Here at Bookish, we’re incredibly excited about Jennifer Weiner’s new novel Mrs. Everything. We named it one of the season’s must-read novels, and we were thrilled to get a chance to catch up with Weiner during this year’s BookExpo. Here, Weiner chats with Bookish about sisters, identity, and the challenges of writing a book that follows two characters for their entire lives.
Bookish: You’ve said that this book sets out to explore the question of how a woman should be in today’s world. Do you feel that writing this book has helped you to answer that question?
Jennifer Weiner: Well, I think what it’s helped me to understand is that there’s no one answer and that progress is not a straight line. Instead of things starting off bad and getting better, it’s more like things start off in one place and they move in one direction and then the pendulum swings back, and there’s progress and there’s regression. I think that the answer to how a woman should be in the world is intensely personal, and the answer changes over the course of a woman’s life. You can start off in one place believing you want one thing, believing your life is going to look a certain way, and then 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years later, it’s totally different.
Bookish: This book has an exceptionally long timeline: It follows two characters for their entire lives. What were the unique challenges of writing a novel with this kind of scope?
JW: A lot of it was doing the research and making sure that I had the details right in terms of like, okay, what did a kitchen look like in 1958, and what kind of living room carpets did people have in 1973, and when did shoulder pads start to happen and why? (I can’t tell you why but I can tell you when.) A lot of the research was for all of the little details that go into making the reader feel like she’s there, in a place, in a moment. That was a challenge, but I liked it. I liked learning stuff like that.
Bookish: The female characters in this novel are all policed in a number of ways, whether it’s their bodies, their reproductive decisions, or their relationships. Do you think today’s women face that same policing, and do you think it has it changed forms?
JW: Well, I talked about the pendulum swinging forward and swinging back. I think we’re in a backwards swing right now, certainly in terms of reproductive rights, in terms of gay rights, and in terms of racial equality. What I think is interesting is that we as women seem to have internalized a lot of the strictures. On the one hand, the world says “Oh, go be anything you want to be! Do anything you want to do!” and we believe that. But at the same time there’s also this voice inside of you saying, “Well shouldn’t you be home with your children? Don’t you feel bad about leaving them?” Sometimes that policing comes from the outside, but sometimes it’s internal, where we hold ourselves to very high standards, standards that you can’t ever reach no matter what you do.
Bookish: Both Jo and Bethie undergo multiple transformations in this book: They reinvent themselves trying to find happiness, safety, and acceptance. How did you decide what paths these characters’ lives would take in the novel?
JW: A lot of it is figuring out who these women are and letting them tell me their stories. I had the general idea that there were going to be these two sisters, and one was going to be the rebel and one was going to be the good girl. I knew that the rebel would eventually end up in a very conventional-looking life. That character is named Jo in the book, and she’s based on my own mother who ended up in a very conventional marriage with four children in the suburbs. But then I wanted there to be a foil to that character, a sister who you think is on the path to this very traditional, white-picket-fence kind of life, and she ends up someplace else because of the choices that she makes. If there’s a theme to this book, it’s that there’s not just one answer. There’s not just one way to do it, there’s not just one roadmap. Every woman has to find her own way, and sometimes that takes a while and sometimes that looks different than you think it’s going to look.
Bookish: There’s a thread in this novel about parents trying to avoid making the mistakes that their parents made and correcting for (real or perceived) problems in their own childhoods. What drew you to this theme?
JW: It’s something I’ve seen as my own generation grew up and left our own parents’ houses and parented our own children; there’s this tendency to overcompensate. If your parents basically left you alone and said “Go play, I’ll call you in for dinner,” and didn’t know what you were getting up to, then your response is going to be to monitor every moment of your child’s life: They’re going to take classes, they’re going to go here and they’re going to go there. Presumably that generation’s response is going to be to say to their kids, “Go play, I’ll call you in for dinner.” It just seems to be a cycle. I think the book talks about lots of cycles. There’s a very human impulse to do better than the generation before you did. And of course, if you’ve been harmed or damaged or if someone didn’t see that you were being harmed or being damaged, the last thing you want is for your own children to relive that. And so you end up with these mothers who are certainly very vigilant about their own children’s safety.
Bookish: Your novel explores the special bond between sisters. What drew you to writing about a relationship between sisters, versus one between friends?
JW: I mean, I have a sister and as a sister, I’m always interested in that bond. When you’re writing about women and the different paths they take, the different choices they make, I think that going to siblings is a natural way to do it. Of course, Little Women is one of my all-time favorite books, and I borrowed two of their names for two of my characters. Jo and Bethie are my own little women. It speaks to both the randomness of things and the way that it doesn’t always look the way you think it’s going to look, when you have sisters who grew up with the same house, same food, same parents, same circumstances, and they’re just like totally divergent in terms of where they end up. And that always interests me.
Bookish: What books would you recommend to readers who love Mrs. Everything?
JW: There are two big books that this book is in conversation with. One is a book by Michael Cunningham called A Home at the End of the World. The ending of that book really informed the ending of Mrs. Everything. And then I’d send readers to a book by Susan Isaacs called Almost Paradise, which is also a big generational saga that talks about what makes us who we are and whether we ever escape that first definition that our parents hand down to us.
Jennifer Weiner is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of fourteen books, including Good in Bed, The Littlest Bigfoot, and her memoir Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing. A graduate of Princeton University and contributor to the New York Times Opinion section, Jennifer lives with her family in Philadelphia.