She just published a book on sloth, assuring readers they have "the right to be lazy," but playwright Wendy Wasserstein doesn't claim that right for herself. Her new play, Third, opens next month at New York City's Lincoln Center. A musical based on her children's book Pamela's First Musical debuts in April. And her first novel, Elements of Style, comes out in May. Wasserstein talked to TIME's BARBARA ISENBERG about what fuels all that prose.
What prompted your new play?
Unbeknownst to me, it was spawned by the death of my father. It's about a literature professor teaching King Lear from a strong feminist perspective who accuses a male student of hers, an athlete, of plagiarism. It's a case of reverse discrimination, but it's larger than that. Her youngest daughter is leaving home for college. Her father has a form of dementia, and she's sort of Cordelia to her father's Lear. She's looking at political beliefs she formed 30 years ago that she thought would be the dominant beliefs in her life and in the country--and which no longer are. She is looking at the third part of her life.
How does your protagonist's midlife crisis differ from the male midlife crises we usually see onstage?
Women have physical symptoms; this woman has hot flashes all the time and wants to take off her shirt during class. In our society, aging for women is also more difficult because, by and large, it's a humiliation to look over 40 until you're 80, and then people say, "Isn't she well preserved?"
Do you share your character's pre-occupations about the third part of life?
Like the professor, I'm obsessed with the way the country is going. She watches news all the time, as if that gives her some kind of power, and I was doing that for a while also. Then I decided to do something about it. For instance, I'm very pro-choice and will show up and speak and do whatever I can to support that. It's no longer, Will you get into medical school if you're a woman? But gender is still the issue.
You and your character are both 54. How would you describe your 50s so far?
I find myself far more interested in my old friends and in deeper alliances. My 50s are also about being a mother and the joy of my daughter Lucy Jane and about loss. Real loss. My sister Sandra died of breast cancer at 60, so I know about things I didn't know about before. My father died two years ago, and then my friend [the director] Gerald Gutierrez died. He was 53. I think if you experience loss, you also on some level try to treasure joy. It can be as simple as going to the ballet or being with your child.
What led you to write a novel?
I went to the MacDowell Colony two months after my dad died. Playwriting is collaborative, and I wanted to do something solitary. I wrote it in notebooks. I had to speak in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I took it to the hotel there. I wrote it in Hawaii, at a writers' conference last summer, and in London. That novel truly became a wonderful companion over the past two years.
You keep lists of things to do and self-improvements to make. What sorts of resolutions are you making at this point in your life?