Here at Dia&Co, we’re big fans of Jennifer Weiner because of her commitment to creating well-rounded plus-size protagonists. So, when we discovered she was releasing a new novel, “Mrs. Everything,” we scored advance copies and hosted a mini book club with our Dia Dominos. Now that “Mrs. Everything” has officially launched, we chatted with the best-selling author about why she writes, what she hopes telling her story will accomplish, and how style fits into her life. *Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? When did you first start writing?
Ever since I learned that writing was a thing you could do and that writers were actual mortals who walked among us, not gods who spent their days in Mount Olympus’ library, I wanted to be a writer. I can remember being in first grade, and my teacher giving me extra lined paper and letting me stay in from recess so I could write. I was in first grade when I finished my first short story, which was about a balloon that flew across the country. I’m sure my mom has it in a box somewhere!
When you start writing a new book, what is your goal? What message do you hope readers take away from your work?
My first goal is to entertain my readers. I always want to tell a good story and give them a main character who feels like someone they want to spend time with—even if she’s flawed or angry or imperfect. I try not to write “message” books. I never sit down and say “this is a story about self-acceptance,” or “this book is about history and the nature of progress.” But what I’ve learned over the years, and, most especially, with writing “Mrs. Everything,” is that stories about women are always political. There are always messages there: about believing in yourself, about not waiting to lose 20 pounds before your life can start, about knowing that you’re worthy of love and respect. I hope that readers see my characters living those truths and are inspired to live them in their own lives.
Many of your characters, including Bethie in “Mrs. Everything,” struggle with body confidence at first, before becoming more comfortable in their own skin. What inspired you to write about this kind of journey?
Toni Morrison has a quote I love: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” When I wrote my first book, I was just turning 30, and I had spent most of the previous decade on a diet. There were a lot of books with fat heroines who magically lost weight—I say “magically” because God knows if the diet they used existed in real life, I would have found it—and only then got to meet Prince Charming. There were also books about women who thought they were fat and were fretting about 10 or 20 extra pounds, whose bodies and whose experiences did not match my own. I wanted to write a roadmap for myself, a story about a larger/plus-size/fat woman who falls in love and finds her voice and gets her happy ending and does it without becoming thin. (I wanted, actually, to be really subversive and have the woman’s thinnest coincide with the most unhappy time of her life.) The truth is, I wrote the book to show myself the way. And in the almost 20 years since, not only have I gotten a lot more at ease moving through the world in my body, I hope I’ve contributed to the work of making the world more welcoming and accepting for anyone who’s different.
Your new book touches on the power of finding community. Why do you think finding a community that you connect with is so important?
I think it’s a very human impulse, to want people around you, to know that other people are in the trenches with you, or have been where you are. I remember going to my first prenatal yoga class and how the women I met there got me through my first year of motherhood—all the sleeplessness, all the stress, all the anxiety that I wasn’t doing a good enough job.
So there’s real-life community, which is so important, but I believe that virtual communities are also important. I remember reading a study about how what you see affects how you feel, and how filling your social-media feed with larger bodies can change the way you see yourself. So now, every day, I go on Instagram and see bodies like mine, athletes and models and fashion bloggers and regular women just living their lives. Seeing and interacting with that community has made me feel much more at home in my own skin.
We’re always encouraging our own community members to share their style and self-love journeys. How do you think sharing your story can be impactful? What advice would you give to someone who may be a bit more hesitant to share?
There’s a quote that I love by the poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” There’s great power in stories, and great power in truth, and honesty, and visibility. I remember the first time I ever saw a picture of a model with a tiny little belly roll, in Glamour magazine. I had literally never seen a picture of a woman with a stomach that looked like mine (even though the real world is full of women with belly rolls!). It felt revolutionary and important because, I thought, if she can sit there, naked, with that little bit of flab on display and not be ashamed, maybe I can move through the world with a little less shame, too.
That’s what I’ve tried to keep in mind with my own work—that my story has power, that it might be touching someone I’ll never meet, or helping in ways I’ll never see. When I’m writing, sometimes I’ll pretend that I’m the only one who’s ever going to read what I write, and that will help me be brave on the page. When I start to freak out and think that I can’t talk about feeling insecure or envious or hopeless, or whatever, I tell myself that, somewhere in the world, there’s a woman who’s felt exactly the way I did—and she needs to see this. Or I’ll think about my daughters, and how the world I want them to inhabit is a world where all stories matter and everyone’s voice gets heard.
I understand that it’s hard to put yourself out there, whether it’s your story or your picture. It can be terrifying, especially when the world says your story has no value, or your body is unacceptable. Sometimes it’s a matter of acting “as if”: Even if you’re not feeling brave, you can act as if you are.
In 2016, you posted a photo of you in a swimsuit, launching the #WearTheSwimsuit hashtag. What inspired you to share your swimsuit photo?
When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I gained a lot of weight. I remember, when Lucy was seven or eight, looking at photo albums and thinking, if she didn’t know better, Lucy would believe that she was raised by her father and her grandmothers. Because I was, literally, never in the pictures. There were pictures of me in the hospital after I’d given birth, and then a handful of shots from holidays and birthday parties, but, for the most part, I was the one behind the camera, not the one in front of it. And that was especially true in the summertime. I love the water and I love to swim, and even at my heaviest, I’d spent a lot of time on the beach with my daughters— but the pictures didn’t reflect that.
I started to think about why. And then I started to think about the women who not only are not in the pictures, they’re also not in the water, or in swimsuits at all. They’re in cover-ups or they’re staying home because they hate how they look in swimsuits.
I thought about the picture I’d seen in Glamour, and how that model with her little bit of tummy made me feel better about myself, and I thought, okay, if I can put myself out there and say, “Here I am, lumps and bulges and cellulite and all, and I am going to enjoy my summer in the body I have, right this minute,” maybe one woman will see it and feel empowered enough to take off her cover-up and go in the water. That’s what I was hoping for, and I hope that’s what I achieved!
Your first book, “Good in Bed,” is considered the first “chick-lit novel” to feature a plus-size protagonist. Did you know you were breaking ground while writing the character of Cannie Shapiro? Is representation a goal of yours in your writing?
When I wrote my first book, honestly, it was a story I was telling myself—a roadmap out of the heartbreak and misery I was experiencing at the time, and toward more happiness and confidence. I didn’t have an agent or a publishing deal. Thinking that the book could actually be a book, in bookstores, felt like a fairytale. So I didn’t think about how unusual it was to have a plus-size protagonist until the first agent who’d asked to read the whole book told me that the lead character couldn’t be fat—“Nobody wants to read a book about a lonely, pathetic fat girl,” she said. That was when I realized that I needed to read a book about a fat character, and when I started to hope that other readers would feel the same way.
When the book was published, I wasn’t sure how readers would respond, and I remember how flattering and bewildering it was when women would come to readings and say, “You’ve told my story!” I’d be standing there thinking, “No, it’s my story!” But the truth is that struggling with body image and self-esteem and feeling worthy of love and happiness is so many women’s stories. Once I saw the response to “Good in Bed,” I realized that there was a need for that kind of representation, and that became a goal. But, back in the day, it was just me trying to write my way out of my own unhappiness.
You’ve spoken up in the past about how differently male and female fiction writers are treated by the literary media. Are you seeing less of that today, or has that continued?
I’m definitely seeing progress, even if it feels like baby steps. In general, I think women still struggle harder to be taken seriously, to be afforded the same consideration that a man gets by announcing, “I’ve written a book.” Because, with male writers, it’s still taken for granted that their book is just a book, while women have to work their way through all the qualifiers: “No, it’s not chick lit,” or “I wouldn’t call it women’s fiction.” (There is, of course, still no such thing as “men’s fiction”—that’s just fiction.) Men still have an easier time getting their work taken seriously—they’re more likely to get their books reviewed, or to be asked to write book reviews themselves.
But it is changing. Slowly but surely. For example, recently a female writer with young children was asked, in the New York Times, that old question about how she balances work and family. Instead of answering, she said, “I am not going to answer this question until I start seeing male writers asked the same thing.” I thought that was so important, because it’s true—we don’t ask men how they balance their jobs and their kids, we just expect that there’s a woman somewhere in the background helping them do it. And that they’re not feeling torn about being on a book tour when their baby speaks his first words or takes her first steps. There’s a scene in “Mrs. Everything” where Bethie’s going through media coaching that will give you my take on that particular question!
But the world is changing. I think the best news I’ve seen lately is that the New York Times now has a regular column reviewing romance. This drove me almost as crazy as the way that so many more men than women got the two-reviews-and-a-profile treatment from the Times. The paper reviewed mysteries and thrillers every week. It reviewed horror and science fiction every month. It reviewed every genre except the one that women read—which, by the way, is the most profitable genre in all of publishing. And the Times just ignored it. It was maddening. I’m glad they’re covering romance now.
In addition to building huge audiences through your books, you’ve also reached new fans through sharing your opinions in the New York Times and in your tweets. What is it about these other platforms that has encouraged you to speak your mind in new ways?
Before I was a novelist, I was a newspaper reporter. I loved the immediacy of journalism, how, if you had something to say, you could say it in the next day’s paper. So when blogs began, I loved having a blog, and when Twitter launched, it felt like a very natural fit. I love having a place to talk about the world and politics and pop culture and all the things I care about, and I love having a chance to do journalism again in the New York Times!
What’s your relationship to style? Has it changed over time? Have the fashion choices of your characters ever been a part of your writing process?
I wish I could tell you that I am super stylish, or that I care a lot about clothes. The truth is that I’m not and I don’t. I like to be comfortable and I like to look good, but I don’t like spending a lot of time getting dressed. When I need to appear in public or on TV, I usually hire a professional stylist to tell me what to wear.
In my books, I definitely think about how my characters dress and how their clothes tell the world who they are. I’ve had to expand my fashion vocabulary a lot over the years (thank God for Google!).
In real life, I’d say my relationship to style is improving, slowly but surely. For a long time, I didn’t think about clothes too much, and working from home definitely gives you the luxury of hanging out in pajamas or sweats (or, in my case, tunic-style tops and leggings). I love getting my Dia Boxes and trying new things. I haven’t loved every item in every box, but I got a denim jacket that is so perfect that I pretty much live in it at this point and I tell everyone where it’s from. I’m a Dia proselytizer!
How would you define your personal style?
Not naked? The sad fact is, there were not a lot of great clothing options when I was figuring out my style. Things were either very drab, or they had old-lady prints, or they were like oversized versions of play clothes (I remember sweatshirts with puffy paint being a thing). I’m also not an especially visual person, so that doesn’t help.
I like things that are comfortable. I like natural, breathable fabrics. If possible, I like to buy clothes that are made in America, not in sweatshops. I like dresses for formal occasions, and tunics and leggings, and linen pants in the summertime.
What power does style hold for you, both in terms of self-expression and self-confidence?
There’s power in feeling good about yourself. When you feel like you look good, you can take on the world. I love that social media lets me see so many women my size in beautiful clothes (and beautiful lingerie). It helps me believe that I can be beautiful and powerful, too.
Author of the First Plus-Size Protagonist in a "Chick Lit" Novel