Meg Wolitzer: Catnip For 'A Certain Kind Of Reader'



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Meg Wolitzer. (Getty Images)
Meg Wolitzer. (Getty Images)

For New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer's debut young adult novel, Belzhar, there wasn't much of a difference between writing for adults and teenagers. Save for shorter paragraphs and fewer tangents. "You have to be the writer that you always are," she explained to Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg.

Similar to some of her previous work (The Ten-Year Nap, The Uncoupling, and The Interestings), Wolitzer introduces yet another complex heroine. Except this time around, Belzhar (whose title is a nod to a certain Sylvia Plath work that Wolitzer deems is "catnip" to a certain type of bookish teenager) invokes the voice of a young, breathless girl, living at a boarding school for "highly-intelligent, emotionally-fragile teens," and who "desperately" needs to tell her story. Belzhar's characters record their thoughts in special journals that help them deal with their respective traumas.

When asked whether or not she was a big on journaling herself, Wolitzer replied – "No, I was not, I am not. I always wanted to write fiction". However, she does admit there was one summer when she fancied herself a lesser member of the Bloomsbury Group, and kept a journal for a mere three days.

Beyond being an accomplished novelist, Wolitzer is a word maven, having published a book of cryptic crosswords. So for her Ask Me Another Challenge, Wolitzer deciphered anagrams of the titles of famous literary works. Though we tried to stump her, she easily identified the Hemingway classic that anagrams to "Earth's Lousiness."

Interview Highlights

On trying her hand at journaling

No, I was not, I am not. I always wanted to write fiction. But for one summer I had a diary, a journal, and I started off thinking, "Oh, this is going to be really good." And I wrote in it, "Today I watched Bewitched," and I thought I was, you know, a lesser member of the Bloomsbury Group, and one day I'd be really famous and my journals would be published. But I stopped writing in the journals after about three days, and I felt so guilty I went back and on every page I wrote "Nothing happened ... nothing happened," so that when they were found some day, it would like like I really was trying.

This episode originally aired on February 5, 2015.

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Now please welcome our Very Important Puzzler. She's the New York Times best-selling author of "The Ten-Year Nap," "The Uncoupling" and the book that's on my bedside table right now, "Belzhar," please welcome Meg Wolitzer.


EISENBERG: Thanks so much for joining us on the show.

MEG WOLITZER: Oh, thanks for having me.

EISENBERG: Now, your current book is your first - debut young adult novel. What made you decide to write a young adult novel?

WOLITZER: Well, I've often written about teenagers in my adult fiction, which sounds really kind of corny, I know, but isn't, I swear. I wrote a novel called "The Interestings" and it started in the summer of 1974 when Richard Nixon resigns and it follows for almost 40 years. But this time around with "Belzhar," I was writing about adolescence, but I was starting in one fall at a boarding school - this is a boarding school for emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers...

EISENBERG: I love that phrase, by the way. I want to be that so badly.

WOLITZER: ...I know, me too. Do you think it's too late for us?

EISENBERG: (Laughter) There could be a club.

WOLITZER: There could - a sad, pathetic club. The AARP club, yes. Yes. But at any rate, I had always written about teenagers, so I figured, why not do it again?

EISENBERG: And what's different about writing with a young adult audience in mind as opposed to, I guess, writing for an adult audience?

WOLITZER: You know, you have to be the writer that you always are. There's a great line by Zadie Smith - she says when I write I try to express my way of being in the world. And I think that's still true. But sometimes, maybe, the paragraphs are shorter. I'm a little bit less - I get kind of like, really excessive and kind of go off on long side-trips in my adult novels. They come in at like, 600 pages. That's not going to be the case here. But, you know, I mean, it's in first person because my narrator is sort of breathless and needs to tell her story. But I don't really think that way, like, now the teen me - I mean, I put on Clearasil and sit down and write. But other than that, it's the same.

EISENBERG: Right, a little smell some Axe body spray on some - yeah, yeah...

WOLITZER: Exactly. Or to go back to my era, some Love's Fresh Lemon shampoo.


WOLITZER: I don't if anybody remembers that. And I put on my Earth shoes and walk around the house and get really into - and my Huckapoo shirts. I don't know. These references are going over your head.

EISENBERG: No - this is what I remember. I remember for Chanukah when someone gave me Jean Nate...

WOLITZER: Oh yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Perfume that I thought was very cool, and Wind Song.

WOLITZER: A Wind Song stays on your mind.


EISENBERG: It stays on your mind.

WOLITZER: It's staying on my mind.

EISENBERG: That's right.

WOLITZER: I'm not going to (singing) your Wind Song stays on my - Wind Song stays - it was like, choral chanting. It was like, Gregorian.

EISENBERG: Gregorian...


EISENBERG: ...Advertising. So the characters in this book are reading Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" and they are connecting a lot through that, which, you know, that was a book that a lot of us read when we were young adults and connected to in a big way. A lot of women were like oh, my God. Felt...

WOLITZER: I should really read it sometime.


EISENBERG: Yeah, you never read it? That was just something - I hear it's good. (Laughter).

WOLITZER: "The Bell Jar" for me is like catnip for a certain kind of girl, like, a kind of moody, bookish girl. You come to that book knowing that the author took her life. I mean, so you come to it with a kind of inevitability, but even above and beyond that really, the book is incredibly good and you think about the promise of Plath, which didn't, you know, get fulfilled because of her short, short life.

EISENBERG: So the characters in "Bell Jar," where they are journaling in these special journals that they get, which ends up - these journals, without giving it away, help them deal with their traumas. I journaled like crazy. I don't anymore because it's too sad, but do you - were you a big journaler?

WOLITZER: No, I was not. I am not. I always wanted to write fiction, but for one summer I had a diary, a journal, and I started off, like, thinking, oh, this is going to be really good, you know? And I wrote in it, today I watched "Bewitched." And I thought that I was sort of like, you know, a lesser-member of the Bloomsbury Group and one day I'd be really famous and my journals would be published. But I stopped writing in the journals after about three days and I felt so guilty, I went back and on every page I wrote, nothing happened, nothing happened...


WOLITZER: ...So that when they were found someday, it would look like I really was trying.


EISENBERG: Now, it's not often that we have a VIP on our show that is not only accomplished in one thing, but also a published game writer. You're a professional game writer. You co-authored a book of cryptic crosswords, which is the most devious, demented, difficult version of the crossword because it involves...

WOLITZER: I like the alliteration there that you threw in.

EISENBERG: ...Well, there's the answers and then there's the puns, and there's more clues within the clues.

WOLITZER: Yeah, it's a nightmare.

EISENBERG: Well, we have a pretty great game for you coming right up that we think only you can play. So, are you up for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

WOLITZER: I am, yes.

EISENBERG: All right. Meg Wolitzer, everybody.


EISENBERG: So, this game is called "A Maternal Love Sting," which - I'm sure you know - is an anagram of "Novel Title Anagrams."

WOLITZER: Oh - Novel title anagrams? That was an anagram of that? This is going to go badly.


EISENBERG: That is what everyone says and it's always great.

WOLITZER: Until now.

EISENBERG: So we've taken the names of some famous novels and anagrammed each of them into a new phrase. And to help you out, we'll use that phrase in a sentence that helps clue the original title.


EISENBERG: So, let's go to our puzzle guru Mary Tobler for an example.

MARY TOBLER, BYLINE: A tart by the eggs. As in, the title character has an affair with a tart by the eggs. East and West Egg, that is.

WOLITZER: "The Great Gatsby."

TOBLER: There you go.

WOLITZER: Did that one count, or, that's just like, the...

TOBLER: That would count.

WOLITZER: Oh, good. So I could say...

EISENBERG: No, that one doesn't count.

WOLITZER: At least I could say when I went home I got one right.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah, OK. You're right. We can edit that into the game. But if you get enough questions right, Holly Catlin of Raleigh, N.C. is going to win an ASK ME ANOTHER anagram T-shirt. So the stakes are average.


WOLITZER: All right.

EISENBERG: A nerd dripped juice. As in, a nerd dripped juice all over this book because he was so excited to be reading Jane Austen.

WOLITZER: "Pride And Prejudice."



WOLITZER: It is a truth universally acknowledged that nerds drip juice all over everything they read. That was a Jane Austen joke for insiders, like myself.


EISENBERG: Loner Gig. As in, being married to the title character turns out to be a loner gig for Nick Dunne.

WOLITZER: "Gone Girl."



WOLITZER: See, I'm thinking this is like, you're going all Thackeray on me here and this is something I never heard of, like a title called Ergone Lynn (ph).


EISENBERG: Well, that was the third question, so thanks...


EISENBERG: ...No. Oven stain. As in, Bigger Thomas leaves a bloody oven stain when he burns a murder victim's body in the basement.

WOLITZER: Oh, "Native Son."

EISENBERG: Yes, exactly.


EISENBERG: OK, now I'm feeling these are too easy.

WOLITZER: No, no, no.


EISENBERG: For this one we're giving you two anagrams for the same novel. Sensualist heroes and Earth's lousiness. As in, in this Hemingway book, sensualist heroes spend their time in France and Spain bemoaning the earth's lousiness.

WOLITZER: "The Sun Also Rises?"

EISENBERG: "The Sun Also Rises." Yes.


EISENBERG: This is my favorite one. Elites thought oh. As in, there was a mixed reaction to this Virginia Woolf masterpiece. The common people loved it, but the elites thought, oh.

WOLITZER: "To The Lighthouse," baby.

EISENBERG: Yes, exactly.

WOLITZER: Who was your favorite character in that book?

EISENBERG: Who was my favorite character in that book? I didn't read that book.


WOLITZER: I know, I was just setting you up to...

EISENBERG: To fail? That's an interesting idea of yours, Meg.

WOLITZER: Well, you told me you liked that sort of highly intelligent thing, so I thought we were talking on the same level.



EISENBERG: You're way above me and I occasionally make a joke. That's how this works.


WOLITZER: No, no. I aspire to your wit.

EISENBERG: This is your last question. Fetching hold. As in, this Donna Tartt novel has a fetching hold on its avid readers.

WOLITZER: Well, I could milk this way that guy did...

EISENBERG: Do it. Do it.

WOLITZER: ...On "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Remember that, the first guy who won a million dollars?

EISENBERG: Yeah, he just like - right...

WOLITZER: He said, I'm you know - yeah.

EISENBERG: You want to do that, you want to think...

WOLITZER: I could think about her three novels.


WOLITZER: And try to rearrange the letters of the secret history and the little friend, but no, no, that would be fruitless - because it's "The Goldfinch."

EISENBERG: Yes, it is.


EISENBERG: I will let you know that as far as VIP games go, this is definitely one of the more challenging ones, and you just skated through it like it was no problem at all. So, congratulations.


WOLITZER: Thank you so much. Thank you.

EISENBERG: Not only is Holly in Raleigh going to get an ASK ME ANOTHER limited-edition anagram T-shirt, but Meg, so are you.


EISENBERG: I know. So thank you so much. Another hand for our amazing VIP, Meg Wolitzer.

WOLITZER: Thank you for having me.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.