This is an awesome Quaz.
I don’t usually start these Q&As off in such a declarative way. But, eh, screw it. This is an awesome Quaz.
I’ve never met Jennifer Weiner. I’m not even sure how I thought to request her presence here. But not only is she the New York Times best-selling author of 11 books, she’s now one of my all-time favorite writers. Why? Because she’s been there (as so many of us have been there), struggling at a newspaper covering completely undesirable sludge, itching to make it, busting her ass, fighting against naysayers, battling, scrambling, clawing.
And now, this.
If you haven’t read one of Jennifer’s books, you’ve certainly seen them. And, probably, her. She’s a ubiquitous writing presence these days, as well as a wickedly fun Twitter follow (Time magazine included her on its list of “140 Best Twitter Feeds”). Jennifer loves The Bachelor, doesn’t fear death and couldn’t recognize Rey Ordonez is a police line of one. You can visit her website here, her Facebook page here and check out her Goodreads zone here.
Jennifer Weiner, you are Quaz No. 228 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So I’m fascinated by something. You write a book, “In Her Shoes.” And in your mind you have visions for the characters, the settings, the environments. Everything. Then a movie is made, and someone else takes your vision and creates a visual medium. What is that like? The first time someone says, “How about Cameron Diaz as X? How about Toni Collette as X?” The first time you see it? And now, when you think about the characters you created, do you see them as you did in your head back in the early 2000s, or as they were portrayed on screen?
JENNIFER WEINER: After the film rights to “In Her Shoes” were sold, I made one of the rare mentally healthy decisions of my life. I decided that the book was where I got to tell my story, describe my characters and settings, how people looked and sounded, what they were feeling inside, and that the movie was going to be the filmmakers’ chance to tell their story. Whatever they did, whatever choices they made, it wouldn’t change a word of the book. If it was a good movie – and I thought it was – it would bring people to the book. If it was a bad movie, it would do the same thing.
I was happy with the casting. Of course, in my head, the characters were Jewish … but how many Jewish actresses in Hollywood who were the right ages were there ten years ago? Natalie Portman was too young, Deborah Messing was still on TV, which leaves us with … Bette Midler? I guess? So when they cast Cameron Diaz as the Jewish girl, I was kind of like, “Huh. Well, okay, I know a lot of Jewish guys who’d love to believe in that possibility.” Toni Collette is an amazing actress, and a total chameleon, and she’d gained weight for “Muriel’s Wedding.” In the book, Rose was a bigger girl—I’d imagined her looking more Muriel-sized than Toni Collette-sized—so when pre-production started I was getting phone calls from Hollywood. “She’s eating! She’s eating lots! She’s gaining weight! She’s gained five pounds!” And I remember thinking, “Five pounds? For some of us, that’s a good weekend!” Then they said, “She’s gained 10 pounds!” Then 15. Then I got a phone call I will never forget—“She’s hit the wall.” I was thinking, “There’s a wall!?! There’s no wall! At least, I’ve never found one!”
So. Did the visuals line up perfectly with what I was seeing in my head? Not really. But in the long list of things to be unhappy about in life, “Actresses in the Major Motion Picture Made of my Book Did Not Look Exactly the Way I Thought They Should” strikes me as a pretty bullshit complaint.
J.P.: Fiction intimidates me to no end. So I’m fascinated by your process. You have this vague idea for a book, I’m guessing. Then how do you attack it? What do you do?
J.W.: Sometimes the story comes first—I’ll see, for example, a magazine picture of a wealthy white woman holding the baby she had via surrogate, while a uniformed black nurse stands behind her, on the grounds of the woman’s estate in the Hamptons, and think, “there’s a story.” Then I’ll start to come up with my characters. The wealthy woman – why does she want a baby? Maybe she’s the third wife of a wealthy man and she’s trying to lock in her inheritance by giving her an heir. Who’s the surrogate? How’d she get into this line of work? Maybe I do a little research and find that military wives are often surrogates—it’s paid labor they can perform while their husbands are away, and the army has excellent health insurance and a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when it’s time for the delivery and it turns out the insured soldier is not the baby’s biological father.
Sometimes it’s less a story than a voice, or a piece of a memory—something I heard about, something that happened to me.
Once I’ve got my idea, I’ll make an outline, which will generally serve me well for about 50 percent of the project. Half the time I’m usually veering off in directions I never imagined. Then I revise and revise and revise. My agent reads a draft and gives me notes, and I rewrite. Then my agent and my editor read a draft and give me notes, and I revise. This happens three or four times, and I’m usually still tinkering right off until it’s time to go to press. My guess is that maybe one of every four words from the first draft makes it anywhere near the finished project. It’s a lot of work, especially for writing that reads as very easy and conversational … but, of course, things that look effortless very rarely are.
J.P.: I know you graduated Princeton, then took a gig as a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa. Why the journalism route? And what do you recall from your first gig at a newspaper? Did you learn a lot? Was it frustrating?
J.W.: When I finished college in 1991, there was a recession. I knew that I wanted to write fiction, so I asked my parents if either one of them was interested in becoming a patron of the arts, and supporting me for a year while I wrote my first novel, about their divorce and how much it had hurt me. After they both shot me down, I had to figure out a way to get paid for writing. John McPhee, who’d been my professor, was the one who encouraged me to take a job at a small newspaper. “You’ll be writing every day,” he told me, “and seeing parts of the world you haven’t seen, and your job will be to ask questions about what you see, what you hear, what’s going on.”
I graduated, then went to a six-week journalism boot camp run by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. I’d written for the college weekly—lots of opinion pieces—but had no hard-news background. I learned the basics there, then got hired at the CDT.
What I learned there was humility and patience and diligence. Nothing knocks the, “I am the second coming of F. Scott Fitzgerald” out of you quicker than having to type in the school lunch menus for five different school districts each Monday. Or covering sewage-board hearings and science fairs, or writing about the school board’s new budget and what it meant to taxpayers.
I’m too good for this, I would think, typing up news briefs and police reports. I studied fiction with Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison! I should have published a novel by now! Three of my classmates already have!
Except I wasn’t too good to do that job. I was a terrible reporter at first. I made all kinds of dumb mistakes. I got numbers wrong, names wrong. I’m sure I even got my byline wrong a few times. But I was making my mistakes, and learning my lessons, in a very small pond; not the national stage. I learned how to be careful, how to be thorough, how to be edited, which meant being humble enough to understand that what I’d written could always benefit from another set of eyes and another round of revisions. I learned to write with economy and precision, with voice (but not too much). I learned about pace, and flow, the importance of a great, grabby first sentence and a succinct, memorable kicker. I learned how to ask people questions, how to approach people who were grieving, or excited, or angry or frightened or who didn’t want to give me their real names (useful trick: If you’re interviewing someone and you say, “What’s your name?” with your pen hovering over your notebook or your digital recorder turned on and the person says, “My friends call me Three-peat,” or whatever, say, “What does your mother call you?” Works every time.)
I learned about planting my ass in the seat and putting my hands on the keyboard and working until a story came, and polishing it and tuning it and shaping it until it was as good as I could make it. I’d do it all day long with news and, eventually, feature stories, and then I’d go home and work on my fiction in my free time.
Thanks to journalism, I will never be one of those, “Oh, my Muse has not spoken to me today” writers. There’s a word for reporters who sit around waiting for the Muse to whisper in their ear about how best to begin your 10-inch opus on the sewage board hearing, and that word is unemployed.
I remember burning with jealousy when I read about classmates getting big national magazine contracts, writing books, being hired by the Times or the Wall Street Journal. Looking back, I am so grateful that didn’t happen to me, that I go to make my mistakes in a paper that expected its young reporters to be less than perfect, and would work to help them get better, so they could move on to their next job. I am lucky to have had the jobs that I had, and to have been out in the world, supporting myself, for a solid decade before my first book was published.
J.P.: We both write books. I sorta feel it’s a potentially dying industry and all the world’s authors are fucked. Tell me why you think I’m right or wrong (hopefully wrong).
J.W.: Luckily, you’re wrong. There will always, always, always, be an appetite for stories. It’s part of our hard wiring. People love to hear stories. I believe that the method by which these stories are delivered, the forms that they take, will change. We’ve got e-readers now, and digital shorts, and people reading books on their cell phones, and by the time my kids are grown they will probably be selling books in pill form, and you’ll be able to pop a little Cormac McCarthy over lunch. Books—physical books—might not be the big deal they once were. My theory is that hardcovers are going to become true collector’s items, and that smart publishers will turn them into luxury acquisitions—fancy endpapers, beautiful covers—basically works of art that you can display or keep on a shelf. But stories themselves will always be needed, the same way journalism will always be needed. We’re just going to have to endure bumps and bruises and growing pains as the industry figures out how to navigate the new world.
J.P.: You wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer until 2001, when your first book, “Good in Bed,” was released. So how did you make what had to be a somewhat courageous decision to pursue books as a full-time medium? Was it a hard decision? Scary? What went into it?
J.W.: I am super-cautious about money and jobs, and I’d never quit unless I knew for sure where my next paycheck was going to come from. If you just read the chronology, it looks as though the day the book came out I went to work, yelled, “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya,” then mooned the entire newsroom and flew off in a helicopter made out of hundred-dollar bills.
That is not what happened. What happened was, I sold “Good in Bed” as part of a two-book deal in May of 2000. I told my friends in the newsroom about this, and they found out the size of my advance. During the year between the sale and publication in 2001, I had some people in the newsroom who I’d never met go out of their way to befriend me (and ask me for my agent’s contact info). I also had a few people treat me really poorly (“Ooh, Miss Author, thinks she’s so fancy, let’s send her out in the middle of the night to cover a pier collapsing underneath a club on Delaware Avenue and then ‘forget’ to put her byline on the piece.”). One editor in particular—a woman who’s since left the business—seemed to make it her personal mission to dump awful assignments on me and generally treat me horribly during the year after the book was sold and before it was published. Her husband was a writer. He’d published a book, it hadn’t done well, and at least once a week this woman would tell me, “You can’t make a living from books.”
I believed her. I took a year’s leave when the book came out in 2001, and I planned to go back when my year was up. By then, though, “Good in Bed” had been on the bestseller list for more than nine months. I’d finished my second book, and gotten a contract for books No. 3 and 4. I still was planning to back to the paper, but that same managing editor called and said that she needed to cut her budget and either I would quit or she’d have to lay someone off. By then, I had a pretty good sense that I would be able to support myself as a writer, and I wanted to have a baby. Leaving made sense … but I would strongly, strongly caution other writers against it. The vast majority of writers do not support themselves with their writing. They do it because they love it; because they couldn’t stop, even if they wanted to.
J.P.: There’s a sentence from your Wikipedia page that I absolutely love, and it is this: “Jennifer Weiner made her TV debut on The Tony Danza Show in 2005, reappearing in 2006.” Fuck, I’m not even going to ask a question. I’ll just say, “Do tell …”
J.W.: I have never once looked at my Wikipedia page—that way lies madness!—but that fact is actually wrong. I went on “CBS This Morning” with Bryan Gumbel in 2001 when “Good in Bed” came out, and that was my TV debut, unless you count appearing in the background of a pro-choice rally in Washington in the summer of 1990.
My sense is that Tony Danza is a super-entertaining guy, and the network wanted to harness that super-entertaining ability … so they gave him a talk show. My further sense is also that networks were handing these shows out like Halloween candy back in the day. They don’t cost much to produce—you had to pay your host and build a set—but besides that initial investment, you aren’t paying to produce, say, episodes of a soap opera, or episodes of a game show where you have to give the winners money.
I went on a ton of shows that are no longer with us—so many that I started to wonder if I was killing them just by showing up. Producers at one show would all move to the next one, once their existing gig got cancelled, and I actually don’t mind doing live TV, and I manage not to spit or make too many weird faces when I talk, so I ended up in a few producers’ rolodexes, and did guest spots on a bunch of these shows: Carolyn Rhea, Jane Pauley, Nate Berkus, Jeff Probst, Martha Stewart and Tony Danza. Who, by the way, was lovely. Not sure he actually read the books I went on the show to promote, but he was very gracious, both on the air and off, and he gave me the best parting gift I’ve ever gotten—a three-foot-high ribbon-wrapped stack of Altoid tins. Ten years later and I’m still enjoying those Altoids.
J.P.: I know you were born in Louisiana, I know you moved to Connecticut. But when did the writing bug get you? When did you first realize this was the career for you? And when did you first think it was a realistic career option?
J.W.: I can remember being in first grade and asking my teacher for extra paper so I could stay in from recess and write stories. This was, in part, because none of my classmates liked me very much … but I loved to write. More than that, though, I loved to read. I read constantly, my parents read to me and my siblings, I grew up in a house full of books, a house where books were revered, where being a writer seemed like the coolest thing that you could ever be. For as long as I can remember wanting to be anything, I wanted to be a writer, and I went to college determined to find a way to get paid to do the thing I loved.
In terms of it being a realistic career, I got my start as a reporter, and I think—I hope—that I will always have those skills to fall back on. Should things go sideways, I could probably go find a job as a ‘content creator’ on some website somewhere. At this point, I bet I could get hired to write some politician or CEO’s tweets.
J.P.: You’ve become sorta known as the great defender of “chick lit.” Which, I’m thinking, is a weird unofficial title to hold. A. Isn’t “Chick lit” itself a fucked-up phrasing? B. Are you cool with the designation? C. Why can’t we simply refer to fiction as fiction? Why gender designations?
J.W.: Chick lit is a super fucked-up phrasing, and had I known that’s what people were going to call my books, I would have gone with a male pseudonym, or insisted on different titles and more quote-unquote literary covers. I did not know. That’s my excuse. Back in 2000, if you were a young woman who had a story to tell, you could, according to a New York Magazine cover story, find an agent and get one of those fancy six-figure advances. That was the year I sold my first book … but by the time “Good in Bed” was published, the market was beginning to get jammed with lots of young-single-woman-having-problems-in-the-city books. When lots of men write the same kind of books, nobody seems to mind, but when women do it, it’s, “Oh, quick, let’s find a dismissive label to slap on these books and find a cubby to cram them into so we can ignore women’s voices and focus on the books that really matter, which are not about who to date and your bad boss and your screwed-up relationship with your family. Unless it’s a man writing about family and relationships, in which case he is super-brave, and writes women so convincingly, that we should probably give him a prize.”
Obviously, it’s not that overt or considered (also obviously—I know there’s a difference between my books and prizewinning literature). Nobody comes out and says, “I believe that women’s stories just aren’t very important.” Instead, you hear things like, “This isn’t very well written,” or, “there’s shopping in this book! It’s celebrating consumption!” Or, “it’s just a beach book.” But even if “chick lit” novels are just beach books—and I believe that some are, and some aren’t—it’s worth noting that beach books written for men—thrillers and mysteries, John Grisham and Dan Brown—get reviewed in the New York Times. Meanwhile, the Times will not touch romance—the best-selling genre in publishing—and tends to ignore books like mine. A few weeks ago, some guy in New York Magazine referred to me as the “bestselling but subliterary” writer. “Subliterary?” Dude. I know I’m not writing “War and Peace,” but I also don’t think I am writing in cuneiform.
Unfortunately, these kinds of insults are what you get when you write what’s called chick lit. It’s been happening forever. I was going through old blog posts and came across a response to something another blogger had written in 2005 that was charmingly entitled “8 Reasons Why Chick Lit Writers Should Be Kicked Until They Are Dead.” I was like, you couldn’t even come up with 10, dumbass? And that’s not even as bad as the (anonymously written) piece that said that chick lit writers were “hurting America with their words.” People haaaaaate “those kind” of books. Even people who are normally very careful about not disrespecting other women’s work feel free to slam books like mine.
For example, feminist icon Lena Dunham gave an interview where she talked about hating “airport chick lit,” or any book that is “motored by a search for a husband.” Which made me wonder: has she ever read Jane Austen? Or Henry James? Or Edith Wharton? Or anything involving the marriage plot? Does she really base her opinion of a book on where it’s being sold? Did she understand that the popularity of all of those shopping and dating books that she sneered at were probably one of the factors in convincing executives that there was a market—however small, however niche—for a show like Girls? And who uses “motor” as a verb? (Before your readers send me angry letters, yes, I am aware that disliking books like mine is Dunham’s personal opinion and her right. But she wasn’t gabbing with her girl squad over brunch. She was giving an interview to the New York Times, and using that platform to disparage other women’s work. The personal is political.) (And speaking of her girl squad, she seems to appreciate Taylor Swift’s well-crafted pop tunes just fine, and I’d argue that some of those songs are the musical equivalent of chick lit).
So. I am not cool with the designation, but, thanks to people speaking up about it, it’s fallen out of favor. Now, people mostly say “commercial women’s fiction.” Critics still ignore it, but at least it doesn’t sound like a piece of gum.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
J.W.: Greatest—telling my mom that a publisher bought my first book. Lowest—having my mother hug me, weeping, then pull away, holding onto my shoulders, and, with tears in her eyes, ask me, “What’s the book called?” And then having to tell her.
J.P.: You live Tweet The Bachelor. This is too weird for words. Why do you live Tweet The Bachelor?
J.W.: I love “The Bachelor.” It’s a crazy, conflicted, guilt-ridden love, but still. I also love Twitter. I love it when my loves collide, and I can hate-watch my program with a social media crowd of people who are all e-rolling their eyes and virtually yelling some version of “Can you believe this shit?” at the screen. It turns a shameful guilty pleasure into a cathartic shared experience. It’s bliss, and I suggest you try it immediately if not sooner.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JENNIFER WEINER:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Silver Surfer, “American History X,” Rey Ordonez, Grantland Rice, tennis balls, Twitter, cranberry muffins, Lady Gaga, Tennessee Walking Horses, Seventeen Magazine, the woman in front of me in this coffee shop jabbering away on her cell phone: 1. Twitter. It’s the party I never get invited to in real life. 2. Seventeen Magazine published the first piece of fiction I never got paid for. They gave me $1,000, and I used it to buy a couch from Ikea. 3. American History X (my brother Jake was one of the producers, so I love it, in spite of the Edward Norton rough sex scene. OR DO I LOVE THE MOVIE BECAUSE OF IT?!?!). 4. Grantland Rice. I love the idea of God as the One Great Scorer. It ties in nicely with my “Bachelor” thing. I also tell my daughters all the time that it’s not whether they win or lose, it’s how they play the game (but only winners get trophies). 5. Tennessee Walking Horses. I like that “walking” is right there in the name. Like, I could be American Lounging Woman. If only. 6. Tennis balls. Fetch! 7. Lady Gaga. She amuses me, and I feel like she’s in on her own joke. 8. Silver Surfer. Who I gather is some kind of a superhero? But there was a character in one of my books named Sylvia Serfer, and people thought I was punning with Silver Surfer, which I was not. 9. Rey Ordonez, who could be great, but I’ve never heard of him, and, 10., the jabbering lady.
• The woman in front of me in this coffee shop is jabbering away on her cell phone. Do I have any real rights here?: You do! I think we are all morally obligated to be considerate about sharing public space and not turning the entire world into our office (the thing that makes me stabby are people walking down jammed New York City sidewalks with their eyes on their iPhone screens, which makes it everyone else’s job to get out of their way).
Try this: tap her on the shoulder. When she glares at you, mouth the words, “You have another call,” and point toward Heaven. When she looks confused, give her a beatific smile, and say, “God.” speaks to all of us. He is speaking to you right now, through me. I am His instrument, the holy chime through which He blows His divine breeze.” Keep smiling as you reach into your pocket and say, “May I share some important literature with you?” Not only will she end her conversation, she’ll probably leave the coffee shop in a hurry. And never come back.
• Worst sentence you’ve ever written?: That one right above, about the holy wind-chime. Or I bet if I looked carefully I could find one where I talked about not liking children’s books that are motored by the heroine’s search for Prince Charming.
• One question you would ask Tommy Lee were he here right now?: What are you doing here? Seriously, how’d you get into my hotel room?
• Five reasons one should make Simsbury, Ct. his/her next vacation destination: 1. It’s the childhood residence of Jennifer Weiner; 2. It’s beautiful there, if you’re into that leafy Cheever-esque Connecticut suburb sort of thing, and there’s a bicycle path that runs the entire length of the town, along the Farmington River, and an outdoor ice-skating rink at Simsbury Farms; 3. You can visit Flamig Farm, where my sister Molly had a summer job collecting organic eggs from disgruntled chickens who did not want to be rummaged, and would pepper her ankles with retaliatory pecks; 4. The new Simsbury Public Library has an impressive new children’s section; 5. And now, for some reason, there’s this unbelievably fancy ice-skating facility that draws international skaters, who live in Simsbury and train. How Simsbury became one of the world’s centers for elite figure skaters is beyond my ken, but there it is, out Bushy Hill Road.
But, really, there’s not a ton to do there. I could give you dozens of reasons why you should go live there—great schools, pretty, safe for kids to ride their bikes around—but as a vacation spot, the best thing it has is its proximity to Bradley International Airport, from which you can get to someplace good.
• Your three favorite famous Jews are …: Can I name Ruth Bader Ginsberg three times? Probably not … so I’ll add Susan Isaacs, who’s one of my favorite writers and favorite people, and Nora Ephron, because ditto.
• How did you meet the lovely Bill Syken?: I interviewed the lovely Bill Syken for a job in 1992. I’d been a reporter at the Centre Daily Times for about a year, and he’d just finished graduate school in journalism, and he came to apply for a reporter’s position. The deal at the CDT was that after you’d spent a day taking tests, writing sample stories and meeting with editors, you were rewarded with dinner with an actual reporter, from whom you would presumably get the inside scoop about life at the paper. This was considered a very desirable gig among reporters, because the paper would pay for dinner, ad we were earning something like $16,000 a year, so free food was not to be scoffed at.
I was Bill’s reporter. I’d already figured out where I was going to take him for dinner, and what I’d orderWe went out to dinner, and we really hit it off. We talked and talked, and it was like the best first date you could imagine, probably because it wasn’t actually a date, so there was no pressure. I went to work the next day and told the city editor, “You’ve got to hire this guy.” He said, “Do you think he’s a good reporter?” I said, “I have no idea…but I really like him!”
• If you were opening a chain of hamburger restaurants, what would you name it?: Bite Me.
• Does the inevitability of death bother you at all? Why/Why not?: Remember on “The Simpsons,” where Homer speed-walks through the Five Stages of Grief? When he hits Acceptance, he shrugs and says, “Eh, we all gotta go some time.” I think that’s where I’m at. Nobody lives forever, we all gotta go sometime. I just hope I’ll have lived a good life, and maybe done some good while I was here.
• Describe your prime writing spot: Anywhere that’s relatively quiet, with enough light and a level surface. After nine years in a newsroom, where the TV sets bolted to the ceiling blare CNN and the police scanners are constantly erupting with static and code and people are making phone calls or yelling questions over your head, I can – and have – written almost anywhere. Waiting in the minivan for my kids to be picked up. On trains, on planes, in hotel rooms, in bed. But these days I do most of my work in my closet. Which sounds like a joke (my mom came out of the closet, and I went into one!) The thing is, my closet is ridiculous. Whoever designed my house gave me the Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City: The Movie” closet. Except, not having a Carrie Bradshaw-sized body or shoe fetish, I do not have a Carrie Bradshaw-sized wardrobe. Thus, my closet has become kind of a combination library/office/repository for clothing my older daughter has outgrown that my youngest isn’t ready for yet.