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Author Jennifer Weiner: “If you’re not careful, social media can turn into an envy machine”

…I think that if you’re not careful, social media can turn into this envy machine, which is a place where you go to compare yourself to other people and you look at what they have. It is where you look at your own life and think, “If only I had that dress, that piece of […]

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…I think that if you’re not careful, social media can turn into this envy machine, which is a place where you go to compare yourself to other people and you look at what they have. It is where you look at your own life and think, “If only I had that dress, that piece of jewelry or that vacation home,” or whatever it is that someone else is showing off. So, you think, “My life would be perfect if I had that thing.” And it’s rarely the case.

By Debra Wallace

Jennifer Weiner, the best-selling author, and engaging story-teller is a master at whisking us away to spend some quality time with memorable characters; something that is sorely needed during these unprecedented times.

Her latest novel, Big Summer, which debuts on Tuesday, May 5, was slated to be the perfect summer beach read, but in lieu of lathering up with sunscreen under a huge rainbow-colored umbrella with a cold slushy drink, we can travel to the beach in our imaginations and explore a story about female friendships.

The new novel also provides a deep look at the complexities of romance, family ties, friendship, and the resilience of the human heart.

Set during a disastrous wedding weekend on Cape Cod, this classic “beach read” is complete with toxic friendships, and how our oldest relationships can be the most powerful ones — for better or for worse.

The release date was moved up a few weeks to give Weiner’s scores of fans the opportunity to escape to the beach…by turning the pages of the new book.

Big Summer is about Daphne Berg, a young woman coming into her own in New York City while managing her new status as a plus-size Instagram influencer. A long way from her insecure high school days, most of the time she feels good about the life she has carved out for herself.

But everything is turned upside down when Drue, her estranged former best friend, a beautiful and wealthy socialite, comes to her with a huge favor. Daphne has to decide if she will turn her back on an old friend or step up to help the woman who treated her so cruelly many years ago.

Daphne also realizes that trusted female friendships — similar to our own relationship with ourselves — are a myriad of things: lovely, deeply-felt, and always complicated.

Weiner is the New York Times best-selling author of 17 novels, including Mrs. Everything, Good in Bed, The Littlest Bigfoot, Little Earthquakes, and In Her Shoes, which became a 2005 movie starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, and Shirley MacLaine.

A graduate of Princeton University, she is a contributor to The New York Times Opinion section. She lives with her family in Philadelphia and considers the shore one of her happy places.

As Weiner, a charming and humorous writer, explains, “Summer is coming early, and I will be doing the Big Summer book tour from my closet! Since the whole world’s happening online, it seems, I’d like to invite you to follow my social media channels for updates about virtual book tour events, plus some personal tidbits from my life including challah, my garden, and the latest in my quarantine fashion looks.”

Shortly before the release of her new novel, Medium had the opportunity to talk to Weiner about how she and her family are handling the stay-at-home orders in Philadelphia. We also spoke about the important issues of friendship, body acceptance, social media, challah baking sessions on Facebook with her devoted fans around the nation, and, of course, her love for her new book, Big Summer.

Where did this idea for Big Summer come from?

I’ve always been interested in young women’s stories. And even though I’m 50 years old now, with my single and carefree days behind me, I’m still interested in that time in a woman’s life where she’s single; she’s making decisions about where she’s going to live, what she’s going to do, who she’s going to be with, and who her friends are going to be. And I was also especially interested in how social media complicates those questions and changes those answers.

So, that was part of the impetus. Then part of it is that I just wanted to write something really fun, really fast-paced, and set in a place that I really love and know very well. I knew there’d be an election in 2020, so I was sort of thinking it would be nice to do something really light and give people a break from all of that noise. Obviously, I did not imagine that we’d be where we are now, but I guess it kind of worked out.

I can see from your challah baking sessions on Facebook that fans are extremely devoted. They clearly feel connected to you.

I do have some really amazing fans. My daughters (17,and12), always roll their eyes at me. They’re like, “Who are these people, and why do they like you so much?” And I’m like, “People do, children.” [She laughed.]

You can tell them it is because we can relate to the characters and the book clubs and other readers find your story as a writer and your books extremely inspiring.

I will; thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.

I think that plus-sized women could buy the dresses and other clothing described in Big Summer, they would jump at the chance, regardless of the price.

Right? I feel the same way. It was so much fun just sort of inventing those clothes in my imagination and thinking about how Daphne would feel putting them on.

I wanted to talk about turning a negative into a positive. And taking that moment of shame and having that almost become her superpower. Which is something that she explicitly said later in the book? But I’m interested in what happens to people after they go through something like that. I think there are two ways of dealing with it. You can just crawl under the covers and pull the blanket up over your head and just try not to ever think about it.

What was it like to talk about body shaming and body acceptance? I stopped in my tracks when I read the description of Daphne feeling like a ‘fat little nobody.’ These are things that women focus on: plus-size women, or petite women, or women who have whatever things that they think are imperfections.

I wanted to explore the question of the internet and the question of social media because this is something that wasn’t there when I was a young woman, but it’s now there for my daughters. I know this is going to be part of their lives. It’s going to be a part of their formation and becoming who they are. And so, I think a great deal about all of the things that we women say to ourselves in our heads.

Such as?

All of those messages that we’ve gotten from the world; all of that self-loathing and how on the one hand, you can go onto Instagram and you can type “body positivity,” and you can see hundreds of women of all shapes and sizes doing everything that you can imagine, just being present living their lives. But then you can read the comments and see every horrible thing that you’ve ever thought about yourself, or ever been afraid that someone was thinking about you, just all right out there, anonymous and hateful.

You mentioned some of these hurtful social media posts in the new book?

Yes, there are many like, “You’re disgusting,” or “You’re a drain on the healthcare system,” or “You’re going to die and your kids won’t have a mother.” The internet gives and the internet takes away. And I think that there are wonderful, positive aspects of social media. And I also worry a lot about just all of the hate that’s floating around.

If it wasn’t for that embarrassing scene early in the book at the club being put on YouTube, Daphne wouldn’t have become an influencer and she wouldn’t have gotten the career, and the golden ticket so to speak, and the money, and all the things that she was enjoying.

I wanted to talk about turning a negative into a positive. And taking that moment of shame and having that almost become her superpower. Which is something that she explicitly said later in the book? But I’m interested in what happens to people after they go through something like that. I think there are two ways of dealing with it. You can just crawl under the covers and pull the blanket up over your head and just try not to ever think about it.

Or you can try to own it and say, “You know what? You can say whatever you want about me, but I’m still here.” I know that there are lots of women who have been hurt the way that I’ve been hurt, or who have the same fears that I have. And I’m going to put myself out there and be role model for them as much as I can, or connect to them as much as I can.” I think that that’s what Daphne has chosen to do. And I think that makes her really admirable. She’s a flawed narrator. She’s not perfect, but I think she does do some things right, and that’s one of them.

I think an important lesson for kids to learn is that there are things in the world that you can’t control, and you have to learn to handle that with as much grace and generosity as you can.

On a personal note for a minute, how long have you been home? How long have you been socially isolating?

We have been home in Philadelphia since the order came down on March 12. My daughters both go to private school, but as soon as the public schools were canceled, their school was canceled also. So, we’ve been here for six weeks.

How is that working out?

Well, honestly for me, I keep joking that my life hasn’t changed all that much. I worked from home, to begin with. I spend a lot of time at home. My husband is also a writer and editor. He’s the one who would go out to a work share every morning and I would just be here. So, what’s new for me is that my kids are here all day, my husband is here all day, and my cleaning lady is not here at all, so I am doing a lot more of the housework. So, I would say more company and more housework is what’s changed for me.

If you could pick one character from any book of yours, during this social isolation, which one would you want to be, and why?

I’d want to be Becky from Little Earthquakes because she’s a chef. I would just have her whip up some nonstop gourmet meals. Becky was such a fun character to write and there are lots of fun cooking scenes, which I really liked. So, she’s the one that I would pick.

How do you think we will be changed as individuals by the coronavirus pandemic?

I hope that we all appreciate each other a lot more. I hope that we don’t take anything for granted. I don’t know though. I remember 9/11, and I remember thinking nothing will be the same. Everything will change. No one will take anything for granted anymore. And it seems like things just get back to normal pretty fast. But maybe it won’t be that way this time.

Obviously, there’s a lot of lemonade being made in having your book come out early and being able to do some of the videos. How did you react when your speaking engagements and tours had to be canceled?

Well, it was hard. I’d been planning this reader weekend that was going to be on Cape Cod (April 24–26), and that obviously got canceled. I’d been really looking forward to that. I’d really been looking forward to my book tour. Writing is very solitary, and so that one part of the year that you get to be out in the world and interacting with people is actually pretty great, and I miss it.

I miss having that to look forward to. I miss being able to go to different book stores. I miss being able to see my readers face-to-face. Like you’ve said, I’ve been trying to make as much lemonade out of it as I can by doing the challah and doing the virtual book clubs and all of that, but I miss the in-person stuff. And I know that I’m going to appreciate it a lot when we get to go out again.

Do you have any idea about when a book tour or lectures or your weekend could be rescheduled?

I wish I knew. I really do. I would love to be able to announce something, but I don’t think anybody knows when it’s going to be safe, yet.

The not knowing is so difficult for all of us right now, especially children.

I think an important lesson for kids to learn is that there are things in the world that you can’t control, and you have to learn to handle that with as much grace and generosity as you can.

Speaking of going out again, when we get the go-ahead to leave our homes on a regular basis, I can’t wait to get a manicure and my hair needs major attention. What are you looking forward to when shops are open again?

This is such a first-world problem, but I got a gel pedicure a week before this all happened and it’s been flaking off. And so now half my toes have polish on them and half of them don’t, and it really looks bad. I really want a pedicure, so that will be one of the things that I go do. I will go get a pedicure and it will be wonderful.

How are the virtual book clubs going?

Very well. I am really enjoying them. God bless social media. It’s funny, I wrote this book that I think could be read as kind of critical of the ways it makes us behave. And yet I’m so grateful for it right now because it lets me connect to people and be with them as much as I can right now.

[Best-selling Author Jennifer Weiner]

As a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and thinking about writing your first novel what would have helped you at that time?

I think that like many other people, I sort of imagined that if I published a book, I’d be happy for the rest of my life. I thought it would be such an achievement that nothing will ever upset me, or make me sad, angry, or jealous. I would have told myself that publishing a novel is a wonderful thing and it is going to feel terrific, but it’s not going to fix every single thing that’s wrong, and I should not expect it to, which I sort of thought that it would.

Please talk about any life lessons in the book. You talk about kindness, and hurtfulness, and friendships. Especially friendships in middle school and high school, which can make or break you.

Well, I think that if you’re not careful, social media can turn into this envy machine, which is a place where you go to compare yourself to other people and you look at what they have. It is where you look at your own life and think, “If only I had that dress, that piece of jewelry or that vacation home,” or whatever it is that someone else is showing off. So, you think, “My life would be perfect if I had that thing.” And it’s rarely the case.

I guess if I was thinking about lessons in this book, I would want people to think about social media and how they use it, and how they could maybe think more critically about what they’re seeing.

Do you have your next project?

I’m working on the third book in The Littlest Bigfoot trilogy, so I am going to finish that. The Littlest Bigfoot was the first one, and then the second one was called Little Bigfoot, Big City. Now I’m working on the last book in that trilogy, which is keeping me just the right amount of busy and occupied because it’s not quite as intricate as writing an adult book. So, I’m really glad I have that to do right now.

I just realized that you have several groups of fans — a children’s audience, your novel audience, your movie audience, and people who want to bake bread with you.

Yes, and people who read my columns in The New York Times, who don’t even know that I write novels, which is kind of interesting, too. I think that my mom is sort of moderately impressed with the novels, but I think the fact that I can publish my writing in The New York Times impresses her more than anything.

I enjoyed watching you bake bread in your kitchen in your Big Summer apron, but I have to know, why did you decide to share this Friday challah baking with your fans on Facebook?

Well, I bake challah every Friday night (for Shabbat dinner). That’s part of my weekly routine. And I was just thinking about what my job is right now. What do people want from me? And I figure what they want is to just be entertained, and to feel connected, and to maybe get a little glimpse into somebody else’s reality, and. I was very happy to be able to do that for them.

My daughters are actually participating, which is kind of nice. My 12-year-old is my makeup artist/camera person. And when she’s not around, the 17-year-old will grudgingly consent to help out a little bit. So, it’s been really nice. I think readers have enjoyed it, and I’ve had a really good time with it.

Do you think that your daughters will follow in your footsteps and become writers?

Well, both of them strenuously deny it. And they’re both saying, “No, we don’t want to be writers. We don’t want to do it; it’s boring.” But they’re both very funny, and they’re both naturally good writers. So, we’ll see.

And lastly, why do you recommend Big Summer?

I wrote this book to be fun, escapist, and entertaining. It’s set at a beach, and while obviously none of us can go to a beach right now, maybe when you are reading my book this will help you feel like you’re there. This book was written to give women an escape, and to give them some pleasure, and to just have some fun. So, I hope that’s what it’s going to be, especially right now.

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