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.