that was not what my novel would be, but when funny stuff came to me, I didn’t try to edit it out. There is something funny to me as a writer that a spell comes over these women; I enjoyed figuring out how that would affect their lives.
THE UNCOUPLING is predominantly about what happens to relationships over time and how familiarity changes relationships. I listened to a lot of women talk about this subject and thought it was intriguing, but if I looked at this subject head-on, it could have become really cranky women’s fiction. Instead, I gave it a slightly surreal presence [with the spell] and let it rip with some humor there. It was a hard book to do because I was trying to figure out how to use Lysistrata in the background while keeping this very contemporary story of these women and the men in their lives.
What became more difficult was instead of showing a character through sex, I’m showing characters through the absence of sex. What happens when sex is taken away, how are characters revealed by that?
EC: THE UNCOUPLING and THE TEN YEAR NAP seem to address today’s world and some hot-button issues that are in the news. Is that something you wanted to focus on?
MW: Novels are often a snapshot of a moment in history. In THE UNCOUPLING, I tried to write about female desire over time and what it is like to be intimate with people in today’s over-stimulating world of constant texts and emails. We are at a weird juncture at which we are so seduced by this world, and in fact we are under a lot of spells, in a sense—love, sex, technology, among others.
I have a riff in the book about the rush we have upon receiving an email, but what do we think it is going to be, “You’ve won the MacArthur Prize?” I wanted to understand: do people go to computers the way people go to, or used to go books? To their lovers?
I tried to approach the subject of female desire and intimacy, and the loss of these elements, without judgment. With my last novel THE TEN YEAR NAP, I wanted to write about women who leave their jobs when they have babies, intending to return, but ten years later they awaken to realize they haven’t. [This is an emotionally charged topic,] but I didn’t want to write a book that had women saying “woe is me.” That was not my point. It’s not my place or expertise, or even interest, to judge. As a writer, I’m just kind of recording. I like a book in which the writer just writes what he or she wants to write…as long as it has some imperative.