Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jennifer Weiner talks about The Next Best Thing, helping other writers, working in TV, obsessions and more, more, more

Every writer needs to know Jennifer Weiner. Not only is she hilariously funny and warm, she's a passionate, generous advocate for women writers and she's unafraid to say what she thinks. (If you haven't read her BEA speech, do so right now. Really. I mean it.) She was a newspaper reporter until she published her first novel, and her books include Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, Little Earthquakes, Goodnight Nobody, The Guy Not Taken, Certain Girls, Best Friends Forever, Fly Away Home, Then Came You, and The Next Best Thing. She's been on The Today Show, The Martha Stewart Show, The Rachel Ray Show and more, and she writes for the Huffington Post and her own blog. Time Magazine named her as one of the best 140 Twitter feeds, too, and they were right. I'm thrilled to know her and I'm delighted to host Jennifer on my blog. A million thanks, Jennifer!

You are one of the goddesses supporting women writers. Incredibly generous, supportive, and funny, I think we all need to build you a shrine. Women need to be supporting one another, especially since the publishing climate today is definitely male-centric. Can you talk about the smaller ways all writers can do help one another--and why it's so important?

One of my favorite writers in the world is Susan Isaacs. I love that she writes smart, funny, Jewish protagonists who get the guy and save the world and live happily ever after not because they’re gorgeous but because they’re smart and funny.

When we had ARCs of GOOD IN BED, I sent one to Susan Isaacs, with a note saying how much I loved her work. We had nothing in common – we didn’t share a publisher or an agent, we’d never met at a conference. When she gave me a beautiful blurb, I was so grateful and so moved that she took the time to read the book, that she liked it, that she said so, that she did it in a way that would help me immensely, I cried.

I had a very different experience with another one of my favorites, a newspaper columnist-turned-novelist/memoirist. When I sent her my book, I got a curt note from her assistant saying that she no longer did blurbs.

I decided, way back in 2000, that no first-timer would ever get that kind of note from me (or my assistant)…that I would always, always, always blurb…that I would always do whatever I could to repay the help and support that all of my blurbers had given me.

I am so lucky to live in a world that gives writers so many opportunities to support each other. In the days of e-reading, consumers aren’t necessarily wandering into bookshops and picking up new books and reading the cover copy.

So, blurbs still matter…but, I honestly believe that Twitter and Facebook matter even more. If your readers have come to trust you, if you talk to them like they’re your friends, or the lady standing next to you at preschool pickup or the nine-year-olds’ soccer game saying, Oh my God, I just read the most amazing book….that matters so much. More, even, than a review in a newspaper.

If you’ve got a computer, you’ve got a voice. If you read something you loved, chances are, you can tell the author, and you can tell everyone you know who follows you how great it was.

You and I have also talked about the one issue that makes my head explode--when writers attack other writers, which I think is just plain bullying and needs to be addressed and confronted. Any thoughts about how we can stop this?

I’m with you – it makes me stabby. I get so frustrated watching female writers make distinctions between “literary” and “commercial,” between who “churns out” a book a year and sells them at Target versus who writes less frequently and sells fewer copies. I was bewildered when Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer in 2011 and, instead of using her moment in the spotlight to thank her loved ones or her professors, or use the opportunity to say, “Here are five great women writers you’ve never heard of,” she decided instead to tell young female writers whose work was not worth aspiring to – the quote-unquote “chick lit” authors who’d been plagiarized by Harvard faker Kaavya Viswanathan. Because being plagiarized isn’t terrible enough – that pain must be compounded by a big-deal literary lady telling the world that your books weren’t even quality enough to rip off.

Egan eventually did give a very gracious apology, and I have a lot of respect for her saying that what she said was, at the very least, poorly timed. But how can we fix things? I don’t know. I feel like the grass is always greener, and that, to some extent, envy and anxiety are the natural state of artists. Commercially successful female authors, those of us whose churned-out books are sold not only in Target but also – quelle horror! – in Costco and Sam’s Club – will never be reviewed in the prestigious publications, the way bestselling male genre authors might be. Which sucks for us.

Meanwhile, well-reviewed literary ladies can’t make a living, can’t quit their day jobs, can’t even, in the case of the editor of the anthology charmingly entitled THIS IS NOT CHICK LIT, get their novels published. Which sucks for them.

But I don’t think either side profits by telling the other, “This is your fault.” Commercial writers are not out there stealing shelf space from more quote-unquote deserving authors…and literary ladies are not the ones, in general, keeping commercial women writers out of the book-review sections.

I don’t know the answer…but I don’t think that women beating up on other women is not how we make things better. And, no, this doesn’t mean that anyone in possession of a vagina must support anyone else who owns the same equipment…but I think it means being tactical in what we say, and where, and how, we say it.

Personally, I’m trying to do better. I’m practicing holding my tongue and rolling my eyes in private – not on Twitter -- when the next twenty-five-year-old with an MFA announces on The Millions or Jezebel that writers like me don’t deserve any critical attention because we write crap. If I find a book I love, whether it’s quote-unquote commercial or literary, I will tell the world, I will tweet and Facebook my heart out, I’ll run a contest, I’ll do an event, or mention her books at mine. If I come across another writer trashing my genre, I’ll point it out, but try to do it nicely, by saying that, “Hey, some of those books you’re rolling your eyes at have good stories between those sparkly pink covers.

Then I’ll find another book I love, and talk about that some more.

 I loved The Next Best Thing, set in the world of Hollywood, which just sparkled on the page. You spent a year in Hollywood yourself,  with your sitcom, State of Georgia. What's it like moving from novel to TV?  And what surprised you about cowriting (and co-running) a sit-con.) Do you miss that year in Hollywood? Would you want to write another sitcom or a film? 

The obvious answer is that TV is collaborative. Instead of you and your laptop, alone in a room, you’re in a writers’ room, with a bunch of other funny people, making each other laugh (oh, and writing a script). I had a ball out there. I loved being in the room, I loved shoot nights, in front of the proverbial live studio audience, I loved learning a whole new job at forty-one.

There were, of course, things I didn’t love, and things I wasn’t very good at (talking to actors was one of them – turns out, spending ten years dealing with imaginary friends leaves you spectacularly ill-equipped for talking to real people). But I know I learned a lot, and I also know that just about every successful show-runner has a few flops in his or her background. So maybe someday I’ll be back…but probably when my kids are older. The hardest part was spending four months basically commuting between Philadelphia and Los Angeles, because the show got picked up in February, and we decided not to try to find a new school for our second-grader, and move her cross-country in the middle of the year. So she stayed in Philadelphia with her dad, and my three-year-old was with me part-time and in Philly part-time, and I flew home almost every weekend. If anyone needs them, I have a LOT of miles.

 What's your writing life like? Do you map things out or are you a "write by the seat of my pen" type of person? 

I’m a little bit of both. Generally, my books start with a character’s voice in my head. Then I start to figure out who this person is: what’s her story? Where is she in her life? Where does she want to go?

I’ll write up an outline once I know where things start, and how they end…but I’d say that the finished product is usually about 50 percent true to that outline, and 50 percent zigs and zags and curveballs. My characters still surprise me. Which is great!

What's obsessing you now and why?

I signed up for a sprint-distance triathlon in September, so I’m figuring out my training plan. I’ve been running, at a pace I like to think of as a brisk waddle, for months. Now I just need to add in the biking and the swimming. Of course, “The Bachelorette” remains a constant obsession, although this season’s disappointing me. Emily, while beautiful, just doesn’t seem to have many dimensions beyond “sweet” – at least, none we’ve seen so far – and the fellas in Sausage Mansion are still impossible for me to tell apart.

I’m in love with my new Nike sneakers, and watching my kids ask Siri dumb questions, and my little rat terrier Moochie, who came to us from a rat terrier rescue organization in January.

Finally, I’m obsessed – and not in a good way – with the woman who was full-on flossing her teeth at the table in a restaurant yesterday. Help me out, people: are we doing that in public now?

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

I did an interview the other day where the reporter asked me about goals, and did I have any big ones I was trying to meet? I couldn’t answer. It was crazy. I’m a major goal-setter (an Aries, if you believe in that, an oldest daughter, if you’re into birth order), and, all through my twenties and thirties, I had goals. I wanted to get a job as a newspaper reporter when I finished my six-week boot camp at the Poynter Institute in 1991. Then I wanted a job at a bigger paper. I wanted a job at a major national paper by the time I was twenty-five; I wanted a column by the time I was twenty-eight, and I wanted to sell a novel by the time I turned thirty (I missed that one by six weeks – GOOD IN BED sold in May of 2000, after I’d blown out my candles).

I wanted to write a saleable book, but I never hoped to have a best-seller…because, to me, that felt like hoping to win the lottery.

I’d written about writers and publishing as a pop culture reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I knew what the odds were, and how few writers can actually make a living writing fiction (short summary: don’t quit your day job). My plan was to keep working as a reporter – a job that I loved – and write fiction on the side. I knew that walking into a bookstore, finding my book in the stacks and saying, “I wrote that” would be enough to make me happy. Saying “I want to write the best book I can” is a reasonable, attainable goal. Saying, “I want to find an agent and publish the book” is a little more of a crapshoot. Agents and editors turn down great books every day, and, with e-publishing, authors can take things into their own hands with self-publishing, which has became another path to traditional publication (if the author decides that’s what he or she wants).

So: writing a great book, yes. Publishing said book, yes. Hitting the best-seller list, though,doesn’t feel like it’s within an author’s control. Having a book become a best-seller is a rare and wondrous alignment of the right cover, the right title, the right blurbs and subject and voice and characters, all, of course, at the absolute right moment…and not all of the pieces of the puzzle are within the writer’s control.

So I don’t hope for another number-one bestseller, or having another book turned into film. If it happens, I’ll be thrilled, but it’s so far out of my control that I spend precisely zero time worrying about it.

I’d love to keep a foot in the world of television, because I think that’s where some of the most interesting storytelling is happening these days, and, again, if you get that once-in-a-lifetime confluence, where the stars align, you can create something magical. That didn’t happen my first time out. Could it happen down the road? Who knows?

Here is what I do hope for: I want to continue to strive for that work/life balance, where my daughters see me doing work that leaves me happy and fulfilled, and with plenty of time to be a mom, to cook dinners and give baths and read stories, or just spend a morning walking on the beach.

I want to make each book better than the one before. I want to push myself, in terms of dialogue and description and writing with the kind of vividness and immediacy that people like Kate Christensen and Curtis Sittenfeld can pull off. I want to plot like Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben, I want to bring the funny like Nora Ephron and Fran Lebowitz. 

And, professionally, I want to use whatever power I have for good. I want to help some other woman feel what I felt when Susan Isaac’s blurb for GOOD IN BED came rolling off the fax machine at the Inquirer…or when my youngest brother came into Bertucci’s that night in May and pressed a scrap of paper into my hand that read Your editor called. You’re number 33 on the Times.

If 2010, the Year of Franzen, was all about cursing the darkness, about tallying up the bylines and books that got covered and insisting, Hey, there’s a problem here, even when nobody wanted to hear it, I want the next stage of my career to be about lighting a hundred candles. If the New York Times continues to ignore womens fiction, I want to remedy that situation as best I can, to be a voice that says these books are worthy, even if the Grey Lady says they’re not. 


Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

what an important interview.thank you Jennifer, I agree totally and to Caroline, for being always a writer's best comrade

KathyLynnHarris said...

Most excellent interview - inspiring and smart answers from one of the good "guys" - and I mean that only as a turn of phrase. :)

Carol Starr Schneider said...

Fantastic interview. I've always loved her work and honesty. Thanks so much! This was major treat!

Anonymous said...

Brava, fearless leader Jennifer Weiner, and her finely-tuned BS detector!

Beth Kephart said...

fantastic, Caroline. And fantastic, Jenny, who represents my Philadelphia so very well.

Bev Katz Rosenbaum said...

Two of my fave writers do one great interview! Awesome stuff! Thanks, Jennifer and Caroline, for never letting me down...

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Camille Noe Pagán said...

What a great interview!, Caroline I always enjoy Jennifer's perspective on publishing and this is no exception.

mep said...

Awesome interview! I've been meaning to start a book blog for over a year now. I'm going to use this interview as inspiration to MAKE the time to light candles for the many books I love!

Robby said...

Jennifer Weiner was one of the first writers I really loved. I read nearly all of her books in middle school, which was wonderful and slightly embarrassing, especially when my teachers asked me what I was reading and, if I said the title aloud, I would have been sent to the principal's office. I will be a reader of hers as long as she is writing.

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