I’ve always been preoccupied by what happens to people over time. I’ve spent more hours than I should studying the online adult faces of some of the kids I grew up with, looking for something that would explain how we become the people we become.
And many years ago, when I discovered Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries, which traces the lives of a diverse group of ordinary British citizens, starting in 1964 when they were 7 years old, and then filming them every seven years, I was mesmerized. The films captured innocence, loss of innocence, beauty, loss of beauty, disappointments and surprising pleasures, and the roughness and occasional wisdom involved in the involuntary business of getting older. Taken together, the whole enterprise reminded me of what a novel can do, or at least can sometimes try to do. One’s own preoccupation is an invitation to a novelist to take a closer look at the thing being obsessed over, because very likely it belongs in that novelist’s next book.
The Interestings is that book for me. It doesn’t follow its characters every seven years, but it does track them through life from age 15 through their early 50s, providing snapshots from different eras, bounding ahead and backward in big leaps from the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and into the present day. I wanted to write a book about what happens to early talent over time, and also what happens to friendships over time. The common factor here is time. But how do you write about that elusive, elastic thing? When you’re a kid, summers seem so long and lazy, and life feels endless. Then, much later, when you have kids yourself, older parents tell you, “Enjoy it; it all goes by so fast.” But none of it really makes sense.
I wanted to keep moving through Jules’ life, circling back to that first, essential summer.
I decided to try and put time to the novel test, or put a novel to the time test. I knew that I would deliberately allow myself much more time-fluidity in this book than in my previous novels. I started with my central character, Jules Jacobson, a quirky, awkward, not yet stellar girl, off at a summer camp for the performing arts when she’s 15 years old. Had this been a certain kind of novel, it might’ve ended at the close of that eventful summer, during which she meets a boy who becomes her “soulmate”; and though he is in love with her and she with him, she’s not attracted to him, and so she makes a decision that leaves both of them unhappy. Also during that summer, Jules becomes best friends with a beautiful, charismatic girl who is beloved by all boys everywhere, and for whom life seems to hold so many possibilities.
If the novel had presented an expanded version of that summer, and ended at the close of August, it might’ve been described on the jacket as “a portrait of adolescence,” and I suppose it might’ve been satisfying in its own right. One of my favorite novels ever, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, takes place during a few days of summer in adolescence, when a girl named Frankie Addams, who feels she doesn’t fit in anywhere, tries to determine her place in the world. The novel is gorgeous and powerful and perfect. It didn’t need to go anywhere else.
But my novel did. I knew I wanted to keep moving through Jules’ life, circling back to that first, essential summer and following her and her friends as they change and in some ways don’t change; as they are very much themselves, but in a continually aging form. Also, along the way, there are marriages, and children are born, and people die. In chapter one Jules is 15; in chapter three she’s middle-aged. And then time loops backward and she’s a teenager again, visiting her summer friends in New York City; and then she’s a recent college graduate living in a cheap apartment in Greenwich Village, which is a fact that itself says a great deal about the passage of time: cheap apartments in the Village? Where? When? How?
As in the “Up” films, I wanted to show how people become who they are eventually, and how the seeds of the finalized self, or maybe the whole of it, can sometimes be seen from the start. I sometimes feel shocked that I’m no longer 15, and that my son is graduating from college, and that some of my friends from an important, early time in my life are now dead. I don’t know that I’ll ever understand any of it. But I’m glad to have found a way to write about it.
New York City resident Meg Wolitzer is the author of several smart, critically acclaimed novels. In The Interestings, she follows characters who meet as teens at summer camp over the course of four decades, exploring the ways that time does—and doesn’t—change who we are.