"Big Summer" author Jennifer Weiner: We all deserve pleasure amidst our quarantine soap opera

The author appeared on "Salon Talks" (from inside her closet) to talk influencers, banana bread, and women's work

By Alli Joseph
May 16, 2020 8:00PM (UTC)
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Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner (Andrea Cipriani/Atria Books )

Jennifer Weiner, the fan favorite and longtime No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, stopped by "Salon Talks" for a virtual chat to discuss her new novel, "Big Summer." Written with the intention of being an engaging 2020 beach read about female friendship, Weiner shared how she personally pushed for "Big Summer" to be released three weeks ahead of schedule to help readers find a literary escape during these challenging quarantine times. "I hope that this book gives people some relief and some joy, and a little bit of a break," Weiner told me from inside her walk-in closet in Philadelphia, which also doubles as her writing studio. 

In "Big Summer," Weiner fans will recognize her familiar female characters. This time it's Daphne, a plus-size Instagram influencer, which Weiner researched with the help of one of her readers. And while Weiner says her writing has become more intentional since "Good In Bed," it's always been about writing for herself. "It doesn't ever feel like, 'Oh God, I've got to write another plus-size woman because the people are going to want that.' That's what I want. Those are the stories and the characters that I'm drawn to," she told me.

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Watch my "Salon Talks" with Weiner here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more from the bestselling author on why she loves writing about women in their 20s, chick lit vs. dick lit, and why she's still frustrated with the idea that work produced by women — whether it be television shows, pop music or books — are often relegated to an inferior category.

How many Zoom interviews have you done from your closet?

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A lot. My poor dog, I think she thought I was talking to myself for a while, and she was a little worried about things, but now she's just like, "Ugh, mom."

Ordinarily, we just launch right into questions about writing and this particular new book, but I'm in my basement and you're in the closet. We're in unusual times. How are you and your family and what's your biggest takeaway from this time?

Well, I have to say that I feel like I was very well equipped to handle this situation. I already work at home. I already don't go out very much. All of the things that people have been doing during the quarantine, baking and gardening and writing novels, I kind of do that anyhow. The hardest thing for me has been managing my kids' feelings, which I think a lot of moms are in the same place.

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I have a high school junior who was supposed to do a summer program in New York City this summer, that is now going to be virtual and on her laptop. I have a 12-year-old who's finishing sixth grade and switching schools next year, and isn't going to be able to say goodbye to her classmates. And it's hard. And we're in Philadelphia, so we're still on lockdown-lockdown. Our case count is still rising every day. I would say the other thing I'm struggling with is just the aggravation of going out and seeing there's people in the parks, and there's people who aren't social distancing, and there's people who are acting like this is just nothing. And I want to be like, "It's not nothing, you guys," but I can't just randomly start yelling at people, I've been told.

In my town, some people have gone a little off the rails and are shaming people on social media about their lack of mask-wearing, even in their own yards, gardening. It's created a very interesting psychology.

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I feel that it's sort of breaking down the way these things always seem to break down, where people with privilege are going to be fine. And the people who are poor people, or people who are minorities, people who are living in less than ideal situations, they're going to be the ones who suffer disproportionately. And unfortunately, I think that we have a president who only wants to be president of the people who voted for him and doesn't really care. I mean, living in a very densely packed, dark blue, sanctuary city, I feel like he would set Philadelphia on fire and launch us into the Delaware, and that would be that, if he could.

And the shaming, I've been watching. The joggers are mad at the walkers, who won't get out of their way. The walkers are mad at the joggers who are running too close to them. The bikers are mad at everybody. I'm just watching the whole thing on Nextdoor.com. It's like a soap. It's fascinating.

That is actually a nice segue into how you are engaging with your readers on social media. You've been very connected with them for a long time. How are you interacting with readers now and is it in any way different than you would normally?

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It's sort of social media on steroids. Because I would be going on book tour right now. I would be actually leaving my home, I would be going to bookstores, I would be meeting readers. I'd be interacting with them in person and basically, none of that's happening. So what I've been trying to do is sort of be people's entertainment a little bit, and help them sort of feel like they're part of a community. And so I've been going through my backlist and doing book clubs once a week, where we've talked about "Good in Bed" and "In Her Shoes," and "Little Earthquakes," and some of the early books. And baking challah on Friday afternoons and sort of setting up my laptop in my kitchen, and showing people what that's all about.

I think people are enjoying it. I mean, I think there's just the voyeuristic quality of looking inside of someone else's house, which I personally really enjoy. When you could leave home, my younger daughter and I would go to real estate open houses on the weekends. Not because we're interested in buying a house, but just to look. That was my thing. And then when the NFL draft was happening, the way that we were doing this, and it was people in their actual living rooms, I loved that. I loved seeing living rooms.

You're letting people see the inside of your beautiful walk-in closet. What are you drinking? And are you wearing pants?

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Do I have to answer that?

You don't have to show me, but don't these Zoom things raise that question? I am wearing pajamas.

What I've been doing is I'll put on a nice shirt, a nice color, and then I'll wear my overalls. And then when I do the interview, I just take the overall top part off. It's like my Andrea Dworkin homage.

Why overalls?

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They have lots of pockets and they're super comfortable. And it's sort of as close as I can get to wearing a onesie as an adult.

You and I did meet years and years ago. I've lost track. I'm having a senior moment. It was when "In Her Shoes" became a film.

This would have been 2006.

How do you feel your writing process has changed since that time?

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When I began my career as a writer, I was a single lady. I did not have children. I had all the time in the world and I could just traipse off to a coffee shop and have an iced latte, and type the afternoon away. And then I had a baby and my time, and my body, and my life were not my own anymore. And I had to become a lot more scheduled.

I had a babysitter come just for a few hours every afternoon at first, and then for longer and longer periods of time, as I recognized that I was not somebody who was meant to be home with newborns. And I would work while I had childcare. And then when my kids started school, I started tailoring my writing days to their school days. So that's pretty much what it's like now. And I write in my closet, this is it.

What lessons do you want your girls to take away from your writing, your body-positive characters, or that process?

I try to be the best role model that I can for them. And just recently, you worry about the things that you can control and you let the rest of it go, right? I can control hand-washing. I can control keeping my house being really clean. I can't control the virus, and I can't control the president. And I have to sort of live with that reality.

With writing, it's such a tense, miserable time right before a book comes out because you've done your job. I've done my job. I wrote the best book I could. I poured my heart and soul into it. And now it's like, well, I can't control if it's going to be on the shelves, or I can't control if it's going to take Amazon weeks and weeks to ship people their copies.It's hard and it's stressful. And I've been trying to just let that piece of it go and just let them know that there's things that are worth getting worked up about. And then there's things that you're just going to tie yourself in knots for no reason, because no amount of worrying that I can do, is going to change the reality of the situation that we're in right now.

I hope that this book gives people some relief, and some joy, and a little bit of a break, and a little bit of a feeling that they're at a beach, because I don't know if any of us are going anytime soon.

You're trying to bring a bright spot to readers. Your publisher was actually able to move the pub date up a few weeks.

I was the one who was lobbying for that, because we were talking about, "Well, we could move it later in the summer," or, "Well, we could move it to the fall." And I'm like, "I don't really think you can sell a book called "Big Summer," in the fall. I don't think that's going to happen." And they're like, "Well, we could move it to 2021." And I'm like, "I think people need some joy right this minute." My impulse was like, "Let's just get it in their hands, as quickly as we can," so they were able to move up the publication date by two weeks, which I'm super-duper grateful for. And I hope it's a bright spot for people. I really do.

It has been for me. I read most of this book on my back deck, quarantining. I enjoyed it a lot. What is the favorite character from "Big Summer," or your favorite thing about this story?

Daphne, the protagonist, is somebody who feels very close to my heart because she's in her 20s, and she's a plus-size Instagram influencer. She's sort of a baby influencer. She's just getting that piece of her life off the ground. And she's insecure, she's got some body stuff, but she has this really loving, supportive family, her father in particular. And she has some really good friends. And then she has some sort of more difficult friends. But Daphne, I'm always going to, I think, especially cherish the characters I write who are in their 20s, because I just feel that's such a tender time for young women. And it's so fraught and difficult. I mean, all of the big decisions are still ahead of you. You are still really figuring out who you are and how you're going to be in the world.

I loved writing about Daphne. I loved thinking about Daphne. I loved learning about what it is to be an Instagram influencer, because I had no idea. And now I feel like I can really explain the nuts and bolts of it to people. And it's fascinating to me. Obviously, I celebrated my 50th birthday in quarantine. So, yes, I am no longer a young woman in her 20s. But I remember what it was like to be that age. But then I had to think about what's different for young women today. And so much of it is the internet and social media, and the way that all of us now are living these double lives.

There's the life that we live every day with all of the mess and the fighting and the not so pretty parts, and then there's a life that we're all performing on social media, the vacation pictures that we put on Facebook, and the, "Oh my God, look at this beautiful thing that I bought," on Instagram, and the witty pithy tweet, that we spent three hours composing on Twitter. And I just think, "My God, I don't know how I would have done it in my 20s." It was hard enough just living one life, if I remember. And the idea that Daphne, she's performing for an audience. She has followers and they want her to be a role model, and it's a hard thing to be.

You mentioned learning about being an influencer. How did you do that research?

I found somebody. It was actually a young woman who it came to one of my readings, and she has a pretty significant Instagram following. She's a plus-size fashion person. And so I said, "Hey, can I just talk to you for a little while?" And of course, that turned into a three-hour conversation. This poor woman. I'm sure she's like, "Could you please just get off the phone?" Because honestly, I just thought, "Okay, so Anthropologie sends you clothes and pays you to wear them." And she's like, "No, no, no, no, no, no," and just walked me through.

As I'm listening to her explain it, it's basically, Anthropologie asks if you want to collaborate. That is the big word. They don't hire you. They ask if you want to collaborate, and then they send you a link to their new pieces, and you have to pick one. And then you have to style the look, and you have to do it in such a way that everybody wants to buy the thing you're trying to sell them, and not the hair clip, or the pants, or the shoes, or the bracelet, or the whatever, just the thing you're trying to sell. And then they send you a coupon code. And if your fans click through the link, and if they buy it, then you get like two cents for every dress that gets sold. And you have to find somebody to take the pictures. There's the influencer boyfriend, all of these women have boyfriends, and all the boyfriends do when they go out, is take pictures. I mean, it sounds God awful, honestly, and hard too, really hard.

That's a lot of work. They make it appear easy. Like your last novel, "Mrs. Everything," "Big Summer" plays with time periods and female relationships. Also, I saw similar themes in "In Her Shoes," "All Fall Down" and "Fly Away Home." What makes you want to focus on these dynamics in your writing?

Those are the stories that I'm drawn to in real life, whether it's a book that I'm picking up, or when I'm talking to my friends, or when I'm thinking about my own life and my relationship with my sister and my mom, and my mom's relationship with her sister. I'm interested in those dynamics, specifically. As women's roles are changing and continue to change, as more doors open, and as old problems keep showing up again, and again, and again, I'm just interested in if you're going to tell a story, there needs to be some conflict. And I think to be a woman in America at this moment in time, there's always conflict. You don't even have to look for it. It's just there, it's implicit in the choices that you're making just how you're living your life day-to-day. That's just what I'm drawn to.

I'm curious, you still haven't told me what you're drinking.

This is homemade iced coffee. I have a little iced coffee maker. And as you can see, it's probably maybe 75% coffee, 25% half and half. I like a little coffee in my milk.

Me too. Yeah, I got you. I have water. I'm boring. I wish I had iced coffee. I'm going to go get some later. I know we spoke a little bit about how your lifestyle as a writer has changed since having children, since the earlier books that I read, how have you personally grown as an author? Does each book teach you something about yourself?

Oh, wow. That's a great question. I hope that I've gotten more thoughtful and intentional about my craft. Every book you learn something, whether it's something about the world or something about yourself. That is a really good question though. What did this book teach me? I mean, this is the first book I think, where I wrote a really positive relationship between a protagonist and her father. A lot of my female characters have sort of difficult dads. I had a difficult dad and that felt familiar to me.

I wonder if it was sort of looking at my own daughters and their relationship with their father, and how different it is, and how my hope for them is that they start their lives as young women with that bedrock certainty of knowing that there's a man who loves you. Loves you in your flaws, and your strength, and knows you and sees you, and loves you unconditionally. That was what I wrote for Daphne. And I don't know if it was sort of my own hopes for my kids, my own longing for something I didn't have, but that was interesting to write about.

It sounds as though you got more clarity in this particular book on that.

Yeah. I think that Daphne goes through some hard stuff in this story, in terms of her relationship with her friend, in terms of what it's like to live in a larger body in the world. And I think just knowing that her dad loves her and thinks that she's the bee's knees, I think that gives her so much strength and just kind of a place to come home to. Just the idea that, "Hey, it's not working out with this friend. It's not working out with this guy, but I can go home and they will take me in, and they will love me." And that felt really nice to write about.

I think one of the things your fans come to love about you and expect, is this sense of they have a comfort and a familiarity with the kinds of characters you create. Do you take that into consideration when you start a new story?

It doesn't ever feel like, "Oh, God, I got to write another plus-size woman because the people are going to want that." That's what I want. Those are the stories and the characters that I'm drawn to. So it doesn't feel difficult or like I'm just doing some kind of task that I don't want to do. Those are the characters who interest me.

I think back to that quote from Toni Morrison that every writer knows, the idea that if there's a book that you need to read and it's not on the shelf, you have to write it. It's your job to put it there. And I think back to when I was a young woman, when I was a teenager, when I was even a middle-grade reader, and the only fat women I ever saw in fiction were either there as funny sidekicks or they were there to lose weight. And once that happened, that's when their story really started. And I felt then, and feel now, that there need to be more stories about women of all shapes, women of all ages, women of all races, and religions, and ethnicities. And there's room for all of those characters to live full lives, and get happy endings, in my books at least. I'm writing what I love, and I feel very lucky that I'm able to do it and that readers respond.

In interviews over the years, you've fought back against the designation of being part of this chick lit designation, as it's often called, and yet it does seem that you write so magically for women. What is a better name for your brand of writing?

I wish they'd just call them books. I'm not angry that I've been included with those writers. I'm angry, I guess, that all of us have to live with this label, where men, their books are just books. Nobody calls it dick lit, when a guy writes about young men.

No, but then they'll sell more, so that wouldn't be fair.

Right? I would buy that. But, it's tough. I joke that I'm 50 years old and If anybody wants to call me a chick, that's fantastic. But it's not fantastic. It's kind of demeaning. I'm fine writing popular fiction, commercial fiction, lighter fiction, whatever descriptors people want to use. And I recognize a lot of this has to do with marketing and how labeling books is a way for booksellers to have some shorthand in terms of where they shelve them, how they described them, who they sell them to, how they sell them. But I really get frustrated with the idea that there's this pink ghetto, and that women's work ends up there, whether it's rom-coms, or whether it's chick lit, or whether it's a great... Like pop music, a perfectly crafted four-minute bop, that's not easy to do. It's not easy to write, or perform, or any of it. And yet, we're so dismissive of popular things. That's a whole other . . . That's probably some Ph.D. dissertation or something like that. But I just think –

It's okay to be popular.

Yes, it is.

It doesn't have to be Nietzsche. Not everything has to be heavy, and it can be engaging, and wonderful, and beautiful in its own right.

The other term I hear a lot is guilty pleasure. And I loved how in The Times, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was asked, "Do you have any guilty pleasures?" And she said, "No. I own all of my pleasures. I feel guilt for none of it." And I think really, why are some pleasures guilty and some just pleasure? What is that about? And I do think that gender plays into it, race plays into it, class plays into it.

I talked to Dr. Sami Schalk, who writes about pleasure activism. And she said that guilty pleasures are things that are sort of associated with people who are lower down on the ladder, and things that they can access — popular music, popular fiction, fast food, all of that is guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt. Then stuff that's sort of more rarefied, that becomes just an acceptable pleasure. It was really, really interesting to think about it through that framework.

The other thing that she talked about was just sort of in our kind of capitalist society, we're very suspicious of any pleasure, or any leisure. We're all supposed to be working and producing. And so the idea that we're doing something that's just for pleasure or just for fun, that automatically become suspicious.

When you last visited "Salon Talks" in 2019, you spoke about sexism in the publishing industry, the MeToo Movement, and how that has affected leadership in the industry. What have you seen, if anything, further to that, in the past year, in a positive way, if anything?

I think women are assuming positions of power, women are winning big prizes. And I just think that there's this old guard and this kind of behavior that was acceptable in that milieu, that sort of those guys, either they're leaving of their own volition, or they're being sort of shown out the door. And I think that the more sunshine we can bring, the more light that we can shed on sort of the way things have always been, and does that have to be the way they always are going to be? Although, it's just still so frustrating that Trump is in The White House, and I wonder how much progress can we really do? How much can we feel good about if certain people are still exempt from the interrogations?

Well, that's not a fun thing to end on.

No.

Good thing you baked. I want to taste your challah.

Lots of challah. It's been nonstop carbs around here, and I made the most delicious banana bread because banana bread is something that Daphne bakes for herself. She's decided that she's not going to be at war with her body anymore. She's going to start feeding herself, and caring for herself, and loving herself, the way she deserves to be loved. And her first manifestation of that is she goes out and buys eggs and chocolate and Greek yogurt, and flour, and sugar, and bananas, and she makes herself this delicious banana bread. And it fills the house with its delicious walnut banana chocolate goodness. And she cuts herself a big slice and she eats it and she's happy. And banana bread, highly recommended.

Eat the banana bread. Jennifer Weiner says, "Eat the banana bread."

Pleasure is pleasure, and all of us deserve it.

That is a much better ending. Before we go, where can readers pick up a copy of "Big Summer"?

Anywhere books are sold. Also, I want to plug for Bookshop.org, which is the independent bookstores' retailer. I think they're shipping actually faster than anybody. So if you want that book soon, go to Bookshop.org. And if you want a signed copy, there's a bookstore here in Pennsylvania, Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, that has signed copies they can send.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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