Too Important to Stay Quiet: A Conversation with Jennifer Weiner
by Jennifer Weiner
Atria Books (2023); 432 pp.; $26.96 (Hardcover)Buy Book
When Jennifer Weiner’s face popped up on Zoom for our scheduled interview, my inner fangirl screamed. Weiner chuckled and then apologized to me for having rescheduled our appointment. Her down-to-earth honesty drove the conversation. Although Weiner is a prolific and acclaimed author with more books than I can count, a movie, and a television producer credit to her name, we were just two mothers sharing stories and chatting about her novels like college roomies, only twenty-five years later. That’s how long I’ve been her fan, at least.
My original assignment was to interview Weiner about The Summer Place (Atria, 2022), a story about a complicated family wedding on Cape Cod, just released in paperback. Fortuitously, I learned that Weiner’s new novel, The Breakaway, is launching in August (Atria, 2023). I snagged a copy and was riveted, reading about Abby’s inspiring journey to finding herself through cycling. Reading both books a few days apart was a gift. I saw parallels in Weiner’s works that highlighted how her authentic novels are so much more than beach reads. In both stories, she portrayed relatable characters and explored deep feminine issues and timeless family themes.
As Profiles Editor, I interviewed Weiner over Zoom. We spoke about motherhood, body positivity, and the portrayal of women in the world. Weiner’s Jack-Rat Terrier, Levon, and my Jack Russell, Chilli Pepper, also had a brief doggie Zoom interlude. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: In The Breakaway, you write, “The older Abby got, the more she read and learned and saw how the world worked, the more disturbing she found it; the way Eileen wanted her daughter to shrink herself to fit into the space the world allotted instead of fighting to change the systems and institutions that wanted women to keep themselves small.” How have you incorporated the changing worldview of women into your writing?
Jennifer Weiner: I don’t know that I could have written that line twenty years ago because it would’ve been radical to have a young woman who was aware that the world wants her to look a certain way, and she’s consciously rejecting it.
When my agent and I took my first book out to find a publisher, there weren’t many fat main characters. Nothing close to body positivity, body neutrality, fat acceptance, or “healthy at any size” existed. Forget the idea that you could live happily in a larger body or anything about the world needed changing. There were only fat best friends, funny fat sidekicks, and fat women who lost a lot of weight. There were also fat women who didn’t lose a lot of weight and were suicidally depressed.
Now, there is better awareness of how things work and who’s profiting by selling women the idea that they are never small enough, young enough, or pretty enough.
HRP: In The Summer Place, Annette deals with child abandonment, postpartum depression, lack of maternal instincts, and not wanting to be a mother. Why do you think these topics are important to write about?
JW: I thought that if I read every book when I was pregnant, I’d be ready. I was so not ready. I was undone. Motherhood felt like it was killing me for a little while. I thought, “Why don’t I understand this? I’ve mastered everything else I’ve set out to learn.” I believed they’d put that baby in my arms, and I’d feel love like I’d never felt before. Commercials, television shows, and movies fed us this fantasy that suddenly all of my priorities would be reordered, and this child would mean more to me than anything. I believed my personhood would be sublimated, at least for a time, because now my role was mother, right? I thought I wouldn’t feel any ambivalence, regret, or sense of, “I’ve lost something really important here by having a child, I’ve lost a piece of myself.” If you felt that way, you were an outlier.
If I can make one woman feel seen and less alone about what she’s going through, whether it’s body image, motherhood, marriage, her relationship with her own mom, or her relationship with her children, then I will have done my job with my fiction. I believe that’s what I’m here to do.
HRP: In The Summer Place, when Rosa apologizes to her son, he says people make mistakes. Rosa says, “People, sure, but not mothers!” Tell me about the pressure that society puts on us and that we, as mothers, put on ourselves. What are your thoughts on the role of the modern mother?
JW: There are people talking more honestly about the pressures of motherhood, now. Those conversations are going on. But my oldest is almost twenty, and I would’ve hoped that since then we’d have a more nuanced, realistic view of motherhood. However, when you see the polished, perfected, edited images on Instagram, of beautiful homes where everything’s clean, everyone is happy, and nobody is fighting, you can’t help but feel like you’re failing somehow. It’s natural to compare what’s going on in your own life and come away feeling diminished. It’s as if there are two trains running on parallel tracks. One is all of the pressure to do it just right, and the other is this honesty about the messiness and the difficulty of motherhood.
HRP: In The Summer Place, Sarah talks about the modern mother’s dilemma. She says, “You pick your career, and maybe you end up alone with a shelf lined with awards and a bank account full of cash, but a bed that feels empty when you lay your head down at night. Maybe you couldn’t get the life you wanted. But you could have a life you wanted.” Can you elaborate?
JW: I don’t think there’s such a thing as having it all. You can have everything you want in a sequence if you’re lucky. It’s a Sliding Door situation where you choose which way you want to go. Some women would feel lifelong regret if they didn’t have children. But I also think some women have big dreams that don’t involve children. Those women would feel stymied, frustrated, and unhappy if they couldn’t pursue their goals. It’s a matter of deciding which life makes you happy. It’s understanding that there will be things you want, maybe a little less, that you’ll have to let go of.
HRP: I heard you speak at the National Council for Jewish Women Essex County event about your mom coming out as a lesbian when you were in your twenties. That must’ve been interesting.
JW: Oh, it was really something. I think of myself as someone who’s a little perceptive. There must have been signs, but my siblings and I didn’t see them. Part of the journey from being a teenager to a young adult is that you realize your parents are people. Your mom is more than just a mom. That’s what her coming out taught me in a visceral way.
HRP: Many of your characters are Jewish, and you discuss anti-Semitism in both books. Why is it important to write Jewish characters?
JW: When I speak in front of Jewish audiences, readers say, “I love your books. They feel so familiar. I remember dressing my kids up as Queen Esther on Purim.” And then, when I speak in places where it isn’t as big of a Jewish community, readers say, “I love your books. They’re exotic and interesting. I’m learning so much because I never knew Jewish people.” They only know what they see of this group in the media. So, it’s a way of humanizing Jewish people and showing readers that in spite of celebrating different holidays, eating different foods, or observing different customs, people are people, and families are families.
Writing Jewish characters, for me, is also about writing what you know. I like writing about my holidays, the rituals, and the foods because they’ve been so meaningful in my life. I like sharing these traditions with my readers because it feels like I’m giving them a gift.
HRP: How do you decide whether or not to touch on topics like abortion? I’m sure you don’t want to alienate readers, yet you want to get your points across.
JW: In the 1990s, people hoped Michael Jordan, a North Carolina native, would speak out against Jesse Helms, a notorious racist, who was running against a Black man in the senate election. He never spoke out, nor did he endorse anybody. When questioned, he said, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
I recognize that’s a risk, and I understand that just as Republicans buy sneakers, they also buy fiction. However, I am frightened by what’s happened with abortion laws lately. I have a family member, who is four-and-a-half months pregnant and found out the baby isn’t viable because she doesn’t have a heart. She lives in a blue state, so her doctor can care for her. But I’m worried about that woman in a similar situation in Texas who is going to be told that unless she has resources, money to travel, access to other doctors, and the sophistication to know how to work the system, she’s stuck. She’ll have to carry that child as long as her body allows and deliver it at a risk to her own fertility, health, and mental health. I find that horrifying because I think politicians are just trying to score easy points by saying life begins at conception. Why aren’t they doing anything to prevent unwanted pregnancies or to help those families once a child is born into circumstances where the parents might not have wished to have a baby? It’s maddening, and I feel I have a moral obligation to write about it, even if it ends up costing me readers or film deals. It’s too important to stay quiet.
HRP: How has the publishing world changed since you first started writing?
JW: When I started, the internet was barely a thing. You couldn’t Google anybody, so the only thing you knew about authors was that little biographical paragraph and the tiny headshot on the flap. I think social media has changed the relationship between the author and the reader. That’s been the most interesting thing for me to watch. I read somewhere that my generation will be the last ones who remember the world before the internet. We’re digital tourists, and our kids are digital natives.
HRP: How do you feel about the Publishers Marketplace eliminating the Women’s Fiction category?
JW: I think it’s great. I’ve always wondered: Where is men’s fiction? Is that just fiction? Is that the default, and we’re a special category? I don’t think that what has traditionally been called women’s fiction—stories about families, romance, and stories with female heroines—should only be the province of women readers. It’s not a useful category.
HRP: Do you think people identifying as men would be interested in your novels?
JW: Yes. But I also think a lot depends on packaging, covers, and on marketing material—the way that a book gets talked about. I recognize that the majority of people who consume fiction identify as women.
HRP: How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the younger female generation?
JW: Well, I have daughters, and I’m on TikTok. I joined because my younger daughter wanted to be on TikTok when she was twelve, and I said, “Okay, but you have to friend me, and I’m gonna see everything you post and everyone you interact with.” Then we had the internet safety talk about how everyone on the internet is a creepy sixty-seven-year-old man living in a basement, even if they say they’re a twelve-year-old girl.
I’m impressed with the creativity and the storytelling that girls are doing on TikTok, but it’s sad that it’s still so hard to be a girl. Social media seems to have added an extra layer of pressure and an avenue for bullying.
HRP: What is the one question you wish you’d have been asked about yourself?
JW: Amy Tan was asked this exact same question, and she said, “No one ever wants to talk to me about the craft.” [Mine is similar] because someday I would like to teach writing, whether in a high school or a community college or something like that. I’d like to talk to people, less about my life and more about how you write a good sentence, and how you structure a good chapter.
HRP: Here’s one: How do you make your characters so different?
JW: I find that one piece of humanity in all of them. It’s something that I can identify with or relate to about them. Even the villains. It’s about understanding the character’s motivations. Somebody like Eileen starts off seeming like a villain because she’s a judgmental, [controlling] mom. Once I got my head around the idea that her sending Abby to a fat camp came from her own place of suffering and not wanting her daughter to suffer, it cracked her open for me.
HRP: What’s next for you?
JW: The Breakaway is up next, and it launches in August. After that, I’m writing a sister story. Two sisters are in a band together, and they have a very contentious relationship, and everything falls apart. Then, twenty years later, a young woman goes in search of one of the sisters, trying to pull her back into the world.