Making word games cool
Meg Wolitzer is best known for her clever novels for adults—most recently, The Uncoupling, a Lysistrata-inspired suburban drama. In her latest book, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, she writes for a different audience: middle-schoolers. The novel is told from the perspective of three children attending the National Scrabble Tournament in Yakamee, Florida, where they’re competing for different reasons: to fit in (and attempt to win money for a single mom); to achieve a parent’s childhood dream; or to prove worth to a sports-obsessed family. In a Q&A with BookPage, Wolitzer answered questions about her own love of Scrabble and why she decided to write for kids. We’re glad she did, since her first effort is funny, charming and surprisingly suspenseful.
When did you first become interested in playing Scrabble? Do you remember your first bingo (play that uses all seven tiles)?
I played Scrabble with my mother from a very young age; she was very good at it, and she taught me the rules. I seem to recall a lot of outdoor Scrabble in my childhood, including at the town pool and the local beach. I don’t recall my first bingo, no, and I don’t even think we called them bingos back then. But I do remember learning the word CALYX in school and then miraculously having all the letters on my rack to make that word in Scrabble the following day. It was weird.
Louis Sachar wrote a book last year about a boy who becomes obsessed with bridge (The Cardturner). Now you’ve written a book about a kid who becomes obsessed with Scrabble. Are old-fashioned games seeing a resurgence of interest, or did they never go out of style?
I know that parents often try to re-create certain aspects of their own childhoods when they have kids, and I have very strong memories of Scrabble with mother, Monopoly with my sister and Mystery Date with my best friend. It seemed natural to me to insert lots of board games into the life of my new family when I grew up and had kids. I suspect a lot of people felt the same way, and as a result board games haven’t really gone away. My kids are now 16 and 20, and are deep in all things electronic, but I am still finding little cards and dice and tiles all around the house.
You’ve written many novels for adults (including BookPage’s Top Pick in Fiction for April, The Uncoupling). How did you have to modify your writing style when writing for children? Did you ever worry about “talking down” to your readers?
When I write a novel, I try to write the one I would like to find on the shelf. With a book for children, I kind of needed to do a mind-meld between my current writer/reader self, and the self who I used to be back in, say, fifth grade, in Mrs. Secunda’s class. I’m not all that different now, really, and because of this I didn’t worry too much about talking down to readers. I think the litmus test is essentially: Am I engaged with this as I’m writing it? Am I completely drawn in? Do I care about the characters and what happens to them? Would fifth-grade me have liked it?
Your main characters who converge at the tournament each have a different set of concerns. There is Duncan—the outcast with a single mom; April—the girl who doesn’t fit in with her siblings and who is searching for a long-lost crush; and Nate—the skateboarding New Yorker whose dad forces him to play. Do you identify with any of these characters in particular?
I identify with all of them, but I particularly liked April’s sense of longing, which I remember feeling pretty strongly at her age. (My longing largely concerned Donny Osmond, but that’s another—embarrassing—story.)
From your town of women who are overcome by a spell in The Uncoupling to Duncan’s magical fingertips, your work seems to have taken a turn for the (slightly) supernatural. Why do you think that is?
It must have been something in the water . . . Truthfully, with The Uncoupling, I didn’t want the book to be whiny or complainy, with women talking endlessly about how their sex lives had fallen off. I knew I was trying to reach something a little bigger than that, using the spell as a metaphor to have a look at what happens to female desire over time. I suppose the same must have been true with The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. I liked the idea of giving him a “power,” but not some huge thunderbolt of ability. Instead, I gave him something low-key and odd. Defined that way, most kids have a power, a special ability that contributes to who they are. I felt that a very light layer of fantasy would help underscore that idea.
Is there any message or lesson you’d like readers to take from Duncan’s experience?
I think listening to your own instincts is essential in life. Making hard decisions based on what your own inner voice—not anyone else’s—tells you. Oh, and also: I’d love it if the book made them see that Scrabble is a terrific game.
Do you have plans to continue writing books for children? What is your next project?
Yes, I am writing a second book for Dutton. It’s at a very early stage right now, that lovely moment when the book can go off in many different directions, and you can experiment a lot and not have to commit to anything. I’m still at that time in the writing when anything seems possible.