Author Talk: July 16, 2010
Jennifer Weiner’s latest work of fiction, FLY AWAY HOME, centers on a mother and her adult daughters whose relationship is strained amidst personal failures and public humiliations. In this interview, Weiner discusses what prompted her to steer away from her typical twenty- and thirty-something narrators to create a middle-aged protagonist, and elaborates on the influence of various current events that helped to shape the novel’s plot. She also weighs in on the struggle women often face in trying to maintain their identities after marriage and starting families, and shares where she sees her characters after the book’s close.
Question: Your previous protagonists have primarily been young women in their twenties and thirties. What was it like for you to write about a woman in her late fifties? What did you use as inspiration?
Jennifer Weiner: When IN HER SHOES was made into a movie, I got to take my whole family to the star-studded Hollywood premiere. It was an amazing night. We all walked the red carpet and saw the movie and hung out with the stars at Spago after. But the most magical, amazing part of the evening was when a man asked for my mother’s phone number. My mother was quick to tell him that she was gay and in a committed relationship, and everyone in the family spent the whole night laughing about it. Everyone, that is, except my sixty-three-year-old mother’s eighty-nine-year-old mother, who kept poking her in the arm and saying, “You see that, Frances? You see? If you wore a little lipstick, you could get right back out there!”
What I learned from that night is that no matter how old you get, no matter what you accomplish or how many children and grandchildren of your own you have, you’re still your mother’s daughter and still subject to your mother’s judgment. With FLY AWAY HOME, in addition to exploring the dynamics of disgraced politicians and the women who stand by them, I wanted to write about a woman roughly my mother’s age who’s in that weird in-between place: having a mother who questions her choices, having daughters of her own who do the same.
But this was my first time writing a main character this age, and I had to be very aware to make her dialogue, the clothes she’d wear, the way she felt physically, consistent with a character her age, instead of my age. (One of my readers gave me a lot of notes about Sylvie and Ceil, saying, “Sounds like you, not like them!”)
Q: The experience of shame seems to be an important linking theme in this book. Was that an intentional starting point for you, or did the narrative evolve in that direction?
JW: Ah. Shame. I think it’s something that lots of women deal with, for lots of different reasons. We hold ourselves up to impossibly high standards --- in terms of how we look, in terms of how well we balance jobs and kids and houses and husbands --- and then we can end up being shamed for things that are beyond our control. For instance, if a man does something stupid --- pays for prostitutes, tells ridiculous lies about a mistress, solicits anonymous sex in the men’s room --- there’s a toxic cloud of shame that radiates out from the guilty party and stains everyone around him. The woman always ends up shamed and implicated –-- for not being attractive enough to hold his interest, for being stupid enough to think that her husband was faithful (and, in some cases, straight), for standing by him (if she stands by him), for not standing by him (if she doesn’t)…it’s an impossible situation, and one that was too enticing for me to not write about.
Q: You wrote about a mother-daughter relationship in CERTAIN GIRLS, but FLY AWAY HOME is about a mother and her adult daughters. How were these writing experiences different?
JW: In some ways channeling a bratty, hormonal, resentful twelve-year-old was easier than writing Diana, who’s educated and closer to my age, but judgmental in ways I’m not judgmental and rigid in ways I’m not rigid. A woman who deals with stress by running five miles? That ain’t me, babe. (I do run --- at a pace that makes glacial movement look speedy). But again, I think that the dynamics between a mother and a daughter stay the same, no matter how old they are, no matter what the daughter grows up to accomplish.
Q: Cooking features prominently in this book, and it becomes a therapeutic activity for Sylvie. Does cooking play this kind of role in your life? Are you more like Sylvie, Ceil, or Selma in the kitchen?
JW: I love to cook, but I struggle to find the time. With two little ones, I’ve perfected a repertoire of quick and easy meals --- I can do a good roast chicken, spice-rubbed ribs, easy pastas, things like that --- but I hunger (pun intended) for the time when I’ll be able to do what Sylvie does, and devote a whole day to planning a meal, shopping for the ingredients, and cooking. It’s rare that I’ll have a day like that, but my neighborhood in Philadelphia has a wonderful farmer’s market with all kinds of great organic meats and produce, so sometimes I’ll buy something I have never had before or have never cooked before, then figure out what to do with it.
Q: Current events --- particularly notable cases of infidelity --- are mentioned throughout the novel. How did real political wives inspire your depiction of Sylvie?
JW: Like every other woman I know, I’m riveted by the spectacle of a politician’s infidelity. Whether it’s Hillary, all tight-lipped and vast-right-wing-conspiracy blaming after Bill got caught with the intern in the hallway, or ashen Silda Spitzer standing beside Eliot on the podium after he was nailed using thousands of taxpayer dollars on escorts, or Dina Matos McGreevey with that strange smile watching her husband announce that he was a gay American, there’s something train-wrecky horrible about it. You don’t want to look, but you can’t look away.
I think that women watching all have the same questions: how can she be standing up there with him? How can she stay with him? And, what’s going to happen when the press conference is over, when it’s just the two of them alone? Different women in different marriages all answer the questions differently. In writing FLY AWAY HOME I read as many political books and biographies as I could get my hands on --- Jenny Sanford’s book, Elizabeth Edwards’ book --- and then it was just a question of using my imagination, in trying to think about not just the man and the woman, but also the family and the history, and figuring out how their story could realistically unfold.
Q: In a novel filled with nuanced mother-daughter relationships, what was it like for you to write about the relationship between a mother and son, with Diana and Milo?
JW: I’ve got two little girls myself, and I suspect my baby-making days are over. The closest I’ll get to having a little boy is going to be in fiction. Hence Milo. I also liked the idea that Diana wanted a daughter but got a son, and loved him more than she imagined she’d love anyone, because I think that speaks to the idea that sometimes the thing you didn’t plan for is the thing that you need --- certainly a lesson that all the women in the book learn.
Q: What kind of research did you do into drug and alcohol addiction for Lizzie’s character?
JW: I read a lot of books, including a very good one called THE ADDICT about a young woman who was addicted to Vicodin. The woman at the center of that book, which was written from the perspective of the doctor treating her, was not what you’d think of when you think about drug addicts --- she was young, attractive, intelligent, from a good family, but she had a pervasive sense of not having lived up to her parents’ expectations. She started stealing her mother’s pills as a teenager and just ended up with a serious problem, flunking out of college, drifting into relationships with bad guys, going nowhere. That book helped with a lot of the details and helped confirm in my mind what kind of young woman would be at risk.
Q: After Thanksgiving dinner, Selma says to Sylvie, “In Chinese, the word for crisis is the same word as opportunity.” How important is this idea to all of your novels? Is this a maxim you adhere to in your own life?
JW: God knows I try. When the toilet overflows, when the toddler slams her hand in the front door, when the six-year-old acts like it’s Armageddon when I try to get her to brush her teeth, I quietly tell myself, “In Chinese, the word for crisis is the same word for opportunity!” Then I tell myself to shut up, and find the towels or the ice packs or the Chardonnay.
The thing is, with fiction, you need a crisis, or else you’ve just got your carefully constructed, beautifully written characters sitting around staring at each other. I get frustrated with books where nothing happens --- no matter how beautiful the writing, I want my characters to go somewhere. In all of my books, I want things to happen --- a romantic upheaval, a family crisis, an unexpected pregnancy --- and I want my characters to be better for having survived them. So yes, it’s a valuable idea, and it definitely strikes me as something that a strong, grounded mother would tell her slightly more wifty, slightly less-grounded daughter.
Q: Both Sylvie and Diana feel it is important to keep some part of themselves separate from their husbands and children. Do you feel that this is something that many women struggle with?
JW: I do think that it’s a struggle for women --- how much of yourself can you keep to yourself when you become a wife, and how much of your relationship with your husband, and the world that was just the two of you, falls by the wayside when you have kids?
So much of this book was influenced by recent events and the way the world reacts to women and how they behave in their marriages, whether they’re standing by a cheating spouse or telling their truth about married life.
A few years back, Ayelet Waldman, an author and the wife of novelist Michael Chabon, wrote an essay for the Times in which she basically admitted to loving her husband more than her children. She said that if a child were to die, she’d be able to carry on, but if she lost her husband, she wouldn’t make it. Well. The outcry to this story was so extreme, so heated, so vituperative, that I was surprised she wasn’t burned in effigy somewhere (and I remember being a little bit shocked and horrified at the story myself, and wondering what her kids would think when they grew up and read about Mom and Dad’s smokin’ hot sex life and Mom’s confessions as to how much she dug Daddy).
With Sylvie, I wanted to write about a woman who, if she were totally honest, would have to say that she loved her husband more than her daughters (and is racked with guilt because of it), mostly to satisfy my own curiosity about what that woman’s life would look like, what choices she’d make, and what would happen if that relationship was threatened…and what messages her daughters would learn about love and sacrifice.
With Diana, I wanted to write about a woman who loves her son desperately and doesn’t love her husband very much. Different character, same questions: what are her choices? What does her life look like? To what extent can a woman arrange her own marriage? If you approach a relationship like a job, can you make it work, or does Diana need a little more of what her mother’s got?
Q: As the novel closes, it’s not certain whether or how Sylvie and Richard will reconcile. Why did you choose to end on this note? What do you envision happening between them?
JW: Oh, I think Sylvie and Richard are going to be fine and better than fine --- better than they were before. I think that Richard, having risked Sylvie’s defection, is going to be a lot more careful about his own behavior and considerate in how he treats her, and I think that Sylvie, having learned that she can survive and even thrive without the man she built her life around, is going to demand better treatment. They’ll have a more perfect union. I’m happy for them both.
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