Meg Wolitzer discusses “The Female Persuasion” at Women and Children First bookstore

By Gwen Aviles
Medill Reports

Seating was difficult to come by at the Meg Wolitzer author talk held by Women and Children First bookstore in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago on April 24.

The event was crammed with aspiring authors, feminists and aspiring feminist authors alike clamoring to get a look at literary greatness. Those who failed in the game of musical chairs were sprawled on the wooden floor with their Moleskine notebooks, craning their heads to get a peak at Wolitzer in conversation with Greta Johnson, a Chicago-based journalist and WBEZ host. When even floorspace ran low, some attendees plopped themselves on the stepping stools meant for reaching the highest bookshelves, while others leaned against bookcases.

Wolitzer is the best-selling author of 12 novels, several of which have been optioned for film. Her most recent release is “The Female Persuasion,” a book about female mentorship and the challenging world women inhabit. It follows Greer Kadetsky, a college freshman who finds an imperfect role model in Faith Frank, a famous feminist.

Though Wolitzer started the book three years ago, it has taken on increased relevance in the era of the #MeToo movement. In the novel, Greer is sexually assaulted at a fraternity party and is unsure of how to process the attack. “She asks, did something happen to me? Am I allowed to feel upset about it? Is this what it’s like entering the world of femaleness?” said Wolitzer.

Greer’s relationship with Frank helps her understand the way society positions her as a young woman.

Kim Brooks, author of the forthcoming book “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear,” and an attendee at the event appreciated the book’s timeliness. “I thought it was really interesting the way that she contextualizes the novel in terms of the current political moment of female empowerment and solidarity,” Brooks said.

But while the book’s action takes place from 2006 to 2019—during the 2016 presidential election—and was written with the sense that it would be released during the tenure of the United States’ first female president, Wolitzer takes care not to mention any specific names.

“I didn’t want to use his [President Donald Trump’s] name. ‘The Female Persuasion is not meant to be disposable fiction about this moment; it’s meant to be timeless, something you can reflect on,” she said.

She warns fiction writers not to try to keep up with writing about the current moment, because is it a near impossible task.

She also offered other writing advice, like rereading novels you find inspirational even if they have nothing to do with what you’re currently writing. When Wolitzer’s stuck, she likes to return to the novels of Virginia Woolf and Evan S. Connell’s “Mrs. Bridge.”

This was the very advice Michael Williamson, a college student studying creative writing at University of Illinois at Chicago, was looking for when he entered the doors of Women and Children First that night.

“Any time I see an author like this, I’m always struck by their generosity. Meg is so giving with her time, despite being so tired from her book tour. For her to maintain this giving spirit is remarkable and admirable to me,” Williamson said as he waited in line for Wolitzer to sign his copy of “The Female Persuasion.”

Hilary Marsh, a communications consultant, rummaged through her bag for her notepad where she scribbled down one line from the talk: “What is it like?’”

“What is it like to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and try to capture what it’s like to be them, to be in their place in the world?” Marsh said. “That’s what good fiction does.”

women and children first
Lynn Mooney, the co-owner of Women and Children First bookstore, introduces Meg Wolitzer to the crowd.
Photo at top: Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel “The Female Persuasion.” (Gwen Aviles/MEDILL)