EXCLUSIVE: Jennifer Weiner talks The Next Best Thing & more
Jennifer Weiner chats with the SheKnows Book Lounge about her novel, The Next Best Thing (out in paperback now), which books she'd like to see on The New York Times Book Review and what she thinks of the next Bachelorette.
SheKnows: The Next Best Thing is based on the characters from your hugely popular short story, Swim. How did you come up with the idea for Swim and why did you decide to write the novel?
Jennifer Weiner: Swim was actually written in 1990. I was living in New York City, doing a summer internship as a research assistant for Rosalind Petchesky, who wrote an enormously influential book called Abortion and Woman’s Choice. I would read the Village Voice, and I was especially fascinated by the classified ads. In the pre-Internet, pre-Match/OKCupid/Jdate era, that’s how people used to meet each other. After a summer of reading the classifieds, I thought about a short story about a young woman who was disfigured in some way, looking for love herself but dubious that she’d ever find it, who set herself up writing other peoples’ ads. It got its title from the abbreviation for single white male — SWM.
Years later, when I was putting together the short-story collection The Guy Not Taken, I wanted to include that story… and I couldn’t find it anywhere. It had won a contest in the New York Press in the summer of 1990 (my prize was theater tickets and dinner at an Indian restaurant — I took my mom), and it had been published, but I couldn’t find a copy anywhere — not of the paper, not of the story. I decided to rewrite it, and set it in the present, so instead of a recent college graduate writing classifieds for the Voice Ruth was an aspiring TV writer writing online ads.
I thought I was done with Ruth… but then I sold a television show and went to L.A. to run it, and to have my heart broken, as one does. I knew I wanted to use my experiences as the raw material of a book that would consider a variation on the question that drives a lot of my fiction — namely, what happens after happily ever after? What does life look like after you’ve gotten the thing you most wanted? How do you put yourself back together when things fall apart? How do you find the courage, and find new things to go after, when life kicks you in the teeth?
Get your copy of The Next Best Thing>>
SK: Do you have any plans to revisit some of your other popular characters from your novels or short stories?
JW: I’ll have to wait and see who pops up and has something to tell me. I never really plan on revisiting anyone — when the story’s done, the story’s done — but Ruth surprised me by showing up again. Same with Janie Segal (of the carpet Segals!) who makes her debut in Goodnight Nobody and reappears, with mom detective Kate Klein, in Then Came You, when Bettina decides to look into her shady stepmother’s past. I’ve always thought about revisiting Kate’s story, so it was nice when the two of them arrived and more or less told me, “Here’s what we’re doing now.”
SK: You're going on a book tour for The Next Best Thing. What are a few must-have items that will be in your suitcase?
JW: It begins and ends with my e-reader. I love the heft and scent of a real book, the feel of pages turning, but when I’m on the road it’s so much easier to slip a Kindle in my purse than lug books around.
I usually forget to pack underwear, but maybe if I write about forgetting to pack it, I’ll actually remember this time!
Finally, I must have chargers for all of my various devices, which I will either not pack in the first place or accidentally leave somewhere.
Find out where Jennifer Weiner will be on tour >>
SK: You've been very outspoken about issues of fairness and equity between men and women in the literary world (thank you) and have brought attention to the books The New York Times chooses to review. If you could select the books for them to consider, which would be on your list?
JW: In my dreams, The New York Times Book Review would have a Sunday round-up column devoted to women’s fiction — chick lit, romance, domestic drama, whatever books women write that end up being read mostly by women get called. The Times does a round up for crime fiction each week, and semi-regular updates about speculative fiction and horror fiction. I would love it if there was a place to read about Jodi Picoult’s books… and Jennifer Close’s, and Sarah Pekkanen’s, and Kristen Hannah’s — and I think it would make business sense for the Times. You’ve got a lot of women reading a lot of fiction that never even gets mentioned in the paper, outside of the best-seller list. If the editors decided to send the message, “You matter, and we’re going to get smart people to give thoughtful consideration to the kind of books you read,” I think those readers would feel a lot more connected and loyal to the paper.
In terms of quote-unquote literary fiction, I don’t even know where to start. For the past three years an organization called VIDA has been tracking the number of books by women reviewed in places like Harper’s and The New Republic and The Atlantic and the Times. The results are dismal... and pointing out the vast disparities doesn’t seem to have moved the ball forward, or encouraged many editors to change the way they do business. That’s been especially true at the Times. As I’m writing this, Elizabeth Strout’s follow-up to her Pulitzer prize-winning Olive Kitteridge hasn’t been reviewed in the Sunday book review. Neither has Kate Atkinson’s genre-bending, mind-blowing Life After Life. It was heartbreaking to me that the only attention Jennifer Haigh’s amazing novel Faith got was a few sentences in a spring-books roundup under the heading “For the Ladies.” Faith was not just “for the ladies” — it was for anyone who likes suspenseful, thoughtful, beautifully written fiction. Faith was about a Catholic priest accused of molesting a child and how his brother and sister react to those charges. It has an astonishing plot twist, and it raised so many interesting questions about truth and belief and how people make, and live with, their choices.
Right now, I’m reading Jean Thompson’s The Humanity Project — more family stories about people living on the margins. There’s a father who’s been injured, is addicted to painkillers and trying to raise his son, and a teenage girl who witnesses a school shooting, and a crazy cat lady, and however I describe it won’t do it justice — it’s just so good. Here’s Thompson describing a character getting an email: "And just that that moment, someone somewhere tapped out letters on a keyboard, and the letters were converted into electrons, and the electron stream sped along a connection that spoke to a specified server, a specified account. The electrons were retranslated into a pattern of light and dark and blink, a line of type waiting to be called up out of the hum and glow: Steve, is that really you?"
I mean, how good is that?
It’s been frustrating to do my own counting and watch the Times lavish attention — reviews and profiles and appreciative quotes and back-page book review essays — on the usual suspects, the sad young literary man of the day, whether his name is Teddy Wayne or Nathaniel Rich or Tom Perrotta (he’s got a review in this week’s Sunday paper) or Jonathan Franzen (the subject of this week’s “By the Book” Q and A). But there has been some encouraging news lately — the Times’ new Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, has gone on the record saying that diversity matters to her. Judging from her track record as the editor, the kind of writers she’s featured in “By the Book,” and how she was the one who assigned and edited Meg Wolitzer’s essay “The Second Shelf,” I’m optimistic. Just being a woman isn’t a guarantee of anything — some of chick lit’s most vituperative critics are other women writers — but I think Paul understands the need for better balance, for a bigger tent, where there’s room for people who subsist on a steady diet of the most rarefied literary fiction, and also for readers who love literary fiction and mysteries… or romance… or stories about single girls trying to find their place in the world.
SK: We look forward to your live tweets about The Bachelor/Bachelorette as much as we do the shows. What are your thoughts on Desiree being the Bachelorette?
JW: Finally, we get to the important stuff! Des reminds me a lot of Ashley, in terms of her cute, up-for-anything, girl-next-door vibe (with the delicious complication of a batcrap-crazy brother). I’ll be watching, of course, but the truth is I much prefer The Bachelor to The Bachelorette. A bunch of guys living together in a house can be as exciting as watching paint dry (stinky, laundry-on-the-floor, toilet-seat-up paint). But a crew of ladies, living on liquor and the fumes from their last spray tan? That is guaranteed insanity… and it’s much more fun to watch.