The Interestings, which starts at an arts camp for teenagers, follows a group of kids into middle age. Some become ordinary, others extremely successful. Was it based on your own experiences?
I went to summer camp in 1974, the year Nixon resigned. It was thrilling. It made me think I could take myself more seriously, and I came home pretentious — that got knocked out of me. [Laughs] My best friend to this day is someone I met there. But it’s not a summer-camp book. It’s about the moment when you find your people. When you find your cohort.
One of the biggest themes of the novel is envy. What drew you to that?
When I’ve seen envy portrayed in film or books, it’s been this out-in-the-open kind. But there’s this other, quiet envy you feel for people you love. A friend calls you up and says, “Something wonderful happened,” and you’re genuinely happy. But it’s not long before we think about ourselves. It’s so human. There was that great scene in that Woody Allen movie Stardust Memories where he’s on this horrible train and he looks out the window and there’s this beautiful train going by where people are having champagne. Your own life can start to feel like the ugly-person train, and that’s such a danger — because this is it!
It’s fascinating to see the characters’ ambition change over time. When have you seen that in real life?
There was one girl at camp who was an amazing actress, and everyone thought she was going to be famous. But when the Internet came along, I searched for her and found nothing. Only much later did I find out that she became a physician. I thought that was interesting — there must have been something in her acting that affects who she is as a doctor. If you can inhabit a role, maybe you can imagine someone else’s suffering, too. Or I guess that’s my fantasy. As a novelist, lives feel pretty novelistic to me.
And sometimes, in real life, protagonists never reach the denouements we thought were coming.
No, sometimes they never do. Maybe our lives are like imperfect novels — novels that would get very mixed reviews.
You’ve written notably about ”women’s fiction” and how it remains marginalized compared with ”male” novels. The Interestings seems to have broken through that barrier. Is it getting better?
It remains an issue that needs attention, and it’s a head-scratcher because women buy fiction, women read fiction, and women write fiction, but on the daily level of who’s in the important publications, it’s much more male. For me, I just have to write the book I want to write and not think, “Will women like it? Will men?”