With the fluid, feisty and funny voice she cultivated as a feature writer before turning to novels, Jennifer Weiner’s first nonfiction book could have been a punchy collection of essays and commentaries, and everyone would have gone home happy.
But, Weiner — a former Herald-Leader staffer — said during a telephone interview that as she dug into the writing, she checked her gut. “I want to write it for women who don’t see their stories a lot, women who maybe don’t see themselves a lot on the page or on the screen,” she said. “I want to tell my stories to make those readers feel less alone and more visible in the world.”
In “Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing” (Atria Books), Weiner writes about growing up as a self-perceived overweight girl; about her difficult father, who abandoned the family and later died of a cocaine overdose; about her mother, who came out as a lesbian late in life, to the bewilderment and sometimes sarcastic amusement of her adult children; and about giving birth herself, a messier and more emotionally complicated experience than she expected it to be.
She writes wryly that the book’s alternative title, drawn from the vent of a writer scorched by her Twitter criticism, was The Weiner Debacle.
“There’s a piece of my book that seems to resonate with almost everyone” who’s read it, Weiner said. For me, one of those pieces was “Fat Jennifer in the Promised Land,” about her teenage struggle with weight, body image and loneliness — and mean-girl bullying.
Ultimately, what changed for Weiner came through acceptance. She writes: “I gave up. I stopped trying to be popular, or quieter; I stopped trying to be cuter, or more fashionable. I wasn’t biting my tongue to prevent the jokes that no one would laugh at from escaping, or modeling my hairstyle on one girl, my clothes on another, and taking care to let my backpack dangle from one strap, the way the cool kids did.”
Writing about her college years studying English at Princeton, Weiner remembers how soft-spoken and even-tempered Joyce Carol Oates was and the thrilling cadences of Toni Morrison. But she credits John McPhee, the crafter of long nonfiction narratives for The New Yorker, with teaching her the most about writing. McPhee “emphasized the work aspect of it, that it was less about talent and less about inspiration and more about just putting your body into that seat every single day and doing the work and doing the revisions, doing more revisions and revising it one more time,” she said.
Weiner classifies her own popular novels, including “Good in Bed” and “In Her Shoes,” as romances, and she has become a prominent scourge of media that she and many others think fall short of fair coverage of books by women and for female readers.
But a hypothetical syllabus for the Jennifer Weiner School of Writing would draw from every part of the literary ecosystem: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” “for pacing and for plot, for when in a story you do your big reveal”; Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” “for all the tricks he uses to bring hell to life”; Eloisa James, “for how to write a sex scene — what you say and what you don’t say and how sometimes what you don’t say is just as powerful as what you do.”
Many people who have two-screened “The Bachelor”/“Bachelorette” have read Weiner’s pointed real-time commentary on Twitter. She needed little prompting to speak about Nick Viall, the Waukesha North High School graduate and three-time participant who will be the next choosy “Bachelor” when the reality dating TV series resumes in January.
Weiner said she relished Viall as a heel, but that the show’s producers gave him a “redemption edit” during “Bachelor in Paradise.” Citing her husband, Weiner calls him meta-Nick. He has become the bachelor for people who know the show is constructed by producers pulling everyone’s strings — but want to watch it anyway.
If she were the show-runner, what would she do to Viall? “Terrible things,” she said, laughing.
Weiner said she’ll never forget how he “slut-shamed Andi (Dorfman).”
“I would like him to understand what that probably felt like for her and how it read to the public,” she said. “I don’t know how I would do it, but I would find a way.”