Jennifer Weiner on the Power of Women's Stories and Killing 'Chick Lit'

Posted by Cybil on May 31, 2019
After the 2016 election, Jennifer Weiner, the prolific author of bestsellers, including Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, knew it was time for a “big book”—one that looked at gender inequities, women’s progress, and the lack of it over the past 70 years. But after 18 months attempting to write a dystopian novel about a future where abortion is illegal, the Pennsylvania-based writer realized her subject matter lay much closer to home.

Weiner turned her attention to the book she’d always wanted to write, the sweeping life story of two Detroit-born sisters, one of whom, Jo Kaufman, is loosely modeled on Weiner’s own mother, who came of age and married in the ’60s, had children, but then fell in love with a woman after getting divorced. The result, Mrs. Everything, is Weiner’s biggest and arguably boldest book, the story of two very different sisters who endure personal tragedy and painful compromise in an often hostile but morphing world as they try to find their place in it.

The book, Weiner’s 16th, is also, she says, a “political book” that encompasses everything from the civil rights movement to #MeToo and places women’s relationships with women center stage. The novelist talked to Goodreads contributor Catherine Elsworth about writing Mrs. Everything, the sacrifices of feminism, and why she feels compelled to “try to leave things better than when I found them.”

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Goodreads: It’s been four years since your last novel for adults, and Mrs. Everything feels like quite a shift from your previous work.

Can you talk about this book’s evolution, when it first became an idea for a novel you wanted to write, and how you went about making it happen?

Jennifer Weiner: So, the idea goes all the way back to Good in Bed [Weiner’s 2001 debut]. That was a book about a young woman and her romantic travails, her dysfunctional family and her love life, and how she was trying to make peace with her body and find her way into adulthood.

As is the case in many first novels, the book was very autobiographical and the main character was a version of me. There was also a character in the book who was a version of my mother, who had been married to a man and then got divorced in the mid-’80s and then ten years later had fallen in love with a woman, much to the shock of her children—we were in our teens and 20s at the time and it was "Wait, what just happened here?" The character of the mother isn’t one of the main characters of Good in Bed; she was in the background and partly for comic relief.

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But I found myself wondering as the years went on, as I became a mother myself, what my mother’s life must have been like. What it is like when there are parts of yourself that you have to keep hidden and there are things that you want that aren’t available to you.

I thought some day I’m going to revisit the idea of that woman and make her the focus of a book. I’m going to try to write authentically and not just for the comic aspects but for the comedy and the tragedy, what life is like when you are that woman. And then, of course, my mom has a sister, and if the gay character was the rebel as a child, I needed a good girl to be the foil, the "straight" woman in the story. But then I started to think about all the ways the world can damage even women we would think had all the advantages. Those were the things that had been churning around in my brain for a long time, and I’d written bits and pieces, I’d done little collections of research and had stockpiles of newspapers and magazines.

Then the [2016] election happened, and I think many creative people went through a lot of re-entrenchment and questioning. "What am I supposed to be doing? Is this really helping anything? If I’m just writing fun, entertaining beach books, am I part of the problem?" "Have I allowed this to happen because I haven’t been commenting on it more directly?"

And for about a year and a half I tried to write a dystopian book, a future where abortion is illegal and there was an underground railroad of women who would help women who were pregnant—and didn’t want to be—get medication and surgical procedures. And I just could not make that book work. It wasn’t playing to my strengths, it wasn’t working, and finally I put it aside.

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I was thinking about what I was going to do next, and I wanted to do a big book. But then I thought, "I tell stories about women and I don’t want to do that because I want to write a big book." And I had to ask myself, "Why is it that I have internalized the idea that women’s stories aren’t big stories?"

I remembered a quote by the novelist Grace Paley, who was asked in the ’70s, "Do you think that your books are political?" And she answered, "I write about women, so yes." And that’s when I realized that if I tell my mother’s story, or a version of my mother’s story, that is essentially by definition a political book and it can be a big book. Once I’d given myself permission to, in the age of Trump, write about women and family and marriages and mothers and daughters and relationships, then it was just off to the races.

GR: The book is very much about identity and finding your place in the world. Did the characters of Jo and her sister Bethie come to you fully formed or did you have to work at them?

JW: I knew what Jo’s journey was going to be because I wanted to make it a version of my mother’s story. But Bethie surprised me. I knew that there was going to be this good girl, heterosexual foil to Jo, but I wasn’t really sure who she was going to end up with, whether she was going to have children, and what that choice would look like, so she was one who surprised me.

GR: Did you interview your mother about her life for the book, and what did she think when she read it?

JW: I interviewed her mostly about stuff like, where did you live, what was your house like, what was your high school like? I didn’t want to know too much about her sex life; I wanted to stay far away from that.

And it took me a long time to even give her a copy because I was terrified. She came to Philadelphia for Passover, and I gave her a copy then, and I was just thinking to myself, "Please let her head home before she gets to the sex scenes because I really don’t want to have that conversation with her." I think she’s OK with it. I haven’t had an in-depth conversation with her about it, but I am pretty sure if she had any objections I would have heard about them by now, so I think we’re in good shape.

GR: Mrs. Everything is very much about what it’s like to be an outsider, a minority, whether you’re Jewish or in an interracial marriage or gay. Was that something you knew would be central when you started the book or did it become more pronounced in response to the current political landscape?

JW: Being Jewish myself, it’s very natural to write about Jewish characters. I’ve realized over the years that there’s something specific to Jewish characters, that you’re always on the outside. You’re not of the majority religion, you’re not celebrating the same holidays as everybody else, and there’s both a pride in who you are and a yearning to be part of the mainstream, which is an interesting tension. And it’s a tension that shows up over and over again in this story, where it’s like, "I’m proud of who I am and I’m proud of where I come from, but boy, this would all be a lot easier if I was just like everyone in the mainstream."

I think it’s more interesting to write about people who are on the outside trying to figure out what it’s like to be on the inside and how to get there and even if they really want to get there.

GR: Can you talk about the title?

JW: My husband came up with the title. So my mum was born in 1943, and she talks about the fact that by the time the ’60s were really the ’60s, like by 1966, ’67, ’68, she was married. And then I was born in 1970, so by the time the ’70s were happening, she was a young mom in the suburbs with children. And she talks about everything she missed.

I don’t even remember how it came up, but I was telling my husband, "I want to write a book that’s going to be historical and going to look at 70 years in the life of a woman who feels like she missed out on all of the big cultural moments of her generation." And he’s like, "You should call it Mrs. Everything." And I was like, "That works!" So I liked it, I like that it’s a pun. I like that it tells you what the book is about and hopefully it’s memorable.

GR: I love the fact that all the big significant relationships in the book are female.

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JW: Yes! I wanted there to be men, because you can’t really have a book with no men—I guess. But I did want to write about the relationships between women, whether they’re lovers or sisters or mothers and daughters. Those are relationships that are interesting to me and that I think are interesting to my readers. There is room for love stories and romance, but with this book I wanted to look at women and women’s relationships and women’s progress and women’s lack of progress.

GR: That’s something we keep returning to in the book—the ways life has progressed for women, but also the ways in which we’re still trapped in the habits and patterns of our mothers and grandmothers.

JW: I think that every generation tries to give their children what they feel they didn’t get. Whether that’s freedom or supervision or attention. When I had my babies, my mother looked at me like I was the craziest person because I was one of those, "Oh no, they have to have organic food" and "I can’t just send them out to play, you have to enrich them." And my mom was like, "You’re going to make yourself insane, and your kids aren’t going to appreciate it." I think that a lot of what people my age did was in response to the way that our mothers mothered us in the ’70s, and when our kids are parents, I think a lot of what they do is going to be in response to the way that they were hovered over and helicoptered and micromanaged.

The pendulum swings back and forth. There are these two motions that I identified as I was writing the book. One was the slow, slow march forward of progress, which is always one step forward and two steps back, and the other is just the pendulum and the way something will go to one extreme and then it will go right back to the other extreme and it will just carry on forever.

GR: Bethie has some very unpleasant experiences with men and some serious issues with her body and weight. Why was that important to the book?

JW: Originally Bethie was just supposed to be like a golden child, thin and pretty and perfect her whole life. And then I decided it would be a lot more interesting if she had her own journey and her own traumas. And then you start thinking about the way traumas manifest themselves and how women internalize the damage that’s been done to them and take it out on themselves in lots of cases.

Also, I was thinking a lot about language. The book was mostly done by the time the whole Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford thing was happening, but I just remember thinking, "God, to have that kind of experience as such a young woman and to not even have words for it, to not even be able to say, 'I was molested' or 'Some guy tried to rape me' or 'I was assaulted.' " What happens if you know that something awful has been done to you, but there’s a power imbalance because you’re young, you’re female, and the other person is older and male and, when you try to tell people about what’s happened to you, you don’t even have the language to say it and people look at you like, "What are you even talking about?" And I thought about going through that kind of experience and how so many women spend their whole lives at war with their bodies, about weight and about size and about food and appetite and desire and control and being out of control, and so I decided to give Bethie some of that stuff.

GR: The #MeToo movement happened while you were writing, and there’s a character in the book who seems inspired by it.

JW: By the time I was finishing the book, #MeToo was really in full swing, and I was like, I want to write about this, but I don’t just want to write another woman who’s a victim. I want to write about what I think is almost the more interesting story, which is the woman who’s complicit in other women’s victimization, what must that have been like? Because we know that for a lot of these guys, whether it was Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose or whoever it was, there were women who were victims, and then there were women who were saying, "Well, he was always great to me, he never did that to me, he never was the least bit inappropriate." And I was thinking, "What must it be like to realize that there was that side of him and you missed it?" You’re thinking, "Is it that I really didn’t see anything? Or is it that I maybe didn’t want to see anything because he was so good to me?"

So I wanted to tell all the stories, all the ways in which women get involved in #MeToo issues, and unfortunately one of the ways you can get involved is you can be that woman who was complicit or was enabling or who looked the other way or who was like, I’m not sure, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

GR: You’ve written about how differently books by men and women are discussed, written about, and reviewed. Do you think that’s changing for the better?

JW: Yeah, the two things I talked about—the pendulum and the slow but steady progress—I think this is one of the cases where there is slow but steady progress. It started with people just making a lot of noise about it and saying, Hey, this is a real thing. You can count how many reviews women are getting in this magazine or in this newspaper versus how many men are getting, and there is a difference, and that’s not right. I do think it’s gotten better.

The interesting thing is that now there’s this generation of young female writers who don’t remember the great chick lit wars of the early aughts, where women were saying, "Why are you calling my book chick lit? It’s just a story about a young woman and if it was a story about a young man, it would just be a book." Now there are young women publishing books with the absolute expectation that they will be taken exactly as seriously as men will. And it’s great that we’ve gotten to this place, but I also wish there was more awareness that a lot of women really sacrificed to get to this place.

But I also know this is the story of feminism. There are women who work and work and work to get these doors open, and then there are women who just waltz through them without realizing the effort that it took to make that possible. We all need to know our history. I certainly learned a lot about my own history and the history of feminism and the history of women in America, and I hope that women writers and women in general are always going to be aware of the cost with which our victories came.

GR: Do you feel like one of those women writers who maybe suffered because of the thinking of the time? It’s funny because chick lit almost sounds like a dated term now.

JW: It’s so funny. You just don’t hear it anymore. I’ve survived long enough to see my work go from being chick lit to women’s fiction—yay!

I definitely was one of the more outspoken women, who was talking about reviews and coverage and the names that books get called. And certainly there was an amount of backlash and disagreement and people who said, "Oh, she just wants attention for her own work. She calls herself a feminist, but really it’s just self-promotion," which was hurtful because it’s still one of the meanest things you can say to a woman—"Well, she’s making it all about her"—because we’re not supposed to do that.

But my mum was and is a feminist and an activist, and as my mother’s daughter, and as a Jewish person who believes that our duty is to heal what’s broken in the world, I don’t think I ever had the option of seeing something that was unfair and just being like, "Oh well." I think it was always my understanding that it was my work to call awareness to problems and try to make them better, and to try to leave things better than when I found them.

GR: What are some books you’ve read recently and loved?

JW: I just read Ruth Reichl’s new memoir, Save Me the Plums, which is about when she worked at Gourmet magazine. I read all of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books. I read The Sopranos Sessions because I was rewatching the show and that was really good company for that. I read The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray, which was so great and such a great title, a terrific, terrific book. I loved that one. A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl, Jean Thompson’s new novel, was a good one. She’s one of my automatic buys, so whenever I see she has a new book, I will buy it.

GR: What’s your daily writing routine?

JW: I get up in the morning. I walk the dog. I exercise most days, and then I write for four or five hours. I work in my closet, which is a big giant closet, so it’s a cloffice, a closet slash office. Then I stop when my kids come home, and I make dinner and we all eat dinner together most nights and watch TV or hang out. And I feel really lucky because I’ve always loved writing and I feel so fortunate that I get paid to do it, that I get to do the thing that I love best and I get to do it every day.

GR: Do you always have ideas for new stories rumbling around?

JW: Yes, I think that just looking at the world and reading as many books as I do, I’ve always got the next thing I want to talk about.

GR: And do you know what’s next?

JW: I do. I don’t want to talk about it too much, but it’s about a young woman who is a plus-size Instagram influencer who posts her outfits for the day—so she’s absolutely not me because I’m about as far from fashionable as you can get—and she ends up solving a crime. So it’s a little bit of a romp. After this book, I wanted something that took place over a couple of weeks in a beach house as opposed to over 70 years in America.

Jennifer Weiner's novel Mrs. Everything will be available in the U.S. on June 11. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by SueK (new)

SueK OMG! I was so incredibly lucky to read an ARC of this book, and I adore it. I said in my review that I just want to sit with JW, and put my hand on her shoulder and tell her all the ways it touched me. And then I read how the title came about - the pun! I am so dim, I didn’t catch it AT ALL - and that’s what I loved about the book! I’m a Mrs. Everything, Once again, thank you, thank you.

message 2: by JoAnn (new)

JoAnn Bassett I've loved Jennifer Weiner's books from Book One. She's funny, insightful and her characters are memorable. I saw her on the Martha Stewart TV show on Valentine's Day years ago and she said something that made me howl with laughter. M: "I see your book, In Her Shoes, was made into a movie. Did you write the screenplay?" J: "No, I think turning your own book into a screenplay would be a bit like circumcising your own son." Camera on Martha. She's flummoxed. They immediately go to commercial. I loved it! Can't wait to read Mrs. Everything.

message 3: by Edie (new)

Edie I am in LOVE with everything written by JW. I can't wait for Mrs. Everything to add to my collection of favorites! I am already planning to use it as my pick for my book club! Thank you for writing such timely, meaningful and comical material.

message 4: by Kati (new)

Kati Berman I loved the book and was also fortunate to read an ARC copy. I grew up exactly during the time the novel covers. Since I lived in Connecticut for 27 years, I loved the descriptions of familiar places, events, publications, etc. I will recommend this book to my book club.

message 5: by Maureen (new)

Maureen Refior I'm dying to read this book. I'm about to go preorder it on Amazon, I adore Jennifer Weiner and I've been anticipating her next book for the longest. She writes the way I wish I could.

message 6: by Anita (last edited Jun 11, 2019 10:23PM) (new)

Anita I was watching Good Morning America this week. Then when getting on my computer couldn't remember the author as their guest talking about her new book. Reading some of your answers here in this interview....realized this was you on GMA. Hope I'm right. This will be my next book I purchase...looks very interesting to read.

message 7: by Dywane (new)

Dywane That's Good Book?

message 8: by Jane (new)

Jane Kelly What a bore, from start to finish.

message 9: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Schwartz-Kates I'm am so excited about reading Jennifer Weiner's latest book, and this interview has sparked my interest even more. She's one of the writers I most admire, and I especially like the way she has interlaced this new book with contemporary ideas about the treatment of women within the context of the #MeToo movement.

message 10: by Paragon (new)

Paragon A, Jeniffer Weiner, more grease to your elbow

message 11: by Soman (new)

Soman Pom That's good book,i'm excited to reading this book.

message 12: by Frankie (new)

Frankie 🔦🧭

message 13: by Frank (new)

Frank Parker I have to read this book. As a man this is a subject that fascinates me - I'm even trying to write a book on the same theme. I hope I'm correct in my belief that things were different for women this side of the Atlantic. Tougher in some ways, especially in Catholic Ireland, but maybe less so in others.
Our stereotypes, like our history, are different.
I was born 2 years before Jennifer's Mom, but, like her, my wife and I missed a lot of the 60s and 70s "liberation".

message 14: by Jan (new)

Jan Fascinating and insightful interview with this author!👍👍

message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

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