Jennifer Weiner’s chick lit career


Jennifer Weiner: There is a whole industry “devoted to getting you to change [your looks]. It’s one of the ways women continue to be oppressed.” Photo by Tamara Staples
Jennifer Weiner: There is a whole industry “devoted to getting you to change [your looks]. It’s one of the ways women continue to be oppressed.”
Photo by Tamara Staples
New York Times best-selling author Jennifer Weiner wasn’t funny during a recent telephone interview, and she never once asked me about my weight. Could the author of 12 very popular — pardon the phrase — chick lit books, not be the embodiment of the characters in her clearly autobiographical books?

Weiner, who leapt out of the literary gate with her first book, 2001’s Good in Bed, about a plus-sized woman’s right to love and be loved, and has enjoyed a — pardon me, again — huge following ever since, has a new novel out, Who Do You Love. She will appear at the D.C. Jewish Community Center on Aug. 12 as part of its Authors Out Loud series.

Now 45, this mother of two daughters and who confesses she’s addicted to the TV show, The Bachelorette, has made a career out of creating female characters who are bothered by their body image, fall in and out of love regularly and tend to be people the reader can relate to.

Each of her books includes numerous Jewish elements. Her various characters share a seder, attend a shiva, talk about a brit milah and a baby naming, have a Jewish mother and even drink Manischewitz wine.

“I am Jewish, and that’s what is familiar to me,” Weiner (pronounced “whiner”) said. “All my characters are outsiders. They are all looking at the world trying to make sense of it from their own perspective,” she said, adding, “That is Jewish, looking at things differently, a different perspective.”

Weiner, who studied English at Princeton, grew up in the Reform movement and attended Jewish summer camp. She is giving her daughters, Lucy, 12, and Phoebe, 7,  a more religious upbringing. “We are observant,” she said.

When she travels around the country promoting her books, she feels most comfortable speaking at Jewish community centers. “I feel like we all went to summer camp together. It feels natural,” she said.

Besides the Jewish aspect, there is always one character who hates her looks. She’s either overweight, pimply or generally not the model type.

That is not a coincidence, Weiner said. “I am definitely interested in critiquing that experience. What it’s like to be a larger woman in America, the way you are treated.”

There is a whole industry “devoted to getting you to change” your looks, she said. “It’s one of the ways women continue to be oppressed.”

When she prepares for a television interview, she fixes her hair and makeup and takes times to choose the right dress and matching shoes, keeping in mind what she has worn at previous interviews for fear of repeating the same outfit.

“A guy washes his face and puts on a nice tie,” she said. “What is that costing [women] in terms of time and money?”

She is acutely aware that her daughters are watching her get ready while at the same time she is telling them that it’s what’s inside that counts, she said.

It’s not only that women must look perfect. Weiner also believes male authors have a better chance than women of being reviewed in major newspapers.

“For years and years and years, they would not touch romance [novels], yet they are such a bigger seller with a huge audience,” said Weiner.

Science fiction books and popular, fast moving books by males are reviewed, including books by authors like Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown are frequently reviewed, she said. But when a woman writes a fast-moving beach book, or chick lit, they often don’t get the same consideration, she said.

This is slowly changing, in part because of Weiner’s comments.

“To me, it seems like a very clear double standard,” she said. “I just think with women there is this lazy equation, if it’s popular, then it’s crap.”

Weiner proudly admits, “I am OK with not writing literature. That is not the league I am playing in, and that is fine, but it does not mean what I am doing is worthless.”

That said, her newest book has a more serious tone than her others.

“Pretty much all of my books had romantic elements to them,” she said. Who Do You Love is “a straight love story.”

Two 8-year-olds meet in the hospital and spend the entire book entering and exiting each other’s lives. At times, they are great for each other, other times, not so much.

As in her other novels, Weiner is right on the mark with details, describing what buildings characters are passing, what they are wearing, exactly what they are eating.

She said she learned the importance of detail in her first career as a daily newspaper reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa. and the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky.

“I am grateful every day that I had that experience. I think there is so much you learn in being a reporter,” she said, listing off the abilities to meet deadlines, “be edited with grace” and notice details.

She writes in a closet in her home in Philadelphia. But we’re not talking a small, poorly lit room. We’re talking a “Carrie Bradshaw closet,” she said, referring to the main character of TV’s Sex and the City.

Once her daughters have left for school, Weiner exercises for about an hour, checks her emails and eats lunch. Then, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., she writes.

Whether she is writing about love, drug addiction, a politician’s sex scandal, infertility or just daily life, Weiner  wants her readers to become “invested in the characters” and that at the end, “hopefully, there is something there to think about.”

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