Jennifer Weiner wrote her first novel, Good in Bed, from real-life heartbreak, and it rings true as a result. The main character, Cannie Shapiro, puts a long-term boyfriend on hold; when he writes a column about "Loving a Larger Woman," she spins into a depression, questioning her breakup as her ex moves on.
Cannie has several similarities with Weiner: Both are Philadelphia journalists who went to Princeton, and both have struggled with being larger women. They've also both been hit hard by their parents divorcing; and like Cannie, Weiner has a mother who has come out of the closet. Weiner jokes on her website that after college, she was "qualified to do nothing but write self-conscious short stories about [my] parents' divorce." As with many writers, trauma has become a mixed blessing for Weiner; who writes candidly and potently about the pain of being from a "broken home."
Weiner's books are immediately comfortable, with smart, movie-worthy dialogue and characters that are almost always engaging, if not likable. It would be (and has been) easy to categorize her work as "chick lit," and she might not even argue with that; but to do so is a bit facile. It undercuts the effortless intelligence that Weiner injects into her writing, her characters dropping references to Steinbeck and Andrea Dworkin as they apply MAC lip gloss.
Since her 2001 debut, Weiner's fictional themes have matured, as well. Although she mostly ties up her stories with satisfying neatness, she never shies away from the messiness of life. Her work resonates with real issues faced by countless women: the complexities of family relationships, the challenges of motherhood, and the exasperating, seemingly unsolvable mystery of men.
Weiner delivers terrific recreational reading, but imbues her characters with a wit and complexity that goes beyond beach-reads. It's fitting that she has called journalism "just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers." She has developed her skills as a journalist and columnist, and focused them on creating characters who could be you, or your friend.
Good to Know
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Weiner's first job was a stint as the education reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania.
Her real-life dog, Wendell, appears frequently in her writing. In Good in Bed, he insisted on a pseudonym, "Nifkin."
Some outtakes from our interview with Weiner:
"I have a nanny. I say this first because I recently made the mistake of posting on someone else's web site using the phrase ‘as a working mother.' I was promptly flamed for aligning myself with my embattled sisters in the trenches when I'm fortunate enough have a nanny who takes care of my fifteen-month-old daughter in the afternoons, and that's how I get my work done. So there. Nanny! And my husband and I will also occasionally hire a babysitter and go out Saturday night. I realize I'm torpedoing my shot at mother of the year with this, but what the hey."
"In my dreams, I am a backup singer. Not a lead singer, because I don't dream that big (at least, not vocally), but a backup singer."
"Reading is my number-one hobby. I also love walking with my daughter, either in her backpack or stroller. My husband is a wonderful cook, and I am a pretty passable sous-chef."
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In the fall of 2004, Jennifer Weiner took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
It's probably a tie between Nora Ephron's Crazy Salad and Fran Lebowitz's Metropolitan Life. Both of those books had such a great voice, such a smart, funny take on the world, and I thought that if I could grow up and sound like those women, whether or not I ever published anything, at least I'd keep myself amused and happy.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
It's hard to pick favorites, but these are books I find myself re-reading every few years.
The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub -- I think this was the first hardcover I bought with my own money, and I read the whole thing in two feverish days. It has everything a young reader would love -- heroes! Villains! Magic and an epic quest! And it's two of my favorite writers at, I think, the top of their games.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith -- Because they take away your nerdy girl bookworm card if you don't put it on your list.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving -- Love the characters, love the details, and the ending always makes me cry.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn -- I don't even know how to do this book justice, but if you haven't read it, you should.
All of Stephen King's Gunslinger books -- Totally engrossing, great characters, vivid descriptions, fast-pace action -- what more could you want?
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood -- I read this in high school, and it still astonishes me with the completeness and complexity of the dystopia Atwood creates.
Almost Paradise and Shining Through by Susan Isaacs -- Isaacs is one of my favorite writers for her wonderfully true-to-life characters, and these books are two of my favorites.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I think Broadcast News is one of the best and most bittersweet romantic comedies of all time -- whip-crack dialogue, amazing performances, and a triangle where you're rooting for Holly Hunter's type-A producer to wind up with whichever guy she's currently sharing the screen with. I also love Working Girl, The Big Lebowski, and This is Spinal Tap, all three of which I could probably recreate from memory if every available copy in the world evaporated.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Chick singers. Singer-songwriters, mostly. I'm listening to Rachel Yamamato just now, but I also love Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, Susan Werner, k.d. lang, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, Kirsty MacColl, Kate Bush, Sinead O'Connor, and even the occasional male -- as Good in Bed readers know, I am a huge fan of the late, great Warren Zevon. Living in Philadelphia, you can't not like Bruce Springsteen, or the Roots. Philadelphia also has a wonderful public radio station, WXPN, which has introduced me to all kinds of music I'd probably never have heard of otherwise. But when I'm writing, I listen to whatever they're playing at the coffee shop -- usually by the time I've memorized every song on the tape, they switch it!
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I envy readers who haven't experienced Almost Paradise or Shining Though yet, and I recommend them to everyone. These days it seems all I'm giving are new-baby gifts, and the new-babies on my list get Sandra Boynton's Philadelphia Chickens.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in a coffee shop, so usually, I have a latte that I try very hard not to spill on my laptop.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Heh. How long have you got?
I took a lot of English and creative writing courses in college, and published my first short story in Seventeen when I was twenty-two. It took me something like three years later to get another story published -- that one in Redbook -- and then another six years after that before my first novel was published. The road to publication was lined with rejection letters: from Harper's and The Atlantic, The New Yorker and any and all of the women's magazines publishing fiction in the 1990s.
When I finished Good in Bed, I sent query letters to twenty-five agents and got twenty-three rejections right off the bat: "sorry, we're not looking for new fiction." Or new women's fiction, or new young women's fiction, or new young Jewish women's fiction or whatever. I had one very prominent agent write that "while you are clearly a writer, I find that at this time in my life I am failing to connect with your characters." I spent weeks wondering what that meant, exactly, and finally decided: menopause. Then I wound up working with an agent who had a lot of ideas that sounded increasingly frightening. "Does the heroine have to be fat?" she fretted. "Because Hollywood doesn't want to make a movie about a lonely, pathetic fat girl." I explained that, while a film deal would be lovely, I was more interested in getting a book contract, and that Cannie's weight was basically the whole point of the story, so yes, she needed to be fat. When the agent decreed that I should change the title from Good in Bed to Big Girl, I knew it was time to find someone new -- and that was a scary decision to make, because, at that point, she was the only one interested. But I went with my gut, and it turned out to be the best decision ever. My agent is amazing -- she loved the story and the characters just as they were, and fought like crazy to get me the perfect editor at the perfect house. Being a published author has truly been a dream come true, and it's in large part because of her efforts. So all that rejection paid off!
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I've got about ten pages worth of advice on my website (www.jenniferweiner.com) but really, what it all boils down to is having the discipline to plop yourself in front of that blank screen every day and work at it. Would-be writers should also understand that rejection comes with the territory, and at every level -- there are agents and publishers all over Manhattan who turned down Good in Bed
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