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Author Talk: April 25, 2008

April 25, 2008

Jennifer Weiner is the bestselling author of five novels and a collection of short stories, including IN HER SHOES, LITTLE EARTHQUAKES, GOODNIGHT NOBODY and THE GUY NOT TAKEN. Her latest work of fiction, CERTAIN GIRLS, is a sequel to her debut title and catches up with protagonist Cannie Shapiro 13 years after she appeared in 2001’s GOOD IN BED. In this interview, Weiner discusses the real-life experiences that inspired this story within a story and reflects on some of the social commentary peppering the narrative. She also shares a list of the books waiting to be read on her nightstand, humorously ruminates on the possibility of writing under a nom de plume, and reveals what she hopes readers will take away from her work.

Question: It's been seven years since you published your bestselling debut, GOOD IN BED. Had you always planned to write a sequel? Why did you decide to write CERTAIN GIRLS now?

Jennifer Weiner: I had always planned to write a sequel, and I always knew that I wanted it to be as much about Joy as about Cannie (and yes, I always knew the book was going to end the way it ended. Don't ask me how! I just knew).

What interests me as a writer are the moments in characters' lives where there's the most potential for rupture, for change: a single woman on the verge of marriage, a married woman in the first weeks of motherhood, a girl on the verge of womanhood (if that doesn't sound too horribly like a Britney Spears song title), or a woman who's stuck in one place contemplating, with hope and with terror, the prospect of getting unstuck.

And then there was the personal issue. When I wrote GOOD IN BED I was twenty-eight and single. In the intervening years I've gotten married and had two daughters, and had occasion to think about what it might be like for a child to have a parent who's done something even vaguely scandalous. The book in CERTAIN GIRLS isn't the book that I wrote --- BIG GIRLS DON’T CRY is a lot steamier than GOOD IN BED, in spite of its title, ever was --- but I've become very interested in what happens to a child when your parent is somehow notorious, and I wanted to play with that idea, through Joy's eyes.

Q: This is your fifth novel. How do you think your writing style and thematic choices have changed from one project to the next? What influences you most in your work?

JW: After five books, I hope that there are certain things I've gotten better at understanding and executing. (Plot: you need one! Blond hair: not all female characters should have it! Pop-culture references: get dated very quickly!) However, I think that in general, my writing style and the things that interest me have stayed the same. I try to write in a clear, readable, conversational style (one of my friends once said that reading one of my books was like having me sitting there talking to her, which I think was a compliment). In terms of topics, I've always been interested in body-image issues, in family dynamics, in relationships between mothers and children and husbands and wives. The way my life has changed since I wrote my first book has definitely informed my fiction --- the issues that come up during a marriage, or when children arrive, for example, or the stories I've heard from my friends as those issues have arisen in their own lives, have all influenced the stories I've told.

Q: Your second novel, IN HER SHOES, was made into a film featuring several of Hollywood's biggest stars. Were you involved in this production at all? What was it like to see your characters brought to life on the big screen?

JW: In one of the rare instances of mental health in my life, I decided very early on to be as hands-off as possible with the film version of IN HER SHOES. I decided that I'd told the story I wanted to tell in the book, that whatever happened with the film, nobody would change a word of the story, and that the best thing I could do would be to stand on the sidelines and wish everyone well. So that's what I did, and I would recommend it to any other writer lucky enough to have a novel adapted, because it worked out really well. I was thrilled with the film...and I was lucky enough to get my sister, and my nanna, roles as extras, which only added to the fun.

Q: Many first-time authors write semiautobiographical novels. Now that you've written several books, how much of your own life still ends up in your novels? What in CERTAIN GIRLS is autobiographical?

JW: Do you mean, after five books am I running out of real life to exploit? Heh. Just kidding, nameless interlocutor!

GOOD IN BED was, indeed, was kind of a hybrid of this-really-happened with I-sure-wish-this-would-happen. Since then, I'd say that what I've done has been to take elements from my own life --- having a sister, getting married, having a baby --- and spinning them into fiction. Real life, in other words, was the irritating grain of sand, and the books were the pearls.

But there are always bits and pieces of my real life that make it into the stories. The Philadelphia of my books is very much like the Philadelphia where I live, and certain things that happen are just too funny, or too weird, not to make it into the book. For instance, I actually was asked whether I'd be interested in being a college campus spokesperson for a brand of feminine the exchange that Cannie has with her agent ("Does this offer have strings attached?") is pretty much a verbatim re-creation of the conversation I had with my agent.

Q: While the novel is a very entertaining read, there is also some serious social commentary sprinkled throughout. As a writer of fiction, what role do such weighty topics play in your work?

JW: My characters live in the real world (or at least a fictional facsimile), and so they deal with real-world issues. As a semi-obsessive mother of a vulnerable teenage girl, and with her own body-image and self-esteem issues in her not-so-distant past, it made sense to me that Cannie would worry about the messages that the culture sends to young girls, and would try to protect Joy as much as possible from what she'd see as the most pernicious of them. (As the hopefully non-obsessive mother of very young girls, I worry about them, too.) The challenge, I think, is to write books that consider these issues without banging the reader on the head with my own opinions...because being banged over the head is not much fun, and I do want my books to be entertaining.

Q: Your previous book was a critically acclaimed collection of short stories called THE GUY NOT TAKEN. What prompted you to write this collection? How is writing a collection of stories different for you than writing a novel?

JW: Like any good little wannabe writer, I'd written, and tried to sell, short stories for years, so when my publisher asked if I'd consider publishing a collection, I definitely had more than enough. I love short stories --- done right, they can have as much impact, and be every bit as memorable, as a 400-page novel. Writing short stories pushes me to be economical, to make every scene and every sentence earn its place on the page. I think naturally I gravitate toward the longer form, and the larger canvas, that a 400-page novel provides, but I think that short stories are a good exercise.

Q: Cannie is the author of both mainstream fiction and young-adult science fiction. What types of books do you most enjoy reading?

JW: You name it, I'll read it. I read a ton of YA to get ready to try to write from Joy's perspective, including books like SPEAK and LOOKING FOR ALASKA, plus old favorites like JACOB HAVE I LOVED and HOMECOMING. I'm a fan of contemporary fiction, especially books that have a great voice, or a great sense of humor. Recently, I really enjoyed Ruth Ozeki's ALL OVER CREATION and Marc Acito's ATTACK OF THE THEATER PEOPLE. Waiting on the nightstand: Junot Diaz's THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO and Kate Christensen's THE EPICURE’S LAMENT.

And my husband jokes that I never ever ever read nonfiction, but that's just not true. I like Atul Gawande's stuff because it reads like medical mysteries, and, right after my daughter was born, I officially became the last person in America to discover David Sedaris.

Q: One of the things Cannie loves best about writing the Lyla Dare series is that she does it anonymously. Do you ever think about writing under a pseudonym? Under what conditions might you try it (assuming, of course, that you haven't already)? And what would your pseudonym be?

JW: I don't think there's a writer alive --- especially one who's been pigeonholed in any way --- who hasn't dreamed about the promised land of a nom de plume. Literary writers think they could churn out a potboiler or a bodice-ripper and sell a million copies. Commercial writers think that they could finally be taken seriously as the sensitive and artistic souls that they are.

Of course, the truth is that there's no hiding anymore, since Anonymous wrote PRIMARY COLORS and was outed as Joe Klein. The technology's sophisticated enough to recognize every single writerly tic, which means that if you're a published author, there's nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. That being said, though, I do frequently wonder what would happen if I were to try to write some arty short story under a different name. As to what that name would be, my lips are sealed...but I think I'd want to be one of those writers with three names and that, for the best odds with the critics, at least one of them would have to be Jonathan. Possibly two. Maybe even all three. At this point, who wouldn't buy a book by Jonathan Jonathan Jonathan?

Q: In some ways, CERTAIN GIRLS is a story within a story -- after all, Cannie's novel BIG GIRLS DON’T CRY, is clearly the in-story version of your own novel, GOOD IN BED. What led you to make this choice? What kind of opportunities did this foray into metafiction open up for you?

JW: First, a disclaimer: BIG GIRLS DON’T CRY is not exactly GOOD IN BED. I thought about what would be the sort of ground-zero, worst-case scenario for a going-on-thirteen-year-old girl who just wants to be normal, and I figured that, as in GOOD IN BED, with Cannie's ex-boyfriend writing about their sex life, it would be a loved one (in this case, Joy's mother) writing about sex in a very explicit and revealing way.

I wanted to deal with some of the uniquely weird stuff that happens after you write a book, and how different it is than what one might (okay, than what I might) imagine: the book signings nobody shows up for, the insanity that is a book tour, the way critics won't touch you with a ten-foot pole if you've got naked lady-parts on your cover...or the way they'll take what you assumed was the least momentous part of your book and try to spin it into some grand political statement you were making. It was fun and very cathartic to write those sections of the book, and there was a lot that got left on the proverbial cutting-room floor, because it was a lot more interesting to me than to anyone else.

I also wanted to talk about the way children look for evidence of their parents' histories and give Joy a very tangible (and hopefully funny) source of information about who her mother was in her prior life as she tries to forge her own identity outside of her mother's shadow.

Q: You play with so many interesting themes in this novel, ranging from the importance of appearances, to the revised, more modern definition of family, to the tragedy of loss and the loss of innocence. What do you most hope that readers will take away from reading CERTAIN GIRLS?

JW: First and foremost, I hope they'll come away feeling satisfied by the time they've spent with my story --- like they've gotten to know the characters and, of course, like they enjoyed themselves. I really don't set out to write "message" books, but I would hope that readers would come away from the book the way guests might come away from Joy's bat mitzvah speech, with a sense that you can lean on your loved ones and get through whatever life sends your way.