Interview: Jennifer Weiner
We meet author Jennifer Weiner, whose themes include sex, Jewishness … and her gay mum
Jennifer Weiner: “When I wrote Good in Bed I didn’t have kids. If I had I would have called it Don’t Read This Book , Lucy. Ever”
She may hate the term “chick-lit” but Jennifer Weiner — one of the best-selling novelists of the genre — certainly understands its power. Weiner, the author of Goodnight Nobody and In Her Shoes — which was adapted into a hit movie — feels strongly that a book should not be dismissed just because its heroine’s aim is to fall in love and have a family. But the Philadelphia writer, who has nine million of her books in print in 36 countries, says that she has become more pragmatic about the term.
“I do see those labels as marketing tools,” she admits. “On the one hand it’s easy to say that it’s chick-lit — it’s light and it’s fun and there’s shopping and there’s boys. I can see its use as a marketing term; I was a journalist for enough years to understand the value and power of being able to describe something succinctly in a way that lets people know what they’re getting. But of course as an artist you struggle with those labels and you want your work to be regarded on its own terms.
“I have to defer to my publishers because they are the ones who pay for the books and they’re the ones who have to try to earn their money back. So if they believe that a certain cover is going to attract readers it’s very hard for me to get on my artistic high horse and say, ‘That’s not respecting the integrity of my text.’ They’ve got to make their money and I get that. I also know that my readers know what they’re getting from my books at this point. I try to be pragmatic about it.”
After being an author for nine years, she has finally come to terms with “chick-lit”, but how would Weiner, 38, who grew up as one of four children in a conservative Jewish family in Connecticut, deal with the phrase “Jew-prose”? She is a mainstream author, but her books often involve characters who are overtly Jewish. Her latest novel, Certain Girls, the sequel to her debut, Good In Bed, describes the lives of a mother, Cannie Shapiro, and her daughter, Joy, during the stressful lead-up to the latter’s batmitzvah. As well as the unsurprising descriptions of shopping trips and invitations and party themes, the book casually explains how Joy has to learn a portion and make a d’var Torah. It talks about the synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom, Hebrew school and how Cannie’s mother met her lesbian girlfriend in the hot tub at the Jewish Community Centre.
But this is America, where references to Judaism are more commonplace in popular culture. “I think that either a lot of my readers are Jewish or live in cities where they know a lot of Jewish people,” reflects Weiner. “And I think a lot of them are just curious too.
“In America, Certain Girls came out right around the time of Jhumpa Lahiri’s book Unaccustomed Earth and there was a lot in there about Indian traditions in America — the ceremony where when a baby’s six months old you put it in front of a dish of rice and a dollar bill and you see which it crawls to and that will tell you what the kid’s going to be like.
“I didn’t know anything about that. I was fascinated by it. I think for a lot of my readers the Jewish content is like that.”
Weiner, who had a traditional Jewish upbringing which included Jewish pre-school, Sunday Hebrew classes, batmitzvah and trips to Israel, did have to check with her advisers to make sure that readers would understand the references.
“My editor in New York is Jewish, but my agent isn’t,” she says. “She’s my litmus test. If she doesn’t know what I’m talking about I know that I need to throw in a sentence explaining what a Seder is. I don’t ever want to over-explain so that someone feels like they’re sitting through a lesson.”
In any case, the story does not revolve around Judaism. The religion is more of a backdrop to the relationship between Cannie and her deaf daughter, who is going through adolescence. Which is why it will still be of interest to the wider British public, whether they know what a d’var Torah is or not.
“I was talking to Jane Green, the author, before I came here,” says Weiner. “I said: ‘Are people even going to know what a batmitzvah is? Am I going to have to explain it?’ and she said, ‘I think most people have heard of it, maybe.’ There’s something universal about mothers and daughters. Even if you’re not going through the ceremony and the party planning, those tensions exist in mother and daughter relationships.”
Cannie Shapiro is, in some ways, similar to Weiner. In the first book, she is single and sexually adventurous and in the second she has a daughter from whom she tries to hide her rather risque first novel called Big Girls Don’t Cry.
“When I wrote Good In Bed I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, wasn’t really thinking about that,” says Weiner, now the mother of two little girls; Lucy, five and Phoebe, 15 months. “And my joke is that if I had done, I wouldn’t have called it Good In Bed, I would have called it Don’t read this book, Lucy. Ever. Kids are so embarrassed by their mums anyhow, even if you’re the most proper, bland kind of person. Cannie tries to be this super mum, tries to keep her daughter safe from everything but the thing that she can’t ultimately protect her from herself.”
Cannie’s mother has divorced her father and has come out as a lesbian. This actually happened in Weiner’s own life but luckily her mother is laid back enough to not mind the references.
“Because there’s a mum in the book who’s sort of like my mum in real life, I let her read it ahead of time and said: ‘If there’s anything you want to change, just let me know,’” she says. “There really wasn’t anything. She has a good sense of humour and her girlfriend at the time did too. My mum has always said: ‘I tell everyone it’s fiction.’
“There are four kids in my family and we’re all pretty honest with her about stuff. Somebody asked once: ‘Do you have any special family traditions?’ And I’m like: ‘Yeah, we all go home for Passover and we have the Seder, and then we all sit around and give my mum a hard time for being gay.’ So I don’t think there was much in there that surprised her, she knows the score.”
Born: March 1970 on an army base in Louisiana, where her father was a doctor. Raised in Connecticut with two older brothers and younger sister.
Education: Graduated from Princeton, then trained as a journalist.
Career: She was a successful feature writer before she had her debut novel, Good In Bed, published in 2001. Her 2002 novel, In Her Shoes, was made into a film starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz.
On being Jewish: “We’re active in our synagogue. My parents raised me to have a strong Jewish identity.”
Certain Girls is published by Pocket Books at £6.99