JODI PICOULT INTERVIEWS JENNIFER WEINER! by Jodi Picoult & Jennifer Weiner
Two of our favourite writers talk plot, publishing and Princeton. What more could you ask for?
Jodi Picoult: All Fall Down has all the hallmarks of a Jennifer Weiner book, but is a departure, too—it addresses the very serious topic of addiction to painkillers. What made you want to explore this subject, and how do you imagine your readers will react?
Jennifer Weiner: I wanted to write about addiction because I know – along with anyone who reads the papers – that it’s a huge problem for women. Like most people out there, I’ve had the experience of seeing friends and loved ones go through it. More than that, though, addiction interested me as a symptomatic problem. When you talk to therapists and counselors, they’ll tell you that addicts don’t have a problem with alcohol or pills, but a problem with feelings.
They don’t know healthy ways to handle their emotions, which is why they end up in trouble with pills, or pot, or gambling, or shopping. I wanted to writ
e about a woman who’s an addict but, more than that, a woman who can’t handle her feelings, a woman who’s gotten what looks like a happy ending, but doesn’t feel happy at all.
I think people come to my books for laughs. My hope is that I’ve told something very sad and very real, but in the voice of a character who is funny and self-deprecating, even as she’s sliding down the rabbit hole.
JP: Allison’s slide into addiction, and her stint in rehab – as well as the characters populating rehab – rang painfully true. You must have done a boatload of research on addiction. Tell me a few things that we’d be surprised to know, which you learned during your research.
JW: What surprised me most isn’t how women get their pills, but how little progress there’s been in terms of how to help addicts. We have rehab and … rehab. If you go to rehab and relapse, you’ll be sent back for more rehab (even if it didn’t work the first time, or first six times). And rehabs aren’t always tightly regulated, there aren’t standards that mandate things like how much time patients spend being treated by therapists, as opposed to watched over by the “recovery coaches” like the ones Allison meets. Finally, there’s a gender issue, where the “normal” addict is male, and a woman is an exception.
I hope things do get better. I hope there will be more options for recovery, options that acknowledge that all addicts have things in common, but there are important differences, too. I hope we can have a conversation about what happens when the help doesn’t help. After doing all this research, it was frustrating to see what happened after a Philip Seymour Hoffman or a Cory Monteith died, and social media would explode with people saying, “Get help! Get help! Don’t be afraid to get help!” Well, these two men GOT help. We need to talk about why rehab is failing, and how it can get better.
JP: You’ve been quite wonderfully outspoken about the inequity between men and women in publishing. In what ways have things changed for the better? What room is there still for improvement?
JW: Things have improved. The New York Times Book Review has a woman at the helm, and the number of women on its pages, as subjects and authors of reviews, has gotten much better. Other places, whose ratios have remained abysmal ever since you and I started talking about #franzenfreude and VIDA started counting, are at least aware that there’s a problem, even if they don’t seem particularly invested in solving it.
I’d love to see more places include more women. I’d love it even more if the “literary” writers who get profiled – in large part because of the efforts of their bestselling sisters – did not immediately turn around and trash “unserious” books by women, just to make triply sure we all know that they belong in the boys’ club of quality literary writers.
JP: One of the things I love best about you is that you use your powers for good—namely, you constantly champion the writing of those starting out in publishing. Pick three unsung heroes in publishing, and tell us why we should be reading their work.
JW: Roxane Gay’s work is getting a fair amount of attention. In six months, she’s published a devastating, brilliant novel, An Untamed State, about a woman who’s kidnapped in Haiti, and a trenchant, funny, wise essay collection called Bad Feminist that takes on everything from Fifty Shades of Grey to online dating to weight and desire and how men and women are in the world.
Michelle Huneven is another writer who, if the playing field were more level, would get the attention of a Franzen or a Eugenides. She writes beautiful sentences, and she tells stories about dysfunctional families, fraught love affairs, and unusual relationships.
On the commercial-fiction front, I’d give you Tabitha King. She is – let’s get it out of the way – married to Stephen, and she is a wonderful writer – funny and sly and observant and wise about people. In particular, I’d recommend Pearl and One on One.
JP: You and I both went to Princeton—I’m (ahem) four years older. So: what’s the craziest thing you ever did on campus?
JW: The craziest thing I ever did at Princeton, honestly, was try to change it. When I started, in 1987, two of the eating clubs were still all-male. Only a handful of women had spoken up about it, even filing a lawsuit, and they were dismissed as belligerent feminist cranks. My friends and I turned it into an issue again, but were able to get much broader support and show that it wasn’t just a handful of malcontents who wanted all facets of the Princeton experience available to everyone who went there. We had male alums of the clubs marching with us, carrying posters asking why their daughters couldn’t join. We had professors and administrators joining the demonstrations. Eventually, we had a rally that attracted about 500 people … and when the clubs held their votes, they both voted, voluntarily, to admit women. It was huge – one of the triumphs of my life at that point. I find myself thinking a lot about it now, in terms of the push for more inclusive book reviews, when people start saying, “Oh, she’s only in this for herself,” or “she just wants the newspapers to pay attention to her books,” because, when my friends and I were pushing for Tiger Inn and Ivy to admit women, it wasn’t because I wanted to join either place. I wanted them to admit women because it was the right thing to do, the same way I want the media to review more women, and acknowledge women’s commercial fiction – it’s the right thing to do.