Interviewing author Jennifer Weiner is like spending time with an old friend: There’s a lot of laughter and “I know!”; some commiserating over common grievances and insecurities; and a soupçon of gossip (who can resist?). So much so that this writer entirely forgets to be nervous and relaxes into a rhythm of comfortable conversation with the New York Times bestselling author. Even her voice sounds familiar; perhaps it’s because, if you’ve ever communed with one of Jen’s novels, her characters are all imbued, in some way or another, with the soul of the author herself.
Penning stories since the first grade, Jen used words to pull her up and out of an unhappy childhood, and to Princeton University, where she studied with literary luminaries like Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and John McPhee. She graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English literature and the distinction of being one of the forces behind the movement to open up the university’s then all-male Eating Clubs to women. Following college, she was a regional newspaper reporter, eventually becoming a feature writer and columnist for The Philadelphia Enquirer. She’s mined her life (break-ups, motherhood, womanhood), baring pieces of herself in her books, fiction and nonfiction (more than 11 million copies in print in 36 countries). Writing has been her profession, her passion, and her true north her entire life. Now she’s authored what she might describe as her “magnum opus” if she were that kind of writer: her new novel, Mrs. Everything, a brilliant, beautiful, and hopeful grand-sweep of a story for the ages, drops in June. She’s also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times Op-Ed and Sunday Review (her latest piece, “‘What’s Your Favorite Book?’ Is Not a Trick Question,” is canny, funny, fiery, quintessential Jen). She deftly manages her social media game, more inclined to the short-short-short-form journalism of Twitter to other platforms. And she does it all very humbly from the Philadelphia “cloffice” she calls home—her closet-turned-office.
Bricks & Mortar: So, first things first, from one Jennifer to another: are you a “Jennifer,” “Jen,” or a “Jenny”?
Jennifer Weiner: Oh, I’m a “Jen.” I was “Jenny” growing up, so everyone who knew me as a kid still calls me “Jenny.” All through elementary school I was “Jennifer W.” There were five Jennifers on my soccer team.
B&M: Well, if you were born anytime in the early ‘70s, the name “Jennifer” was definitely a phenomenon.
J.W.: It’s like, “Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks for that.”
B&M: Speaking of the soccer years, when did you first know you wanted, or needed, to write?
J.W.: I was in first grade and my teacher would give me extra paper—the lined, kind of pulpy and thin paper? It had two solid blue lines and the dotted blue line in the middle so you could practice your capital and lowercase letters. She would give me a big stack of paper and let me stay inside during recess and write stories. So, it was pretty early on: antisocial, loved to read, and loved to write.
B&M: She sounds like a dream teacher. Mine were always pushing me out the door to play.
J.W.: She was wonderful. So I knew early that this was what I wanted. I loved reading. I always had my nose in a book.
B&M: Where there any particular books you were drawn to when you were young?
J.W.: Oh, the Narnia and the Little House on the Prairie books and Shel Silverstein, and all the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drews … Anything with a good story, I would read. I loved From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s a story about kids who go to live in a museum. I was always so interested in the idea of living in a public place, having a secret life in a place that a million people go through every day, and don’t know you’re there. In [my book] In Her Shoes, there’s a character who lives in Firestone Library for a while.
B&M: So, making a career as a writer was sort of a foregone conclusion for you right out of the gate?
J.W.: I always knew this was what I wanted. And I quickly figured out that you couldn’t go out into the world and apply to be a novelist and have somebody hire you and pay you [while] you were writing. You needed to do something else to make money until you got going. Susan Isaacs, a writer I love, one of her early jobs was speechwriter for the mayor of New York. And I was like, “Well, that’s a way to get paid for writing.” It was always about figuring out how I could get paid for writing. Some days, I still can’t believe I get paid to do it.
B&M: In your memoir, Hungry Heart, you talk with great candor and humor about your life, including your years at Princeton University. What was your first impression when you arrived?
J.W.: Well, it was ivy-covered and gorgeous. But it was like a J.Crew ad: Everyone was pretty, even the boys. I just remember thinking, “Are they hiding the people with bad skin and bad hair … in a basement or something?” But I think the first impression I had is one that a lot of people have about Princeton: It looks like what you imagine when you think of college. Somehow it became the distilled essence of college. My mom and I went on a beautiful spring day, and everything was this vibrant green. It was beautiful. It reminded me of the town where I had grown up—in Simsbury, Connecticut—which was small and preppy and pretty.
B&M: Did you spend most of your time on campus?
J.W.: Princeton then wasn’t Princeton now. There wasn’t really much of a town center; there weren’t the stores and the restaurants there are now. There was Thomas Sweet, thank God, and some pizza places that delivered. I don’t think any of us had money to go to the nicer places. So it felt familiar, but the beauty was very impressive. Wait—what’s the big orchard in Princeton?
B&M: Terhune Orchards.
J.W.: Yes, Terhune! I worked at Terhune every fall because they would hire students for their big annual apple festival.
B&M: The apple cider donuts are amazing.
J.W.: I know.
B&M: So back to Princeton: You studied with some serious literary icons while you were here. Now, I’ve only glimpsed these people while waiting in line at Small World; but to walk into a room and see Joyce Carol Oates or Toni Morrison waiting for you? That must have been pretty heady.
J.W.: It was. I was in a seminar with Toni Morrison and eight other kids. And it took me a long time before I was able to say anything because I was just so busy pinching myself. I felt very lucky, very privileged, and just awestruck a lot of the time—and especially with the idea that these incredible luminaries would take a lot of time with us. Especially John McPhee.
B&M: You’ve spoken a lot about how McPhee influenced your writing process.
J.W.: He would go through those papers and mark them up so meticulously, so thoughtfully, and with such care. I was so lucky to have people like that. I think the biggest gift John McPhee gave me was, here’s this guy who writes for the New Yorker, and he would show us his first draft and how much he changed between the first draft and the second draft and the third draft and the fourth draft. It’s work; that really stuck with me.
B&M: But your time at school wasn’t all boxed wine and roses.
J.W.: The social life was a challenge because I’m not a party person. When I was there, it was all about Prospect Avenue, and the eating clubs. There weren’t a lot of social outlets. I think this has changed a lot since I was at Princeton. Every time I’d go [out], I would stand there and [think], “I’d be so much happier if I was back in my room in bed with a book.”
B&M: Staying home was probably why you were able to accomplish so much in your four years there—like becoming a driving force behind the movement to open up the all-male eating clubs to women.
J.W.: Yes, it was. When I was looking at colleges, I wanted to go to Smith because Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan went to Smith. These were the women, when I was in high school, that I idolized. I applied, and got in early and then I started thinking, “I could go to a place where everybody already thinks the way I do and already believes what I believe. Or I could go to a place where not everybody thinks like I do, and not everybody believes what I believe, and I can learn how to hone my arguments and my writing in an atmosphere where I’m going to get pushback.”
B&M: Well, my girlfriends who graduated from Princeton in the 1990s thank you.
J.W.: All those years after Princeton [started to] admit women, there were still parts of the Princeton experience that [were] walled off. It was startling to me. I was really, really happy I was able to be part of making that change a reality. I don’t know if I could have done that in an era where there was social media, because I would write pieces for the Nassau Weekly, and sometimes people would write responses or letters to the editor. I don’t know if I could have handled it if I’d published something and immediately gotten 500 tweets about how stupid and wrong I was.
B&M: You recently wrote a great essay in The New York Times about returning to Princeton for reunions.
J.W.: I worked reunions when I was an undergrad. If you hustled [and got] as many shifts as you could for the days leading up to it and then the couple days after, you could really get yourself a nice little financial cushion for the summer. I made bank. [laughs] But I think my whole career, it’s been this issue of I’m a very popular writer; but there’s this tension between what’s popular and what’s good. So that’s the tension in the place where I’m working—the general is the world and the specific is Princeton—because I always felt like perhaps this wasn’t the kind of work I was meant to be doing or should have been doing; that real writers are the people who win prizes and whose books get rapturous reviews in The New York Times and sell 10,000 copies.
B&M: So, how did your triumphant return to campus go?
J.W.: Everybody was really nice. I think lots of people go through life with questions about, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” and “Am I serving my purpose?” and “Am I doing good in the world?” So it’s nice to feel like you are, that even books that are there to entertain, that those stories still have something to say, and those messages and characters can resonate with readers.
B&M: Your latest book, Mrs. Everything, is coming out soon. And I’ve heard it’s a little bit different from your other novels.
J.W.: If you liked my other stuff, I think you will enjoy this book; but I also think it’s the next stage of my development as a writer. [It’s about] two Jewish young women, sisters, growing up in Detroit and the different paths their lives take through the 1960s, the ’70s, the ’80s, and into the present and beyond. I always knew I wanted to do a big, sprawling, historical book with all of the details and all of the … you know, where, if it’s the ’70s, you can feel the shag carpet under your feet and smell the incense. There was lots of looking at microfiche and old issues of magazines and newspapers.
B&M: Are the characters inspired by women in your “real” life?
J.W.: The sisters [are] somewhat based on my mom and her sister. The one based on my mother was easier because there was more familiarity; I sort of knew the contours of her life and the choices she had made. It was then just a question of filling in the blanks. The other sister was a little harder at first because my mom was sort of the family rebel, and her sister, my Aunt Marlene, was more the good girl. From the perspective of fiction, somebody who does all of the expected things for all of the expected reasons isn’t really giving you a lot to grab onto. When I was writing the book, it was sort of the dawn of the “Me Too” Movement, and that became my way in because I remember thinking, “How do you talk about a problem that you don’t have a language for?”
B&M: In one sense, it’s historical and, at the same time, very much a story for our times.
J.W.: Surely, the women who are coming forward to talk about these things are not the first women these things have ever happened to. Only now there are hashtags and words and movements and people talking about it at awards shows. So then I thought, “What if the ‘good girl’ and the sister who, as a young woman, looks like she has all the advantages and is going to have all of the happiness—what if something happens to her that sort of knocks her off her path? What would that look like? And what would be the way that it shapes her life going forward?”
B&M: What do you think is the greatest risk you’ve taken in your career?
J.W.: Writing for the Times, because I think for a lot of women’s-fiction writers, your readers know who you are, and that’s what they want you to be. They want you to be that person who is telling them stories about characters who feel very familiar and very relatable, and maybe worlds and situations and dilemmas that look familiar [to those in] their own lives. They want happy endings, or at least not unhappy endings. That’s where they want you to be. I think it was probably a risk to start writing regularly for the Times and saying, “I want to talk about politics. I want to talk about pop culture. I want to talk about capital-F feminism in a way that maybe my readers aren’t 100 percent familiar with.”
B&M: Have you gotten any flack?
J.W.: Not all of my readers think the way I think or believe the things I believe, which I forget sometimes. If all I wanted to do was sell books, I wouldn’t write opinion pieces. I would keep my opinions to myself, and my social media would just be lots of pictures of my dog and whatever I was cooking and funny stories about my kids. I might have grandkids someday [who] are going to ask me, “What did you do when this was going on in our country?” And I really do not want my answer to be, “I didn’t really say anything. I was trying to sell books.” I feel compelled to speak up.
B&M: So, after your tour for Mrs. Everything is over, what’s next?
J.W.: [Mrs. Everything] was lots of research, many years, lots of moving pieces. So I’m writing a much more lighthearted and compressed story, which is a mystery that takes place over a weekend. And I will be very, very happy to go back to work on that.
B&M: You don’t give yourself much of a break between books.
J.W.: No. I like writing. When I’m not writing, I feel sort of adrift.
B&M: If you could give your younger, just-out-of-Princeton self some advice, what would it be?
J.W.: I would say don’t be so god-damned impatient, because … you know what? It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not all supposed to fall into your lap. And if it does, you’ve probably just bought yourself some trouble down the road because there are definite drawbacks to too much too soon. Find your voice and believe in yourself. Be clear about what you want to be doing in the world. I think for the most part, I’ve done that. But I think that’s always good advice. That’s always good stuff to remember. —Jennifer P. Henderson (photographs by Jonathan Pushnik, Andrea Cipriani Mecchi; article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Spring/Summer 2019)