Interview with Jennifer Weiner

Posted by Goodreads on September 18, 2008
Jennifer Weiner
Go to Jennifer Weiner's Q&A Group

The bestselling author of In Her Shoes, Little Earthquakes, and Goodnight, Nobody dishes about her latest chick lit endeavor, Certain Girls, the sequel to her first bestseller Good in Bed.

Goodreads: One of our members says you deserve a medal for embracing the chick lit moniker and "writing a witty, honest, and refreshingly fabulous novel." You've openly critiqued the literary label/marketing generalization "chick lit." How have your feelings on this topic developed over the years? Is chick lit a derogatory slur or a badge of honor?

Jennifer Weiner: The most profound thing I could say about any kind of label is that there's no point fretting over it, because, as a writer, it's out of your control. The decisions about what kind of cover your book's going to have, how it gets marketed and shelved in the bookstores, how it's described by the sales reps and the buyers...all of this is outside of the writer's control, and, I think, very little of it matters to the reader who just wants a good, engaging, entertaining story and doesn't really care what color's on the cover or how dismissive the critics can be.

So...is the label derogatory or a badge of honor? Depends on who's using it. When writers who are published by imprints like Kensington or the Five Spot or Strapless or Red Dress Ink say they're writing chick lit, they're not being derogatory at all. When the Times or The New Republic sneers about trashy, girlie beach-ready chick lit, you can bet that they are. As for me, I try to write the kind of books I want to write, the kind my readers seem to like, and try not to worry too much about what they're labeled, because as long as they're being read, I'm happy.

GR: Available this month, your new book Certain Girls is the eagerly anticipated sequel to Good in Bed, your first book. Why did you decide to bring back your spunky anti-heroine Cannie? And with a decade more writing experience under your belt, how has your approach to the character changed?

JW: I always knew — probably since finishing Good in Bed — that I wanted to write in Cannie's voice again, but I also knew that I didn't want to pick up six weeks after the first book ended and have her dealing with more or less the same issues. I think I wrote then that she was happy, and happy characters are hard to write about, because there's no tension, no conflict. Your characters just want to sit around and be happy. So I knew that when I went back to her, I'd need to catch her at a different moment in her life when she was dealing with different issues.

In terms of my approach to the character, I'm not sure much has changed. I like to think that I've learned things over six books. (Pop culture references — they get dated really fast! Physical descriptions of characters — readers like them!). But that character's voice has always been easy for me to hear in my head, and her skin's always been easy for me to slip into.

GR: You've discussed the semi-autobiographical roots of Good in Bed. Does Certain Girls have similar inspiration, or has Cannie diverged completely from Jennifer?

JW: Cannie is older. Much, much older. Five years older. She's a freakin' antique! Seriously, though, her voice is a lot like mine, I think, but in terms of her experiences, they've never had that much to do with my own. Basically, with Good in Bed, I gave Cannie a version of my family, and an amped-up version of my own neuroses, and then I set her on a path that was very different than my own. For instance, I never had an ex-boyfriend write about me in a magazine, I'm not friends with movie stars, never had a hysterectomy, and have not yet lived through a daughter's bat mitzvah.

GR: Goodreads member Laylo describes your heroines as "fiercely and unapologetically not your conventional female leads, as far as type and size go. They are big and beautiful, bright and quirky, and refuse to accept society's prescriptions that being less than physically ideal is somehow a failure." In our weight-obsessed culture, it is rare to see a real-sized female protagonist. Although advertisers insist that skinny sells, your books continue to become bestsellers! Did you foresee that plus-sized characters would hit a nerve?

JW: Wow. Can Laylo come live in my house with me? That's really nice.

Honestly, when I wrote Good in Bed it was just to get myself feeling better after a really devastating break-up. When I published it, I thought that maybe there'd be 12 readers who were really interested in the plight of a plus-sized Philadelphian, and I'd know eight of them from Weight Watchers.

But I think a lot of readers ended up identifying with characters like Cannie, and Maggie from In Her Shoes, and Becky from Little Earthquakes, and Kate from Goodnight, Nobody, because a lot of readers also feel like outsiders, whether it's because of their bodies, or their religion, or just having different sensibilities than the prevailing ones in the suburb they've ended up in. A lot of readers were fed up, so to speak, with the big girl who was always the tragedy until she lost a hundred pounds, or the sassy sidekick, or the punch line. They wanted characters who were well-rounded in every sense of the words, who moved through the world in a realistic fashion, sometimes wracked with self-doubt and sometimes feeling good about their allure and their abilities...and I'm happy to write about women like that.

I also think that the rules are different for books than they are for other media. In the movies, the idea of a leading lady bigger than a size two is still seen as revolutionary, but in books, you can write about whoever you want without having to worry about who'd play her in the movie.

GR: So many readers find your stories to be empowering. Gen writes, "[Weiner's] adventures are inspiring to any woman who is just trying to make it in this world and find someone to love her just the way she is." When you begin a book, do you plan for an uplifting message at the end? Or do you believe that is simply a natural byproduct of telling true stories about women? What compels you to write these stories?

JW: Wow wow. Can Gen move in with Laylo? I have a spare bedroom!

I'd say the message is a natural byproduct of the women I write about, and of my life. I don't set out to write quote-unquote "message books," wherein the reader gets repeatedly whomped over the head with my ideas of How Life Ought To Be. But...I do want to write about smart, funny, not necessarily skinny, realistically flawed women who generally get some species of happy ending, even if it's not the whole fairy tale tied in a bow.

GR: Your book In Her Shoes was transformed into a very successful film starring Shirley MacLaine, Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz. Identifiable female characters with flaws, goals, and realistic problems are usually absent in Hollywood films. Do you think Hollywood will ever catch up with literature in terms of its plucky heroines? And please dish: Do you have any more movie plans in the works?

JW: I had about the best experience any writer could ever have with In Her Shoes: I was thrilled with the screenplay, and the choices Susannah Grant made, I loved the casting, I was so happy that the movie was set in Philadelphia, and that the old people weren't transformed into 20-year-old hipster strippers.

The thing about movies is, if you're going to do a female-centered movie, the studio needs to cast an actress who can "open" that movie...and these days, there's only a handful of stars guaranteed to put butts in seats, so if Jodi and Reese and Julia are busy, you could be in trouble.

In terms of other books to film, just about everything's been optioned at one point or another, but having had such a wonderful experience with In Her Shoes it almost feels greedy to ask for more. If something happens, I'll be delighted, but if nothing does, I'll be okay.

But in terms of other plans, I just signed a development deal with ABC Studios, where I'll be coming up with ideas for potential TV shows. Television, I think, gives you more freedom in terms of time and space to tell your story, and in terms of what your characters can look like, and how famous they have to be. I hope that any shows I come up with will reflect the voice and sensibility of my books, and will also feature characters who don't necessarily look like models or movie stars.

GR: Who are some of your favorite female characters that have inspired you either as a woman or as a writer?

JW: Susan Isaacs is my all-time, hands-down favorite writer ever, and I love Linda Voss of Shining Through and Jane Cobleigh of Almost Paradise for being smart, sexy, headstrong, funny and flawed. Just about any woman Isaacs writes has been both a fictional and real-life inspiration.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you stick to a schedule? How long does it take you to finish a book?

JW: Well, I had a baby a little over four months ago, so there's no such thing as a typical day right now — I'm still in the write-while-she-naps phase of things. If things proceed the way they did with my oldest, I'll gradually start leaving the house again, and taking my laptop to a coffee shop for a few hours each day, eventually working up to twenty hours a week. That's the most time I spend officially writing...but the truth is, as any writing mother will tell you, there's always a part of your brain that's working, even when you're doing other things.

GR: The first chapters of all your books are available on the web, and you maintain an active blog and personal website. How do you think the web is changing the way writers can get their voices heard?

JW: So funny...I just started a blog post about why don't more literary writers maintain websites. It seems like such an easy, reader-friendly thing to do: You buy your domain name, put up your prettiest picture, link to the first chapter of your book and where to buy it. To me, it seems like the easiest, smartest thing in the world, and I'm consistently astonished at how many writers there are out there who haven't taken that step.

But then, if you step back and look at the bigger picture of book reviewing and bookselling in America, it starts to make sense. Book review sections are shrinking or dying; newspapers are on the wane. But online, book culture's exploding, and there's a ton of really passionate commentary out there for readers. For writers who are never going to get the kind of major review coverage that literary writers receive, the web lets you speak to readers directly. It lets you say, here's who I am, and here's what my book's about, and here's where you can buy it. If you take the step of adding a weblog, that gives you an avenue to speak directly to your readers, to give them access to the voice in your books even when it's a year or more between books. To me, this all makes sense from both a marketing and a literary perspective.

GR: Finally, what are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books?

JW: A website that I love is fivechapters.com — they post short stories in five segments, Monday through Friday. Right now I'm on Part 3 of Kate Christensen's "Voice Lessons," in which a divorcee in New York City gets voice lessons as a birthday gift from her teenage son, and gets more (and, in today's installment, less) than what she bargained for.

On my nightstand right this minute are Jonathan Kellerman's Compulsion, Suzanne Finnamore's Split, Max Apple's The Jew of Home Depot (a contender for greatest title ever), Marc Acito's Attack of the Theater People, which I loved, and So That's What They're For!, which is a breastfeeding guide — not so much on plot or character, but lots of helpful advice.

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