Barely glancing at the menu, the novelist Meg Wolitzer ordered some scrambled egg whites, seven-grain toast and a Coke at the Three Guys diner on the Upper East Side one recent morning. As she scanned the room for mothers fresh from dropping off their children at one of several private schools in the neighborhood, she pointed out a pair of 30-something women in jeans and sweaters talking earnestly, heads together. “I think they’re planning a school event,” Ms. Wolitzer said.A few tables away, two white-haired women sat chatting over coffee mugs. “Their children are in 80th grade,” Ms. Wolitzer said, smiling, “and they’re waiting for them to finish.”Ms. Wolitzer, whose eighth novel, “The Ten-Year Nap,” is being published by Riverhead Books this week, did a lot of research by osmosis at the diner. Here she spent many mornings hanging out with other mothers post-school-drop-off.Those encounters, some with women who did not work, provided the genesis of the new book, a multicharacter meditation on a group of upper-middle-class women, mostly in Manhattan, who have stayed home for a decade to raise their children.The Three Guys at 89th and Madison inspired a fictional coffee shop, called the Golden Horn, an unofficial nerve center of motherly anxiety and camaraderie.
The women, in the parlance of so many news media articles and books, have “opted out” of jobs as lawyers and bankers to attend to the day-to-day minutiae of school trips, class newsletters and homework. The mothers reflect on the careers they have left behind, the ways their marriages (and sex lives) have changed, and the ever-present question of whether to return to work. Interwoven with their stories are chapters about their mothers when they were young.
It’s got hot-button issues written all over it, all right. But Ms. Wolitzer, 48, sidestepped the polemical debate that has characterized many nonfiction contributions to the motherhood genre.
“I’m not writing the Big Book o’ Motherhood and Work,” said Ms. Wolitzer, who has been a working writer since she was 23 and now has two children, Gabriel, 17, and Charlie, 13, with her husband, Richard Panek, also a writer.
What she wanted, she said, was to capture the nuances of characters who happened to have children and happened not to work.
Some of them miss their jobs; some don’t. Some feel guilt; others don’t. Amy Lamb is a former lawyer who worries constantly about money. Jill Hamlin once pursued a career in academia and then in film, but now stays at home and worries that she doesn’t connect with her adopted daughter. Roberta Sokolov, who once wanted to be an artist, is jealous of her husband, who, after years of slogging in a pays-the-bills job, lands a gig running a children’s puppet show.
All the women have thoughts likely to have readers nodding vigorously in recognition.
Before she began the novel, Ms. Wolitzer confessed, she judged those mothers who stayed home full time. But as she wrote, she realized that paid work wasn’t always fulfilling.
“The notion that everyone has a calling, that everyone has a talent, that everyone has a passion, isn’t true,” said Ms. Wolitzer, whose graying curly hair and laugh lines betray her age, but whose baggy leather jacket and battered brown leather satchel recall her years as a writing student. “I didn’t understand that.”
Ms. Wolitzer herself always knew she wanted to be a writer. Her mother, Hilma Wolitzer, is a novelist, and the younger Ms. Wolitzer wrote her first novel while in college, first at Smith and then at Brown. “I was really kind of single-minded about it,” she said.
“Sleepwalking” was published in 1982, a year after Ms. Wolitzer graduated. Reviews were good from the start, and she followed up with a steady output of critically praised, character-driven novels, including “This Is Your Life,” which was adapted for the screen by Nora Ephron, and “Surrender, Dorothy.”
Like so many so-called midlist authors, Ms. Wolitzer established a solid reputation in the literary world. But her book sales struggled to break the five-figure mark. Her most recent novel, “The Position” (Scribner, 2005), sold about 10,000 copies in hardcover, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of retail sales.
Ms. Wolitzer acknowledged that she didn’t write the kinds of books that seemed most popular now. “I think there is still a real interest either in novels that read like nonfiction — like “The Kite Runner” — or straight nonfiction,” she said. “And fiction that doesn’t necessarily have a historical hook or teach you something so that you feel like you’ve gotten an education — people are a lot more suspicious of it. But that’s the kind of book I want, a book that doesn’t teach you anything but shows you possibilities of things.”
With “The Ten-Year Nap,” Ms. Wolitzer decided that women who weren’t necessarily leading lives of bold action could still be the subject of muscular fiction.
“What if you wrote what you’d seen, the way people write about war?” she said. “What if you wrote about what you were seeing about women and children, even though maybe it was hopelessly uncool and wasn’t the big male world?”
While most of the main characters don’t have jobs, Ms. Wolitzer inserted Penny Ramsey, the mother of a 10-year-old boy and two teenager daughters who runs a small museum and is carrying on an affair. (Where does she find the time?) Penny is the only principal character without a chapter from her point of view.
“She’s sort of a fantasy figure” to the nonworking mothers, Ms. Wolitzer said, adding, “It’s as though they are looking through the glass and looking at the feast of work, which it really isn’t.”
Riverhead is planning a first print run of 30,000 copies. Sessalee Hensley, the fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble, said she had placed substantial orders for urban markets like Boston, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area, as well as the New York metropolitan area. “I think it’s going to end up being one of those important books for people to read,” Ms. Hensley said.
She added that the characters reminded her of neighbors in New Jersey. “It actually gave me kind of a stomachache to read it,” Ms. Hensley said, “because it’s so true.”
The book’s topicality may attract new readers, even though Ms. Wolitzer steadfastly avoids the kinds of prescriptions that some women look for.
“I think maybe there’s almost like a rejiggering neurologically, so you want to go and get the information out, and you can’t do that with a complex novel,” she said.
“Like everyone, I’m following the election and I go to a Web site for the polls,” she continued. “But I go to a novel for just the opposite. If you’re going to give me a poll number, don’t do it for a very long, long time. Make it a very curvy, long road to get there, and the road along the way showing life is why you read it.”
two of my favorite lines:
“What if you wrote what you’d seen, the way people write about war?” she said.
“Like everyone, I’m following the election and I go to a Web site for the polls,” she continued. “But I go to a novel for just the opposite. If you’re going to give me a poll number, don’t do it for a very long, long time. Make it a very curvy, long road to get there, and the road along the way showing life is why you read it.” Ok now why isn’t think idea being made into an HBO series? Forget Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle, THIS is the story of many women in America. I worked on a pilot that never got made (but only because they couldn’t cast the lead role) about post-sex and the city woman with pre-school kids … but those moms lived mainly downtown.
OR even a short film first …
What do you think?