Jennifer Weiner: Mrs. Everything
Jennifer Weiner has channeled early unhappy episodes into character-driven novels that have sold millions.
Jennifer Weiner is a bestselling novelist, well known for her second book, In Her Shoes (2002), which was made into a film starring Cameron Diaz.
Weiner was born in 1970 in DeRidder, LA, and grew up in Simsbury, CT. After graduating from Princeton University, she worked as a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, PA, the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She published her first short story in Seventeen magazine in 1992, and quit reporting after the release of her debut novel, Good in Bed, in 2001. She has since published more than a dozen novels and six collections of short stories; her books have sold more than ten million copies. She also created and wrote the sitcom State of Georgia, which ran for one season on ABC in 2012.
Weiner maintains a large social media following and frequently contributes opinion pieces to The New York Times, speaking out on biases against commercial fiction for women and other feminist issues.
Jennifer Weiner was 15 when her parents told her and her siblings that they were getting divorced. For her father, it wasn’t just the end of his time as a husband, but also as a parent.
Jennifer Weiner: He said, you should think of me as a fun uncle. And I said, okay, that sounds really like perverted and disgusting. And no, like you’re not my uncle. You’re my dad. Like, you don’t get to just vanish for a year. Like what, what the hell.
He did vanish, and largely kept out of Weiner’s life. But the impact he made on her stayed long after.
Weiner: My father made me feel like no one would ever love me. It made relationships very hard. It made trusting very hard. It did a number on my self esteem, but it made me a storyteller.
Stories for Jennifer Weiner were an escape from much of her strained childhood. Growing up she wasn’t very social and didn’t have a lot of friends. So she turned to books, devouring everything from her father’s medical textbooks to picture books, poetry, and presidential biographies. And also at the encouragement of teachers, she created her own stories. For Weiner, telling a good tale wasn’t just a pastime, it was a necessity.
Weiner: When you’re one of four children in a noisy household, you learn to tell a story, you know? When you’re sitting at the dinner table and you know that you’re not going to get your parents’ attention just by existing, the way some kids, possibly mine, do. You better come with a hook, like you better bring your material and it better be polished, and you better, you know, it better be tight. You better have that set ready to go.
Decades later, Wiener has moved beyond dinner party raconteur, to globally renowned author. She’s written more than 20 novels and short story collections, selling millions of copies in dozens of countries. Much of that success, she believes, came out of reflections on the instability of her early life, and her own perceived shortcomings.
Weiner: More and more I’m meeting writers who did have happy childhoods. And I’m always like, what was that like? What do you, how do you sit down and write a book, if you’re okay? Because I do feel that unhappiness is kind of the secret sauce, and you don’t have to be unhappy all your life, but you have to, I think that you have to have been lonely at an impressionable age and always able to access that loneliness, always able to go back and know exactly what it feels like to not get picked in gym class, or to not have anybody to sit with in the cafeteria, or to not have anybody ask you to dance at the dance. That open sore has to live somewhere inside you. And you have to be able to poke it every once in a while.
But it would take years for Weiner to understand how to share that unhappiness in her writing. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, she studied with some of the great writers of the 20th century, including novelists Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates, and journalist John McPhee. After college, she jumped into journalism, reporting for local papers in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, an experience, she says, she’ll always be grateful for.
Weiner: You learn to treat writing like craft. You’re not sitting around waiting for divine inspiration, or, you know, like you’re a wind chime and the muse is going to come blow across your strings. You sit down, you put your butt in the seat, you put your fingers on the keyboard and you write. There’s a lot of, you know, very wifty ideas about inspiration and creativity, and only special people can do this. But inspiration’s not enough, talent’s not enough. I mean, the world is full of talented people who never finished a short story, let alone a novel. And I don’t know if I’m, well, I can tell you, I am certainly not the most talented person out there, but I work hard.
That hard work enabled Weiner to make the jump from daily reporter to New York Times bestselling author. Her books focus mainly on women and the day-to-day challenges of family, friendship, love and career.
Weiner: I want women who read my books to feel seen, because sometimes that doesn’t happen.
Writing for Weiner is also a way for her to see herself better. At 30, she was coming off a decade of dieting. She was frustrated by the fairytale weight loss journeys of many women in books. So she penned her debut novel, 2001’s Good in Bed, as a roadmap for what she wanted out of life. A story about a larger woman who falls in love and finds her voice, and gets her happy ending, and does it without becoming thin.
Weiner: Toni Morrison has this very famous quote, where she says, “If there’s a book that you need to read, that you need to see on the shelf, and it’s not there, you have to write it.” And when I finally had a story to tell in fiction, I had to decide, you know, I knew it was going to be about a girl who went through a breakup, girl who lived in Philadelphia, girl who was a newspaper reporter, crazy dysfunctional family, that whole thing. And I thought, well, do I, you know, do I make her look like me? Do I give her, you know, I don’t know if you want to call them weight issues or self-esteem issues, or do I make her a plus-sized character? Because the only plus-size women who existed in literature at that point, they could be funny best friends, or they could be women who lost a hundred pounds through some magical fictional diet that only exists in novels, because if it really existed, we’d all be on it. And then she could get the prince, the job, the money, the happy ending, the big wedding.
But once she wrote that journey, it was still an uphill battle to get herself an agent and get her book published.
Weiner: I remember I sent out 25 query letters and got 24 rejections. Just not taking new clients, not taking new fiction, not taking new women’s fiction. And the one agent who agreed to read the manuscript, and then wanted to work with me, said that one of the problems that she had, and one of the things that she wanted me to change was the size of my heroine. She said, “This is a fat girl, and no one wants to read a book about a pathetic, lonely fat girl.” She said, “Maybe make her more like Bridget Jones, where it’s just like, maybe 15 extra pounds.” And I didn’t want to do that.
Weiner’s determination paid off. Good in Bed was a best seller, and it set the stage for much of Weiner’s subsequent commercial success. But over the years, she’s also come to see the limits of what writing and storytelling can give her.
Weiner: There’s a very human instinct to think like, if I only get X, then everything is going to feel fantastic. For women, I think a lot of it is tied to “If I could only lose 20 pounds, everything will be great and everything will fall into place.” And so for me, it was like, if I ever publish a book and can walk into a bookstore, that will soothe every hurt feeling that I’ve ever had in my life. And it will finally shut up these voices in my head that say that I’m not good enough and no one’s ever gonna love me. Cause people love me. Cause my book’s in a bookstore, and that wasn’t what happened. Then you have a book, and it becomes a best seller. And it’s like, okay, that feels really good, but I can still feel unhappiness or insecurity, or self-loathing, or self doubt. Eventually, you just get to the point where, where you figure out there’s nothing external. There’s no, nobody is going to hand you a crown and a scepter, and suddenly every hard, sad thing will fall away. It doesn’t work like that. Eventually you realize it’s just never, ever, ever enough.
Much of Weiner’s recent happiness has come from decisions made off the page. In 2010, she and her husband ended a nearly decade long marriage. But this time it wasn’t a painful separation, like when her father left.
Weiner: The thing about my ex and I, both of us had been children of not at all amicable divorces. Like, mine, much, much worse than his. But I think that his parents went through a period where they couldn’t be in the same room together. And he and I just both decided like, we’re not going to do it that way, because it was damaging. I say all the time that we didn’t have a successful marriage, but we had a very successful divorce.
Eventually, in a plot twist fit for publication, Weiner had a second marriage to an old boyfriend from her newspaper days. They live close to her ex-husband and his wife, so their daughters can move easily between the two homes. It’s not quite a happy ending. Unlike books, our life journeys aren’t over until the last breath. But it is a time of balance, where Weiner has found a space to enjoy beautiful moments when they arrive, like a recent morning bike ride.
Weiner: I was so happy. You know, just being outside, being on these two lane roads, riding under these canopies of shade trees, and it was quiet and it was beautiful, and it wasn’t too hot. And I thought, this is what being rich is. You know, it’s not money or big houses, or fancy cars, or fur, or jewelry or whatever, art–I like art, but…it’s time, and just being able to do something, just purely ’cause you wanna do it and it pleases you to do it. And knowing that there’s no fire you have to go put out, and that your kids are happy.
Unhappiness, Jennifer Weiner has learned, is as essential to life as it is to any good story. But that doesn’t mean we have to dwell within it. Instead we can move through it, process it and keep it with us as a memory, an anecdote or a well-worn paperback. Something to take out and reflect on occasionally, but then put away, so we can go out and create our next good story.