The Beatrice Interview

Jennifer Weiner

"The good news about a life in newspapers is that you learn to write pretty fast."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Jennifer Weiner is a graduate of Princeton's creative writing program, where she studied fiction under the guidance of Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. But the class that she cites as most important to her was John McPhee's course on the art of nonfiction narrative (a class she shared with novelist Akhil Sharma). "I graduated in 1991," she recalls, "and I'd won some prizes for my creative writing, and I think I was brimming with ambition and pretension in equal measure." As much as she dreamed of writing fiction fulltime, she knew that it was not a practical financial decision. McPhee steered her towards a soluton. "He suggested to me that I get a job with a newspaper in another part of the country, write every day, learn to work on deadline, listen to different kinds of people, experience a lot of different things, and then I'd find out if I was really a writer or not. So that was what I did."

She continued to her work on her fiction, and had short stories published in Seventeen and Redbook. She also spent a great deal of time on a novel-length project she first started in college. But it was only three years ago that she started her debut novel, Good in Bed, which introduces readers to the lovably smart, sarcastic Candace "Cannie" Shapiro. Cannie's a zaftig Philadelphia journalist in her late twenties who opens up a woman's magazine one day to find out that her ex-boyfriend's written a column about "loving a larger woman" filled with details about their relationship. It kicks off a crazy year's worth of personal upheaval with a cast that includes Cannie's family, her bitchy boss, a handsome doctor, and some movie stars. Now that the novel's out, Weiner says, "the feeling of walking into a bookstore and seeing a stack of your books is incredible. It's an incredible validation. All those things you wrote that ended up in shoeboxes, all those rejection letters from the Atlantic... I've gotten to be what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that's a wonderful feeling." (You can keep track of the bookstores she's walked into by reading the tour diary at her offical website.)

RH: What got you started on Good in Bed?

JW: The revenge book! (laughs) I got dumped in 1998. I'd been going out with this guy for a long time. I thought he was the one and he wasn't. It ended up being one of those passive-aggressive things where he was so awful to me that I ended up being the one to say, "OK, let's take a break here," and he found another girlfriend ten minutes later, demonstrating a speed and alacrity I rarely glimpsed during our years together.

So there I was, totally miserable and brokenhearted; I wanted him back and he wanted no part of me. I wanted to write something in the voice that I had in my head, the voice of this girl who'd been so hurt and brokenhearted. That voice became the bones of Good in Bed.

RH: Apart from that basic setup, how autobiographical is the novel?

JW: Cannie's voice is my voice, but nothing ever happened to me like what happens to her in the novel. I certainly never had a guy write about me- -thank God! That was about the worst thing I could imagine.

RH: Did you decide to just see where that voice took you, or did you have an idea about what the story was going to be?

JW: I started with the voice, and I had an idea that somehow she was going to get back with the guy, and it wasn't going to be good. Those were the things I knew going into it... I knew that she'd see the guy again. I didn't know she was going to get pregnant. I figured that out going on long walks, thinking about what was going to happen to Cannie. And I knew I wanted a happy ending, so it was largely a question of how I was going to get her there.

RH: You're very upfront about the way the book is inevitably going to be compared to Bridget Jones's Diary, because it's a novel about a young, single woman narrated in the first person. There's a great line where Cannie basically acknowledges the comparison and then moves on.

JW: I'm getting asked about Bridget everywhere I go; I don't think you can be a young female novelist in 2001 and not get asked about that. Your book is inevitably going to be compared to Bridget, only it's, say, more bitter, or you're the black Bridget, or the big Bridget, which I've gotten a few times.

The character of Cannie is a journalist, somebody who's been dealing with words her whole life. She hates cliches, and she hates the notion that she is one. So I liked giving her that moment where she could say, yeah, it's just like Ally McBeal, just like Bridget Jones, so I could get it out of the way and tell the story I wanted to tell.

RH: So you're writing the novel around your day job. How does that work out?

JW: Well, I'd go in to the Inquirer and write my column, or do some reporting on a story, or write about Survivor; it feels like I spent all my time writing about Survivor for a while. Then I'd go to the gym, go home, have dinner, and then sit at the computer. I'd try to spend an hour most nights. Thursdays I usually didn't write because I'd be watching my TV shows, and then I'd try to spend a long stretch on Saturday or Sunday and work stuff out.

The good news about a life in newspapers is that you learn to write pretty fast. Even when newspaper people write fiction, I don't think we sit there and go, "Oh, what's the exact turn of phrase to use here?" or "I can't write today! My muse has not spoken!" You don't have those luxuries at the newspaper, and unless you're really pretentious, you don't give them to yourself in your fiction.

RH: What's the reaction like among your colleagues?

JW: After they got through trying to figure out who Gabby was... (laughs) they've been pretty good about it. If you were a kindergarten teacher who'd written a novel, everybody would be thrilled for you, because it'd be such a wonderful thing and not something every kindergarten teacher aspires to. But a journalist can wander into some different reactions, because a lot of journalists want to be novelists. So in addition to the good wishes, you get a lot of questions about who's your agent, how did this happen, when did you do this? Maybe a couple people that are not nice about it. But for the most part, I have wonderful coworkers who've been great and who are really happy for me.

RH: Cannie ends up selling her script to Hollywood. Have you heard anything from the studios?

JW: Oh, my goodness! That's a long, sad story, I'm afraid. When the book was being, there were a couple publishing houses interested in it. There was a lot of buzz, as my agent would say. So I started getting calls from Hollywood people. At first they only heard the bare bones of the story, and they were all excited, but then they actually read the book, so they became less excited. They'd call and say, "The size of the heroine is a problem for us." Evidently, Hollywood believes that real people don't want to go to the movies and see people who look like them.

One agent called me to tell me how much she loved the book, how much it spoke to her, but that she didn't think any actress would be willing to gain weight to play the part of Cannie. But they're doing wonderful things with digital effects these days, she said. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry; I think I did both. And I kept looking for a film agent. I ended up with a guy who specializes in "difficult" material. He's Dorothy Allison's film agent, for example.

RH: I can just imagine them saying, "If only you'd written the part for somebody ten years older, we could cast Camryn Manheim..."

JW: Right. Apparently she's the only large woman in all of Hollywood. Don't get me wrong, I love her, I think she's spectacular. But it's so frustrating to hear that she's the only name anybody can think of for the part. It's like if Angela Bassett were the only black actress in Hollywood, and I was a young black woman who'd written a book with a protagonist too young for her to play.

I truly believe that while they're telling me there's nobody big enough to play Cannie, they're telling young actresses to lose weight because there aren't any parts for them. I just feel very strongly that somewhere between those two extremes, there must be some intersection where I'll be able to find my Cannie.

RH: Bridget Jones keeps moaning about her weight, but when you see Renee Zwelleger in the film...well, my reaction was, "She's not so big."

JW: Right, she's normal. But because our culture is what it is, even women who are normal-sized feel like elephants; the message is that you're never thin enough, never pretty enough, never good enough.

RH: One of my favorite scenes is the nurse's attempt to lecture the women in the weight-loss program about calories, a speech they've all heard before.

JW: Right, portion control, blah blah blah. Any woman who's been on a diet, which is basically any woman at all, knows this stuff. It's not like they're teaching rocket science. Weight loss is an incredibly difficult thing to do and incredibly difficult to maintain, and I think it's aggravating to a lot of people that doctors will tell them to go on a diet, when they know that diets don't work for 95% of the people who go on them. If you had cancer, they wouldn't tell you to do something that hasn't worked for 95% of the people, but that's what they do with people trying to lose weight, because they haven't been able to figure out anything better. I'll get off my soapbox now.

RH: Part of your motivation was to run with the voice that was in your head after getting dumped. Was there any degree of wish fulfillment in shaping the storyline?

JW: There's so many things that I wish I had said that I got to put in the book. And there's a bit of wish fulfillment, too. I've gotten taken to task for it by some reviewers, who say, oh, this could never happen, reacting to the part of the story where Cannie sells her screenplay, gets lots of money, makes famous friends... When I sold the book, it was a hundred times more amazing than what I had imagined happening to Cannie. It really is like that for those couple days. You're the star of the universe, you've done this fabulous thing and everybody wants to be near you.

I gave Cannie my "three in the morning" voice, the things that I think of at three in the morning that I wish I had said to people a week ago, and now it's way too late to do anything about it. The scene where Cannie finally confronts Bruce and says, "You're never going to finish your dissertation and you're always going to live in New Jersey..." I was particularly proud of that one, even though it wouldn't have been that spot on for the inspiration behind Bruce.

RH: He's probably cringing these days...

JW: I don't know what he's doing. We don't talk. We didn't have a nice, cordial breakup. You can have the breakup where you wish only the best for him, or the one where you wish his limbs would fall off and his skin would blister... So I have no idea what he's thinking, and since I got all the friends when we split, nobody's really talking to him, so we just don't know.

I should also say that my ex may be the inspiration for Bruce, but the character is a lot worse, a lot drippier, than he ever was. For the purposes of fiction, I had to exaggerate every awful thing and then give him some extra flaws, too. It's not a real person anymore, as Simon and Schuster's lawyers will be glad to hear me say.

RH: What were some of the hardest parts of the book for you to write?

JW: It was too long. I think I had "first novel disease," where you try to put everything you've ever thought of, every funny line and quirky observation, in there, and I had to cut about a hundred pages out of the manuscript. But working in newspapers makes you a bit more dispassionate about that--if you find out that it's too long and you have to cut it, then that's what you do.

The stuff about the father was hard. Even though circumstances with my father are very different, the way it felt was very much the same, so it was painful to revisit some of those feelings, and I wound up having to write those scenes somewhere else. I didn't want to be home when I wrote them.

RH: Out of the stuff you had to cut, was there anything you especially miss?

JW: The fantasy stripper scene in Vegas. (pause) OK, I'm kidding, there wasn't a fantasy stripper scene. But there had been more going on between Cannie and Adrian, the movie star she meets in Hollywood, in earlier drafts. It was just a little implausible, given that she was already pregnant, and the story was getting long, plus how many wonderful things could happen to Cannie in two weeks?

But I think Adrian's going to come back. A lot of characters from Good in Bed will probably show up in the book I'm writing now. It's not a direct sequel, because Cannie's happy at the end, which is great for her but bad for me. Happy people don't want to do anything, they just want to sit there being happy and you can't really write about them anymore. But the book takes place in the same fictive Philadelphia, and we get to find out what's happened to some of those characters.

RH: Who are some of your favorite writers?

JW: I love Susan Isaacs. I love John Irving, Peter Straub, Stephen King, Nicholas Christopher, and Wally Lamb. I'm reading the new Rosellen Brown right now, Half a Heart. Francine Prose is amazing. I like Andrew Vachss a lot; it's not the kind of writing I could do, but he's great at it.

RH: So after years of being the interviewer, what's it like to be facing the questions now?

JW: It is terrifying, and I think every journalist should have to go through it. You feel like you're putting your life into somebody else's hands. I cringe at some of the mean things I've said about other people's books now, and I want to find the people who reviewed my book and shake them, tell them, "You didn't read it right? Why are you being so mean to me? What did I ever do to you?" But at the end of the day, it's the price of being published, and I wouldn't trade being published for anything.

RH: And you've gotten your own happy ending, too.

JW: I got the guy! (chuckles) I wanted to give the book a happy ending because I genuinely didn't know if I'd ever had one. I broke up with that guy, then I dated somebody else and that wasn't working out, for different but equally vexing reasons. I met Adam after I finished the book. He was the first person to read the whole thing, and I remember him calling me at work or emailing me to tell me how much he loved it, and I'd always ask him what page he was on, so I'd be able to know exactly what page he was at when he decided I was too much of a freak to ever see me again. But he stuck with it, and we're getting married in October. I didn't have enough going on this year with the book tour and buying a house, so now I'm planning a wedding, too.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Anna Maxted | Complete Interview Index | Emma Forrest

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan