“Oh my God, words hurt worse than anything”: Jennifer Weiner talks journalism, body image and brushing off the “you’re no Jonathan Franzen!” trolls
Jennifer Weiner may just be the busiest woman in publishing right now. Just last month, she released her first children’s book, “The Littlest Bigfoot,” a tale of an unlikely friendship between a 12-year-old girl and Millie, a member of a secretive tribe of Bigfoots. Now, the bestselling novelist is releasing “Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing,” a new memoir.
In “Hungry Heart,” Weiner takes on Twitter, reality TV and beauty pageants, as well as the intimate side of her life — her miscarriage, her ongoing relationship with body acceptance, and how she’s parenting her two young daughters. And unsurprisingly, it’s as funny, fierce and intimate as her popular fiction.
“Hungry Heart” also details Weiner’s difficult relationship and estrangement from her erratic father until his overdose death in 2008. In one of the book’s most potent chapters, she writes of how, after her dad’s death, she and her siblings learned he’d fathered another child just a few years earlier, with a woman who’d been addicted to crack. Happily, Weiner and her family now have a relationship with the boy, who she describes in the book as having “one of the the most gracious, winning personalities of any kid I’ve ever seen.”
Salon caught up with the bestselling author via phone recently, on the eve of “Hungry Heart’s” publication, to talk about journalism, body image, “chick lit” and why every body is a beach body.
Congratulations on having two new books in one month. That’s huge.
Thanks. I’m never doing this again.
And two outside-your-normal-lane kinds of books. What made your flex yourself in two very different directions, and how did it come about that you were doing both in the same period?
I always want to be pushing myself and I want to be trying new things. I never want to just do the same thing over and over again. The children’s book — I had this idea. My younger daughter Phoebe is eight now but when she was six, she was obsessed with this show called “Finding Bigfoot.” It would be these Bigfoot hunters who would go somewhere because someone had seen a track and they’d go look for Bigfoot. I would always tease her, “Did they find Bigfoot this week?” And she’d say, “No, they did not!” I’d say, “I know they didn’t. You know how I know? Because they have three episodes left! If they found Bigfoot, then what would they do?”
She really loved this show. So she and I and my older daughter Lucy started talking about Bigfoots, as you do. What would they be like? Where would they live? What would they be up to? Would they be on the Internet? Would they have Amazon Prime so they could get their free shipping? That’s where that story came from. I’d been thinking about Bigfoots and about mythological creatures and how they’d interact with our world. Because I’m always going to be interested in body image and bullying and self esteem and girls finding their place in the world, that’s where the main human character came from.
I wrote a couple of chapters and I gave it to my agent and she gave it to my publisher and they were interested, and that’s how that happened.
And then you did the memoir, which is so frank, so raw. You went all in — even though I can also see where you established your private boundaries.
I’m sure some people are going to read this as basically me publishing my diary . . . but there were boundaries and there were lines and there was a lot of thought, especially about my ex-husband and my daughters.
My ex read several drafts of it. We’re really good friends now. I tell everybody I had the best divorce of anyone I’ve ever heard of. I wanted to tell the story in a way that was honest and in a way that was going to make sense for the reader.
I also just wanted to be thoughtful and intentional about telling those stories.
You’re so candid in so many ways — like everything with your father, including the reveal that he’d had another child.
It’s a lesson. I remember so vividly being in [my father’s] storage unit and digging through all of his stuff and all of the porn . . . . It was so funny and sad and weird and gross. The four of us were looking at each other like, ‘This is it, it can’t get worse. This is the end. Then oh, surprise! It got worse!
I also hadn’t realized that your dad had been made fun of in the news. [In 1998, an ex-girlfriend attacked Weiner’s father and lacerated his scrotum.] These things happen to people who have families, and you really put yourself in what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a tabloid punchline.
It was weird because I was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time. It came over the AP wire. So I had to go to my editor and say, “Heads up. This is my dad, and I don’t know if you’re going to run anything about it but I need to tell you.” I remember my younger brother being so angry and saying, “Why do they have to print this? Why is it anybody’s business?” and trying to explain, it’s news. It’s not the kind of thing that happens every day and unfortunately the last name’s not helping. We didn’t do anything wrong, and nobody’s blaming us for this. When people say, “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words . . . .” Oh my God, words hurt worse than anything.
Journalism is evolving in a way that concerns me. I remember when I got into it — I graduated from college in 1991 — you could still have that whiff of Woodward and Bernstein, like you were going to expose Watergate. You were going to shine that bright light. You going to bring down a corrupt president. You were out there trying to do some good. You know the thing everybody says is, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And now I feel like it’s just like, afflict. Afflict anyone. Afflict anyone you can find anything about.
This idea that everything has to be exposed and that everybody is entitled to everything really concerns me. I have never felt so much despair for journalism as I have this year.
And it’s making it hard for good journalists to do the work that they need to do. I went and bought the deluxe level subscription to the Washington Post because I want to support their reporting. I think what David Fahrenthold is doing is completely worthwhile, and that takes money and that takes time and I want journalists to have both those things. [Presciently, Weiner spoke to Salon just hours before Fahrenthold and WaPo published the story on Trump’s damning 2005 “locker room talk” with Billy Bush.]
So many people are so turned off and think that journalism is another listicle about the Kardashians. Well, no. We need journalism for our democracy to function. But we need journalism done right.
It’s like the fact-checking during the debate, [people saying,] “The moderators aren’t supposed to be partial.” It’s not partial to say something is true or it’s not.
I’m wondering how starting out in journalism informed your fiction. Your writing is very empathetic. It’s very humane. You’re able to do things in fiction that one can’t do in journalism.
I think a lot of my books deal with issues of exposure. Like with “Good In Bed,” the young woman finds out her ex-boyfriend is writing the sex column in a woman’s magazine and they’re all about her and they’re all about her body and she feels very exposed. I’m interested in power. I’m interested in questions of who gets to speak and who gets hurt when they speak, who gets to be public, who gets to be private, how you make those choices, if you get to make those choices, or if you get shoved into the spotlight whether you want to be there or not. These are things I had to think about a lot with my own family situation, and I do think those questions went on to inform my fiction.
With the sequel to “Good in Bed,” [I was] writing about the autobiographical heroine who published a book and had a great success and went on to write science fiction under a pseudonym because she couldn’t deal with the exposure. Having to be public, it’s tough. There’s no class for it. No one tells you much about how to handle that aspect of writing.
Which brings me to Twitter. The way that you’ve taken it as a venue to talk about issues of inequality and the way that women’s literature is treated differently — do you feel that Twitter has helped with that, or is it, “Oh God, another day to face the trolls?”
I would say mostly it’s been a good thing. Back in the day, if you had issues, if you had something to say, it was like, “It’s another Sunday and I’m opening the New York Times Book Review and oh look, an entire column devoted to the new mystery and there’s nothing about commercial women’s fiction and they’re still ignoring popular genre fiction about women.” Twenty years ago, if you had a problem with that, you could complain to your husband or your friends or your writer friends; you could send a letter to the editor and hope they published it.
But now, you’ve got a platform and you’ve got a soapbox, and you don’t have to be one of the people The New York Times has decided is worth covering to be able to critique them. That to me is the value of social media in terms of moving things forward for women’s fiction and the way that it gets covered and talked about. I think social media has been really valuable in pointing out inequities and amplifying other voices and saying, if these books aren’t going to get attention in the Times, it doesn’t mean we can’t talk them up ourselves or run contests or point people toward excerpts or say, “Hey, it’s Tuesday, look what books are coming out.” I think it’s a really valuable tool. And then you get the trolls.
For me it feels like every time I say something, there are people who come back with, “You’re no Jonathan Franzen!” Believe me, I know. I read a lot; I read a lot of literary fiction. I know exactly where on the food chain I am. It’s less about my feelings and my books being ignored than it is about a large, powerful institution saying to all of the women who read my books and books like mine or who read romance, “We don’t see you, you are invisible.” Men who read mysteries — like that businessmen who’s going to pick up the new John Grisham or the new Stephen King — we see you and we’re going to tell you if that book’s any good. But you ladies whose genre fiction we don’t cover, you get nothing.
If there aren’t women in the room, and people of color in the room, on the masthead, in a position to say, “Hey, you seem to have overlooked some things here,” the example I come back to is when Wikipedia had that controversy because they have women’s fiction and fiction. It wasn’t even women’s fiction and men’s fiction.
Another thing about social media — I want to talk about the swimsuit photo you posted over the summer and your invitation to other women to “Wear the swimsuit.” I was so happy to see you talking in the book with such honesty about being a healthy person and having an active life without having a thigh gap. So what made you post the photo and what was the response?
I was listening to my daughter talk with some of her friends about bathing suits. It was June and it was getting ready for the beach time, and it was, “I don’t like bikinis, I think my tummy’s too big.” These are girls who are way, way too young to be thinking about anything about the way they look. These are also the daughters of the most enlightened moms, who would never say, “Oh, I was bad last night, I had dessert,” would never say something critical about themselves or about the way another woman looked. The moms who are so aware of the media their girls are consuming. And still somehow at seven and eight and nine years old, these girls had gotten the message that there’s a way you’re supposed to look in a bathing suit and I’m not it. It enraged me. I was just thinking, “Please God, just let her make it to double digits before this kicks in. Give her ten years of innocence, where she can just enjoy being in her body, running through puddles and splashing on the beach before she starts to think about, ‘Do I look okay, Are boys going to think I look cute? What do I need to change and what do I need to fix and what should be smaller?’” I was angry and just kind of brokenhearted because if my girls and their friends aren’t okay with themselves, probably no one is. I do want to stress these are first world, upper middle class problems. No one is worried about having clean water or enough to eat. But you just don’t want their body to be their enemy.
So I’m thinking, what is my move here? What do I do? I remember thinking years ago, Glamour magazine had a model who was sitting in profile. She was naked and she had this little tummy roll. I had never seen that in a magazine. I remember thinking, “That’s a thing that other people have? And she’s a model!” It was a story. It was news that Glamour had published this picture. What that picture did for me was give this little bit of slightly more okayness. If she could look like that, maybe my body is not as much of a tragedy as I was thinking. I was thinking, “How many of hundreds of pictures and images of completely unattainable bodies are my eight year-old daughter seeing in the course of a day or a week or a month?”
I talk to my daughters about Photoshop and lighting and angles, and how different you can look in pictures, and how even the models don’t even look like that because someone’s gone in and trimmed inches off their thighs. Even with all that knowledge, sometimes the power of seeing someone who looks more identifiably like you can reframe your idea of what normal is. And in Lindy West’s book, she talks about how starting to go online and seeing women living their lives in non-model bodies can help you reset your idea of what’s okay. That was the impetus.
My husband took my picture. I thought, I’m going to ask people to submit their photographs and I’m going to show them to my daughters in a casual way as a visual inoculation.
In the book, I talk about if you’re just going through the world looking at the billboards, reading the magazines, watching the TV shows, every day you are exposing yourself to low-level radiation. And if you don’t do something about it, it’s going to make you sick. So [I thought,] I’m going to show my daughters and that can at least be a second voice in their heads when they think, “I don’t look right or I’m too big.”
The thing that was the most gratifying to me were the women who said, “I haven’t been to the beach in five years, in ten years; I used to love to swim but I don’t swim any more.” One woman said, “This is the first picture that’s been taken of my son and me since he was born — and he’s nine.” I would sit there weeping, thinking, “What have you missed? And what have all of us missed, because oh, no, I’m not going to be in the picture?”