A Conversation with Jennifer Wiener
Q. With In Her Shoes, you tell the story from the viewpoint of many different characters. Did you consider using just one point of view at any point in the process?
A. Not really. I knew that this was going to be a story about three very different women who'd have their own voices and their own very different views of the world and the events that had brought them to where they found themselves.
Q. To what extent is your work autobiographical? In Good in Bed, for example, Cannie's résumé is strikingly similar to your own. How much do you write yourself into a character? Also, how much do you base other characters on the people in your life?
A. I think that everything I write -- whether it's set in the here-and-now in the United States or takes place in a mythical land that only exists in my imagination -- is necessarily going to be influenced by my place in a particular moment in history. The pop-culture references, for example, or the characters' preoccupation with finding love (in Rose's case) or stardom (in Maggie's) by the time they turn thirty very much reflects the pressures exerted on women in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was growing up.
However, this story is a lot less autobiographical than Good in Bed. I'm not a lawyer or a dog groomer. My grandmother isn't much like Ella; my mom is one of the sanest people I know; my father vanished in a very different way than Michael Feller did; and my wedding...well, let's just say that I welcomed the opportunity to revisit a wedding in fiction and make it full of love, glitch-free and picture perfect, the way real-life weddings don't always turn out to be.
But, as always, there are elements of autobiography. Rose's very specific longing to be accepted by the right girls in junior high -- the ones who have Diet Coke and cut-up carrots for lunch, and who always know the right thing to wear, and the right haircut -- is something I remember well from my own days at Henry James Junior High. And Simon Stein, Master of the Menu, instigator of intramural softball, has certain things in common with my husband, Adam, although he'd deny it vigorously.
And with the characters who have nothing in common with me or my experiences -- the senior citizens especially and someone like Lewis, who's both a different generation and a different gender -- I try to imagine who they are, how they'd sound and behave by first trying to hear their voices in my head, and working backward. Once I know how someone sounds -- or I have a gesture or a characteristic in my head -- it's a little easier for me to step into their shoes and start to really figure out who they are and how they got that way.
Q. Do you have a favorite character in In Her Shoes? Do you relate to one sister more than the other?
A. I have a special place in my heart for all the characters in this book. Rose is the sister I most resemble, both physically and in terms of being responsible to the point of anal retentiveness. (Her cluelessness about fashion and makeup is all me, although I have to say that she's got embarrassingly bad taste in music. George Michael! Please!) Maggie is very, very different than I am, but it was a very interesting exercise trying to slip into the skin, and the mind-set, of someone who's not like me at all, from the itsy-bitsy body and the constant flow of male attention to the spotty employment history.
Ella was the most interesting character for me to write because her life required me to imagine things I'd only seen or heard second-hand, or read about. My grandmother, Faye Frumin, lives in a place that's a lot like Golden Acres, so I was able to take some of the details of retirement-community living in Florida from my visits over the years. But thinking of what was going on inside Ella's head -- how it would feel to lose a child, to feel a degree of responsibility for that child's death, and all of the guilt and longing she'd feel about these granddaughters she couldn't save -- was a real challenge.
And in terms of favorite supporting characters, Mrs. Lefkowitz wins, hands down.
Q. Who have been the most influential authors to you, and how have they helped shape you as a writer? Are you more influenced by journalists than fiction writers?
A. Outside of newspapers and magazines I rarely read nonfiction in my free time. I much prefer novels. I figure there's enough reality in real life, and when I read I want to escape, and novels are what work for me.
There've been a lot of writers who've been influential, whose books I turn to again and again. Stephen King, for one. He's an amazing storyteller, with an unbelievable imagination. Susan Isaacs, for another. Every one of her lead characters is someone you'd want to sit down and dish with over coffee. It's interesting, but I just realized that both of them are writers I discovered in my adolescence. I remember devouring Pet Sematary in one fevered gulp when I was in seventh grade.
In addition to Sapphire's Push, I also reread Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone when thinking about Maggie's voice. Precious, the lead character in Push, is, like Maggie, at war with the world -- she's someone who's been through incredible pain in her life, who's been judged as expendable and told that she's stupid, and yet she has this voice that's so sharp, so full of rage and sorrow and dead-on observations about the world.
And then there were the novelists and poets I discovered in college and keep coming back to, and it was fun to give them little cameos during Maggie's time at Princeton. The Elizabeth Bishop poem is a particular favorite of mine.
Q. In both of your novels, the idea of body image is a central theme. Do you think this concept is a constraint that we place on ourselves, a restraint that society places on women, or a combination of the two?
A. Um, all of the above? I think it starts out as being a societal mandate -- a kind of signpost outside of life's roller coaster reading "You Must Be Less Than This Fat Or Nobody Will Ever Love You" -- and it's something that women internalize, and carry with them in different ways. One of the things I was trying to do with this book was to show both sides of the coin, and the different ways that buying the beauty myths can harm you. Rose, for example, who's a normal size and healthy, gets the message that her body is something to be ignored and concealed, swathed in sweatpants and unfashionable-length skirts, until she learns that however it appears, her body is, first and foremost, something to use -- to get her around, to ride a bike, to walk a dog, to hold the people she loves. And then there's Maggie, who's got this ready-for-its-closeup body (which, as we see, requires a tremendous investment in terms of effort and time), but it doesn't bring her all the happiness that the plastic surgeons and diet merchants promise. It gets her scads of attention -- good and bad -- and it gets her judged, the same way Rose's body earns her judgments. I hope someday the idea of "you are how you look" will change, and I hope that in some small way my books will be part of that change....But I worry that there's so much money to be made off of convincing women that they're inadequate, too big, too little, or otherwise completely unacceptable that change is going to be painfully slow.
Q. What do you consider to be the greatest challenge that you face as a fiction writer? Are the challenges different from those that you encountered as a journalist?
A. I think the greatest challenge I face as a fiction writer is character economy. I usually wind up with so many characters -- all of them vying for space and attention, all of them wanting to do things -- that a few of them wind up miserably on the cutting-room floor. In Good in Bed, for example, Cannie actually had another sibling, a second brother, who got lost in the revisions (my two real-life brothers spend lots of time fighting over which one actually made it into print, and which one got abandoned). In the early drafts of In Her Shoes,there was actually a lot more about Josh, the guy who menaces Maggie at Princeton, and what turned him into the creep he became. (It was actually a rotten father, who'd founded a Survivor-inspired weight-loss service where dieters were dropped in the middle of deserted, bug-infested islands with only a handful of rice and some waterproof matches...and don't think for a minute that he's not coming back in a book some day!)
And the biggest difference between fiction and journalism is, far and away, the lack of immediacy. Working for newspapers, you can respond pretty much immediately to something that's happening in the world of politics or pop culture. As a novelist, if you're lucky, your book will be out within a year of whatever event you're outraged or amused by. It's been a challenge to strike a balance between writing about current events that aren't going to be interesting by the time the book comes out, and writing books that still feel contemporary and current and relevent.
Q. The details in many of the scenes in In Her Shoes are amazing. How do you imagine yourself into the scenes of your novels? Do you find it difficult to understand the pain and suffering that your characters go through, if you yourself have not experienced the same degree of suffering?
A. Finally! The question where I get to talk about How I've Suffered! The answer is, probably not much more, or much less, than most of the rest of the world. Every person who's alive has been disappointed, broken-hearted, has suffered some kind of painful loss, and your obedient author is no exception (feel free to cue up Michael Stipe's "Everybody Hurts" at any point).
So when it's time to imagine a pain I've never felt -- Lewis's pain at losing his wife, Rose and Maggie's pain at losing their mother -- some of the writing is relying on my own memories, my own experiences. Some of it is just trying to imagine -- how would this feel? And the last piece of the puzzle is working backward. We've all met people like Rose and Maggie in our lives. My job as a writer is to look at someone like that -- a party girl with a killer bod who can't hold a job, a frumpy, repressed, ultra-responsible lawyer -- and try to figure out what experiences shaped them, what kinds of losses turned them into the people they are.
Q. Is there a message that you wish your readers would take away from your novels? Any themes or issues that you would like to get people thinking about?
A. It's always funny trying to answer this question, because I don't think many novelists sit down in front of the blank page with any specific message in mind. They just want to tell a story, with characters their readers will care about, and keep them turning the pages -- and in my case, give the characters as happy an ending as possible. The "message" part comes organically. It grows up around the plot and characters, usually without the writer having to do anything overt about it.
That being said, there are issues that seem to pop up in my fiction, and that I think are always interesting ones to think about. There's the question of interior versus exterior, and how much what you look like reflects, or determines, who you really are. And in this book I think there's the theme of the redemptive power of words, the way a good book can literally save your life. One of the parts I most enjoyed writing was turning Maggie into a reader, and showing the way her world, and her character, expanded as she read more and more.
Q. Do you consider Nifkin, in his various manifestations, to be your canine counterpart? Is there a specific reason that he keeps popping up in your writing?
A. Oh, that is such a great question! As usual, I'm very happy to talk about my dog...because, of course, Nifkin is really a very thinly veiled fictional version of my dog, Wendell.
I decided, when I started writing In Her Shoes,that Cannie and Nifkin were both going to show up again, but I wanted to give them very different roles than the ones they had in Good in Bed. In that book, Cannie's the one who needs rescuing. In this one, Cannie has more of a fairy-godmother type role -- and she's a role model, too, the one who shows Rose that you can find love and peace and happiness in spite of a body that doesn't fit the mold, a family that is not quite ready for prime time, and a life that doesn't fall neatly into society's proscribed pattern of "first you go to college, then you fall in love, then you get married, then you have babies."
And Nifkin also has an almost magical role -- a role that's only amplified in the book I'm working on now, where he actually starts talking!
So is Nifkin me? In a way, I guess -- I like the notion of the dog showing up in the book the way the author would, in disguise, just to check in on things and make sure everything's proceeding as planned.
And there's another, less supernatural point to be made, which is that dogs are incredibly important to single women. When I was in my twenties, my dog was really one of just a handful of constants in a very tumultuous life. I changed jobs, I changed cities, apartments, boyfriends and careers, and Wendell was the one witness and companion to every moment of it. Because of that -- and because he's loyal, and smart, and extremely cute -- he'll always have a special place in my heart, and my fiction.
Q. Do you have another project on the horizon?
A. My next novel is one of the most challenging things I've ever attempted: a long, sprawling, vividly detailed, epic-style book called Jezebel Bright. The title character is a young single woman in the city with the typical assortment of woes -- failed love life, crummy career, screwed-up family, etc. -- who discovers that she's the descendant of the mythical goddess Diana, and has powers that most mere mortals can only dream about (although not every power she could ever want. At one point her cousin asks if she can leap tall buildings in a single bound, to which Jezzie replies, "I'm not even sure I can leap regular-sized buildings in multiple bounds").
It's a classic quest story -- a hero-in-the-making in search of lost family, and justice, and the truth about who she really is. And I hope this will fill a certain vacancy in the world's bookshelves, the space for any reader who ever loved stories from The Hobbit to The Talisman, characters from Huck Finn to Luke Skywalker, and wondered why there was never a story where the hero was a woman (or who loved The Clan of the Cave Bear books and wished for a heroine like Ayla in the present day, only with fewer sex scenes and a better sense of humor).
Copyright © 2003 by Jennifer Weiner