The Interestings, in Meg Wolitzer’s inviting, ambitious novel of the same name, are a clique of highly self-selected 15-year-olds who meet in 1974 at a summer camp in the Northeast run by aging Socialists. The Interestings are (mostly) beautiful, privileged, hyperintellectual New Yorkers and the coolest people Julie Jacobson, who is embarrassed about growing up in the New York suburbs, has ever met. One becomes enormously wealthy from the cartoon he first develops at the camp, while another, the son of a famous folk singer, has to emerge from the AIDS crisis unharmed. Everyone seems convinced that these six little gods are imbued with their own talent, though whether they are—and what it means if they aren’t—becomes the target of Wolitzer’s observant, funny eye. Jules (as she comes to be known) and her friends are unfailingly loyal to one another until a crisis erupts that they are unable to contain and solve within the group. (In fact, the New York tabloids temporarily glom onto the scandal, and the New York district attorney pursues the culprit.)

For some time now, Wolitzer has been a writer critics and readers respect. Her novel The Ten-Year Nap (2008), which Kirkus starred (as we did The Interestings), was a New York Times best-seller and a popular book club choice, focusing as it does on the question of women who must navigate raising a family and having a career. But Wolitzer should be better-known. She is a generous, compassionate, piercing, comedic writer who tackles issues readers actually care about. She’s firing on all pistons in The Interestings, which feels complete and assertive, a flag planted in the Earth staking out a new ambition. I asked her about being typecast as a “women’s fiction” writer and how her past influences her new novel.

A year ago, you published an article in the New York Times where you wrote that, “Yet if, on the other hand, a woman writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.” It feels to me like The Interestings is an answer to the questions you pose in that article, like maybe you were setting yourself the goal of writing an ambitious novel that can’t be typecast as specifically men’s or women’s fiction. Does it feel that way to you?

It’s complicated. As I was writing that essay, I was thinking very much about these things. It’s hard to say which exactly came first. There’s a genesis of a long time thinking about these issues and men and women in fiction, and somewhere in the middle of that, I started writing this novel. I think sometimes you have to let yourself go more when you’re writing, and writing this essay did let me do that, to not let me feel that I had to do some things that I might have consciously or unconsciously done in the past, which is the fetish of the good sentence as opposed to looking at the whole entity. It was really important to me when I first started (as it still is to a large extent) that the writing be strong. But you don’t want the writing to be good at the expense of the whole project, and I think I started thinking of this as a bigger project than maybe I had some of my other books. When I was writing that essay, I was speaking to myself, absolutely. But to address the question about men’s and women’s fiction…my dream book is a sort of big, full book that doesn’t feel like it’s propelled by male arrogance. Many big, full books by men don’t feel that way, but some do, and it was important to me that the women characters be fully realized. I think it’s a more coed book than I’ve written before. It’s more that I think of it as coed rather than neither male nor female.

You write in the novel about 1975 as “one more year in a sequence of shameful years”—why did you want to set the novel, or the foundation of it, at that time?

I’m exactly the same age as my characters. My math is horrible, but above and beyond that, I really wanted to look at experiences from that time through a lens similar to the one that I had. This story is not autobiographical except that I did go to a summer camp in that summer Wolitzer Cover[of 1974] that was very much like this, and it meant everything to me. But the way that it springboarded from there was very different from anything in the book. What I remember so vividly from that era—and so many things that have disappeared—I wanted to put in this book. Thinking about the Vietnam War, the endless POW-MIA bracelets the girls in my school wore; a sense of being too young to understand the prevailing political culture but having an ear out for it in the rhythms of what your parents were talking about; a desire to enter the world, but feeling that the world was corrupt….Starting at age 15 in 1974 was the right way to wind up the toy.

So you went to a camp as a teenager like the one in the novel?

It was in Stockbridge, Mass., in the Berkshires. It was this brief moment; I grew up in the suburbs like Jules, but I grew up in a very different kind of home. My mother [Hilma Wolitzer] is a writer, so I grew up in a more sophisticated home than Jules did, however I didn’t know kids who lived in the city, and I met them for the first time that summer, and I was excited by them. I didn’t really know what it felt like to live in the city, but I would go visit them, and we would see foreign films. I would sleep on the floor of their living room, and I was quivering with excitement, because suddenly things were about us and not about our parents. 

You made close friends at the camp?

My closest friend, she was great to talk to about this novel, about our differing or similar senses of that experience, but what interests me most about it is time passing. I really wanted to do that in this book. What happens to talent over time? There are so many people when you’re young who you think they’re going to go so far, they’re brilliant, and it doesn’t always turn out; you don’t hear about them again. I got very excited with this novel that I didn’t necessarily have to zoom in and stay there and have it be an extended meditation on one thing. I wanted to linger in a lot of places.

Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.