Jennifer Weiner writes some exceedingly sad books. Everybody is always falling apart, no one is safe from complete and total devastation. There are always payoffs but you sure do have to make it through those bad times to get to the good. Her latest novel, who do you love, follows suit. It’s told from the perspective of two characters and spans their entire lives covering the moments they share and the lives they end up leading separately.
Rachel Blum and Andy Landis meet for the first time as children in the hospital Rachel frequents because she was born with a congenitive heart defect. She was literally born with a broken heart. Nowhere to go from there but up, right? Rachel meets Andy when he’s brought into the emergency room with a broken arm while on a vacation with his mother, a vacation she won in a contest. Their backgrounds could not be any more different if they were actually living on opposite sides of a train track. Rachel is a wealthy white Jewish girl from the only good part of Florida. Andy, half black and half white, is being raised by his single mother in the not-so-good part of Philadelphia. Rachel’s heart may be bad but it doesn’t stop her from being good as she cheers up Andy, a newbie to the whole hospital experience. That single moment forged a bond between them that would last a lifetime. This is their story and it’s not an easy one, but most good stories aren’t.
Jennifer Weiner was able to take some time to answer a couple of questions via email about this new book, and some other non-literary items of note (SOME GUILTY PLEASURES). We can unofficially call this the Jenn on Jen interview. Tonight you can see her at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.
BYT: This book was written from the perspectives of two very different people who, despite these differences, are very much in love with each other. How did you research writing from the angle of a half black/half white man and the struggles someone like that faces belonging to two different worlds?
Jennifer Weiner: When you’re writing about someone who is Not Like You, you’ve got to do your homework. For me, that meant reading a ton of novels and memoirs and autobiographies of black and biracial characters, and following lots of new people on Twitter…but, ultimately, it’s the reader and her imagination. Rachel was easy, for obvious reasons, but, in writing Andy, I had to constantly ask myself – how does it feel to be in his skin, to move through the world in his body? I edited and edited and rewrote and rewrote. I thought a lot about how athletes inhabit their physical selves, and made him twitchy, fidgety, always moving. I listened to the way men talk and made him very direct and taciturn; less about feelings and more about concrete action. I paid attention to what black men said and wrote about the weight of peoples’ gazes – how you can’t walk into a store or down a sidewalk in some neighborhoods without people making the worst assumptions about you, and how that can wear you down. I tried to avoid the obvious traps – describing peoples’ skin tones in relation to foods or beverages, turning Andy into an exotic sex object and not a person, showing a range of characters of color — rich and poor, men and women, people who were struggling, people who were successes. Then I had friends whose lives and histories were like Andy’s read the book and tell me if I’d gotten it right, or what needed changing.
I hope I did a good job…and, if I didn’t, I’m sure I’ll get called out on social media. When that happens, I’ll do my best to listen with an open mind.
Your books have included a lot of heartbreaking experiences, the kind of situations I can’t imagine gracefully living through. Where does this come from? How do you get yourself in the frame of mind required to write about such gut-wrenching things like self-destruction, self-sabotage, love lost, etc…
Like many people, I’ve endured a certain amount of heartache and disappointment. I don’t know how gracefully I managed it, but I definitely believe that everyone goes through something; that no one, whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, privileged or not privileged at all, makes it through life unscathed. So it’s not as much getting into a particular frame of mind as it is just being real. The truth is that bad stuff happens. People get divorced; people get in trouble, people make bad choices that felt like the best, even the only, choice they could make in a particular moment…and everyone just stumbles through and does the best they can.
Worlds seem to fall apart often in your books, and I think that’s part of the appeal, at least for me. My world seems like it falls apart daily so reading about people whose lives are legitimately spinning out of control is comforting to me. If these fictitious folks can make it then I can too! What’s up with this. Is it cathartic to write about people in a tailspin?
I don’t know if it’s cathartic as much as it is honest. In fiction, the tailspins need to be bigger or more dramatic than they are in real life – because “I clipped the left front bumper of the minivan on my way into the garage” does not a novel make…but the truth is that most of us survive some pretty heartbreaking, heavy-duty stuff in our lives. Whether it’s the end of our first love affair, or the end of a marriage, or something going on with a parent or a child, there’s a lot of things that go on…and we all get through them.
Can we expect another book-turned-movie soon? The one and only being In Her Shoes.
I wish! But I’m not the one making the decisions. Fingers crossed.
You live Tweet The Bachelor when it’s on. Have you been watching UnREAL on Lifetime? It’s based on a movie about that show and is VICIOUS. It was created by a woman who worked on The Bachelor for several years so you know the dirty shit (pardon my language but that’s really appropriate here) she included in the show must have happened. It’s spectacular.
Of course I’m watching UnREAL (I didn’t know it was based on a movie!) And of course it’s great TV…but I’m also not sure how shocking it is. If you’re a Bachelor/ette completest, then you’ve read all of the contestants’ memoirs, and what, in my mind is the ur-text of the show. I speak, of course, of Courtney Robinson’s I DIDN’T COME HERE TO MAKE FRIENDS, which breaks down all the ways the producers manipulate, coerce and toy with the “characters” to get the footage they want. My favorite detail – THEY DO NOT LET YOU MASTURBATE. Or, rather, they take the locks off all the hotel-room doors so that most normally-inhibited people don’t get to enjoy solo sexytime….which means you’re going to be that much more sexually frustrated and maybe into a guy you wouldn’t normally be into.
The level of isolation and estrangement is really staggering. The contestants are basically in a booze-soaked internment camp. No phones, no internet, no books (which disqualifies me right there). No contact with their friends or family. Lots of liquid courage and very little food and all kinds of “tell us how you REALLY feel about him, or her, or them together.” Which sets the bar very high for a show like UnREAL – how do you satirize something that’s so completely bananas already? How do you make it even more crazy when you know that, for example, producers on the show you’re spoofing think nothing of locking a contestant in a room with a producer for eight hours until he promises to propose to a woman he does not intend to marry? (I heard that happened once. Guess who, don’t sue!)
What kind of human embodies the ideal Bachelor or Bachelorette? Is it better to be the puppet or the puppeteer in this situation?
I feel like you can go in with your eyes wide open, knowing all the manipulation and machinations and behind-the-scenes drunkening and after-the-fact editing that go into the construction of a cohesive narrative and still get turned into sausage by the Bachelor Machine. The person who’s got final cut is always the person with power, and that person is never, ever the one on camera. So I’d say don’t go in thinking you’re going to game the system or expose the show for its wickedness. Maybe the ideal participant is someone who’s willing to play a part, whether it’s the villain or the virgin, because he or she is trying to kickstart an on-the-air career….because the fact is, that’s happened. Jillian Harrison, Ali Fedotowsky, Melissa Rycroft, all of these women have ended up being on TV for a living. So I’d say, show up, know that you’re going to be manipulated, edited, browbeaten, coerced, plied with drink, encouraged to wear your skimpiest bikini and have audiotape of your hook-ups aired on a loop…and if you can stand all of that, and if your family’s got a good sense of humor, you’ll be okay.
If you were available, would you go on the show?
My first instinct was the knee-jerk no…but then I realized that if they had me I would easily double the average age and dress size of female participants in the franchise (and maybe even raise the average IQ a few points, although the competitors are by no means stupid). So if they’d make an exception to the no-book rule, then, yes, as a service to feminism and the increased acceptance of health and beauty in all kinds of shapes and sizes, I would take one for the team. (Also, even though I’m forty-five, the guys could all be in their twenties and thirties. Don’t want to rock that boat too much)