Author Talk: September 2006
Jennifer Weiner has written the acclaimed novels GOOD IN BED, LITTLE EARTHQUAKES, GOODNIGHT NOBODY and IN HER SHOES, on which the motion picture of the same name --- starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz --- was based. In this interview, Weiner discusses her latest work, a collection of short stories called THE GUY NOT TAKEN, and its possibility of being adapted for the big screen. She also addresses living up to expectations of "happy endings," explains the benefits of keeping a blog, and describes the perks and drawbacks of having a "nontraditional" family.
Question: What inspired you to write "Good Men" from Bruce Guberman's point of view? Do you have plans to revisit any of the other characters from GOOD IN BED or your other books?
Jennifer Weiner: Believe it or not, "Good Men" was actually written before GOOD IN BED was even a gleam in my eye. I had those two characters in mind: a guy with a good heart, who's a bit of a slacker, and a girl with a sharp tongue who's a bit of a control freak, and the trouble they could get into. "Good Men" was their first outing (driven in part, I will confess, by my eternal fascination with stoner humor).
And yes, there is one other character from GOOD IN BED who will get a voice of his/her own in the book that I'm working on now...but I think I'll keep you in suspense as to which one (Tanya fans can start lobbying now!)
Q: The family in "Just Desserts" bears very close resemblance to your own family. Do the characters --- Nicki, Jon, and the mother --- share traits with your family members? Do they mind making these types of cameos in your work?
JW: I will offer my mother's standard disclaimer --- the one she typically recites when anyone asks about my work in general, and the mother in GOOD IN BED specifically --- "it's fiction!"
The truth is, no matter how autobiographical something is at the beginning of its life, by the time it's been through four or five rounds of revisions, it usually isn't my real life, or my real family, any more. Fiction offers many more possibilities than autobiography does. Plus, I've got to save something for the memoirs!
Last answer: I am lucky enough to be related to a bunch of very funny and tolerant people who understand the reality of living with a writer. If there's something funny, or interesting, or humiliating, or tragic, and the writer finds out about it, chances are, it's going to show up in some form, some day, somewhere. All they ask is a chance to read my work ahead of time, which I'm happy to give them, and a chance to join me on vacations, book parties and at movie premieres (ditto).
Q: Some of these stories were published before, and some were stories you'd written years ago and revised. Have you always been a prolific writer? Before your blog, did you keep journals and journals of writing? Were you always interested in fiction, even before you started being published?
JW: I credit ten years of journalism for what probably looks, to outsiders, like an impressive work ethic. When you're working at a small newspaper, writing three or four stories a day, you get used to being productive. I love writing --- I always have --- and I've been writing fiction almost as long as I've been reading it. So of course I have the obligatory shoeboxes full of unpublished short stories, articles, letters to editors, and fragments of novels. Not too many journals, though. I shared a bedroom with my sister Molly for seventeen years, and no matter where I hid my diaries she'd find them and use them to humiliate me.
Q: Absent fathers loom large in most of these stories. Why are nontraditional families such rich fodder for your work? Do you agree with Tolstoy that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way?"
JW: I do agree with Tolstoy, but I also think that happy families (and, if you're part of one, forgive me)... just aren't that interesting. At least, not from a fictional standpoint. People who are suffering, or in crisis, or trying to make sense of their lives are much more fun for me to play around with than, say, women who are in love, happy with their children, their choices, and the size of their hips. I'm not sure a character like that would yield an interesting chapter, let alone an interesting short story or novel.
Q: In "Buyer's Market," you play with the idea of a Hollywood ending: "If life were a movie, Jess would have looked into Steven Ostrowsky's eyes and fallen deeply and immediately in love" (165). Do you think readers expect Hollywood-type happy endings in your writing? How do you work with these expectations?
JW: I think there are a few things at play here. One is that I do think that readers expect happy endings from me. Which is perfectly understandable. If you're setting out to tell an entertaining story with a protagonist who feels relatable, funny, and real, and if you've done your job well, then of course readers are going to want good things to happen to her.
As her creator, I will, too. I sometimes think that my job as an author is to take flawed, damaged characters and bring them to a happier place --- not a perfect place, but a place that at least offers them some decent possibilities. (This is especially true if I'm going to make them suffer!) And while I don't believe that marriage is the only happy ending possible, the bright bow that has to be tied around every young woman's life in order for her to say "There! Done! Happy!" I do believe that there is a very primal yearning for connection. Could be romantic, could be familial, could be a friendship (readers have pointed out that the most engaged and passionate relationships my heroines have aren't always with the men in their lives, but with their best friends).
To make a long answer short, I generally believe in trying to bring my characters to a good place, but I don't believe that happy endings all look the same, or are necessarily what the reader, or the heroine, expects.
Q: DreamWorks snapped up the film rights to THE GUY NOT TAKEN. Ideally, who would you envision starring as Marlie, Bob, and Drew? What did you think of the film version of IN HER SHOES?
JW: I was thrilled with the film adaptation of IN HER SHOES, and I enjoy the time I spend in Hollywood, where my brothers, my sister, my sister-in-law, and my niece all live, but I can't say that I've given the movie version of THE GUY NOT TAKEN much thought. My job is to tell the stories, as best I can, and once I'm done, and the book is published, my work is done, and any possible movies are then the filmmakers' story to tell, and my job it to stand on the sidelines, cheer them on, hope for the best, and work on my next book. That was how I felt with IN HER SHOES, and it's how I feel about THE GUY NOT TAKEN, and it's how I hope I'll feel about any future projects that come down the pike.
With all of that as a gigantic disclaimer, I will say that I hope that Marlie actually looks like a regular person, instead of some Los Angeles glamazon in the standard-issue chunky-frame glasses that they give starlets when they're trying to make them look like regular people.
Q: "The Mother's Hour" was such an accurate portrayal of the first few months (and years) of parenting, and the unlikely friendships that follow. Did you join any mother's groups when you first had your daughter? And further, did you meet any interesting mothers along the way?
JW: I joined every mother's group that would have me when my daughter was first born, because if I was home alone with her I'd end up feeling isolated, lonely, overwhelmed, and inadequate --- and usually all four by lunchtime. This was not because my daughter was such a difficult child. She wasn't. But, after a lifetime of being a good student, and relatively professionally competent as a journalist and novelist, motherhood was hard in a different way.
So Lucy and I were out and about a lot. We did playgroups, took classes, went on play dates and outings with our friends. As I'm writing this, she's getting ready to start nursery school, and I feel as though I know every woman in Philadelphia who had a baby the same year I did. All of them were interesting, and some of them became my good friends, but none of them were much like the mothers in "The Mother's Hour." I hope I'm not, either.
Q: Your blog, Snarkspot (www.jenniferweiner.blogspot.com), is immensely popular. What purpose does the blog serve in your career and in your personal life? Do you think blogging is a good first step for aspiring writers?
JW: It goes back to the journalism thing. I got spoiled by being able to write a lot, and being able to respond to things that happened immediately --- one of the few luxuries that fiction doesn't give you, unless you're publishing it online.
My blog is a way for me to feed the part of myself that journalism fed --- the part that got to write quickly and informally, about anything that struck my fancy, whether it was reality television or a three-year-old's birthday party. It's also a way to keep in touch with my readers, to give them access to my voice between books and let them keep up with me (to the extent that anyone would want to).
I'd encourage any aspiring writer to blog. I think anything that lets you write regularly, for an audience, is good practice, and a good foundation for more ambitious writing.
Q: More often than not your stories take place in Philadelphia or on the east coast. In this collection, "Swim" is set vividly in Los Angeles. How do you portray life --- with the aspiring writers and actors, the coffee shops and the apartment complexes --- in places you've never lived? How do you do this type of research?
JW: Thanks to the aforementioned family, I actually do spend a lot of time in Los Angeles, and I have had the experience of writing in a coffee shop there. I take my laptop to a coffee shop in Philadelphia all the time, without incident, but when I went to a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in L.A., it took me about an hour to notice that, basically, every single person at every single table was a writer, with a laptop, and an agent, and a cell phone to call the agent on. It was like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." Every single table was filled with better-looking versions of me!