Who Do You Love?

Jennifer Weiner returns with what might be her best love story yet

International bestselling author Jennifer Weiner just released her 12th book, Who Do You Love. The sure-to-be smash is a classic love story, told over the course of two decades, twisted up with modern cultural observations and maybe just a miniature ode to Save the Last Dance and When Harry Met Sally.

Rachel Blum and Andy Landis met in the emergency room as children. Rachel, upper-middle-class Jewish daughter of doting parents, in for a congenital heart defect; Andy, biracial son of a young single mom, in for a broken arm. She’s from a fancy Floridian locale; he’s helping his mom in a cramped apartment in Philadelphia. They chat, time goes on, they fall in love, and then out again, and then, well, you know. Or maybe you don’t.

Weiner (In Her Shoes; Best Friends Forever) was in town for a Q&A and signing at BookPeople, but if you missed that Friday, Aug. 14 event, you can get your fix of inside info from the author in our interview with her. We caught up with Weiner by phone while she was summering at Cape Cod and chatted about this new book, VIDA’s Count, Harper Lee, and why she’s (mostly) fine with the term "chick lit."

Austin Chronicle: I just finished your new book last night, and I really enjoyed it. It's actually my first of your books to read.

Jennifer Weiner: Oh, wow. [Laughs] Yeah, why not start with the 12th?

AC: That's what my friend said: "How have you not read any of her books yet?!"

JW: I won't hassle you about it. Everyone is welcome to the party no matter when they come. Sometimes people are like, "I got this at a tag sale" or "I got it at the library, are you mad?" No! I think it's great - wonderful - however you found it.

AC: Is this one different from your other books?

JW: Yes. I'd say there's an element of romance in all the books I've written, but this is different in that it's a little bit more just straight-up love story. I wanted to write a romance. Kind of a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, you know what happens next kind of story.

It was really interesting to sort of remember what it was like to be a teenager, and sort of the overwhelming physicality of that, and what it's like to have a boyfriend in college and the dorm stuff and everything. It was really great to write about love from all those different places.

AC: I'm sure. There are secondary characters, sure, but it's mostly about Andy and Rachel, and it covers 20 years, so those characters have to be well-written for it to keep up interest. Did you do characters first, like did you imagine Rachel, or was it more of a plot-first thing?

JW: Actually, this started off as a very different book that was gonna be about dating in an old folks' home. I had this idea that the young woman worked in a funeral parlor and was sort of brokenhearted herself and that is who Rachel became. When we met her in that story she had been through a divorce, and she moved back to be with her parents, with her two daughters. I think there are like two sentences from that draft that ended up in this book, but there was a whole scene where her parents lived in Florida, and she took the girls down to see them and met this old boyfriend. So, you know, reading that really crappy first draft and then reading that scene, I thought, "That's the story! It's those two people." That's what happened.

AC: Pretty cool that you could home in and then expand it back out. I mean, it's almost 400 pages.

JW: Well, I have to give my agent and my editor a lot of the credit. It's been so interesting reading about Harper Lee this summer - and not that I am in any way equating myself to Harper Lee - but just the idea that you could turn a manuscript in and someone could read it and just zero in on a character or a scene or an instant or a flashback and say, "That's your story. Go back and tell me that story."

AC: I started reading Go Set a Watchman and then yours came in the mail, so now I've got to go back and finish it.

JW: [Laughs] I think everybody is reading Go Set a Watchman this summer.

AC: Well, anyone who's a book nerd like us is. It's pure curiosity at this point. I'm a little bit scared because I love To Kill a Mockingbird, but I can't not read this one.

JW: I read that an independent bookstore was actually offering refunds to people who felt like their hearts had been thoroughly broken. And it's like, after all that's been written, I have to believe that people know what they're getting into and understand that this was more or less a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. To me, as a writer, that's a super-interesting thing. Like, let's see the stuff that ended up in her recycling bin basically.

AC: Our one chance to go through Harper Lee's recycling bin.

JW: Right. It's like if you found Balzac's grocery list or Shakespeare's notes to his son, you'd want to read them. I think that's what's going on here.

AC: Speaking of all sorts of craft things, how did you decide to go the route of first-person Rachel and third-person Andy, and then alternate between them?

JW: That was an interesting choice and, again, a conversation with my editor. My agent is the first person to read my books. She said they should both be in first person, but I felt that with Andy, well, his focus is so narrow. With many athletes all they see is what's right in front of them in terms of the next race, or the next workout, next meal. I felt like we needed to see him through eyes other than his own to really see all the parts of who he was. Whereas I think Rachel does a pretty good job of telling you. I guess he wouldn't exactly have been an unreliable narrator, but he might have been an interesting one. He wouldn't have had a very good perspective on his own life.

AC: At the beginning, he was so closed off and unaware of his own self.

JW: Right. Closed off, shut down, sort of self-loathing, confused. Like, "Where do I fit in the world?" and angry.

AC: You've got many cultural observations going on [biracial child, religion, single young mom, prison, sports, celebrity, etc]. Did you research the things that might be happening in the settings and then look from another angle? Are you just a people watcher by nature?

JW: I am a people watcher. I think all writers are. We're all great eavesdroppers. If you put me in a casino with no money, I would still be completely happy just to watch people go by. And obviously if I'm talking about a specific culture - like runners - I do a lot of research. I talked to runners. I talked to coaches. I read runner's magazines. I read biographies about runners and sort of looked at college training and diets and just everything. The Internet is so fantastic. I don't really know how writers did it before. But it's also good to just be on the phone with a college coach, asking, "What would his events have been? What would his times have been? What was his schedule?"

AC: I think without all that, the story wouldn't have been as deep.

JW: That's the thing. I wanted to be writing about two really specific people and just know them in all of their specificity. What kind of clothes would they wear? If they had a day off, what would they do? I didn't want anybody to be a type, you know. Especially the characters who are different than I am. Writing about black people or biracial people or men, I always want to have readers that are from those worlds read the book and just be like, "Did I get it right?" Or at least, "Did I not get it terribly wrong? Not like offensively terrible? Does Andy feel like somebody real, or does he feel like some white girl’s bad imagining of what a biracial kid would go through?"

AC: I think it works.

Photo by Photo by Tamara Staples

JW: I hope so. I do. Honestly, the beauty and the curse of the Internet and Twitter is if I didn't get it right, people are gonna tell me. I had a scene where there was a woman in a pediatrician’s office and the fancy white ladies are all very ostentatious breastfeeding their babies, and I had some lower-income women feeding their babies with bottles. People jumped on that. I’m like, "But it happened, and I've seen it, and I've seen it in my own doctor's office. I'm not saying anything about race, I'm just saying rich white ladies are obsessed with this." People sort of explained, "OK, but if the only black character is the teenage mom who is giving her kid Kool-Aid in a plastic bottle, that is a real problem." Once you get over your hurt feelings at being called out, it makes you think really carefully about - not about being politically correct or afraid - but you want to do it right. You want to make sure that if you're going to write about people who aren't like you that you're doing it in a way that feels fair.

AC: Yes. If you actually take a step back, you can actually learn so much from being called out, from someone saying actually here’s what you could have done differently, better.

JW: And fingers crossed they're going to do it in a way that doesn't leave you weeping at your keyboard. I’ve been so grateful to have Twitter as a soapbox to talk about the way that women’s fiction gets reviewed or not reviewed, the way men's books get talked about as opposed to women's books, and who the critics are and what they're bringing to the table. I've used Twitter that way, so I really can’t complain when other people turn it around and they take the opportunity to speak their minds.

AC: I Googled you - that must be a weird thing to hear - and I saw a mention of VIDA. I was actually one of the VIDA Counters in 2013.

JW: YAY! Oh, God bless you. You’re, like, doing the Lord’s work. I swear. I have been doing my own keeping an eye on things in a really non-scientific, non-specific way. I get The New Yorker every week, so I look at how many women [are there]. Or reading the Table of Contents from the New York Times Book Review - how many women? So I already knew. When Jodi Picoult and I started talking about this when Freedom came out in 2010, we said the Times talks about women differently than it talks about men. It reviews more men, and it reviews men differently than it reviews women, and people were like, “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about! You’re wrong!” Then someone actually counted, and not only were we not wrong, it’s worse than we thought.

I have to say, one of the most encouraging things has been seeing the Times respond and get better. I mean, they reviewed my book last year – which I almost fell over dead about. They reviewed the women who write The Nanny Diaries - their new book got reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. I think now there is a recognition that Times readers read these kinds of books and care about them. There is a recognition that, yes, maybe they’re beach books and maybe they're fun and entertaining and frothy and all that stuff, but there was still a lot of effort that was put into them. You can't just say, “Ugh, whatever,” and dismiss them like they are this week’s People Magazine.

Now, because there is VIDA, all of those editors have to answer for their numbers. Even if they're not changing, even if they're not improving, they know that that’s coming every year. Someone is going to say, "Hey, David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker, why are you still publishing two men to every woman?" And he's going to have to answer. That’s important. That’s meaningful.

AC: Agreed. You've discussed at length the term “chick lit,” and it's such a strange thing to me because I consider myself a well-read person and I like the “chick lit” genre, but I also like all these other things. I’m a Hemingway fan, for God’s sake.

JW: Right! Well, that’s the thing. I feel that sort of implicit in the term "chick lit," or just in the word chick, is that you're this blinking, fresh-out-of-the-show girlie and you don't read anything else. I read everything else. I read literary fiction. I read poetry. I read all kinds of stuff. Just because you write in a certain genre doesn't mean you can't appreciate other stuff. I think, in general, if you talk to chick-lit writers, we’re very well-read, and we're very thoughtful about what's out there and how it's portrayed, how it's consumed, how it's packaged. We think a lot about covers and fonts and how books go out into the world. All that stuff. When you're a woman, it's hard enough to get published. Then you have to go through great effort to say, no, this is literature. If you've written, like, literary fiction, to try not to get that pink cover.

Plus, I guess there is part of me that at 45 is still delighted that anybody wants to call me a chick. "Ok, I guess I won’t be that pissed. Bring it on. Just bring it on." Do I even fight about [that term]? Because I have readers. They don't care that it's called chick lit. They don't care if there are cupcakes on the cover. They’re very happy. That’s a good question: What’s more important? Having critical esteem or having people actually read your book?

AC: You have a lot of people reading your books.

JW: Right!

AC: And you have critical esteem...

JW: Well, eh, yeah, sorta-kinda. In an interview, Jonathan Franzen was like, "She is claiming a right to criticism that all the critics agree she doesn't deserve!" And I’m like, "That’s just not true. Some of them think I don't deserve any attention, but that's certainly not true of all of them."

AC: So, what are you reading?

JW: I just downloaded a bunch of Samuel R. Delaney because The New Yorker wrote a piece about him, just a little profile. He is a science fiction writer, of color, who’s been doing it for a million years. He's written like 30 books, and I’d never heard of him, so I downloaded some of his books. I loved Dietland by Sarai Walker. I've been proselytizing about that one on Twitter. It’s great. It’s a little bit like a Trojan horse of a book, where it sort of looks like chick lit. You know, it's got the classic protagonist who works at a magazine and doesn't have a boyfriend and needs to lose some weight, and then it just takes this turn into, like, fight-land territory. She becomes completely radicalized and she’s like, "I don’t need to change! The world needs to change! Look at how we’re treating women!" It’s amazing.

AC: I need to get that ASAP!

JW: Yes, please, get that today, and then write about her. Honestly, the thing I'm most looking forward to on this book tour is pimping her book. It’s important. And of course the Times hasn't reviewed it, and now I’m fucking frustrated again. Oh yeah, and then we have Holly Madison’s Down the Rabbit Hole. I can tell you all about Hugh Hefner’s sex life. It’s disgusting. And then you have to read Dietland. [Laughs]

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Jennifer Weiner, Who Do You Love, BookPeople, VIDA, Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

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