In this February 2006 Writer’s Digest interview by Maria Schneider, novelist Jennifer Weiner shares how she creates humor in her novels and what it was like having her book turned into a blockbuster film.
Numbers don’t lie. With more than 5 million books sold, novelist Jennifer Weiner knows all about building and keeping a fan base.
It starts with the writing, of course. Weiner’s bestsellers Good in Bed, In Her Shoes (which was adapted into the big-budget Cameron Diaz movie last fall) and Little Earthquakes resonate with readers thanks to engaging, real-world protagonists (who don’t actually look like Diaz) and Weiner’s charming, often hilarious writing style.
But Weiner has fed her popularity by being accessible—truly accessible—to her readers through a chatty Web log that’s intimate without being too revealing. It’s a great bit of marketing that Weiner happens to enjoy, even though she occasionally wishes to hide from it all. With her latest book, Goodnight Nobody, she branches a little further out on the chick-lit tree with a mystery story featuring a suburbanite protagonist. We talked to Weiner fresh on the heels of In Her Shoes’ theatrical debut to discuss what women (readers) want and how to navigate the contemporary book-buying world.
[Read more about the genre label “chick lit” here.]
The movie based on your second novel, In Her Shoes, got a lot of publicity. Do you find yourself getting more attention because of the movie?
I don’t want more attention—I want to be left alone. But authors and books are in a crowded marketplace where there are a lot of things competing for people’s attention, and I recognize the value of doing publicity and photoshoots and going to premieres. You have to work hard to make sure that people know your books are there. It’s part of the job. Even very successful books that are No.1 on The New York Times bestseller list are seen by fewer people than a movie is in the one night of its premiere.
But I’m so much happier with the unglamorous part of being a writer. It’s my dream job. I don’t have to get dressed up and I can sit in a coffee shop with my laptop and make stuff up.
You do a lot of blogging. Why?
I enjoy it, first and foremost. I think it’s a good way of staying connected with my readers between books, and it gives them a taste of the voice of my novels and something to tide them over between books. A year feels like nothing when you’re writing a book, but when you’re a reader, it’s a very long time. I blog a couple times a week, but it’ll be more now that there’s a lot coming up. I’m going to go to the Toronto Film Festival and will take pictures with Cameron Diaz, my BFF (“best friend forever”—even though she doesn’t know that she is). It gives my readers a look at what’s going on. Not that I show them everything. My husband’s a corporate litigator, and he wouldn’t be thrilled to see the story of our marriage on my Web log. I’m careful about my husband’s privacy, and I’m careful about my daughter’s privacy. But when there’s funny stuff happening, I like to have a place to tell the story.
The characters in your novels seem to pattern whatever stage of life you’re in—dating, single woman, married with kids.
Goodnight Nobody is a pretty significant departure. My first three books all did have elements of autobiography. But with this book, I wanted to try something new, a mystery, and I wanted a different setting, the suburbs. And I think all of my books have an element of: What’s the worst thing I could think of? When my daughter was 8 weeks old, the worst thing I could think of was that I’d have another kid that minute.
So you throw that problem at your character?
Yes, and see how she solves it.
And living in the suburbs in Connecticut is the worst thing you could think of?
No, but it probably makes the list [laughs]. It’s Kate’s sense of dislocation, her fish-out-of-water-ness—that’s the worst of it. Plus, being overwhelmed by her children. I think I’m very lucky because I have some balance. I spend part of my day as a mom and part of my day as a writer, and it works really well for me. I think I’d really struggle if I were home with kids 24/7, so I wanted to give Kate that struggle.
Pre-order Jennifer Weiner’s next book, Big Summer, out in May 2020.
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So Goodnight Nobody is your foray into mystery writing. What made you want to write a mystery?
I’ve always been a fan of Susan Isaacs’ work. She writes mysteries about mothers in the suburbs solving crimes and coming to terms with their lives. I wanted to do that kind of story.
You were a feature writer and columnist before you were writing novels. How did your journalistic training prepare you for fiction writing?
Journalism is wonderful training for fiction. It helps you get ready, and helps you observe and listen carefully to people and pay attention to human dynamics. It also makes you very comfortable with deadlines, where you don’t whine and cringe and say, “Oh, my muse hasn’t spoken to me yet.” That doesn’t go over so well in the newsroom.
You wrote a Generation X lifestyle column. Did that help you develop your voice?
I was always a reader and a writer and think I’ve always kind of sounded this way. My mom just moved, and she gave me all of my old report cards, and there was one that said: “Jenny has a very mature sense of humor.”
Writing does feel very natural to me. I think if I were trying to write … oh, let’s see, who are we nominating as the writer of beautiful sentences today? Some fancy-schmancy writer. I tend not to read those kinds of books, and I don’t want to write them. I can admire them and think, Boy, isn’t she smart, but I think that the voice of my books is very conversational—that’s what I like, and that’s what I do.
What can you tell me about the process of watching In Her Shoes develop into a movie?
I’m about the luckiest writer I’ve ever even heard of. It’s been amazing. I said in the beginning that I wasn’t going to be one of those writers who can’t let go of her project and try to micromanage and tell other people how to do their jobs. I was confident that the producers were really great, smart women who completely understood. They hired Susan Grant to do the screenplay; she’d written Erin Brockovich, so I’m thinking, I can’t be in better hands than this. I’m just going to let it go. I figured, if it’s a great movie then that’s great, but if it’s not a great movie, my book is still my book.
It’s a great movie, though. I’m so happy with it. I just know this isn’t the common story in Hollywood, where a lot of things go out there and never get optioned, a lot of things get optioned and never get made, a lot of things get made and wind up not resembling the book. I’m thrilled that this got optioned, and made, and it’s a faithful retelling. I think people are going to laugh and cry and maybe think about the world differently when they see it.
Part of what makes your books so successful is your sense of humor. Can you distill your process for writing funny?
What’s the old saying? Tragedy is when you slip on a banana peel and humor is when somebody else slips on a banana peel. Humor has roots in real life plus time. Think of something that happened, and then think of what could’ve happened, then think what’s the worst thing that could have happened.
There’s a scene in Goodnight Nobody where Kate’s throwing her first big party in the suburbs, and her mother, who’s this opera star, comes to the party. I’m thinking, The mother’s going to embarrass her somehow. Then I think, The mother is going to sing, and that would be natural, because the mother’s a diva and wants to do a performance and, of course, it’s not just going to be a little thing—it’s got to be a big thing. How do I take this to the next level?
Kate has this crazy best friend, Janie, who brings Ecstasy to the party, because Janie is convinced that the party in the suburbs is going to be boring, and she needs something to liven it up. So you’ve got all of the elements: This crazy best friend, the diva mother and Kate, who wants to throw this party to impress her neighbors. And then it’s just a question of how to combine all of the elements for maximum chaos. We have Janie putting Ecstasy in the champagne glass of this guy she’s trying to find out about, and the mother drinking the champagne and then starting to fondle this man’s lapel and telling him about how he reminds her of a tenor she knew in Barcelona. Then she launches into song, and Kate is just dying and has to explain to her husband what’s going on. It’s a series of worst-case scenarios. She suffers, and her suffering is where we laugh, because it’s funny and it’s not happening to us.
If you want to write humor, make sure you have characters who lend themselves to the situation and sit back and consider your possibilities; consider the elements and how you’re going to put them together.
Tell me about your first sale.
When I was trying to get an agent for my first book, I sent out 25 query letters and got 24 rejections. Every published author goes through this. I finally found my agent through a friend of a friend.
It’s hard, and I hope that people who’ve met with nothing but rejection will read this and see that I’ve had plenty of rejection. In fact, every published writer I know has; it’s what you have to go through.
My first agent was full of bad advice. But she was the only agent who was interested in representing me. It took a while—I kept telling myself, This isn’t a good fit; I don’t think this is right for my book. And then I found my current agent, Joanna Pulcini.
You recorded the audio version of Little Earthquakes yourself. What’s that like, and is it something you’d recommend other writers do?
I really enjoyed doing the recording. But the problem was that the book has four different narrators, and they all sounded different in my head. When it came out of my mouth—not different. And some of the reviewers made that point.
I know a lot of people who buy audiobooks just want to hear the authors, and they’d rather not have an actress reading it. From my perspective, I’d rather have a professional do it—somebody who can do the different voices and characters. So I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again. I think it depends on what I hear from people. They hired an actress for Goodnight Nobody, and that worked for me.
What’s your writing process? And how do you balance writing with motherhood?
It’s a one-sentence answer. I have a nanny. She works from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and that’s when I write.
Do you write at home then?
I go to a coffee shop down the street to write. I started doing that even before my daughter was born, because there’s a lot of good daytime television, and I can’t resist the lure of back-to-back “A Wedding Story” on The Learning Channel, so I have to leave.
What are you writing now?
I’m taking a break. I went down to the wire with Little Earthquakes, and I’m just writing my blog now. I do have an idea for my next book—it’s about a friendship that goes off the rails. A friendship between women from when they’re young, and they come back into each other’s lives in this amusing and tragic way.
Any advice for other busy mom/writers?
Beg, borrow, or steal—get yourself some childcare. It’s funny, because I know that there are writers who talk about writing with kids, and they say they got up at 4 a.m. and wrote until the kids got out of bed. OK, that’s not happening for me. And then there are writers who say: My work those years was to be a mother, and I didn’t write anything at all. That, I think, would leave me feeling restless, because there’s a part of me that really craves that creativity and time to just sit with my laptop and make things up.
So if you’re a mom, get yourself some help and some time. I’m incredibly lucky that I can afford a good nanny. But you could also set up a baby-sitting co-op with a friend who wants to do something for herself. Or get some time from your spouse or partner. Time is such an important thing, and it’s elusive.
Maria Schneider was an associate editor of Writer’s Digest.
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