October 2004

Gena Anderson

features

An Interview with Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner’s books are a welcome change to many readers -- they feature women who are plus-sized and proud of it. Her first book, Good in Bed, made the New York Times’s bestseller list and was optioned for a possible television series by HBO. Her second book, In Her Shoes, is being made into a movie starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette (out in April 2005). Weiner’s third book, Little Earthquakes, just came out in September, and follows a group of friends all experiencing motherhood for the first time, something she knows a lot about. She is currently working on her fourth book, which she says is “a murder mystery/social satire set in the suburbs about a mother of triplets who solves a crime while her kids are in nursery school." I met Weiner (and her one-year-old, Lucy) during her latest book tour and we sat down to talk about motherhood, body image, and indulge in a little celebrity gossip.

I thought it was interesting how in your first book, Good in Bed, your main character was pregnant, and your latest book, Little Earthquakes, is about pregnancy, too. Was there a difference writing about pregnancy before and after you were actually pregnant yourself?

Here’s the thing, I wrote my college thesis about images of women and maternity, so I’ve always been interested in pregnancy and motherhood and how society constructs the definition of what is a good mother, which changes, and yeah, I mean I look back at Good in Bed and it’s like, why didn’t I have Cannie (the main character) having a really hard time finding maternity clothes, because I could not find a goddamn thing. It’s like it doesn’t even exist. You know, there were things I wish I’d known, some of them gross physical things that maybe I wouldn’t have put in the book anyhow. You know, I actually did a lot of research for Good In Bed, I talked to all of my friends who’d had babies -- what is it like and how does it feel. Boy, it’s funny, and the book I’m working on now, the woman already has children, so I don’t have to go through writing the pregnancy part of it. I’m feeling like I’m done with that. You know, it’s always something that I’ve been interested in, I guess what it means to be a woman in the world, if that doesn’t sound really pretentious. Motherhood is such a flashpoint, like when you become a mother, all of these expectations come into play. Now with the rise of the celebrity mother, which if I was in college now, I’d be doing my thesis on that.

That’s funny, because you were in Entertainment Weekly when Gwyneth Paltrow was on the cover, talking about how wonderful it was to be a mother -- and your newest book how you write about what a false image that can be.

Yeah, me and Gwynnie. These celebrities, I know they’re just people trying to live their lives, but I think they’re doing most mothers a tremendous disservice, you know, the whole “blah blah, I’ve never been so fulfilled in my entire life, and I never want to work again." I think if you internalize that message, you can start feeling really bad about yourself. It’s like, yeah, I’m happy, but I miss work -- I miss the freedom and I miss my life. It feels like we’re in a really punitive cycle right now where the idea is that motherhood equals bliss, and if you say that it doesn’t, then shame on you and why did you have a kid in the first place.

Or even if you say you don’t want to have children, its like you’re almost not quite a woman.

Yes, and I’ve had friends who have made a very cautious choice -- that wasn’t what they wanted. I think that there’s a lot of skepticism and cynicism and there’s something wrong with you about that.

Or if you can’t have children.

I think another part of the whole thing was the infertility scare a couple of years ago. Newsweek and Time both had cover stories like: “Women in Your Thirties: If You Don’t Have Kids Now, You’re Going to Die Alone!” Like it means your body won’t work right, and so what if Madonna is having them at forty, it doesn’t mean you can.

Or there will be something wrong with your kids if you have them when you’re older.

Exactly! First of all, that’s how I got pregnant. The Newsweek literally came in the mail, and I read it, and one of the women they used to illustrate older mothers was my college roommate, and I was just like, “Shit!” I called my husband like “Can you come home for lunch right now?” Ten months later… that was Lucy. I think it was like this baby fever, you would read these horribly sad stories about “reproductively challenged” couples or whatever the hell we’re supposed to call them, trying desperately to get pregnant, and there was all this talk about pregnant, pregnant, pregnant, baby, baby, baby, and nobody was talking about what it’s like and how it really changes your life. The reality is not quite as lovely at all as say, Oprah, makes it out to be.

It’s amazing how much society tells you not only how to look, but how to act as a woman. Your books definitely go against how society wants women to look a certain way, which is why I love them because obviously (being overweight), I don’t quite fit into the mold, like so many people.

Well, there are more of us then there are of them. I think the Communist reading of it would be that there’s a lot of profit to be made by making women unhappy. The more unhappy we are, the more money we’ll spend. It's all about the profit -- if you say “I’m not buying this mentality, I’m not spending my money on it"-- think of all the good we could be doing with our time and our money.

Theoretically.

Theoretically, yeah. I mean, listen, I’m reading my US magazine like everybody else, you know “Cameron and Justin, Back Together! Will They Ever Get Married?”

I doubt it!

Yeah! Me either, though, you never know -- Brittney got “married.”

Yeah -- married with airquotes. It’s almost as entertaining as reading fiction because it’s so unreal, not anything like your life, yet you still get into it somehow.

I read this essay by Janice Minn who I think is the editor of US, and she talks about why we are all so obsessed with celebrities, and she says it’s like a “global neighborhood” and you see the wild girl whose hanging out with the wrong boy, or the housewife who has let herself go, and that’s like Kristie Alley or something. That’s why we all talk about them, because it’s a common language, and it’s not catty and bad, so we shouldn’t feel terrible, so I won’t!

I went to this reading for a book called The Mommy Myth and one of the authors, Susan Douglas, talked about how she got the idea for the book at the supermarket one day when she saw all the magazine covers with celebrity moms talking about how fulfilled they were and how everything was perfect.

It’s just the idea that baby equals bliss, that you want to be with that baby every second of the day. I’m sorry, but there’s a line in Little Earthquakes where Becky (one of the new mothers) talks about being paroled.

You also parody parenting books in Little Earthquakes -- one of the mothers has a book called Baby Success! Did you read books like that?

I read every book like that! Let me tell ya -- they wanted to tell you exactly what you needed to do. There’s a reason why the initials of Baby Success are B.S.! I read all these books like that -- like the Baby Whisperer. There was even one part that had “Interpreting your baby’s expressions and gestures," like for a newborn. If she does this, it means she might be hungry, or if she waves her hands in the air, it means she might be wet. But every single one of them, it was like: Or, she might have gas. So all I really got from the Baby Whisperer was that I have a really gassy baby, which I knew. And my mother was laughing at my husband and I because we were looking at this book and looking at Lucy. My mom was like, “You guys are nuts!”

Isn’t there a book out there that says you should always be holding your baby -- you should always have physical contact?

Yes -- I read that book, and I had my baby sling, and I almost dropped her in the dishwasher when I was emptying out the dishes. Yeah, you can have your baby attached to you 24/7 as long as you have someone else doing all of the cooking and cleaning -- if you just sit there. Women hold themselves up to ridiculously high standards, it’s true of every aspect of our lives, but it’s really there when we become mothers. We see the celebrities and we read all the books and I think more and more -- well, statistically women are having children later in life, so you feel like by the time you have this baby you should know how to be a parent, and if you’re ready, and if this is what you want. And then, God help you if you’re not happy! You can’t talk about being tired, or you can’t talk about feeling isolated, or you can’t talk about missing your job and talking to other grownups about something other than what my kid ate last night. Like those human transactions -- like water cooler conversations. I can’t talk to my kid about what happened on Survivor because A, it’s past her bedtime and B, she doesn’t talk.

My mom said once that the hardest thing about staying home with us kids was not being able to talk to another adult for the whole day. She would wait for my dad to come home just so she could have a conversation.

I know! I remember one of my friends, before I had Lucy and when I was still working as a reporter, I had this friend and he and his wife have a baby and he would talk about, you know, “I walk through the door, and my wife wants to talk about what I did and who I saw and what I had for lunch, and I’m just tired.” And I was like, I don’t want that -- I don’t want to be that! Then I had my baby, and when Adam comes through the door the first thing I do is give him the baby, and I ask him “what did you do, where did you go, what did you eat?” Even though I have a group of friends, we all had our babies within three weeks of each other, I can talk to them, and even with that I am desperate to have a non-mommy conversation! He’ll tell me the news, because days go by and I don’t even know what’s going on.

So, did that help, writing your book about a group of friends all having a baby at the same time, and having that actually happen in your own life?

It definitely helped. Having friends who were going through the same thing in their own lives, and having friends who would talk really honestly about how we were feeling. You have this idea, at least I had this idea and it was probably a very stupid idea, that it would all come naturally. They would hand you the baby, and your heart would brim with love, and you would naturally transform into this mother, this warm, loving person. There was none of that for me. And then I couldn’t breastfeed, so it was like a week and a half of hell, not to be too graphic or horrible, but my milk didn’t come in, and I had to have a c-section after twenty-seven hours of labor, so it was like no milk. So I’m trying to breastfeed her and she won’t latch on and she’s screaming and screaming. Overachiever that I am, I call every lactation consultant in the greater Philadelphia area and they are all telling me different things. Including the one who said “Have you ever had your testosterone checked?” I’m like “I just had a baby, so I think that’s okay.” And then there was the one who said, “If you had a c-section it could be that your doctor has left some placenta still inside of you.” Ouch! Then the one who goes “Well, sometimes a baby and a mother just aren’t a good fit.” And I think I cried a lot after that one.

Because, then you’re a failure.

Exactly! Because the way motherhood is now. If you don’t breastfeed, or if you at least don’t try very hard to breastfeed, you feel guilty.

There are even breastfeeding commercials out there now.

I know! And it’s not really that easy. I had to pump every two hours. It was the most brutal thing I think I’ve ever been through, and it was completely unexpected because you figure it will come naturally. That you’ll be just as happy as Courtney Cox-Arquette. All of us were having some sort of trouble, and that was really good for me to know. Breastfeeding is great, but I’m in favor of whatever works for a mom. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it! That’s one thing I think motherhood has really taught me, I think I’m a lot less judgmental than I used to be.

I guess I’m not helping at all on the adult conversation front -- all we’ve really talked about so far is babies and things like that!

No, no, not a problem! What else do you want to ask me?

Well, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend in books since yours came out -- more books with fat chicks. It’s like -- fat chicks can read! And they want to read about someone like themselves! So now, we’re like this consumer force and there are more books with heavier female characters.

I know, they’re copying me! And you know there are skinny chicks writing them! Just from some of the descriptions and details. My agent and I talk about it a lot. It’s like, do I want to be outraged or do I want to be flattered? I choose to be flattered.

Well, it’s nice for fat chicks to not be so invisible in the literary community. We can still be invisible in movies and on television, but maybe that will change too. I think some television shows are starting to have women of normal sizes shown. Not so much the networks, though.

Well, networks have to answer to their advertisers. I mean, advertisers, if they’re trying to sell makeup, or Bally’s total fitness, or Slimfast or whatever, I think that the idea that there could be a normal sized woman who wasn’t the butt of the joke or desperately unhappy doesn’t suit your advertising goals. I think that it’s going to change, I think that the idea that real-sized women are in the world and we’re consumers and we have jobs and we have money, that’s the things that are going to change the networks. I remember when Good in Bed was first published, going to Hollywood with it and hearing over and over again that we love the character, we love the voice, we love the humor, but we cannot make this into a movie because there is no actress to play it, and no actress would ever gain weight for a role. Well, now that’s starting to happen -- like Renee Zellweger (in Bridget Jones’ Diary), okay it’s only like twelve pounds, but that’s something. Toni Collette gained quite a bit of weight to play Rose in In Her Shoes. It’s ridiculous, because men do it all of the time! When men do it, it’s the choice of the actor, like Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, but if you’re a woman it’s like you let yourself go.

Or, you can get the motherly type roles. You can either play the mother or the funny fat best friend.

But I do think the world is going to change, and I hope that my books are a part of that too, especially seeing them optioned by Hollywood-- I think is a very promising thing.

My sister Molly actually wanted me to ask you a question...

My sister is Molly! Jenny and Molly -- and Gena and Molly!

She wanted me to make sure to ask you why your character, like in Good in Bed, thought she was fat when she was only a size fourteen, or whatever. I mean, there are a lot of us out there bigger than that…

I know, I know! Well Becky’s a little more than that, in Little Earthquakes. If there’s one thing that I regret about that, one thing I could change, it would be putting a size on her. I remember when I read She’s Come Undone (by Wally Lamb) and they mention the weight of the main character. Here I am seeing that number and thinking, she thinks she’s a big fat cow but I’m that size too. So, I’m regretting classifying it.

Plus, in that book she loses all the weight and then her life is better. It’s like reading Jemima J (by Jane Green) where the main character loses all her weight and finally gets a boyfriend.

I know! I mean, I don’t want to harsh out other authors, so I won’t say anything.

Okay, but as a reader, I think that’s disappointing.

That’s why, in Good in Bed I had Cannie lose weight at one point; I wanted to really explode that expectation. Because in every book it’s like, all this good stuff can happen but only after she gets thin. And as a reader, and as somebody who’s not that thin, that drove me crazy. It’s like, Why? I know lots of women, big, little, everywhere in between, none of us really looking like Jennifer Aniston. We have great jobs, we meet great guys, we go on trips, we go shopping, we go to parties, we have fun. It’s not like we’re sitting in our flat eating bacon sandwiches while our roommates are mean to us. So I wanted to sort of have her get thin and have her be really miserable when she was thin and have her happiness coincide with her getting back into her normal body.

What I like about your books also, is that the woman is just not looking for a man, she is looking for her own happiness.

That’s a point I like to make too, the idea that you have to own your own happiness, which no one can come and give it to you, no man rides up and kisses you and Oh! You’re happy! You just have to sort of get there on your own. It’s not always a smooth journey, and it’s not always what you’ve expected or what your mother tells you to expect, or what the world tells you to expect. It doesn’t always look the way you think it will look, but you can get there on your own.

I think every woman can identify with your book because a lot of us are not happy with ourselves no matter what size we are.

Which is a shame! I meet these women that come up to me and they’re like “This is my story!” I look at them, and to me they’re like these perfect things, and I’m like, how is this your story? But, you’re right, there’s so much insecurity out there and I’m glad my books are helping people feel not alone, because you don’t ever see larger women in the world presented as anything other than miserable and desperately trying to change or as the funny girl. The world is changing, but it’s changing slowly. And I just hope that by the time my daughter is the age that I was when I started looking around and thinking, “I don’t look like this;" I hope there are other kinds of women that she’s looking at.