Interview with Jennifer WeinerPosted by Goodreads on October 3, 2016
Hungry Heart, your first nonfiction book. What were the challenges of writing a memoir?
Jennifer Weiner: The obvious one is that everyone is going to know my business, which is terrifying. But in terms of the writing, some of these are stories that I've told, like the story of my Nana being an extra in the movie, so that just came very naturally. I turned in a draft of this book that were stories that I've told at readings and public speaking events, plus some pieces I had published already. It was about 250 pages long. After I turned it in, I thought, "That's not the real story. It's not going to help anyone." We as women do so much pretending, and it's made the world a less safe place. Because if everyone is pretending that everything is great—that my marriage is fine, that my kids are fine, that I'm managing all this fine—it becomes less safe to say, "I'm not fine. I'm not OK, and I need some help." I do not want to be responsible for making the world less safe, for women to be vulnerable, and honest, and to get the help they need. People are suffering because of this. They're going on Facebook and seeing perfectly lit, perfectly coiffed, perfectly filtered images, where nobody has barfed on their outfit. And then you're forced to ask yourself questions: Why is my life not like that? What is wrong with me? And I don't want people feeling that way. I want people to look at me and think, "Well, Jesus, at least it's not that bad!" [Laughs] When Jessi Klein wrote that piece in the [New York] Times "Get the Epidural," I thought, "Thank God someone is saying this." I wish somebody had been saying this when I had my first daughter.
GR: You write with such candor about your miscarriage. Why did you feel it was important to include this?
JW: It's another thing that we don't talk about. I remember when I knew it was going to happen, and I was looking for information, it was either WebMD, super clinical, or it was the mother in Brooklyn who miscarried in the bathtub and then took the gestational sac and buried it under the peach tree. Most of us are going to be in the middle somewhere. We're going to have feelings, we're probably not going to have a funeral, but we're going to have some feelings. Again, the larger issue, if I can say this, is to make women feel less alone, make them feel less ashamed, make them feel like they're not the only one. And also the way that I got treated, when it was clear that the pregnancy had ended, and it's either going to happen on its own or I would need this MVE [an outpatient procedure], and they were like, "Oh, sorry, it's Monday, but nobody can do it until Friday." And the fact that I had to call every person who was connected in some way to an OBGYN and act like this was a hot concert I was trying to get tickets to was unconscionable. It shouldn't have happened to me; it shouldn't have to happen to anyone.
The more we talk about this, the better, whether it's the miscarriage or feeling like crap after Lucy was born or my father's death. Everyone I talk to, everyone's got something. I'm hearing "Me, too" or "I had a miscarriage, I didn't talk to my dad for 20 years" or "I cried every day for a year and a half until my kid was two." And we go through it alone.
JW: I'm going to go with "wow." My first instinct is to say harder. My daughters and I have had so many conversations about it. I say to her, "Lucy, who is everyone on the Internet?" And she responds [monotone], "Everyone on the Internet is a 64-year-old man." I don't care what pictures they're sending you, everyone on the Internet is a creepy, creepy 64-year-old man who lives in his mother's basement.
On the one hand, as a kid, I think that social media would have been a wonderful avenue for me to say my mean things anonymously, but on the other hand, I'm sure I would have gotten ripped to pieces, in so many more ways than I was already getting ripped to pieces. Could I have maybe found my people sooner? Could I have maybe played Minecraft with people who were into the same TV show that I was and found someone to talk to? Maybe. I could have met some people I connected with, or I could have gotten raped and murdered by a 64-year-old man who lives in his mother's basement.
GR: Your characters (and in Hungry Heart, you) are so relatable, your readers often feel like they know you. What does that feel like to have strangers so keenly identify with you?
JW: Yes, some of that happens, and yes, it is a little strange. You know the me that I'm putting out there, which is a close cousin of the me that really exists, but it's not the whole thing.
GR: I read the description of your mom making your lunches while you were growing up and immediately thought of researching the best non-BPA-plastic bento box in a gender-neutral color to fill with tiny unicorn-shaped sandwiches for my four-year-old, and it makes me think maybe there was something to Fran's margarine-and-ham sandwiches and "you get what you get" attitude. Which generation of parents is getting it right?
JW: I'm going to go with them. They got it right. Because here's the thing: As soon as we were old enough to realize that those sandwiches tasted like ass, we were making our own. We thought, "OK, I know I can do better than ham and margarine. I'm going to figure out how to do this." What are our kids going to figure out how to do? I will say, last night Phoebe made her own lunch. I supervised. She made her sandwich and chose everything. But I think about this a lot as I shell her edamame.
GR: Your work was integral in prompting the two remaining all-male clubs at Princeton to admit women, and you say that it remains one of your proudest accomplishments. Do you draw any parallels between this and your current status as standard-bearer for more equality in publishing?
JW: Yes! It's a line. I think that there has always been something inside of me, that I don't want to be overlooked and I don't want to be ignored; I always feel like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction when I say that. [Laughs] There's something very human and universal about wanting to be seen and wanting to be included and wanting to be given a chance. It's really a question of who matters. If you're the editor of the New York Times book review, and you do that mystery roundup every week, what you're saying is the people who read mysteries matter. They matter more, they deserve to see their taste reflected back at them in the paper, and the people who read romances don't matter, don't deserve to see themselves. That is offensive. It's unfair. People will say that Chick Lit is formulaic. You know what else is formulaic? A mystery! Where there's a body in the first chapter and someone gets arrested in the last chapter. Am I missing something here? I know where I am. I'm not Sweetbitter. It's doing a different thing. It's not like I think my books are being mistreated or ignored. Just play fair.
GR: The first time an agent wanted to work with you on Good in Bed, you turned it down because of the changes she wanted you to make to the main character. "I wanted to publish the book I had written, with the heroine I'd imagined." Looking back on that pivotal time, can you recall how you found the strength to make this decision at just 29 years old?
JW: I kind of can't believe I did that. I look back and think, "Did I really do that?" And this agent was—and continues to be—very powerful. She represents a lot of prizewinning, bestselling authors. And the idea that I wasn't just like, "Whatever you say"—it must have felt so wrong to me what she was asking. But I don't know I honestly look back and think, "You go 29-year-old Jen!" I don't know how I did it. I think there are so many versions of the story where I would have said "Of course you're right" and made the changes, and it would have been a watered-down, totally different version, and my career would have gone in a different direction. Part of it, I think, was just recognizing that she and I were going to have trouble working together. But even so, I never fired a boss before. Someone must have been watching over me. I think I believed that Good in Bed had something to say, and that there were people who were going to be comforted by that book. And I hadn't had daughters yet, but maybe there was a part of me who thought, "Maybe someday I'll have a daughter who may need this book. Somebody may need this book." So I don't know how I did it and, honestly if I'm allowed to be impressed with my past self, this is one moment. I've made many choices I'm not proud of, but that is one choice I am proud of.
GR: In the chapter titled "The F Word," your daughter (obviously hurt) calls someone fat. It drives home the book's theme of appearances and how women (and in this case, girls) are judged, and judge others, by how they look, in every generation, starting so early in life. You gave a perfect response: "There are plenty of reasons for not liking someone. What she looks like isn't one of them." It made me wonder what the world would be like if every parent had this conversation with her child.
JW: I don't know if kids would believe you. There have been studies—babies respond to more symmetrical faces, we're programmed to see beauty, and to see difference. All I can do is be one voice in my daughter's ear, and hopefully I'm an influential one. Hopefully my voice is as loud as her friends, and the Internet and TV and the 64-year-old creep on the Internet. If I'm just one voice saying it really is what's inside of you. I read somewhere they call it the female tax. All of the time and money we spend on hair, makeup, Spanx, heels, gym, wax—all of it. I was on TV with Harlan Coben, the mystery writer, who I love, and I got up at 5:30 in the morning, my glam squad shows up, and it's the Spanx on the Spanx on the Spanx, and I'm looking at Harlan Coben and thinking, "He put on a suit and they powdered him. Why, God why?" The time, the money, the mental energy that goes into all of it. I would love to show up to a reading just like this, but I can't, because everyone is taking pictures, it's all going on Facebook. So I resent this, and I don't know how it can be different.
GR: Goodreads member Mariah asks: "Do you have any special traditions or ways you like to celebrate a book's release?"
JW: Normally I'm going out on a book tour, so there's not a lot happening. The real celebration happens the first time I get the book and can actually see that this is what it's going to be like in the world. Every time I've signed a new contract, I've bought myself a pair of diamond earrings. And I just keep upgrading. [Laughs] I would say that's a tradition. And let me tell you, I really, really believe in women buying their own jewelry. So that's what I do.
GR: Goodreads member Michelle asks: "As a school librarian, I was excited to hear you had written a children's book. What made you decide to write a book for children?"
JW: The short answer: Phoebe, my little one, became obsessed with Bigfoots. So random. But then I started thinking about Bigfoots, and are they real, and what would it be like if they were, how would they interact with the human world. So that was a piece of it, but the other piece was that I see my daughters start to get the message the world sends girls about looks and about what you are going to be valued for, and about your body and your hair and your face and your clothes, and I wanted to write a book that would be, I hope, a tiny drop of antidote in the sea of poison they'll be swimming in. And a book that says it's OK to be big and strong and weird and hairy. So that was why.
GR: Goodreads member Laura asks: "Do you develop your characters beyond the written page (e.g., create backstories, keep notes with facts and character traits that you don't mention in the book)?"
JW: I definitely do. Generally every single person in the book—I have a whole biography for them. I know where they were born and where they lived, and that's helpful in terms of how they would respond to this situation or what would they say or would they know this word, or phrase, or would they have heard of this band. So yes, there's definitely world building off that page that you guys don't see.
GR: Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any sort of ritual you follow?
JW: I love this question, and I get it all the time. I love it because it reminds me of Inside the Actors Studio, when the host, with the same degree of seriousness each time, asks whoever is in the chair: "Tell me about your process. Tell me about your craft." And it can be Meryl Streep or J.Lo. I love that he can do that straight-faced.
No, I don't have any special ritual. I also joke that there are indeed writers who say the room must be 66 degrees; there must be a white noise machine in the corner…. You can't have kids and live like that. If you're a writer with kids, you can't be like that. Whenever no one is spilling apple juice on your laptop and yelling "Mommy, mommy!" that's when you write.
GR: What are you reading now? Have you read anything you've really enjoyed lately?
JW: I read Mara Wilson's book, Where Am I Now, which is her memoir of leaving Hollywood, and I liked that very much. Teddy Wayne's new book is called Loner, and I'm really looking forward to that. Luvvie Ajayi's I'm Judging You—she's a blogger and is super funny and in your face about how not to behave on the Internet and how not to behave in person. She's really, really funny.
GR: What authors or books have influenced you?
JW: Everything by Nora Ephron and everything by Fran Lebowitz. Susan Isaacs is my favorite novelist, and she's just a good person, insofar as you can know someone from social media. I think she's fantastic and just straight to the point.
GR: What are you working on at the moment?
JW: The sequel to The Littlest Bigfoot, which is called Little Bigfoot, Big City. It's fun. It's a nice world to be in, the world of children's books. It's my safe place.
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Interview by Regan Stephens for Goodreads. Regan is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. Her writing about travel, food, and books has appeared on sites like People, Vogue, and Refinery29.
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