April 11, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings is one of the year's most ambitious and rewarding novels, a character-driven gem.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"The big questions asked by The Interestings are about what happened to the world (when, Jules wonders, did 'analyst' stop denoting Freud and start referring to finance?) and what happened to all that budding teenage talent. Might every privileged schoolchild have a bright future in dance or theater or glass blowing? Ms. Wolitzer hasn’t got the answers, but she does have her characters mannerisms and attitudes down cold."
My new novel The Interestings opens in the summer of 1974—the summer that Nixon resigns––at a performing and visual arts summer camp for teenagers. It goes on to follow its characters for over thirty years, taking a long look at what happens to early talent over time. New York City figures in a big way here too, as it shifts through the 70s, 80s, 90s and on into the present day.
Music also figures into The Interestings, particularly folk music, in part because the mother of one of my six main characters is a famous folksinger named Susannah Bay. In tracking the shape of her career, I hope I was able to examine changes in the culture more generally. But even beyond folk music per se, a certain kind of acoustic, female sound is, for me, largely the soundtrack to this novel. I associate that sound with a certain time and place, as well as with the experience of girlhood itself, or anyway my girlhood.
To this day, some of the music I listened to as a folk-guitar-carrying adolescent brings me sharply into a very different state. It's not exactly a trance, but when I was working on my novel I often listened to a lot of that old stuff, and it had a strong and sudden effect, as if I was being sent into a seizure of nostalgia and emotion.
Here are some of the songs that I thought about and listened to, and as well as one ringer that only exists in the enclosed world of my novel.
"What Have They Done to the Rain?"
The Joan Baez Songbook was in my house growing up, and I would stare at the illustrations to the folk songs, in which all the women were weirdly drawn to resemble… Joan Baez. This song in particular, written by the folk legend Malvina Reynolds, is plaintive and beautiful and sad, and at the beginning of the novel my character Jules Jacobson sings two verses of it to her friend Ethan Figman, who is falling in love with her. The ache that's present in the lyrics is something with which I tried to infuse The Interestings.
"Will You Love Me Tomorrow?"
When I think of any of the songs on "Tapestry" I feel my whole body kind of perk up, like a dog that's heard its master's car in the driveway. I recall the sensations of being young and female and having frizzy hair like Carole King. (cf. Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell, who all lived in the straight-haired world that I––and my main character Jules––could never, ever enter.)
"The Hammond Song"
This song came out when I was in college, and to me it stands for that very specific slice of life between adolescence and adulthood. It stands for tiny New York apartments, and carving out your own world for the first time, free of the superstructure of family or college. The harmonies are heartbreaking and all-female.
O, the greatness of it all, and the shift from 70s soft sounds to harder ones, allowing a frizzy-headed girl to want to move to New York City and wear a man's shirt and move from soft edges to sleeker, more androgynous ones.
A great example of a prodigy at work, and also one of my favorite singers from the 60s and 70s. Though she's had a long career, and is still productive and performs constantly, this early, 1960s work, done when she was only fifteen years old (the same age as my characters at the start of the book) is particularly astonishing. My character Ethan is an animation prodigy, and I wanted him to have an original sensibility and vision, which I think young Janis Ian definitely has.
This song of hers, from the 1970s, is a little masterpiece about fame and its unwanted side effects, including isolation. My prodigy, Ethan, becomes hugely famous after college, and the extremeness of this experience, along with its attendant awkwardness, figure into the story.
Lucy Wainwright Roche
I listened to this song a great deal when I was walking around the city thinking about my work, between bouts of writing. It feels like a self-contained novel itself, and was a great tonic when I wasn't working.
"Symphony No. 5- IV"
While at summer camp in 1974, like the campers in my book we were all taken to Tanglewood, where we lay on blankets on the lawn and listened to Mahler. This was the first classical music I had ever seriously listened to, and though I later came to connect this with the 1971 film "Death in Venice," which I saw at a revival house in college, my initial connection to Mahler is with camp, and summer, and strong, stirring feelings. There was no Tadzio to cause these sensations in me, but I didn't need him.
"The Wind Will Carry You"
This is the signature song of my character Susannah Bay, whose career is quite big in the 60s and 70s, and dwindles out later on until she's playing at smaller and smaller venues. In the early days, she's an ethereal figure in a poncho, and though her son Jonah (one of the six kids who ironically call themselves "The Interestings") has inherited her musical talent, certain traumatic events have caused him to abandon it. Susannah appears at the camp each summer and sings for the campers.
Here is the opening stanza of the song she will be singing a lot for, oh, the next fifty years:
"I've been walkin' through the valley, and I've been
walkin' through the weeds
And I've been tryin' to understand just why I could not meet your needs
Did you want me to be like she was?
Is that all that was in your heart?
A prayer that the wind will carry us…
Carry us… apart…"
Early in the novel, then-fifteen-year-old Jules and Ethan talk about "The Wind Will Carry Us," and Jules makes the following observation about the lyrics to this melancholy song which, when deconstructed, doesn't quite make sense:
Jules: "I know this sounds picky, but wouldn't the wind carry them together?... It's one breeze. It just blows one way, not two."
Ethan realizes she's right. They think about things the same way, and they are at the start of a deep and passionate friendship which the novel traces as it goes from adolescence into early adulthood and into the wilds of the rest of life.
Meg Wolitzer and The Interestings links:
All Things Considered review
Associated Press review
Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus Reviews review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
San Francisco Chronicle review
USA Today review
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
Salon interview with the author
Slate interview with the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
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