When best-selling author Jennifer Weiner told her mother about her first book, “Good in Bed,” her mom started to cry.
“Darling, what’s it called?” Mom asked.
“Hm, ‘Good in Bed.'”
“What was that? ‘Good and Bad?'”
“No. ‘Good in Bed.'”
“‘Good in Bed’?! How much research did you do?!”
Weiner, who was at The Poynter Institute last weekend for a conversation with the community, is perhaps just as good a verbal storyteller as she is a written one. Stories about her mother, her ex-boyfriends, her husband and her children were woven into stories about her books, some of which have characters who are loosely based off of the people in her life.
Weiner began writing her first novel after breaking up with her boyfriend of three years. She said she remembers driving and crying as Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” blared in the background. It was a low moment for the then 28-year-old Weiner, but one that gave her the inspiration to write fiction.
“What do I know how to do?” she asked herself after the breakup. “I know how to tell a story. I’m going to write a story. The girl will be a lot like me. The guy will be a lot like Satan.”
“The miserable love life” is second on her list of life experiences/factors that contribute to being a great novelist. “Unrequited crushes, romantic despair, a few memorable break-ups, will give you something to write about, an understanding of grief,” Weiner writes on her Web site. “No prospect of heartbreak in sight? I can provide phone numbers upon request.”
Being a mom has also helped Weiner’s writing, particularly in terms of management skills. While at Poynter, Weiner talked about the often unglamorous life of motherhood. Babies, after all, cry and scream (usually at the most inopportune times) and rarely “nap in a basket at your feet.” She wouldn’t be able to write as much as she does, she said, if she didn’t have a sitter who watches the kids while she goes to a coffee shop to work on her novels.
Weiner is used to writing under hectic circumstances. Prior to writing novels, she was a young journalist at The Poynter Institute and later a columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about pop culture.
As a journalist, Weiner said, “you don’t have the luxury of being blocked.” All those “years of doing the story on deadline, under less than ideal circumstances” helped her to be so prolific as an author. “I think the best training you can get for being a novelist is to be a reporter,” she said. “The difference between people who have a story to tell and those who do it is the willingness to sit down and actually write it. As a reporter, you write it all and you do not romanticize the act of writing.”
Though her writing is often classified as “chick lit,” Weiner said she thinks of this as a “sexist, condescending term.” But people read her “chick lit” books, which often have pink covers and lettering, and that’s ultimately what matters more than how they’re classified: “I have an audience,” Weiner said. “Do I want to care about my readers or do I want to be cared about by reviewers?” She noted that some reviewers frustrate her, particularly The New York Times, which doesn’t regularly review her books. Still, she has full-page ads for her books in the Times — not so much for the general audience of the paper but for the booksellers who may see them.
Though she admits that criticism, whether it be from readers or reviewers, is tough to receive, Weiner said she actively solicits it from her husband and trusted friends before submitting manuscripts to her editor.
Weiner used an analogy to illustrate the relationship between writers and editors: An editor and writer are crawling through the desert, dehydrated and desperate for water. Eventually, they come to a reservoir and the reporter says, “Look! It’s a reservoir!” The editor gets to the water first and starts peeing in it. “What are you doing?!” asks the reporter. “Making it better,” the editor says. Hm. I can relate to this from both sides!
This was just one of many laughable moments during Weiner’s talk. I was impressed by her honesty and her witty sense of humor. She struck me as someone who was genuine and in touch with her readers. Her talk made me want to read more of her books, as well as those she recommended: “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, “Admission” by Jean Hanff Korelitz and books by Susan Isaacs.
I’m going to add these books to my reading list. Their titles aren’t quite as catchy as “Good in Bed,” (or “Good and Bad” as Weiner’s mother would have preferably titled it), but I guess I shouldn’t judge a book by its title — or by its pink cover.