Zibby Owens: I am so excited to be interviewing Jennifer Weiner today. Jennifer is the number one New York Times best-selling author. Her books have spent over five years on The New York Times Best Seller list with eleven million copies in print in thirty-six countries. Jennifer wrote Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, which became a movie with Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, and Shirley MacLaine, The Next Best Thing, Little Earthquakes, and many more. Her latest novel which comes out in June is called Mrs. Everything. Jennifer has also written two middle grade novels, The Littlest Bigfoot and Little Bigfoot, Big City, and a nonfiction collections of essays, Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing. She has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, including this morning, and many other news outlets. A graduate of Princeton University, she is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times Op-Ed and Sunday Review sections. She currently lives in Philadelphia with her family.
I'm here with Jennifer Weiner, but I'm going to let her have the whole screen. I'm going to interview her.
Jennifer Weiner: I'm @JenniferWeinerWrites if you're watching this and you have no idea who I am. I write novels.
Zibby: She's the number one New York Times best-selling author and has a new book, Mrs. Everything, which is coming out tomorrow. Tomorrow?
Zibby: Preorder. Go get it.
Jennifer: Yes, please. Go to Amazon. Go to Target. Go to Costco. Go to your local independent. Go to Barnes & Noble. It’s the Barnes & Noble Book of the Month.
Zibby: Oh, in a hard cover.
Jennifer: Yes, there it is. Here we are in your stunning, gorgeous apartment. This is the most beautiful place I've ever been in. I might not leave.
Zibby: Don't leave.
Jennifer: I might just live here and move on in.
Zibby: Why not? Your new novel Mrs. Everything, can you listeners what it’s about? What inspired you to write it?
Jennifer: Mrs. Everything is the story of two Jewish American sisters from the 1940s all the way through the present and slightly beyond into a lightly fictionalized future where there's a woman president. It’s the story of these two women. There's the rebel and the good girl, who sort of switch places halfway through the book. Through their eyes and through their experiences, it’s the story of women in America. That's what I was setting out to do. I wanted to tell a sister story and a woman story and an American story, a story about America. That's what I hope I did. I hope it’s a great, big, fun juicy beach read too.
Zibby: Is it a coincidence that the names are similar to Little Women?
Jennifer: No. That's a total rip-off of Louisa May Alcott. In Little Women, Jo, the rebel, the sister who wants to be a writer in a world that is not super welcoming to the notion of women writing, ends up married with children to Professor Bhaer who makes fun of her melodramas that she's writing for money and says, “They're trash. They're dangerous. You shouldn't be doing this.” She ends up running a school for boys, to the still-fresh disappointment of many readers of Little Women. Bethy, Beth is the sister who dies. Spoiler alert. Bethy dies beautifully tragically, very young. I wanted to write a story where there would be my Jo who would live in a world that was slightly more accommodating of women's professional desires but far less accommodating of their sexual differences. My Jo’s attracted to women. That becomes a problem for her as she moves through life. Then I had my Bethy, my good girl, the pretty one, the one who's the star of the school plays -- everybody loves her, everybody's thinks she great -- ends up in a traumatic situation with a relative that knocks her off course, and ends up leading a very different life than probably the one that she’d imagined. She doesn't die. My Bethy lives. It’s what happens to the good girl, the angelic girl, when life has its way with her?
The other inspiration for this book was my mom. My mom, like Jo, married a man, had four kids, lived in a suburb, got divorced, and then fell in love with a woman, much to the shock of her then young adult children. I still remember getting that phone call sitting in the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer and my younger brother calling me and being like, “There's a woman living in this house.” I'm like, “What am I supposed to do about it?” He's like, “Find out what's going on.” So I call my mom. “Fran, what's going on?” She's like, “Nothing.” I'm like, “Nothing new? Nothing you want to tell me?” She's like, “No.” I'm like, “Joe says there's a woman living in the house.” My mom takes a beat. Then she says, “That's my swim coach.” I'm like, “Your swim coach? Fran, it’s not an Olympic year. What is going on?” She's like, “All right. Her name’s whatever. We’re in love. She's living here. Bye.” What just happened? Then I have to call my brother Joe back and tell him the whole thing.
We laughed about it a lot. It was one of these laughing to keep, not from crying, but from experiencing the fact that this was shocking and painful. If your mom is attracted to women or could be attracted to women, was she ever in love with your dad? What are the four of us doing here? Where did we come from? What even happened? What's the whole story? It was very disorienting. That's the word I will use. It was disorienting. Some of my long-time readers might know that in Good in Bed there was a character based on my mom who very much was a punchline, very much played for laughs. I always had that character in my head somewhere. I always wanted to come back to it. Now that I'm a mother myself and I'm not this twenty-eight-year-old who’s trying to figure out her own life and also is trying to figure out her mother’s life, I want to really go back and consider what the world must have been like for my mom and for all of the women like her who couldn't live as their truest and most authentic selves because of homophobia and prejudice and fear.
Zibby: Before your New York Times article came out this weekend, I was wondering what did your mom think? Then you have this whole thing, “Writing My Mother’s Sex Scenes.”
Jennifer: “Writing My Mother’s Sex Scenes,” there it is. I gave my mom the book. I was working on this book for a long, long time. I'd call her up. I'd be like, “Tell me about your street in Detroit growing up and your elementary school and your Synagogue.” She’d be like, “Jenny, what is this for?” I’d be like, “Just research. Just asking questions.” Finally, she got the notion that this book was about two sisters and one of them’s gay. I put it off as long as I could. She came to my house for Passover. We do the Seder. There's piles of the advance readers copies. I give her one. She starts reading it. I'm thinking, please go home. Please just go home. Do not be here when you read that first sex scene. I cannot deal with that right now. She goes home. Then she texts me a couple days later. “I didn't drop acid. I'm not Bethy. I don't know what you're talking about.” Of course, Bethy’s not the sister she's based on. I think she's okay with it. I haven't heard any complaints. I also have not heard any affirmations. We’ll see. I think it’s okay.
Zibby: You did such a great job, though, of having the Jo character hide that she loves women and particularly her relationship with Shelley. I was wondering if it was just imagination or if you did talk to people who have gone through that in life.
Jennifer: Obviously, some it’s imagination. Every writer’s job is to put herself into the skin, into the shoes, into the heart of whoever we’re writing about. I was also very aware that I'm not a gay woman. I didn't live through any of that. I don't know what it felt like. I wanted to be careful and respectful that I was doing justice to this character. I went back and I read Rubyfruit Jungle, which is the definitive lesbian coming-of-age story by Rita Mae Brown, which I highly recommend. Do we need to get this? Do we need to get it? The rabbi called.
Zibby: Literally, the rabbi called. I can't make this up. [laughter] I told you I have this bar mitzvah meeting after.
Jennifer: I have a bar mitzvah coming up in 2020. I'm right there with you. What was I saying? Oh, yes. I read a lot of gay memoirs, blog, oral histories, women telling their stories. Then I had a sensitivity reader. This is the first book I've worked with a sensitivity reader on. it was invaluable because my reader was a bi woman who was able to talk to me about being aware of the differences and the bodies and all the stuff that you're going to experience, hopefully, when you read Mrs. Everything.
Zibby: Is that actually a job? Can you be a sensitivity reader? I would like to be --
Jennifer: -- For Jews, right? I’ll tell you what, though. As a plus-size Jewish woman, I can read a book and if somebody has not thought about things, I'm like, that is not right. They throw in a passing reference to Passover, ugh. That is not authentic, lived Jewish experience. I wanted to be really careful about the African American characters, the gay characters, to really make sure that they felt as real and authentic and nuanced and detailed on the page as the characters who are like me. To your question, I do not think that being a sensitivity reader is a full-time job. Most people, they're librarians. They're editors. They're somewhere else in publishing. I do think it’s a valuable job.
There's a lot of debate, as I'm sure you know, about sensitivity readers. There's the Lionel Shriver camp, the novelist who says you can write anybody you want. You just have to be good enough at imagining things. Then there are writers who will say the only people who can write black characters are black people. The only people who can write gay characters are gay people. Then there's writers like me who fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and believe that any writer can write any character, but it’s our job to do it respectfully and to be careful, to be thoughtful, to be comprehensive, to not write in stereotypes, to certainly not engage in the kind of broad strokes that are going to get kids hurt or get gay people ostracized or made fun of or physically harmed. There's responsibility that goes along with telling stories. I tried to really respect my job here.
Zibby: I loved how in the beginning you set the stage with the Shabbat and making challah with [indiscernible]. It was so real.
Jennifer: Thanks. It was interesting. When I was talking to my sensitivity reader, she's like, “Food is a place where a culture tells its story. I want you to think about what Harold’s family would have had to eat at Thanksgiving and what their traditions would have been and what their wise sayings would have been,” all of the things that felt completely intuitive because I grew up celebrating the Jewish holidays. I know what happens at them. I had to really think, what's Thanksgiving like? What are the parties like at Harold’s house? It was interesting. I'm really glad I did it this way.
Zibby: One of the things that happens in the beginning is Jo’s mother fires their housekeeper Mae who she loves. It’s deeply traumatic. Jo is friends with Frieda, the daughter of the housekeeper. They're family almost. One day the mother says, “Birds of feather flock together,” and Mae just disappears. Jo eventually becomes basically a civil rights activist, goes on all these marches, perhaps inspired by this experience. How did you think to put in this particular scene or element of the story?
Jennifer: That was something that I pulled from my own mother’s life. My nana had a housekeeper. My mom used to tell stories. She would be in the kitchen because that was where the housekeeper was and played the best music. My mom liked the music and I think was a lot more comfortable hanging out with this woman than she was with my nana who was very proper and who cared a lot about the performance of femininity, like dressing right and looking right and behaving correctly. My mother didn't want any of that. She was in the kitchen with her shoes off listening to early Motown.
One of the threads that runs through Mrs. Everything is questions of assimilation versus independence and whether becoming an American means letting go of your own culture, your own specific identity. How much of it do you have to let go of? How Jewish can you be and still be a real American? Questions too of ease and comfort versus doing the right thing. Jo befriends this African American girl. Her mother doesn't want this friendship continuing, basically is saying to Jo, “Your life’s going to be hard enough as it is as a Jewish kid. You need to stay with your own people. You don't need to cross these lines. You don't need to go looking for trouble or making trouble for yourself.” Jo is just thinking, “I want to be friends with who I want to be friends with.” Sarah’s saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Jo’s like, “She and I are the same kind of bird. We both like to do the same things.” Sarah’s like, “No. That's not how it works.” In that crucible, an activist was made. That's how Jo got her heart for civil rights and for justice. That was my mom’s story.
Zibby: For Bethy, the sister, you have her go through so much stuff. I could not believe it. I was like, not this, not again!
Jennifer: I know. I will tell you, it was worse in the first draft. Somebody was finally like, “Okay, you can have this bad thing happen to Bethy or this bad thing. They can't both happen to Bethy.” Yes, but a lot of bad stuff happens to Bethy.
Zibby: She copes with it a lot through eating. You start off with all of her intensive dieting and then the binging and all of it. She uses it to numb herself, all to cope with her feelings. Tell me more about that dimension of that theme.
Jennifer: One of the themes of my work is women's relationship with their body. Bethy has a not healthy relationship with her body because of what's happened to her with this uncle. She wants to shove down her feelings. That’s what she uses food to do. She also recognizes how much of her worth resides in her beauty and in having the right kind of body, so then she diets. She swings from extreme to extreme for a long time. I wanted to talk about the ways that women live in their own skin. You have Jo who just doesn't care, doesn't care how she looks, doesn't care about her hair, doesn't care about clothes, doesn't care about any of it. Then Bethy who cares a lot, who cares intensely about how the world perceives her, how she looks, how she presents herself, how people take her in, and ending up at war with her body because of the ways that she's using food as a blanket and a buffer between her emotions and -- she doesn't want to feel. She eats whatever she can get her hands on. She eats and eats and eats. Then that doesn't end up working out real well for her either.
Zibby: I love how this dovetails with the Hungry Heart writing that you did. You even said how you think you're bad at math but somehow, you're an expert at the Weight Watchers points and how many calories on the treadmill. [laughs]
Jennifer: I read an article in The Washington Post that dealt with this subject. There's three women in a study group. A guy walks by who’s just been to the vending machine. He's like, “God, do you guys know how many calories are in a Snicker’s bar?” Without a beat, all three of them say 280. They just know. You're born knowing how many calories are in things as a woman. Of course, we’re not born knowing that. We learn it. We learn it through dieting. We learn it through restricted eating. We learn it through watching our friends go through this stuff. I dream of a day when bodies will just be bodies. They won't be evidence of our goodness or our lack of goodness, or of our strength of will or lack of strength of will, the same way I want books to just be books and not be women's fiction or romantic fiction or chick lit or whatever. That day is a ways away. I did want to talk, in this book, about the diet culture and how pernicious it is and how insidious it is and how it’s forever. It’s been with us for so, so long.
Zibby: You wrote an essay called “Take Your Daughter to the Movies, Not to Weight Watchers.” You were talking about the Weight Watchers announcement when girls thirteen and up could join. You said, “Because what I know for sure is this: I wish I had treated my body with love and respect rather than blowing money I didn't have on a futile effort to fix it. I wish that I had respected by body’s strength and health, and insisted that the world needed to expand its views of what was acceptable much more than I needed to shrink,” which was great. I was like, rah-rah! This is awesome.
Jennifer: For those of you who don't know what we’re talking about here, around the time that the movie A Wrinkle in Time was coming out, which of course Oprah stared in -- Oprah owns a large stake in Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers announced that they were inviting twelve and thirteen, fourteen-year-old girls to join for free so they could learn healthy habits. Weight Watchers is in the middle of this massive rebranding campaign and they're trying to reposition themselves as a wellness thing. “It’s not about weight loss. It’s just about feeling good. It’s about being strong.” They're still weighing you. It’s still basically a place to lose weight. Let's not kid ourselves. Twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-old girls are hugely at risk for developing disordered eating. That is increasingly true of girls of color. The thinking used to be, bulimia and anorexia are white girls’ problems. That is no longer the case. It is all girls’ problems.
As the mother of daughters, as somebody who’s lived in the diet culture for a long, long time, I was really disturbed by the idea that these young girls were going to go to this movie and they were going to see somebody who they were going to recognize from Weight Watchers ads which were all over TV at the time. It was this, in my opinion, very unfortunate overlap. I have tremendous respect for Oprah. She's done a lot of good in a lot of different places, especially in publishing and in reading and in getting people to pick up books and in getting people to try out different authors. For her, I think that it’s always been a struggle. It’s almost this blind spot with her where she can't see that there's something really damaging about “Oh, twelve-year-old girl, come to Weight Watchers” -- or WW or whatever they're calling it now -- “and we will teach you about healthy eating.” No. What you're going to learn in Weight Watchers is how to hate yourself. Sorry to be blunt. It is what it is. I wish that overlap hadn’t happened.
Zibby: I have to say, I was a Weight Watchers leader back in the day.
Jennifer: Oh, god. I'm sorry. Oh, no. [laughs]
Zibby: No, no, no. I don't do it anymore. I was struggling with how to manage my own weight. I went and was like, wow, this actually works. I like that I can quantify into numbers and take the emotion out of it. Then anything I do, I have to be like, now I'm going to be a receptionist. Now I'm going to be a leader. It lasted for a hot minute. I don't do it anymore. I wish at age twenty-five, I had the self-acceptance I have now at forty-two.
Jennifer: Listen, things take time. If there was a plan that worked, if there was a diet that people could go on, lose weight, keep it off safely for the rest of their lives, we’d all have found it. We've have found it by now. It’s unfortunate that we haven't. I would hope that we could somehow expand our notion of what it is to be healthy and to be beautiful instead of, like I said in the article, all of these women trying so hard to get smaller. As a writer, when you think of the metaphor of that and when you start to notice manspreading, the way that men take up space, all the space -- women, we’re crossing our legs. We’re crossing our arms. We’re trying to get smaller. There's something wrong about that. Again, I have a sixteen-year-old daughter and I have an eleven-year-old daughter. I want them to take up space in the world. I want them to go out there and be loud and be joyful and be confident and not worry about, am I too big? Am I too loud? Am I too much? I want them to feel really, really good about speaking up and making noise and taking up space. Boys are taught that those things are their right. We as women are still learning.
Zibby: We have this set of books in LA. It says, “You may be too much for some people. Those aren't your people.”
Jennifer: Those aren't your people. Exactly.
Zibby: Let's go back to the book for a minute. How long did it take you to write this book? Mrs. Everything, comes out tomorrow, very exciting. How does this contrast with some of your other books? You've written a million books by now.
Jennifer: This is my first novel in four years. There's a couple of ways I could answer this question. The short answer is it took about two years to write a draft of this book. The longer answer is that I've been working on it in my head and on and off in a document for twenty years. This is my Mount Everest. I was sitting in base camp for a long time thinking, am I ready to make this climb? Like we said at the very beginning, this is a story that covers seventy years. There was a lot of research that went into it. There was a lot of plotting. There was a lot of looking at outlines and looking at documents and being like, if this happens in this year, then I have to make sure that this happens before this time so I can reference this event, and getting the details, the fashions and the home décor and the diets and the things they'd be reading and writing and eating and doing and all of that. It took a lot. I wanted a couple of things. The first thing that I wanted is I always want to be challenging myself and pushing myself. I don't want to always be giving readers a variation on the same thing. It’s not always going to be the same. I wanted to try something different, to try something big, and to try something brave. It took either two years or twenty depending on which day you get me.
Zibby: What is your writing process like? Describe where you write.
Jennifer: I write in my closet, which I know sounds really sad and Harry Potter-under-the-stairs-ish. My closet’s really big. I joke that it’s the Carrie Fisher in Sex and the City 2 closet. I do not have the Carrie Fisher in Sex and the City 2 --
Zibby: -- Carrie Bradshaw.
Jennifer: Carrie Bradshaw. Why I am saying Carrie Fisher? I love Carrie Fisher, but it’s Carrie Bradshaw. So giant, giant, massive closet that I have filled with books. There's a vanity there where a more fashionable lady would do her makeup. I don't do my makeup. I sit there and write. I work most days from late morning, ten, eleven-ish to four when my kids come home from school. I get up the morning. I walk the dog. I eat something. I do my exercise because if it doesn't happen first thing, it’s not going to happen. Then I go and I sit in my cloffice, which is a word that I learned. It’s a closet office, a cloffice. I sit there and I type. My dog is usually there sleeping somewhere near me snoring loudly. That's it. I'm really happy. I'm going to be on book tour for two weeks. It’s so weird to go from total solitude and disheveled pajamas to out in public, groomed and being polite to people. Please come see me on tour and tell me how I do.
Zibby: Well, this is great.
Jennifer: Thank you. I'm waving. People are saying wave. Here, wait, I'm going to wave at people. I'm going to wave at Susan. I'm going to wave at Writer To Shirley. I'm going to wave at Ryan Trio. Hello, three people who are watching this. Hi.
Zibby: There are more. These are just the people who waved.
Jennifer: Oh, they're just the people waving. There's Bookworm Mommy of Three. Hi. Hello. If you wave, I’ll wave back.
Zibby: I do have [indiscernible], I promise. [laughs]
Jennifer: No, it’s okay. Don't worry.
Zibby: When do you find time to read?
Jennifer: [laughs] I neglect the children and the housework. I read all the time. I read before I go to bed at night. I read in the morning. I read when I'm taking a break in the afternoon. I read on trains. I read on planes. I read by pools. I read whenever I can. It’s my hobby and my escape and my favorite thing to do.
Zibby: Yes. Awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Jennifer: I have about twenty pages of advice for aspiring authors on my website, which is jenniferweiner.com.
Zibby: I read all that. I did. Just an excerpt, the most important.
Jennifer: The most important thing is to not wait for somebody to give you permission. You don't need an MFA. You don't need a fairy godmother to tap you with a magic wand and say “Today, you are a writer.” You need to just do it. You need to sit yourself in the seat, if you have to set a word goal like “I will write five hundred words every day,” if it has to be like, “I will write for half an hour every day.” I would say don't wait for somebody to give you permission. Start writing now. Read as much as you can. Read everything. Read all kinds of books. Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Read romance. Read science fiction. Read horror. Read literary fiction. Read stuff that is in the genre you hope to write. Read stuff that is out of the genre you hope to write. Read and read. Read poetry. Poetry’s great. One of my new favorite things is I signed up for the Academy of American Poets. They will send you a poem every morning from a modern, new poet. I start off my day with a poem. That's really great. You get those rhythms into your brain, the rhythms of good sentences and new words. Write and read is my short answer if you want to be a writer. Read and write. Write and read.
Zibby: What is coming next for you?
Jennifer: What is coming next for me?
Zibby: I know it’s really a terrible question because you just achieved so much.
Jennifer: I have this giant, massive book tour in the United States starting tomorrow night in Princeton. I have an event at seven thirty PM at the Barnes & Noble in Princeton, New Jersey. Is it seven thirty or seven? Wait, my publicist is flying in with my schedule. If you go to jenniferweiner.com, it’s all there. It’s Princeton, June 11th. It’s a couple of events in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Long Island on Thursday. Connecticut, Friday afternoon. Boston, Friday night. Cape Cod, I'm doing an event with Elin Hilderbrand, so much estrogen, you guys. Everyone might get their periods. I don't even know. It’s all on my website. Once I survive all of that, then I’ll go finish the book I'm working on, which is a murder mystery. I decided I wanted to totally change gears and do something a little light, which is a horrible thing to say about a murder mystery, but it’s a funny murder mystery. The girl who dies deserves it. [laughs] She's awful. I’ll go home and write some more.
Zibby: Is this going to be a movie, Mrs. Everything?
Jennifer: I don't know. The question with my books being movies is there's plus-size characters in them. They'd have to staple two people together.
Zibby: Oh, stop.
Jennifer: Well, they would. Who is there? Although, I have great hopes for Beanie Feldstein, if you saw Booksmart.
Zibby: Yes, I saw it. So good.
Jennifer: She's so good. She would be amazing as a young Jo or a young Bethy. She could play either. She could play both, all of it. I don't know, though. We’ll see.
Zibby: Stay tuned. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Jennifer: This was a pleasure. I want to see more of this apartment.
Zibby: Yeah, sure.
Jennifer: We’re going to go on a tour. Bye.