I’m verklempt. Does Jennifer Weiner even need an introduction? Ok, I’ll stop gushing so you can start reading.
Jennifer Weiner is a multi-published women’s fiction author. She’s here at WFW because at the core of most published authors is the memory of wanting to be published. In this interview, Jen offers us her trademark witty insight on writing, publishing, social media and more.
Many thanks to Jen for being taking time to share all this with us! I nodded so much while reading the answers, I got dizzy.
Now, I’ll go back to gushing and the rest of you, read on…
Q & A with author Jennifer Weiner
ASN: The paperback edition of FLY AWAY HOME came out on Tuesday, April 26th. You’ve done this before, but what does it mean for an author when there is a paperback release after a hardcover release? How does it differ?
JW: Hardcover releases are stressful – there’s reviews to worry about, and usually a book tour, and you’re worrying about meeting your publisher’s expectations. Paperbacks, in comparison, are a picnic. The book’s come out, it’s been reviewed, you’ve usually gotten some nice quotes to put on the cover, and if there’s a tour it’s usually much smaller….so all you have to do is enjoy.
ASN: FAH is about a mother and two daughters at combined and individual crossroads in the wake of a scandal. Where did you get the first spark of the idea for FAH?
JW: I remember watching Eliot Spitzer’s press conference and seeing his wife standing beside him while he confessed to his misdoings, and thinking, Why is she there, and What must this feel like, and How do you go on in a marriage in the wake of such public transgressions? I wanted to answer those questions, and I wanted to talk about how the sins of the fathers impact not only his wife but his daughters.
ASN: Do your friends and family members grab your books to see if you’ve written about them? Do you write about them?
JW: The deal of living with, or being friends with, a writer, is the understanding that anything you say or do is pretty much fair game…that any gesture or anecdote or joke could, someday, end up as inspiration for fiction. I’m not sure whether people grab my books to see if they’re in there…the deal with my nearest and dearest is that they get to read everything ahead of time, and they’ll let me know if there’s anything that bothers them, and most of the time I’m happy to change it. I know there are writers who think this is the wrong way to go about your business – that you’re writing for the ages, and who cares what Aunt Hattie thinks. I’m not sure where these writers spend the holidays, but, as for me, I have to go home!
ASN: I know your first book, GOOD IN BED (about to celebrate its 10th anniversary!) was based on personal experiences – a bad breakup, living Philadelphia, not being skinny. Did writing GIB help you work through those things or by the time you wrote it had you already moved on?
JW: I think the process of writing the book did help me come to terms with my twenties – the bad breakup, the horrible co-workers, feeling like my life would really start if I managed to lose X number of pounds…but by the time the book was published, I was thirty-one, and engaged, and I felt like I’d moved on. I started writing the book not necessarily thinking about publication, but just trying to get myself out of this pit of despair after a horrible break-up. The book did all that and more…it was the road out, and the prize at the end of the road. If that makes any sense.
ASN: I know things were different in publishing 10 years ago, but what was your journey like from concept to publication?
JW: I had a very standard road to publication…or, at least, what was the standard path back in the late 90’s, early 00’s. I researched agents as well as I could in the pre-Internet era, which meant picking up physical books, scanning the acknowledgments for agents’ names, looking the agents up in printed guides to agents, and snail-mailing physical query letters. Ah, the good old days! It took me about three months, and twenty-four rejections, to find an agent. We worked together for another two months. The book went out on submission on a Thursday, and by Monday we had our first offer. It was pretty fantastic.
ASN: I think I read somewhere there was some taboo having an overweight protagonist. Have things like that changed in women’s fiction?
JW: I don’t think there was necessarily a taboo, but, as a reader, I can tell you that there weren’t that many books with plus-size protagonists…and if one did make it to publication, she was usually portrayed as the ugly duckling who needed to shed a bunch of weight to become the swan and have good things happen (anyone else remember Billie Ikehorn from Judith Krantz’s SCRUPLES, who went to Paris and lost weight?)
I didn’t want my heroine to be that kind of Cinderella, the girl who’s magically transformed and rewarded only after she gets thin. I didn’t want her to be fretting, Bridget Jones-style, about ten extra pounds. I wanted her to be a genuinely big girl, and learn to be happy and healthy and okay with that. I do think that, since the book’s publication, it’s gotten easier for plus-size protagonists in women’s fiction. Certainly, GOOD IN BED showed there was a market for those characters! Now, if only TV and movies could get the memo….
ASN: I think aspiring authors sometimes put so much of themselves into their works-in-progress, sometimes it’s hard to step away and take themselves off the page. I believe that takes practice. How much of yourself is written into your books?
JW: There’s a lot of me in there, for sure, particularly in terms of the voice – one of my friends once told me that reading one of my books was like having me sitting there talking to her. I’m pretty sure she meant it as a compliment. Almost positive.
But one of the hard lessons I had to learn with that first book was, just because something happened to you, doesn’t mean it’s interesting. In GOOD IN BED’s early drafts, I used real examples of things my father had said and done, things that were (to me, at least) incredibly poignant and painful, and my editor called and said, “This doesn’t make any sense. Why would someone behave this way?” And I was like, “I don’t know, but that’s how he was, and it was awful! And I survived it, and now I want my prize!” Of course, you don’t get a prize for surviving, and I ended up doing a lot of rewriting to turn the father character into someone readers would understand.
I think you’re right – it does take practice to find the balance, to figure out whether something that’s true belongs in your book, or whether there’s something fictional that’s funnier, or more poignant, or meaningful. If you’re having trouble letting go or something, a skilled and uninvolved reader can be a great help.
ASN: You connect with your readers on a daily basis on Facebook and Twitter. How does that change the experience of being an author from that of 10 years ago? Which do you prefer?
JW: I actually really love Facebook and Twitter, because it lets me have a voice on a day-to-day basis, to comment on current events and pop culture the way I could back when I wrote for newspapers. Live-tweeting “The Bachelor” on Monday nights was one of the high points of my week. It let me connect with readers and gave them a taste of my voice when my next publication was months away, and let me find new readers who might not have even heard of my books but were devoted to the show.
I know there are authors who find it an incredible burden, or a time-suck, having to post Tweets and manage their Facebook pages, but, for me, it’s a fun diversion, a nice break from the work of writing, and I really enjoy it. I also think it’s helped my writing: doing Twitter’s almost like a logic puzzle, figuring out how to say something pithy and funny in just 140 characters. Social media also lets authors take some aspects of promotion into their own hands, which is great – instead of getting frustrated that your publisher isn’t doing this or that, you can make your own connections, have a platform, say what you want to say.
However, I think there are many authors who aren’t taking the best advantage of the platform. A lot of people haven’t found the balance between engagement and self-promotion, so all of their tweets are, “Look at this great review I got! Look at this fabulous blurb so-and-so gave me! Look at this picture of me in a pretty dress!” Small doses of that are fine, — if I follow other writers and they got a great review in People, or hit a bestseller list, or their book went into a second printing or whatever, it’s exciting to hear about, and I feel like I’m celebrating with them. But a little goes a very long way. If you’re re-tweeting every Goodreads review and every follower’s mention, your readers feel like they’ve wandered into an infomercial. For me, that’s an instant “unfollow.” Instead of having it be all about you and your book, find something else to talk about: your kid! Your garden! The crappy reality TV show you can’t get enough of.
ASN: How do you define women’s fiction? What is it? What is it not?
JW: Hoo boy. Can I go with Potter Stewart’s quote about pornography and say, “I know it when I see it?” I think that women’s fiction these days is any story with a female protagonist that includes some element of relationships or romance. I think it’s books that are meant to be read, rather than appreciated by critics (if critics even bother to read them).
But it’s a tricky question, because the lines are always moving. “Chick lit” used to be stories about single girls in the city. Then, when some of the genre’s most prominent authors started writing about what happens when those single girls say “I do,” “chick lit” because stories about young mothers. FLY AWAY HOME has a protagonist in her fifties, and it was universally called – wait for it – “chick lit.” So I don’t even know what the category means any more except, as Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in the introduction to COMMITTED, I know for sure that it’s almost always used as an insult.
I dream of a day when there won’t be “women’s fiction” (because, seriously, what’s “men’s fiction?” Is it thrillers? Literature?) I’d love it if there was “fiction” and “nonfiction,” and my books were just the former. But the truth is, I try not to fret too much about what my books get called, because people are reading them, and that’s what matters most.
ASN: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
JW: I’ve got about ten pages of advice for writers on my website, but the short answer is, if you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader, first. You need to read everything – other books in your genre, books that have nothing to do with your genre, journalism, essays, poetry, blog posts, tweets, the backs of cereal boxes in a pinch. Get the taste of great writing in your mouth, get the rhythms in your head, and don’t worry about chasing trends – by the time you write your vampire-zombie mashup, the publishing world will have moved on. Write the story only you can write.
Jennifer Weiner was born in 1970 on an army base in Louisiana. She grew up in Connecticut and graduated with a degree in English literature from Princeton University in 1991. She worked as a newspaper reporter in central Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Philadelphia until the publication of her first novel in 2001, and has been a full-time fiction writer ever since.
Her books include GOOD IN BED (2001); IN HER SHOES (2002), which was turned into a major motion picture starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine; LITTLE EARTHQUAKES, (2004); GOODNIGHT NOBODY (2005); the short story collection THE GUY NOT TAKEN (2006); CERTAIN GIRLS (2008), the sequel to GOOD IN BED, BEST FRIENDS FOREVER (2009); FLY AWAY HOME (2010), and THEN CAME YOU, which will be published in July, 2010. She is also the co-creator and executive producer of the ABC Family show State of Georgia, premiering June 29th, 2011.
Jen is a frequent public speaker who has appeared on The Today Show, The CBS Early Show, The Martha Stewart Show, The Rachael Ray Show, and a number of defunct national talk shows that she suspects she killed just by showing up. Her work has appeared in Seventeen, Salon, Redbook, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, In Style and Elle. She writes occasionally for the Huffington Post and on her own blog right here. In 2011, Time Magazine named her as one of its 140 best Twitter feeds.
Jen likes sunsets, sushi, reality TV and long walks on the beach and dislikes fake people, humidity, and entrenched sexism in the literary world. Her last name is not pronounced exactly the way it’s spelled. She can be found on Facebook, and on Twitter, where she keeps readers up to date on her writing life and live-tweets cheesy reality TV shows, including but not limited to “The Bachelor.”
Want more? Read on…here.