Photo courtesy of Jennifer Weiner.
By Julie Jacobs
Amid the roar of a vacuum cleaner and the sharp barks of her terrier, Wendell, novelist Jennifer Weiner tries to find a quiet spot in her Philadelphia home. Weiner, who has already had a busy morning chaperoning her 3-year-old daughter Lucy on a nursery school trip, finally gets a respite when a baby sitter arrives.
Time off is a novelty to the young mother. At 37, Weiner has five books to her credit: Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, Little Earthquakes, Goodnight Nobody, The Guy Not Taken—her first short-story collection—and her latest, Certain Girls, due out this fall. She has found a niche relating the tales of women who feel like outsiders, either because of the way they look or the way they lead their lives. Coincidentally, or not, her protagonists also all happen to be Jewish.
“Part of it is writing what you know,” says Weiner, who was one of only nine Jewish kids in her high school class of 400 in Simsbury, Connecticut. “That made me feel more Jewish and more acutely aware of my heritage. Judaism is a way to signal outsider-ness. The language and humor of Judaism come very easy to me to weave into my stories.”
The eldest of four, Weiner was raised in Simsbury after spending the first 15 months of her life in DeRidder, Louisiana, on an Army base where her physician father was stationed (her mother is a teacher). In those formative years, writing proved to be cathartic, particularly as she endured the upheaval of her parents’ divorce when she was 16. “Especially with the divorce, writing helped me understand something that was so big and cataclysmic.”
Weiner finished high school at 17 and headed for the hallowed halls of Princeton University as an English major. There, she enrolled in creative writing courses taught by writers Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and John McPhee. “It was very intimidating,” she says of being instructed by such luminaries. “But I learned a lot from them about plot, structure, characterization, and how to build a story. I think I knew even then that my voice tended toward the lighter and more commercial side of things.”
She graduated summa cum laude in 1991 and, on McPhee’s advice, pursued a career in journalism. Her first stint in the profession landed her in State College, Pennsylvania, where she was the education reporter for Knight- Ridder’s Centre Daily Times. Her beat evolved and she soon found herself writing twice-monthly op-ed columns about Generation X. Two years later, she packed up and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, for a position as general-assignment features reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. When, in 1995, the Inquirer offered her a similar job writing features in Philadelphia, she returned to Pennsylvania, settled in Philadelphia, and balanced her newspaper gig with freelance assignments at Mademoiselle, Seventeen, and Time Out New York. Rejection didn’t elude her entirely, however. “Even if my stories didn’t get published, I had a good time writing them,” she recalls. “I was always motivated and always had fun trying to get them placed.”
What wasn’t fun was an especially difficult end to a romantic relationship in 1998. Although it left Weiner devastated, it also fueled her imagination and set her career on a new course. That year, she began what would be her first bestseller, Good in Bed. “To get over my heartbreak, I figured I’d tell a story about a girl like me and a guy like Satan, but supply the happy ending that I didn’t have,” she says with a hint of glee. “It was very liberating. It started off purely as a catharsis, but then I thought maybe it could turn into something.”
She worked on the book diligently nights and weekends for 12 months, and then sent out the manuscript to 25 literary agencies. Her sole response came from a high-powered agent on the West Coast, who wanted Weiner to profoundly alter her characters. “I do listen to input and don’t tend to go on about the perfection of my vision,” she offers earnestly. “But I felt really strongly that by making her changes, I wouldn’t like the book anymore.”
Sticking to her guns proved to be her ticket to authordom. She found another agent (who still represents her) and on May 1, 2001, Good in Bed was published, earning rave reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, and Kirkus, as well as endorsements from well-known novelists like Susan Isaacs, Suzanne Finnamore, and Valerie Frankel. Weiner took a leave of absence from the Inquirer to embark on an 18-city promotional tour. Within a month, the book made the New York Times’ bestseller list and eventually became a worldwide bestseller. By the end of that year, Weiner had married her husband, Adam, and resigned from the Inquirer to dedicate herself to writing fiction full time.
Was she surprised by her tremendous ‘rookie’ success? “Yes! Not in a million years did I think my book would be so well received,” she admits, noting that the story went through eight drafts and by the final product, the devil-like antagonist barely resembled her then ex-boyfriend. “Walking into a bookstore and seeing my book there—it was like how people feel after climbing Mount Everest. I could say I did it. And it [allowed me to achieve] tikkun olam by bringing other women some comfort. That makes me happy.”
Weiner followed up Good in Bed with another critical and mainstream success, In Her Shoes.
In Her Shoes, the “story of two sisters with nothing in common but the same size feet and the grandmother they never knew,” segued to the silver screen after Weiner’s brother, Jake, and his management/production company, Benderspink, sent the book to the major studios. Eventually, with Oscarwinning director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) attached to the film, Weiner knew her story “was in really good hands.” It also allowed her to take a step back from the process. “It was an easy thing to do,” she says. “I had just given birth and I knew the process of taking a 300-page novel and turning it into a movie would mean reduction and elimination. That would have been difficult for me.”
Starring Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz, and Shirley MacLaine, and featuring cameos by Weiner and her agent (check out the Italian market scene), In Her Shoes was released In October 2005 to very favorable reviews. Weiner attended the premiere in Los Angeles with much of her family in tow and remembers that the experience was “so surreal. It felt like somebody had reached into my head and scooped out my dreams.” She also organized a special hometown screening, where portions of the movie were filmed, to benefit the Free Library of Philadelphia. Hollywood has come knocking again, with Universal optioning Little Earthquakes in 2004 and Dreamworks picking up the title story in The Guy Not Taken in 2005. Yet, Weiner remains cautiously optimistic about the whole “movie machine.” “They’re still options at this point, which means you cash the checks and cross your fingers and hope your heart won’t be broken.”
Weiner’s books are commonly referred to as “Chick Lit.” “I’m not crazy about the label, because I think it comes with a built-in assumption that you’ve written nothing more meaningful or substantial than a mouthful of cotton candy. As a result, critics react a certain way without ever reading the books.
“I do understand though that it’s good from both a marketing and a consumer standpoint. It’s short hand for a smart, funny, relatable story that probably offers a bit of romance and a happy ending. People know what they’re getting. I strive to give my readers comedy, escapism, entertainment, something to identify with. I can’t tell you how many women say to me, ‘I thought I was the only one who thought that way.’”
Weiner is diligent about writing every day and meeting her deadlines, a work ethic she honed as a reporter. She typically communes with her laptop three mornings a week while her daughter is in school and then two afternoons when her sitter is on hand. You won’t find her at home, however, but rather in a coffee shop amid the hustle and bustle of the caffeine-seeking crowd. “I used to write in the newsroom with televisions turned on to CNN, so I like the hum of public places,” she says. “At home, I really don’t write. When I’m here, I’m a mom. Plus the phones are ringing, there’s laundry to be done....”
But it is her everyday life that usually provides her with the kernels of her stories. She finds inspiration at the playground, or while shopping for groceries, and is constantly observing her surroundings and keeping her ears open. Weiner never worries that her next book will be her last, and doesn’t rule out returning to past characters to pick up where they left off.
In the meantime, she's preparing for the publication of her new novel, Certain Girls, while continuing to juggle career and family. A reality-TV addict who makes a great roast chicken, Weiner is in the midst of creating dreidel picture frames for her daughter's school. Such a joyful project makes the occasional negativity inherent in her profession more palatable. “I know how devastating a bad review can be. You just can’t control what people say about you,” she says. Weiner, after all, can only control what she writes.
Reprinted with permission from Lifestyles Magazine.