Shit My Cats Read: An Interview with Meg Wolitzer

And then I delivered Meg Wolitzer to them.

I never thought it was weird that my cats read so many books. They, these two sisters—Uni and Chloe—came from humble beginnings: the rafters of a garage in central New Jersey. When I brought them home to my apartment, all they wanted to do, for years, was talk about books: whisper amongst themselves and twiddle their whiskers as they described something or other as so meta. I decided to broaden their horizons with contemporary literature, and tease them with new options. My bookshelves, after all, were their only real portal to the wider, human world. They learned to love genre novels without scoffing. They started to lighten up, to realize that entertainment and erudition are not mutually exclusive. 

And then I delivered Meg Wolitzer to them. The way their dim little eyes lit up at her work! They cried and chortled and whimpered their way through her back catalog, reading tales of tragically self-deprecating overweight stand-up comics, unrecognized and heroic wives, doubtful mothers—a brave and complex and hilarious world of women. When The Female Persuasion arrived I had to buy two copies; they couldn’t keep their damn paws off of it.    

And oh, how they wanted to talk to the author: the new feelings, the foreign sensations. I was too busy (making money, as someonemust), but I rejuvenated a few old contacts and inquired if Ms. Wolitzer might have the time for a quick conversation with these curious cats. Graciously, she agreed. I helped wrangle my girls’ frantic ramblings into something suitable for email, edited for clarity and broken up to reflect when they took pauses to play in the sunshine.

—Scott Indrisek

I. Pure Scrabble

UNI & CHLOE: We keep trying to write some short stories ourselves, and sadly, it’s not going so well. We start, we stop, we take a nap. The Female Persuasion is a long, involved novel, so you must have a pretty good work ethic. To make us feel better, can you share some experiences you’ve had in terms of getting stuck, as a writer? How did you get unstuck?

MEG WOLITZER: It’s not so much that I get stuck all that often, but that I just can’t bear to work. I mean, it just sickens me sometimes. So what I do is watch an episode of the Danish political TV series Borgen, which is completely involving. You, obviously, don’t watch Scandinavian television.

U & C: No, but we’re unrepentant Law & Order: SVU superfans.

MW: Maybe, when you get stuck in your own work, you could clean yourselves?

U & C: Fair enough. Many of your novels are about the struggles of women, the invisibility of women, the perseverance of women. We love how you write about women, but it also makes us sad. Your book The Wife is basically about a self-sacrificing woman-genius who gives up her entire life to support the career and ego of her crusty, talentless husband. That one made us mad. Given how crummy things can be for girls, why should we be hopeful?

MW: Wait a minute, first you say you’re “sad,” and then a minute later you say you’re “mad,” as if the two emotions are interchangeable. I think you really need to make up your minds which of the two “ad”s you are, because they are very different. For instance, I was sad when Max, the beloved dachshund of my youth, died. But I was mad when the Equal Rights Amendment died.

As for hopefulness, well, I don’t know where I stand on that one. It depends on the day. But I do know that, to quote a great woman poet, hope is the thing with feathers—speaking of the things that waft from the mouths of post-prandial cats in cartoons from the 1950s.

U & C: We’ll try to work on our emotions. Promise. Your last novel was called The Interestings. “Interesting” is such a loaded adjective. It can be used sincerely, but it can also be drenched in sarcasm. We find plenty of things interesting, seriously: squirrels; the way the breeze tickles the branches outside the window, sunlight. What do you find “interesting”, in the non-sarcastic way?

MW: Oh, let’s see. I find learning about other people’s marriages pretty interesting. Finding out what happened to people I went to elementary school with. Danish TV, as mentioned above. Writing fiction is interesting, when it isn’t unbearable. The word “philtrum” is interesting, for no good reason. The game Bananagrams is thought to be interesting by some, but not by me, a Scrabble purist. The word “interesting” is fairly interesting when you add an s to the end, or at least that was supposed to be the general idea.

II. Meg’s Been Dying to Know

MW: If I were to try cat food, in order to channel a tragic old woman character who might’ve been played by Ruth Gordon in a previous era, which kind would I try? Overpowering fish scents do not speak to me.

UNI: Greenies are delicious, good for the teeth, crunchy, and very unfishy. But they’re more of a snack.

CHLOE: Spot’s Stew is “healthy,” and the lamb-based version isn’t too shabby. Just don’t scarf it too fast or you might end up doing that horrifying thing where it looks like you’re having a seizure, but it’s really just your body trying to trick itself into puking.

MWDo you feel humiliated by certain words that have “cat” in them?  “Catheter” springs to mind right away, as well as the really unfunny comic strip Cathy.

CHLOE: Caterwauled, for one. I know our breed can make some pretty hellish noises when threatened, but it doesn’t mean we’re constantly shrieking like members of a four-legged Sleater Kinney cover band.

UNICatholic. The pageantry, the costumes, the scandals, the musty reek of history.

CHLOE: Oh, and catty-corner. What the fuck does that even mean? Young kittens need to learn that crossing an intersection on the diagonal is a suicidal provocation, and words like this just feed the fire.

MW: I would like to learn to walk as quietly as you do, or at least as quietly as Carl Sandberg’s fog. Any tips? And while you’re at it, any tips for adverb usage?  

CHLOE: Ah! “The fog comes / on little cat feet.” If we had a nickel for every time some sly Lothario has whispered this one through the window. It’s basically the feline pick-up equivalent of e.e. cummings’s “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”

UNI: Regarding the walking, try soft slippers. Despite what some may tell you, it is entirely inadvisable to purchase athletic toe-shoes. Some inventions would have been better off uninvented.

CHLOE: As far as adverbs go: choose carefully; write delicately; edit judiciously; overuse promiscuously.

III. Suspicious Moles

U & C: The Female Persuasion talks a lot about sisterhood, how women are meant to be with other women. As sisters ourselves, we were slightly confused. Are we just meant to get along, to roll around in the afternoon sunlight supporting each other?

MW: Rolling around in sunlight is overrated, in my humble opinion. Rolling around in positive societal change is much more up my alley (to allude to one of my favorite kind of cats). And I’m not saying you’re hanging out with the wrong people—or, animals—but perhaps you need a new bumper sticker for your car: Sisterhood is Meow-erful.

U & C: We’ve already overdone it in terms of feline kitsch, Meg. We have limits.

Early in the book, your protagonist Greer says “If you ever wanted to get an accurate picture of who you are… look at everything you’d Googled over the past twenty-four hours.” In our case, that’s:

Are birds real?
Where did they go and are they coming back?
what is google

What’s your Google, Meg?

MW: The novels of Virginia Woolf, plus Does this mole look suspicious?

U & C: A young, very precocious boy in the new novel (Alby) describes love as being “like when you see a dog and you feel like you have to touch its head.” This is an interesting way of thinking, considering how baldly needy and undiscerning all dogs are.

MW: I’ll have you know that Max was discerning. He didn’t tilt his head at all comers. In fact, it was only me (and my older sister) to whom he offered his shiny little head, as well as his long ears with the pointless slot at the bottom that always reminded me of that weird hole in penny loafers.

U & C: Speaking of dogs, we noticed a picture of such an animal on your Instagram. Goes by the name of Jet. You list Jet’s interests as “things made of rawhide; fiction; feminism.” What kind of feminist would a dog even make?

MW: Max was more of a secular humanist. But Jet, while he hasn’t expressly called himself a feminist, by the time he was housebroken he had already read extensively in the works of Andrea Dworkin.

U & C: You’ve written in the past so nicely about how friendships change over time, how people grow up and grow apart in certain ways. We cats aren’t nearly so emotionally dependent—we have no idea where our mom is, for instance—so this is a slightly foreign concept for us. But we’re curious: how many people that you knew when you were a teenager are you still close with?

MW: I met my best friend at summer camp, and we remain the closest of friends to this day.  She no longer wears wildflowers in her hair, and I no longer wear my Keep On Truckin’ nightshirt, but otherwise we are exactly the same as we were back then. I do still have a few friends from high school, too.  We were in all the plays together, including the Lauren Bacall vehicle, Applause, based on All About Eve. I’ve never understood using the word “vehicle” in that context, and yet what do you know, I just did it.

U&C: Do you have a favorite animal that appears in a work of contemporary fiction? It doesn’t have to be a cat.

MW: Old Yeller, which I read as a child.  Though it wasn’t until I was thirty years old that I woke up bolt upright at night, finally realizing what “we have to put him down” meant.

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