Oct 10, 2016
The #1 New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, Jennifer Weiner, took a few minutes to talk with me about the writer’s life, her new memoir, and Revenge of the Nerds.
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Prior to her prolific career as a novelist, Ms. Weiner started out as a small town newspaper reporter and freelancer, before signing her first big book deal for her novel Good in Bed (2001).
Since then her books have spent over five years on the New York Times bestseller list, she has had a novel made into a major motion picture — In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette (2005) — contributed op-eds to the New York Times, executive produced a TV series, and published a children’s book (The Littlest Bigfoot).
Her latest offering is the memoir Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, and it “… is about yearning and fulfillment, loss and love, and a woman who searched for her place in the world, and found it as a storyteller.”
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In Part One of this file Jennifer Weiner and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I’m your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers to learn their secrets. The number one New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, Jennifer Weiner, took a few minutes to talk with me this week about the writer’s life, her new memoir, and Revenge of the Nerds.
Before her prolific career as a novelist, Ms. Weiner started out as a small town newspaper reporter, before signing her first big book deal for her novel Good in Bed. Since then, her books have spent over five years on the New York Times Bestseller List. She’s had a novel made into a major motion picture, In Her Shoes, starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, contributed op-eds for The New York Times, executive produced a TV series, and published a children’s book. Her latest offering is the memoir Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing. It’s about yearning and fulfillment, loss and love, and a woman who searched for her place in the world and found it as a storyteller.
In part one of this file, Jennifer and I discuss how her iconic writing mentors Joyce Carol Oates and John McPhee helped guide her, why 10 years and 10,000 hours in the trenches is par for the course, how working in busy environments boosts your productivity, and great tricks to keep the ink flowing without opening a vein.
This episode of The Writer Files is brought to you by Audible. I ll have more on their special offer later in the show but if you love Audiobooks or you’ve always wanted to give them a try, you can check out over 180,000 titles right now at Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker. This episode of The Writer Files is also brought to you by Digital Commerce Summit. We’ll have more about that unique event for Digital Entrepreneurs later in the show but you can check out Rainmaker.FM/Summit for all the details on an amazing educational and networking event.
We are rolling today on The Writer Files with a very special guest. Jennifer Weiner is joining me today, and I feel honored to have you on today. Your new book is coming out, or just came out, and this podcast is really a show about writers, for writers, and this new book of yours, Hungry Heart, is I think really that. It’s pretty fantastic, and thank you for coming on.
Jennifer Weiner: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here and excited to talk about it.
Kelton Reid: We usually open the show with kind of getting to know the authors a little bit better, and I think it’s a great place to kind of open. I’m really excited about this book Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, because it really kind of tracks your origins as a bestselling writer, author, essayist now, memoirist, columnist. You’ve done all these different things. You’ve worn all these different hats. You’ve even done some TV production.
Kelton Reid: Take us back a little bit, because this book really traces those origins extremely well. It’s hilarious. It’s heartbreaking. It’s got all these fantastic moments that have kind of molded you, I think, into the bestselling author that you are. Maybe for listeners who may not be familiar, take us back a little bit to kind of … I’m really interested in those early days that formed you, but also the Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison moments of your life which are so fantastic in the book. Take us back a little bit.
Jennifer Weiner: The joke in Hungry Heart is that the best gift that any writer can receive is an unhappy childhood. What is less discussed is that this is a gift we’d all return if we possibly could. I am the oldest of four kids, and my parents moved us to this very preppy, very wealthy, very WASP-y kind of enclave in Connecticut, for reasons I’m still not really clear on. I’m like, “Why would you do this?”
In my high school class of 400, there were nine Jewish kids, and I was one of them, although if you’re going by size, I was probably one and a half. I was, you know, I was this sort of pudgy, Jewish book wormy, had this like, gigantic vocabulary and no OP t-shirts, or Benetton sweaters, or Fiorucci jeans. Just, like, I was a disaster. I was lonely. I was picked on. I was unhappy. I couldn’t even get other Jewish kids to be nice to me, but I always loved books. And I always had books as my place to go, as my refuge, as my place where I could go hide from the world that was a really, really hard place for me to be.
I dreamed about being a writer someday. It was the only thing I wanted. It was the only thing I was good at, and so I graduated from high school, and I went to Princeton, and I was an English major, because that was obviously where you got to read all the great books. And I got to take creative writing classes with some amazing people. As you mentioned, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison, and John McPhee, who taught nonfiction writing, but who was, I would say, the most influential professor that I had in terms of teaching writing as craft, and not something where you just sat around and you waited for inspiration to come. You waited for your muse to speak to you.
He taught that you worked at it. That you wrote something, and then you re-wrote it, and then you re-wrote it again. And then you showed a draft to a friend, and then you revised it one more time, and then you showed it to your professor, then you re-wrote it after that. It was less like being some artiste, you know? Some beret-wearing hipster in Paris or in Brooklyn, than being like the HVAC guy. You know? It’s like, the vents need cleaning, so you’d be the one down there kind of mucking out the vents.
Writing, I was taught, was that kind of labor. Obviously not as physical. My sister always likes to tell me when I complain about stuff, she’s like, “Well, you’re not digging ditches,” which is true, but it’s work. I’m glad that I learned that early on. I’m glad I had very smart people there to sort of demystify the process, and teach me really that the difference, I think, between people who want to write, believe they can write, talk about writing, and the ones of us who actually do go on to get published, a lot of times that’s just sheer persistence and nothing more than that.
Kelton Reid: The book, and I’ll encourage listeners to pick it up, because it’s a fascinating window into kind of all these things that I think shaped you, and this memoir, Cheryl Strayed called, “Furiously funny, powerfully smart, remarkably brave.” It is brave. It’s at times hilarious. You’ve got a whole Revenge of the Nerds footnote in there, which I thought was pretty good.
Jennifer Weiner: I have such love for and problems with that movie. It’s, like, all my faves are problematic. That especially. That more than anything else.
Kelton Reid: I would read a whole op-ed column on Revenge of the Nerds.
Jennifer Weiner: I wish I could well maybe I will. Maybe I will write one.
Kelton Reid: I think you should.
Jennifer Weiner: Somebody needs to make the Omega Mus movie. That some might just be me someday.
Kelton Reid: Well, you clearly have a love of all media, and you’ve been shaped by these things, and there are heartbreaking pieces in there. You know, kind of the Princeton days, and kind of being chased down by creditors, which I thought was harrowing and inspiring stuff, so kudos on the new book.
Jennifer Weiner: I should make it clear. My dad was being chased down by creditors.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, right. I’m sorry.
Jennifer Weiner: I was just the poor jerk who had to answer the phone. My credit is excellent. Excellent. Very powerful, and big-ly good.
Kelton Reid: We will be right back after a very short break. Thanks so much for listening to The Writer Files.
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Kelton Reid: I thought it was cool, the you know, the Malcolm Gladwell, kind of looking back at the 10,000 hours that shaped you. You were a journalist, you were a small town newspaper reporter.
Jennifer Weiner: Freelance writer, trying to get short stories published, yeah. Just, like, 10 years in the trenches, and deep in the trenches. I remember just being, just sick with jealousy when I would read about some 24 year old hotshot being hired by Saturday Night Live, or getting that six figure book deal, and I would just think, like, “Oh, it’s never going to be me. I’m working so hard, and it’s just not going to happen, and I’m going to be in central Pennsylvania for the rest of my life.”
Looking back, of course I could not see this at the time, but it was the best thing for me. It was the best thing for me to learn everything I did, and to put in all the time that I did. It was the best thing for me that I was 31 and not 21 when my first book was published, because I don’t think I would have been able to handle it. I don’t think I was ready yet.
Kelton Reid: Well kudos. The book is fantastic, and it kind of documents what’s made you this bestselling author, and TV producer, and yeah, definitely cool stuff.
Let’s talk about your process. I mean, I’d love to just dig into a little bit more about the writing life. I will point back to your fantastic website, JenniferWeiner.com, and the “For Writers” section I think is notable just because it’s so cool, and in a nutshell, you kind of break down, “So you want to be a novelist …” And these points are, at times, funny, and also maybe cautionary.
Jennifer Weiner: Yes, yes. Cautionary is a good way to put it.
Kelton Reid: So now that you’ve got this fantastic memoir, this essay collection under your belt, and you’re kind of doing the rounds to promote it, what else do you have in the hopper? I know you’ve just released, also, a kids’ book. Is that right?
Jennifer Weiner: Yes. Uh-huh, my first children’s book. It’s called The Littlest Bigfoot.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. So, what else could you possibly be doing?
Jennifer Weiner: Well, I had some pretty good Tweets about the debate last night. The first presidential debate. What I’m working on now is a sequel to the children’s books, so I’m writing Little Bigfoot, Big City, which is going to be the next one in that trilogy, and I m also I have another grown up novel that I am eager to get back to. Kind of waiting to … We’re talking before Hungry Heart goes on sale, and when it does, I’m going to have the 12 city book tour, so I’ve got to get through that.
But I’m interested in all of the new places there are to tell stories. All of the new ways there are to do it. I’ve been doing some Facebook Live videos that I’m really enjoying. I did some videos for People, for People.com. I like telling stories, and I think wherever I end up doing that, this is my life’s work. My life’s work.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah, cool. Well, let’s talk about your life’s work. How much time per day, when you’re really digging in, are you kind of, like, doing research or reading before you settle in and start clacking away?
Jennifer Weiner: Generally, I get up in the morning, and I get my daughters off to school, and I exercise, because if I don’t do that first thing, it doesn’t happen. Then, it’ll be kind of an hour of, like, business. You know, e-mails, phone calls, taking care of social media. Usually by 11:00 or noon I’m kind of settling in for the writing day, and I usually aim for three or four solid hours of writing, which at first I thought made me sound like a slacker. Then, I thought about it, and I’m like, “Okay, but when I was at newspapers, and I was there for eight hours, I wasn’t really writing for eight hours. I was hanging out at the water cooler, or at the fax machine, or having lunch, or on the phone.” All of the things that you get to do in an office, and I no longer have an office. I don’t have any people, so I’m just working. Working away.
Kelton Reid: Do you set word counts, or you kind of chasing deadlines, or …?
Jennifer Weiner: It kind of depends what I’m working on. I’d say probably 1,000 words a day is a general goal. They can be crummy words. They could be words I’ll chuck the next day when I read them over, but I shoot for 1,000 words. 1,000 words a day.
Kelton Reid: Very nice. Are you someone who can listen to music while you’re working, or do you like silence?
Jennifer Weiner: I can. I don’t need to have it. I’m one of these people that we call women, who has generally learned to work with interruptions, with kids screaming, in coffee shops. I worked in a As you said, I was a newspaper reporter for almost 10 years, so I got used to newsrooms, and there would be people yelling, and there are television sets on, like, blaring CNN. Somebody would have a police scanner on his desk, and that would be going off. I can deal with noise. I can deal with interruption. I’m not one of these, you know, “The room must be silent. It must be cooled to a 67 degree temperature, with a pink noise machine in the corner.” I read these things sometimes, and I’m like, “Who are you? Probably, you’re someone who doesn’t have children, is my guess.”
Kelton Reid: Do you ever get out to a café or a coffee shop?
Jennifer Weiner: I do. I do some writing in coffee shops. Today, my daughter has ceramics club at school, and that gets out at 4:20, so I’ll probably put my laptop in my backpack and her school is two miles away, so I’ll walk up there, and I’ll park myself in the coffee shop and write until she’s done with ceramics, and then bring her home.
Kelton Reid: Cool. Here’s the million dollar question. And I have a feeling I know the answer. Do you believe in writer’s block?
Jennifer Weiner: No. I really don’t. Again, I would point to my life as a journalist. You can’t go to your editor and say, “I know that you need me to write that 12 inch story on the sewage board hearing, but alas, my muse has not spoken.” You just write the story. Maybe it’s terrible. Maybe it’s the worst story anybody’s ever read, but you can fix it. I think, I mean Robert Gottlieb’s famous advice is, “If you can’t write, type.” So just type. Just get some word shapes onto the page, and then you’ll have something to work with, you know? You’ve got to start with something.
Kelton Reid: I like that one a lot. Well cool, that dovetails perfectly into kind of your work flow. “If you can’t write, type.” Are you working on a typewriter?
Jennifer Weiner: No. No. I work on a … I have a Mac. I have a Macbook Air. It’s kind of old, and there’s some food in the keyboard. I’ve worked on laptops. I’ve worked on desktops. I’ve had Macs for the last little while, but I used to have Dell. Again, I’m really not picky. I use Microsoft Word. Like that s my I don’t have Scrivner, or one of those fancy schmancy … It’s just, like, basically rolling a sheet of paper into a typewriter.
Kelton Reid: Very nice. Straight to the point. Do you have some organizational hacks that kind of keep you on task that you can share with writers?
Jennifer Weiner: I walk a lot. I think a lot of my best thinking happens when I’m walking, and so that’s where I kind of will … If I’m stuck on a plot point, or if I’m thinking, “How would a character say this?” Or, “How would they react in a certain situation?” A lot of times I’ll just, like, walk the dog, or walk myself. Just go for a walk if I get stuck. Sometimes not thinking about it helps. You can just sort of kick it to the back part of your brain for a little while, and cook something, or exercise. I have writer friends who color in those grown up coloring books.
And I also, I read somebody else, always leave … When you stop for the day, don’t stop at the end of a sentence. Leave half of a sentence so you’ll just have a place to pick right up the next day. It will just be like, “Oh, okay. Here’s where I was. Now I know I’ve got to finish that sentence.” That will hopefully kick start the next day’s work.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s a great trick. I think that was a Hemingway trick, also. I think he talked about doing that one.
Jennifer Weiner: Yes.
Kelton Reid: A good brain training thing. So you kind of lean into the incubation phase. Do you have some ways to beat procrastination, or are you kind of leaning into it, then?
Jennifer Weiner: If I find I’m getting distracted, or if I find I’m finding other things to do, sometimes a change of scenery helps. Sometimes it’s even just, like, getting up, and stretching, and getting away from the keyboard for five minutes. I’m not a huge procrastinator, and I think it’s because I’m not one of these writers that thinks it’s like sitting down and opening a vein. I’m not one of these writers who’s like, you know, “I love having written, but I hate writing.” I like writing. I really, really do. It remains the thing that brings me the most joy and makes me the happiest. I really, I can’t complain about it that much. I feel lucky to be able to do it, and so I really do not have a huge procrastination problem.
Kelton Reid: How does Jennifer Weiner unwind at the end of a long writing day?
Jennifer Weiner: I beat the children. No. I don’t.
Kelton Reid: End scene.
Jennifer Weiner: No. Honestly, it’s like, I, you know, I don’t want to … I was going to say, like many women, I have what they call the second shift, where it’s like, you stop your professional work, and then you’re mom. And that’s what I do, but I also have a ton of help, so it’s not like I’m like, “And then I get the groceries, and then I make dinner, and then I wash the dishes, and then I do the laundry.” I have people to do those things. I’m super duper lucky, and I’m able to sort of use my money so that all I get to do with my time is spend time with my children and spend time on my work.
That’s how I unwind, is I’m with my kids, and they are both very funny, and smart, and interesting young ladies. The eight year old is hilarious, and the 13 year old is brilliant, and prickly, and really into math and science, and sort of thinks I’m useless in the way of 13 year old daughters everywhere. She’s just like, “Ugh, Mom!” Cue eye roll. People say I’ll get her back in, like, four years, so I’m just watching the clock on that. I’m with my kids, and that’s how I unwind. I watch TV, too. I’m very eager to start the new season of Transparent.
Kelton Reid: Ah, yes. I can vouch that it is as good as they say.
Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files Podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.