Having the Best-Selling Cake and Eating the Review, Too: An Interview With Jennifer Weiner

Jennifer Weiner is a #1 New York Times bestselling writer whose eleventh novel All Fall Down came out yesterday. All Fall Down’s protagonist is Allison, a housewife whose respectable suburban existence conceals a growing addiction to pills. (Like Orphan Black’s excellent character who shares her name, this Allison is also funny, shockingly capable and occasionally more than slightly delusional.) I read the book straight through without putting it down once, over the course of a sunny Sunday morning, and talked to Weiner over email afterward.

Your newest protagonist is a blogger! She writes for a sex and relationships site called Ladiesroom.com, and part of her excuse for her pill habit is that specific pressure: writing all the time, publicly, about heated topics, turning everything into material, coming under heavy personal scrutiny from anonymous readers. How much did your own experience as a writer who engages online—and whose primary medium of engagement is becoming inextricable from online conversation—influence this character? Could you imagine a weird fork in the road in which you’d turned from journalism to (instead of fiction writing) blogging?

I don’t want to say Allison Weiss, c’est moi, because these days nobody gets a good Flaubert reference, but certainly a lot of the things Allison deals with are things that I have dealt with myself. Some of the grief I get for engaging with issues online—where I try to make a point about fairness and equality and the response is “you’re just jealous/you’re ugly/no one wants to sleep with you”—made its way into Allison’s story, and became one of the reasons she turned to things that helped her feel better. I remember one counselor telling me that people with addictions don’t have a problem with booze, or pot, or pills. Their problem is with feelings. They didn’t learn to cope with feelings, and the substance abuse is just a symptom of that. It’s easy to get your feelings hurt, or to get genuinely scared by the response you get online, from people who just seem to be so full of rage and lashing out at anyone, without the understanding that there’s a real person on the other side of the avatar, and they’re not just kicking a virtual dog. If you don’t have healthy—or healthy-ish—ways of handling it, it’s easy to see how a pill or a few glasses of wine could start looking very appealing.

As for blogging, I think it’s simply a matter of being born at the right time. When I finished college, in 1991 (lo, these many years ago), it was possible to learn how to be a writer by getting a job at a small newspaper, making all kinds of mistakes, and (hopefully) getting better every day. If I’d been born in 1980 or 1990, I have no doubt I would have ended up at a blog. Which might not have been a good thing. At newspapers, I was forced to wait, to actually learn to report hard news before I got to write the culture and opinion pieces that appealed to me much more. Which meant that, by the time I got to write those pieces, I knew how to do my research, how to back up a claim, and how to deal with the naysayers (at least a little bit).

I also made my mistakes at a place where not many people saw them. My first paper had a circulation of around 20,000. These days, even a young blogger can write something that takes off and goes viral and is seen by many, many more eyeballs than that. And if there’s a mistake in her piece, well, heaven help her. I remember being just flamingly jealous of my classmates who landed internships, then jobs, at national publications—but in retrospect, I’m so grateful I got to screw up, and get better, far, far from the national stage.

Interview With My Dad, Whose Parenting Guru Was Marshall McLuhan

My dad was born on Christmas and is named Noel. 

Happy early Father’s Day. What are you going to do to celebrate?

Mom and your brother have to tell me what they want to do. I’m not going to plan my own Father’s Day! I have kept my schedule open. Ideally you would be here and we would all be playing golf.

I’ve done my part to kill that dream for you. You going to play on Sunday?

Maybe Martin and I could, and Mom…

Never going to happen.

Maybe sometime in the future!

Do you think Father’s Day is stupid or do you like it?

I think it’s a good thing, just like Mother’s Day is a good thing; dads and moms do a lot of stuff for their families, and if we don’t appreciate it society will start to decay.

Is Father’s Day a thing in the Philippines, where you grew up?

We never celebrated it. But my dad was a ship captain, he was always away.

How many days out of the year?

Out of 365 days, he’d be gone 345 days. It was bad.

Did you feel like it was bad? Did you want him to be home?

Well, you just grow up not knowing anything about anything, and some people had their dads there all the time and they didn’t like it either. I thought, “This is my dad’s job,” and that was that. In retrospect it was good that he was gone. He was so autocratic—he was a ship captain from a young age, he was very used to having his way. If he’d stayed home, I’d probably have been a terrible father to you.

So I didn’t mind that he was gone, but I definitely didn’t like him when he was around. He thought his role in life was to come home and spank us for all the bad things we’d done in the last four months. I thought, “When I’m older, I’m not going to be this kind of a person.”

There’s a specific moment that’s sort of seared into the fabric of my brain, actually—I was six or something, my dad was getting an award and there was a real big do, some black-tie dinner, and we were at the presidential table. I was in black-tie, even: this big fat little kid. And I propped my elbows up on the table because I thought it was a really cool thing to do, and I knocked down a cup of water, and my dad took me to the back of the hotel and spanked me just to oblivion. My mom came and stopped him, literally to stop the bleeding, and we had to go take a picture right after, and I’m just crying and crying in it.

We had that picture framed in the house—a glossy 8×10—and I just always thought about it, maybe more when I was a teenager: when I have a family, that’s not going to happen. That’s why we always had that rule in our house. We never punished you for accidents, no matter how bad they were.

What Goes With Online Shopping?

In real life, in all but the fanciest boutiques, there is no booze available. At the mall the most you can hope for is an Auntie Anne’s pretzel wolfed down between depressing department stores and the Ann Taylor sale rack. Online, you can shop at several different stores at once with the beverage of your choice, and if you window shop and creep around for hours, no one’s the wiser. Here’s what to drink while you contribute to the demise of local businesses.

Usually, I’m kind of a snob about Pinot Noir and only like it if it’s French and semi-obscure, like Sancerre Rouge. But Pinot from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley has a certain plushness and rose aroma reminiscent of the floral, plasticky smell of expensive lipstick and face powder. For someone who doesn’t wear a ton of makeup, I love looking at it and buying it. While fiddling with my cart at Sephora or Ulta’s sites, I keep wanting to pull the trigger on some crazy blue nail polish from Illamasqua, or that Nars blush that looks neon red in the pan, or whatever weird, off-brand miracle face creams are on clearance, but all I ever buy are my tried and true favorites: Urban Decay Primer Potion (the original, please), Clinique’s Moisture Surge tinted moisturizer, and Lolita Lempicka, because it reminds me of being 17. Sometimes safe and reliable is just fine.

I like to window shop at Aedes de Venusta, an incredible perfume boutique in New York, whenever I’m there. Their online store (aedes.com) is almost as luxe as the shop itself, although when you visit the website you don’t have to be buzzed in, which always makes me feel special. I’ve only ever ordered samples there, because as much as I love perfume, I’m committment-phobic, except when it comes to Lolita Lempicka and Bulgari Black. However, I have put Un Bateau Pour Capri and the new Heeley scents in and out of my shopping cart a few dozen times. What? I’m not hurting anyone!

The Best Time Minnie Mouse, My Hero, Took Off Her Head and Projectile Vomited At Me

Minnie Mouse is the spokesperson of domestic goddesses everywhere. Minnie Mouse keeps her house cute all the time. Minnie Mouse’s relationship with Mickey inspired my dreams of love. Minnie Mouse’s polka-dot dress summed up all that I hoped the future held for me.

When I was six, and my parents told me that we were going to Disneyland, I felt sure that this was my moment to blossom. Growing up I was hopelessly odd: I preferred to be called “Chest”; a turkey that police named “Rambo” attacked me; I permed my bowl cut. Disneyland was my chance to meet my idol, who I knew would make me feel cool.

I envisioned the future, in which I would tell the kids at school about my trip, and the stories of my adventure would take me from “Claire Meyer? Isn’t that the girl that collects human teeth?” to “Claire Meyer? Oh, yeah, she’s that cool girl who went to Disneyland.”

I brought my autograph book. I met Goofy, Chip & Dale and two different versions of Mickey. Briefly, I became addicted to meeting these characters. How lucky that we all lived in the same place and they so casually walked around to greet me! I couldn’t imagine life any different. After riding Peter Pan’s Flight three times, though, I’d still yet to meet my main girl Minnie.

Soon, that would change.

***

In retrospect, Disneyland was the last time I believed I had a shot at a perfect life. If only I’d known then how many meals I would eat in bed, or the number of times I would yell “I’m walking away now, not because I’m dramatic, but because I have nothing left to say to you,” or the percentage of those times that would occur on first dates. Or, that after a final fight in a toxic relationship I would take nothing from his apartment but two steaks out of the freezer and a Bruce Springsteen album—all I needed for a fresh start.

15 Lesser-Known Things To Say To A Dress

1. “Can I put jeans under you?”

2. “How come I can’t be the ring bearer?”

3. “Why don’t you have any pockets?”

4. “I look like when people clothe their pets.”

5. “Of course, my legs feel pleasantly unfettered—which is really just one more cruel betrayal. Stop trying to worm your way into my heart, you silky sonofabitch. Everything about this feels forced and unnatural. But perhaps that’s the idea—maybe the secret no one tells is that you have to force yourself. Maybe I can learn to love you?”

6. “You were the wrong thing to wear to the first day of junior high.”

7. “Every shimmer, every time this al dente spaghetti strap fails to maintain its position, every restricted breath I take, hardens me against you.”

8. “Despite my love for dancing, my friends, and the entire concept and execution of the theme “Time After Time”—I don’t want to be at this prom. Well I do, just not with you. I’m sorry; I know that’s mean. I don’ t want to hurt you, but also you technically don’t have the ability to feel emotions because you’re just a piece of clothing.”

Ask a Fancy Person: Entry-Level Expensive, Unwanted Guests and the Gratefulness Feedback Loop

Ask a Fancy Person is the Hairpin’s latest advice column, in which Kirsten Schofield takes your questions about deluxe behavior.

Dear Fancy,

I live in San Francisco with my boyfriend. We have an apartment with 2 bedrooms. As we all know, San Francisco is a fun place to visit and the hotels are so expensive, so friends, acquaintances, and relatives are constantly asking to stay with me. They frequently say things like, “Since we are friends and you have the space anyway….” or “You let me stay once before, why can’t I stay this time?”

It is hard to turn down people you love asking to stay over or people saying they don’t have the money or a friend who offered to pay me $75 a week while she rents out her own apartment room for much more! I know I can just say no to any of them and don’t need a reason. Butttttttt I’m often worried about offending them, or it just doesn’t seem worth the strain on the friendship, or I guess I should always let my cousins stay because they are related?

Overbooked on the Bay

 

Dear OOTB,

Isn’t living somewhere nice kind of the worst?

The Cider Report

Throughout human history we have wrestled with the great mysteries. “Who shot J.R.?” No one ever found out. “Where’s the beef?” Exactly. Where was the beef? No one knew. But arguably the greatest mystery of human existence has always been, “How do we get alcohol to taste better?” It’s fun to drink, but the taste can be all very acquired. They make vodka taste like supermodel kisses. And yet still somehow underneath you can always taste the bitterness of the alcohol. The stiffness of the drink. The more dangerous the drink the tastier it is. And now Hard Cider is having a moment. With beer sales flat, why not try something that tastes like apples? Beer tastes like beer. And makes your kisses taste like beer. But will you drink cider? WIll your kisses taste like apples?

Our human relationship with the apple goes all the way back to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We imagine that fruit as an apple for some reason. Art depicts it as an apple. But I never felt any smarter after eating an apple, even if it kept the doctor away. I bet the fruit of the tree of the knowledge between good and evil was like a big juicy mango. That’s how God knew Adam and Eve ate it. Because it was so messy and sticky and the juice was all over the place. Or a pomegranate. “Did you eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge between good and evil?” “No,” Adam would reply. “Then why am I sticking to the linoleum of Eden’s kitchen? And why are there sticky seeds everywhere?”

Alcohol undoes the effects of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When you’re drunk, good and evil usually seem like the same thing. The line between fun and sin is never more blurry. “Who told you you were naked?” asked God. “The cops,” replied Adam and Eve. Booze gets us unwound and also simultaneously wound up. It’s a depressant and a euphoric. It makes life worth living and simultaneously ruins it. So it’s got a lot going on all at the same time. And there’s just something about a bottle of beer that just feels right. Like a hot dog. Or a really great vibrator. It’s designed for your hand but also to tickle your soul. Along with various other parts of you.

Advice To Jill Abramson from My Mom

Like Jill Abramson, my mom was fired for being a mercurial bitch in a position of power. Unlike the former Times editor, my mom was certainly—specifically—fired for asking for equal pay.

As the Abramson story has unfolded, the narrative has shifted from one of gender discrimination and pay disparities to one of Abramson’s mismanagement and her mishandling of an “important personnel matter.” The New York Times media critic David Carr called “all the talk about pay inequity… a sideshow.” That doesn’t mean Abramson didn’t experience discrimination, through her pay or otherwise. Would a man have clashed with his colleagues in the same situation? Pushy women get fired; assertive men rise to the top.

My mom was a total ‘90s power mom. She had shoulder pads, coffee breath, and a demanding full time job as an ear, nose, and throat surgeon for kids. Her life was a series of “first evers.” She was the first in her immediate family to go to college, and then the first to go to medical school. In 1990, at 38, she was appointed associate professor at SUNY Buffalo and granted tenure—the first woman in the medical school to achieve that status. In 1996 she was promoted to full professor of otolaryngology and pediatrics, one of only 12 women in the nation to achieve the highest rank for university faculty.

Like Abramson, she had made it. She “had it all” before having it all was declared a thing women couldn’t have.

The next year, the university passed her over as interim chair of her department and gave the position to a man with fewer qualifications. As she helped her new boss with the department’s residency program review—because he didn’t know how to do it—she discovered, while sifting through relevant documents, a pay gap. As a tenured full professor at SUNY Buffalo, she made half of what lower-ranking, less qualified male colleagues made. At the hospital where she practiced, her male colleagues, all of whom had smaller practices and less seniority, made up to five times her salary.

After that, she pushed. SUNY fired her in 1998, stripping her of her tenure, compensation, and benefits. Like Abramson, she sought legal counsel. She spent the next two years trying to solve the issue internally.

In 2000, she filed two complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After that the university shut down the ENT residency program without cause—just ”one piece of the attempt to destroy Dr. Brodsky’s [medical career],” her lawyer told The Buffalo News.

A year and a half later she had obtained seven “right to sue” letters, one for each complaint, plus five others for retaliation she had suffered. She filed suit in federal court in September of 2001. 

$3 Million for 7 Weeks

Three weeks after my partner Randy died of metastatic cancer, I called the oncology resident who had been his on-call doctor. I remember exactly how long it took me to make that call because I was in a place of noticing how long things took, with mild interest, like: when will I feel hungry? When will the best part of every day stop being when I’m asleep?

It took me three weeks to work up to hearing Randy’s doctor’s voice on the phone and simultaneously make words in English.There was something I wanted to ask her or, more accurately, something I wanted to make her say.

“If you’d known how much time he had left,” I said, standing on our tiny back deck, looking over the early-spring woods, “would you still have given him chemo?”

What I remember is that she paused very briefly, and then she sounded choked up. That satisfied me, as if she were my enemy showing overdue weakness. “No.” she said, “Not if I’d known how long he had, no.”

“Thank you.” I said. We exchanged some version of “Nice working with you” and then hung up. I had wanted exactly what I got: an admission, maybe of having fucked up, maybe of the possibility that she’d act differently in the future. That next time she would acknowledge what she couldn’t fix. Show some respect, next time, for the monster: a rare and unbeatable cancer, the oncoming death of a still-young man.

Not long after that, the hospital called me. They were inquiring after the outstanding 10% of his bill not covered by his insurance, the first job benefits he’d ever had. That 10% of the bill for seven weeks of cancer treatment came to $300,000 and change. Randy had had a very rare cancer, a carcinoma of unknown primary origin: the original tumor had been shrunk to nothing by his immune system, but not before the cancer cells mutated and slipped into his bloodstream. So “poorly defined” cancer cells were spread throughout his body, with no point of origin, no tumor to be cut out or site to be irradiated.

In Randy’s case, by the time he was diagnosed he had cancer in his blood and in his bone marrow.

An Interview with Ann Wroe, Obituaries Writer for The Economist

I am not embarrassed to admit that the obituaries on the back page of The Economist make my week. They’re thought-provoking and written with energy. Each column is a window onto another world, where genocidal SS captains escape to Argentina and open a deli with best cold cuts in town, and where British men create Tibet’s communications network and end up imbibing Maoist propaganda in order to escape life in Chinese prison.

The woman who writes these obituaries is Ann Wroe, a stalwart of The Economist since 1976 and the author of nonfiction books on topics as diverse as the Iran-Contra affair and Pontius Pilate. She is softly-spoken and sharp, her willowy English demeanor masking a razor-sharp analytical mind. After working as Arts and Books editor and US editor, she took on obituaries in 2003. She told me that the job “gives you a chance to write, really to write.” Her secret? Chronology doesn’t matter. “You just have to try and get the essence of who they are, and it has to boil down to what was most important to them.” Her role is to meld the mind of a journalist with the creativity of a novelist.

One memorable example of this free-wheeling writing was Wroe’s obituary of Benson, a 25-year-old carp that lived in a pond in Peterborough; Wroe wrote that “in her glory days she reminded some of Marilyn Monroe, others of Raquel Welch. She was lither than either as she cruised through the water-weed, a lazy twist of gold.” Benson tragically lost her mate and spent her remaining days comfort eating until her ultimate demise.

Wroe recalls that “it was a summer evening, I remember, and I went and wrote it in my garden. And I just felt that feeling of lazing around at the bottom of a river. I just imagined myself in the world of being a carp.”

True Summer

Last summer, I found myself dead broke. I’d had a wild spring, horribly mismanaging my healthy grad school stipend, and came out of the whirlwind with just enough money to make rent until the fall. Following panicked and useless attempts at finding a summer job, I resigned myself to scraping by on credit cards (and, shamefully, borrowing money from my parents). All this made me feel terribly dumb (I was twenty-five, for chrissakes) and a little scared. But! I was newly in love, and that, along with all that impoverished time on my hands, made it a magical, if twisted, summer. I wandered through the streets, lovesick and feeling vaguely homeless, barely more equipped to afford any of the goods around than the vagrants, with whom I felt an uneasy kinship. I made weird concoctions in my house—pasta plus beans for lunch, stale crackers topped with Hershey’s syrup for dessert. Every time I walked to the grocery store, I passed a stream sprouting enormous, tall yellow flowers from its banks—it seemed completely improbable that this heat could produce such splendor, and the vision contributed to my sense of being on the fringes of sanity. Most of my friends had gone elsewhere for the summer, so my future fiancé was essentially the only person I ever saw. I woke up at strange hours and usually started my day by sitting on the floor half-naked, zoning out, the blinds shut. I wrote a cycle called The Bubonic Love Poems of Central Texas in which I set my new relationship in the landscape of the medieval plague, which is how it felt, and began communing with Baba Yaga. I felt deranged, certainly, but also thankful in a way—grateful to feel like a kid again, finding herself in another slow, stupid summer, when the world gets small and the self gets big, and time and space warp.

True summer is when all goes slack, no more urgency. That kind of time tends to come easily—and abruptly—on an academic schedule. One moment you’re wrapped up in all manner of activities and the next you’re standing in your darkened apartment kitchen, an endless afternoon circling with the ceiling fan. The feeling is not unpleasant. It’s like slipping outside of time—societal, human time. It’s in these slack summers that I feel most immortal, as unknown and useless as a god, unseen by any mortal eye and somehow full of a vain and hopeless majesty. I fill up more space in the room. Strange thoughts grow unimpeded. At fifteen years old and back in Alaska for the summer, no car to drive into town with, no friends (we’d moved to Fairbanks right after I started boarding school), and my family at work, I got it into my head that I needed to lose forty pounds because I once saw cellulite on my thighs. I probably weighed around one hundred pounds, a teenager with a crazy metabolism, but somehow this became my frenzied truth. The ballooning, bloating time on my hands turned one glance in the mirror into a monster. (I had no interest in starving or even exercising, so nothing happened.) Usually, though, my imagination brought forth less dangerous, more delightful creations, given the room to be its own rightful beast.

You could call summers like this a colossal waste of time. But that’s what feels immortal about them—wasting time, colossally, as the gods must do.

Hitchhiking to the End of the World

Sandwiched between a hulking grey backpack and an expandable bag on my chest, I stand on the shoulder of a steep road that winds up from a surreal aqua lake. I’m on the edge of the pristine Aspen-like town San Martin de los Andes in Argentina’s northern Patagonia. I have a purpose here. I just decided one hour ago: I am hitchhiking to Ushuaia, the southernmost tip in South America. I am hitchhiking to the End of the World.

I’ve been in the country for a month and only hitchhiked once before. I don’t know what I’m doing. “Stick out your thumb higher,” two passing Chilean hitchhikers call out to me. “You look hesitant!”

I imagine my dad panicking to know his only daughter is on the opposite end of the earth, alone, ready to leap in cars with strangers. Then I imagine him sticking out his own thumb, 40 years ago in the U.S., with his notebook in his pocket and his pen ready for bolts of inspiration, just like me. My blonde waves blow in the brisk mountain wind and I see his jet black curls dancing around in Alaska air: he launched his cross-country hitchhiking journey in the 1970′s when he was about my age. He slept on roadsides, smoked drivers’ hashish, and picked up stories of strangers who poured out their life confessions on the road. Last year he dredged his old journals for a wildly popular essay in the New York Times about the journey and how it linked him to the “spirit of adventure.”

A few months later, I decided to take off for Argentina after working in NYC as a daily reporter. My dad worried I’d throw away my stability and never get it back. “This is like Meredith’s ‘hitchhike,’” my mom reassured him: it would be a meaningful trip with a safe return to previous life. He had written at the end of his own essay, “My daughter Meredith thinks I should try the journey again. She’s as cavalier about risk as I was at her age. I certainly wouldn’t want her to do it.”

Once in Patagonia I realized—why did this have to be “like” a hitchhike? The trend may have withered in the U.S., but around here I saw plenty of backpackers trying to wave down cars—only no single females. Friends, hostel staff, and even fellow hitchhikers told me to be extra careful, so I pledged not to get into trucks and to ride with as many families as possible. Then I met one Colombian girl who said she’d traveled extensively “a dedo” (“by finger”) alone with no problems, so I made her my example.

I wanted to hitchhike solo—I always travel on my own, connecting more intimately with my surroundings and lavishing in the freedom to stop and go on a whim. I’m an only child. I’m a journalist used to approaching strangers alone. I’ve also never felt truly threatened traveling alone as a female—which I’ve done since I was 19.