There's a list of eight names on the dedication page of Meg Wolitzer's excellent new novel The Female Persuasion, which will also be adapted for the big screen once Amazon Studios have acquired the rights, with Nicole Kidman producing the film.
“Once I’d finished writing it,” she tells me when we meet for breakfast in London while she’s here for her United Kingdom book tour, “I started thinking about the parade of women who, at different times in my life, didn’t have to do what they did, but did.”
Given the novel examines the relationship between a younger woman – Greer Kadetsky, who, when the story begins in 2006, is a hard-working but shy college student – and the older woman who becomes her mentor –Faith Frank, a popular pillar of the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, famous for her books with their “feisty, encouraging messages of female empowerment” – it makes perfect sense that Wolitzer would dedicate the book to the women who have been mentors to her.
Three in particular, she explains, stand out: novelist Mary Gordon; writer and director Nora Ephron; and Wolitzer’s mother, Hilma, also a novelist.
As her one-time creative writing teacher, Gordon gave Wolitzer the best piece of advice she has ever received. Only write about what’s important to you, a mantra that went on to have a “profound influence” on Wolitzer’s career since: she has always written about “what’s important, what’s political about women’s lives” and about the tensions between motherhood and work, ambition, and how to make meaning in the world.
She tells me about an event she was at recently at novelist Ann Patchett’s bookstore in which the two women were in conversation in front of an audience. “I said something about how writers had two or three arias to sing, and she said, ‘No, one.’ We were kind of joking, of course, but there was also truth in what we were saying.”
If Gordon was the one who made Wolitzer realise that her own opinions and ideas mattered, it was Ephron's encouragement that helped her to keep going. They met when Wolitzer was in her late twenties, when Ephron picked one of Wolitzer's books to adapt as her first feature film. This is My Life was released in 1992, but the friendship between the two women lasted until Ephron's death in 2012. "She was someone I always wanted to show my work to," Wolitzer says. "These are the people we see as giving us permission, there's a way in which they see something in you that you're not able to see yet."
This is a good description of the initial dynamic between Wolitzer’s characters Greer and Faith, the younger woman’s graduation neatly coinciding with Faith, the older woman, setting up a new charitable foundation, at which she offers Greer a job. Greer is still so uninformed, and nowhere near as politically versed as her best friend, Zee, an aspiring activist – she is easily wowed by Faith’s interest in her.
“Faith Frank is, like all people, an imperfect figure,” Wolitzer confirms, “but Greer sees her through a lens of idealisation. It’s my job as a novelist to see her more clearly than my character can.
“The pedestal is a very small place,” she continues, referring to the inevitable fall from grace that is foreshadowed at the very beginning of the story. “I’m not generally a fan of the ‘Little did she know …’ school of writing, but with a long novel like this, that takes its time, I wanted an anchor, a ticking clock of some kind.”
Then there was Wolitzer’s mother, who was always hugely encouraging of her daughter’s work, not least because of the struggles she herself had come up against in the pursuit of her own creative life. Wolitzer recalls the sexism her mother encountered when she first began publishing, reviews at the time, describing her as a “housewife-turned-novelist.”
“It was as if she went into a phone booth and turned into a superhero,” Wolitzer says with a laugh.
Being influenced by feminism
She also recalls the obvious hierarchy in place at a writers' conference she remembers attending with her mother. "The writers at the top tended to be men, and people fawned around them," a situation Wolitzer later went on to write about in her novel The Wife.
"It didn't feel good to see it," she says. "I think of myself as having been influenced by feminism very early," Wolitzer tells me. At school, she and her friends were members of a consciousness-raising group – "I don't necessarily remember what me and those girls talked about, but I do remember how important it was that we had it" – meanwhile at home she had her mother as a role model.
When she speaks of the importance of “feminism in action in the home” in her early life, I’m reminded of how it’s the modest acts of individuals rather than the grand gestures made by feminist figureheads or their corporate backers that come to make the most difference in her novel.
“I think there are two kinds of feminists,” Zee, who becomes a crisis response counsellor providing support to people during the darkest times in their lives, tells Greer towards the end of the book. “The famous ones, and everyone else. Everyone else, all the people who just quietly go and do what they’re supposed to do, and don’t get a lot of credit for it, and don’t have someone out there every day telling them they’re doing an awesome job.”
This sort of ordinary, everyday, but nevertheless extremely important, feminism is encoded in Wolitzer’s work.
“There was a story Mary Gordon once told me about a time she was on a panel with writer Grace Paley. Someone asked Grace, ‘Do you write like a woman?’ And Grace said something like, ‘If a horse could write a novel, it would write like a horse, so, yes, when I write a novel, I write like a woman.’ And I extrapolate from that: I’m a feminist, so I write like a feminist.”
The Female Persuasion, published by Chatto and Windus, an imprint of Penguin Books, is out now