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Jennifer Weiner Talks 'Chick Lit,' Hate-Reads And How To Get Paid What You're Worth

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JENNIFER WEINER
Jennifer Weiner attends the 23rd Annual Glamour Women of the Year Awards at Carnegie Hall on Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. | Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Jennifer Weiner is a bestselling author, an outspoken critic of the literary establishment, a self-described feminist, an avid -- and hilarious -- live-tweeter, and the subject of a recent New Yorker profile.

Weiner lives in Philadelphia with her two daughters, Lucy age 10 and Phoebe age 6. The 43-year-old writer's boyfriend (Weiner and her husband split in 2010), Bill Syken, a former editor and reporter at Sports Illustrated, practically lives with her and the girls, though he keeps his wi-fi-free apartment, "mostly to work and watch football."

I first fell in love with Weiner's writing when I read Good In Bed, her debut novel. I realized how funny she was on Twitter after being roped into watching -- and then recapping -- "The Bachelor," a show she affectionally calls "trashy." And I first had the pleasure of meeting her in person in early October at the cafe of the Parker Meridien hotel when she was in New York City. Over a breakfast of cappuccinos, yogurt and croissants, we spoke about her writing career, how her novels might have been received had she been a man, and how she'll handle it when her daughters learn how to Google her name.

Why do you do the work you do?
The ballerina dream died early. And way before I loved writing, I loved reading. I loved stories, I loved books and I loved telling stories. So the idea that I found a way to get paid doing the thing that I love the best is amazing to me.

Do you know what you would do if you weren’t a writer? Can you even imagine it?
My funny, happy answer is I’d be a backup singer.

For who?
I don’t know, for anyone. Tina Turner is the dream, obviously. The truth is, I’d probably go to law school like everybody else who can kind of write and is OK speaking publicly and likes to wrestle with ideas. I’d be a lawyer -- probably an unhappy lawyer.

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Weiner in her bedroom closet, where she does most of her writing.

Do you feel like you ended up as a writer by design or by accident?
Oh, this was by design. I knew. I had a professor, John McPhee, who told me to find a newspaper in a place I’d never been and write every day. And that’s what I did. And then it was small paper, medium paper, and the whole time I was writing fiction and publishing short stories here and there, and getting freelance journalism work. My goal was to sell a novel by the time I was 30. I missed it by six weeks.

Did you have any mentors or role models?
When I was a girl, I would read Erica Jong and Nora Ephron and Fran Lebowitz -- all of these funny, smart, very-specifically Jewish, New York women authors, and I would be so encouraged by those voices and think, “I can grow up and I can be a writer and I can sound exactly like myself.”

And then when I went to college [at Princeton University] I got to study with some incredible, incredible authors. Toni Morrison was one of my professors, Joyce Carol Oates was one of my professors.

Oh my god.
I know, you would just sit in class and be like, “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, she’s looking at me. I need to read something now.” And I had a mom who was a great reader. My mother will read the New Yorker cover to cover and will love it. Whatever the literary novel that everybody’s talking about, she’ll read that. She’s a real inspiration.

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Jen and her mom, Fran, in the green room of the "Martha Stewart Show" in 2007.

Do you ever have your mom read your writing before it’s published?
Oh yeah. Everybody says that’s the happiest day of a writer’s life, when you get to go home and tell your mom someone is publishing your book. And I can tell you that is less true when your book is called Good In Bed. I told my mom, “I want you to read this, because there’s a gay mom in the book,” -- my mom came out at 54 -- and I was like, “If there’s anything that’s going to freak you out or upset you we can talk about it.” She just had a really great sense of humor about it.

When you were 25, what were you doing and where did you think you were headed?
I had just gotten hired by the Philadelphia Inquirer, moved to Philadelphia and had a two-bedroom apartment for 600 dollars a month with hardwood floors and central air. I loved my job. I was a features reporter, so no more news, no more numbers, no more scary budgets. And Philadelphia is the first city that I had lived in as an adult. I was dating a really nice guy and I had wonderful friends. I had a dog. I had it goin’ on! I was right where I wanted to be.

Of course, there were people my age who were writing for “SNL” or had already published their first novel and I would look at them and be sick with envy, but I sort of figured that I was in a good place. I’d had years at newspapers at that point to fail and make mistakes and learn.

What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
I would say: “Hang in there, quit your bitching. You’re right where you’re supposed to be so just calm down. It’s all gonna work out. You don’t have to be the toast of the town at this second.”

jennifer weiner

Weiner with actresses Majandra Delfino, Loretta Devine and Raven-Symone on the set of ABC Family's "The Great State Of Georgia."

Do you believe that there’s still a glass ceiling for women writers?
Yes, I think that with fiction there’s still such a double standard about what constitutes literature and who’s writing it. I think that if a man wants to write a book and have it received as literary fiction, he publishes the book. And if a woman wants to write a book and have it perceived as literary fiction, she has to publish the book, and then she has to say at least half a dozen times in interviews,“This isn’t chick-lit.” She has to make that distinction really clear. There’s so much more work that goes into a woman proving that what she wrote has value, whereas for men it’s assumed.

In terms of glass ceilings, on the one hand you’ve seen women win big prizes like the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, but then you look at those VIDA numbers and realize that places like the New Yorker are still publishing two pieces by men for every one by a woman. And it’s like, what the hell is going on here? Why haven’t we fixed this yet? Are you seriously telling me that you’re getting twice as many remarkable stories by men submitted as you are by women? I think that maybe you have to go solicit more aggressively, or encourage women who submit once to submit again.

Do you think that women get discouraged more easily?
We’re not taught as women that persistence is OK. Men can be persistent and it’s like, oh, he’s dogged, he’s determined. And if a woman is persistent, she’s being strident or obnoxious. I think women absorb that.

In what way do you think you’ve encountered these double standards in your own work?
Well I think my books would be received differently if my name was Jonathan. A book like Good In Bed was considered a beach read. I understand a lot of that had to do with the title and the cover, but if you read Good In Bed, it’s not this frothy romp. There’s serious shit happening in that book. And I feel like if a guy wrote a book about a single guy from this dysfunctional family, going through this devastating breakup, dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, it might have been received differently. It’s much easier to slap a label -- on any kind of book -- but on women’s books particularly.

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Weiner with friends and fellow authors Sarah Pekkanen and Elizabeth LaBan in Philadelphia, April 2013.

Do you feel like women have a responsibility to help other women at work?
I do. When I talk about women doubting other women’s work, or trashing chick-lit, invariably somebody will say “Oh, are we all just supposed to join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ and talk about how great every book by every woman is?” No, you don’t have to do that. But maybe you could be more judicious in your critique. If there’s a type of book out there that is primarily written and consumed by women that you have a problem with, maybe you don’t need to say so in every interview you give.

How would you define success?
Not having to worry about money, whatever that means for you. For me, it’s knowing that whatever education my girls decide to get, I’ll be able to pay for it. Being able to say no to things you don’t want to do. Having a life you like, not a life that feels like an obligation.

[It’s also] not feeling like you have to be dishonest about the entirety of who you are. If I was really worried that no one took me seriously and I was willing to do anything to make sure they did, I wouldn’t be able to talk about “The Bachelor,” because it’s frivolous and dopey. But I love “The Bachelor.” Even as a feminist, even as somebody who can see every single problematic gender-normative, heteronormative, beauty myth and punitive standard. I can see all of it and still devour that show like candy.

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Weiner and her dog Moochie at her home in Cape Cod.

Would you consider yourself successful?
Yeah, I would. I like my life. I like the way I can balance my time and that I’m at a place where my voice has some meaning and I can use it to help other women. My endorsement means something. That is huge -- getting to the point where you can actually give back in a meaningful way.

What’s your relationship with your phone like?
Somewhat dysfunctional. I have a Blackberry -- I know, I’m a dinosaur. And even though I’ve gotten to the point where I can tweet while I walk, I really try to be disciplined about how much time I spend online. There’s the rabbit hole. And then it’s 45 minutes later and you’ve bought two pairs of boots and you don’t know what’s happened. My phone is always with me because I have little kids, but I try very hard not to be one of those moms that’s like “uh huh, uh huh, uh huh.” I just try to turn it off, put it away. We all eat dinner together and there are no phones at the dinner table. It’s one screen at a time. If you’re watching TV, you can't be on some other device.

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Weiner on "Watch What Happens Live."

At a certain point, your daughters are going to Google you. Are you going to have a conversation with them about that?
Yeah, they will. And inevitably, they’ll hate me at some point as teenage daughters do. And I’ll just be like, you know what? Mommy has opinions and not everybody agrees with them. And people aren’t always nice to opinionated people. What I hope to have modeled for them is the idea that if you know who you are and you know what you believe and you truly believe that you’re trying to change things for the better, people are not always kind to activists or radicals or people who wave the picket signs and say “this is wrong now fix it.”

I don’t know though. I hope they just won’t care. I hope they’ll be so into their own lives. I think they probably will be.

Do you get enough sleep?”
I am a miserable, miserable bitch if I don’t get enough sleep. I never was a party all night, work all night person. I like to sleep. I am the queen of sleep.

And do you feel like you get enough exercise?
Yeah, I do. I do it for the physical health and the mental health. It’s so important to just do something and clear your head and just be in your body in that moment. So I run, I ride my bike. Four or five days a week, go work up a sweat. Even if it’s not making any difference in how you look, it changes how you feel.

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Weiner at dinner with her sister, mother and grandmother.

What do you do to relax?
I read a lot of books.

What are you reading right now?
Oh my god, this is so embarrassing. Melissa Gorga’s The Secrets Of My Hot and Happy Marriage. I’m hate-reading it. It’s kind of amazing, because I only watched the first season of the “Real Housewives of New Jersey” and I almost forgot who Melissa was. Do you watch?

No, I don’t.
Well I guess there’s one of them that’s in legal trouble now, and that’s Melissa’s sister-in-law. But it’s all “I have sex whenever my husband wants to have sex because that’s the best way to keep a marriage strong.” Part of me is like, that sort of makes sense. But the other part of me is like, "that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard, oh my God." So I’m sort of reading that for hilarity. I also just got the new Donna Tartt [novel, The Goldfinch].

What would you title your autobiography?
The working title is I’m Not Proud and then the alternate title is Never Breastfeed In A Sweater Dress And Other Life Lessons I Learned The Hard Way.

jennifer weiner friend

Weiner and her friend Elizabeth LaBan (holding the cover of LaBan's novel).

Do you feel like you’ve been paid what you’re worth throughout your career?
I do. Except for maybe the early, early days of journalism. I think that if you’re drawing breath, you’re probably worth more than $16,000 a year. But by the time I was 24 or 25, I was getting paid what I was worth. I was not shy about asking to be paid what I was worth. I’m a firm believer in “if you don’t ask, then you don’t get.”

Money is the last taboo. But I do think it’s really important, for women especially, to talk about it. You don’t have to be evil and mean and pushy to get paid what you’re worth, but you have to believe that you’re worth it. And you have to be emphatic.

What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own. To read about more incredible women, scroll through the slideshow below or visit our "Making It Work" page.

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