Jennifer Weiner, THAT SUMMER

Jennifer Weiner, THAT SUMMER

Bestselling author Jennifer Weiner joined Zibby’s Virtual Book Club to talk about her latest novel, That Summer. Jennifer shares how she was inspired to write her recent trilogy after receiving another Jennifer Weiner’s emails and why she wanted to combine that story with the #MeToo movement. She also answers questions from readers about her father, raising two book-loving daughters, and how she uses fiction to work through things as they unfold in her life. Join Zibby’s Virtual Book Club today!


Jennifer Weiner: Hello.

Zibby Owens: Hi. How are you?

Jennifer: I’m good. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. You’re in your closet, I see.

Jennifer: I am in my closet adjusting myself.

Zibby: The full-on In Her Shoes moment. Now we’re literally in your — . I have to say that in this crowd here, many people want to be your close friend. I don’t know if you have a party that needs bodies to fill or anything. Many people actually feel they already are your good friends, but you just don’t know them yet. Here they are.

Jennifer: That’s so nice. Hello. Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for reading That Summer.

Zibby: We were just finishing discussing which characters from That Summer are going to be in your next book. Can you share that?

Jennifer: Yes. The final book in what I am very ostentatiously referring to as my Cape Cod trilogy is going to be called The Last Summer. It’s going to be out next year. In That Summer, we meet Veronica and Sam and Sarah, the woman and the kids with whom Diana is working. We meet them in the eighties when the kids are little. We’re going to see them in the present day. It’s basically forty years later. The kids are all grown up. They have spouses and children and problems of their own. Veronica is in her seventies. She’s getting ready to finally put this big house on the market because all of her fond hopes of her children and grandchildren coming to visit and spending the summers with her have not come to pass. She’s getting ready to say goodbye. Her stepdaughter asks to get married there. Veronica says, sounds great. Sounds like a great way to bookend things. There’ll be one last, big blowout bash. Then she’ll put the place on the market and say goodbye to it forever. That is how the book begins. It starts with an engagement. There’s all kinds of hijinks and confusion and secrets and drama along the way and, hopefully, a very happy ending.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds amazing. Another question, what inspired this book? I want to know also, what inspired the vision for the trilogy?

Jennifer: What inspired That Summer, a couple of different things. The short and funny answer is I was getting another Jennifer Weiner’s emails for a while. The other Jennifer Weiner — yes, this actually happened — she lives in California. She is a tennis player. She belongs to a synagogue, but different synagogue than mine. Every once in a while, I’d get a notice like carpool assignments or progressive dinner or tennis tournament. I read these. Then I’d forward them back to whoever sent them and say, I’m the wrong Jennifer Weiner. Sometimes I’d say, I’m Jennifer Weiner, the novelist, thinking I can at least sell a few books off of this. I was very interested. Somebody else has your exact name. I don’t think there’s a world in which you can’t be a little curious about who they are and what they’re doing and what their life is like. I’m thinking this woman’s probably about my age because all of the Jennifers are roughly the same age. We were all born between 1968 and 1974. When this happened, I was interested as a real-life participant, but I was also thinking to myself, this would be a really remarkable way for two women in a novel to meet each other. It would be an interesting way for them to connect and an interesting way for them to sort of both reflect one another but exist in opposition to one another. That was the first piece of where this book came from. That happened years and years ago when my kids were little. I just kind of filed it away. I thought, I will use that someday. That was one piece of it.

Obviously, the Me Too movement was another big piece of it, watching all of that unfold, as recently as a couple weeks ago with Bill Cosby getting out of jail on a technicality. Just watching man after man after man being accused, being judged in the court of public opinion, watching these guys, in some cases, be drummed out of public life very briefly and then just sort of reappear and not seem to have made any changes or processed anything that they had done or made any kind of real-world apology or repairs to what they had done, that was really interesting. That was something I wanted to deal with in this book. Then the last piece of it was just getting ready to send a kid to college. I have a daughter who’s eighteen. I don’t know how that happened, but it did. She’s going to college in the fall. I’ve just been thinking so much about what the world is like, what it was like when I started college lo these many years ago in 1987, how the world has changed, how the world maybe has not changed enough, and what our job is as mothers, as women, as sisters, as wives and daughters and granddaughters and all those things. How do we leave the world better than we found it for the next generation of women and the generation after that and the generation after that? All of those things were things that went into the pot as I was cooking That Summer.

Zibby: Speaking of cooking, that was another question that everybody was talking about, the abundance of food-related imagery and all of that. Were you in a particularly cooking state of mind when writing this?

Jennifer: Everyone was nesting. I wrote the book during the pandemic, during the quarantine. It was the sourdough bread. Everybody was baking. Everybody was making desserts, making breads, making everything. I was doing a lot of cooking myself. I was thinking about the way food connects us, about the way food lets us talk about who we are, how it can sort of shorthand a culture or a religion or a socioeconomic status, all those things. I wanted cooking to be the place where Daisy and Diana met each other. Daisy’s this home cook with this small business that her husband is constantly diminishing and keeping small on purpose. Diana works in the restaurant industry, ends up managing a restaurant, but of course, is keeping that a secret. I really liked the idea of food being the place that the two of them connected and the common language that both of them spoke. Of course, then it just gave me an excuse to make every roast chicken in the world, which is always a good time. I love to cook. I love to eat. I love going out to eat. Couldn’t do a lot of that last year, so it was lots of cooking at home.

Zibby: Excellent. I wanted to introduce you over here to Olivia. I’m going to ask her to unmute. Olivia has read every single one of your books and has been following your career.

Olivia: I can’t believe I’m talking to you.

Jennifer: Hello.

Olivia: Hi. I feel very groupie, I have to say. I’ve been following you for your whole career. I feel like we have so much in common. I’m just sorry I’m in California and I can’t come to Montville, New Jersey, where I used to live, where you just were. I’m following you everywhere. I hope you don’t feel creeped out by that. I’m really, really a fan. I love your work. I just think your transparency and your sincerity is remarkable.

Jennifer: Oh, that’s very, very nice of you. Thank you very, very much. No, it’s not creepy at all. I feel like if there are people who are super enthusiastic and think I’m really great, it makes up for my teenagers who just think I am the least-cool person who has ever drawn breath and want nothing to do with me and will disavow me if we’re ever out in public together.

Olivia: I regret to tell you that it lasts longer than teenagerhood, I regret to tell you.

Female Voice: I was just going to say the same thing. I have a thirty-year-old who’s embarrassed by my existence, so there you go.

Olivia: You have a friend in us. Let’s put it that way.

Jennifer: I really appreciate that. Thank you very, very much for that. Man, oh, man, I can’t do anything right sometimes, it feels like. Anyone who’s ever tried to parent a teenage girl knows what that is like. Everything you do embarrasses them. What can you do?

Female Voice: Just embarrass them.

Zibby: I remember wishing that my mother could read my mind. I’m like, how does she not know? How does she not know that I want her to stand there and not there? She should know this. How could she not? Now that I’m a mom of teens, I’m like, I have no idea what I’m doing. One of the things that Olivia brought to our attention was from Hungry Heart, your collection of essays, which now everybody is running out to buy. She was explaining a little more about the backstory of your family and your relationship with your dad and how that affected your writing and relationships and everything. Could you share a little bit about that with us?

Jennifer: It’s a really interesting story. The older I get and the more people I meet, the more I learn that it’s not all that uncommon of a story. My father was a child psychiatrist. He was a really good, really attentive, really hands-on father, not the most forgiving guy. He had really high expectations. He was one of those people that you’d bring home a ninety-nine on a test, and he’d want to know what happened to other point, and just set the bar very high and could be very disappointed if you didn’t clear it. Generally, he was very present. He read to me and to my siblings a lot. He encouraged all of us to be readers and to love learning and to love school. I’m the oldest of four. I think that when three of us sort of went crashing into puberty all at the same time, it was just completely overwhelming for him. My parents’ marriage fell apart. My dad just kind of left. This was happening a lot in the eighties. This was kind of an epidemic at the time. He didn’t leave and say, “Your mom and I can’t stay married anymore, but we both love you. We’re both going to put you first,” which is the thing that parents say these days when they get divorced. It was like, “The marriage didn’t work out. I am really not that interested in being a father any longer either, so you won’t be seeing me very much.” He actually told us that he wanted us to think of him like the fun uncle, which was revolting and I told him sounded kind of pervy too. He wasn’t really happy with that.

I didn’t see him for years. I would see him once in a while. Then I wouldn’t see him for a long, long time. I didn’t know where he was living. He had gotten another woman pregnant and then married her and then divorced her before the baby was born, so just big mess, lots of drama. Then I sold my first book and published it. Then he kind of showed back up in my life. By then, the wheels had come off of his life in a really big way. He was addicted to drugs at this point, which I did not know. I didn’t know what to look for. I don’t think it was anything even on my radar at that point, that this guy who’d been a child psychiatrist and lived in a house in the suburbs with a pool and a picket fence, that that was something that could happen. He would show up at readings and be kind of abusive. It was horrible, horrible. I just was trying to live my life and not have him be part of it. At that point, he was really scaring me. I had babies. I just didn’t want him anywhere around me. He died when my younger daughter, Phoebe, was three months old. It was one of those things where — I was out in LA. I got a call from the police department. I was his next of kin because he wasn’t married at that point. They said, “We found his body at a girlfriend’s house. He died of an overdose.” It was a mess. It was just really, really awful and really traumatic and took me a long time to try to process and try to make sense of. It just kept getting worse. My siblings and I, we laugh a lot because what else are you going to do? You kind of have to laugh to get through this stuff. We would be laughing. Oh, Dad died of a drug overdose. Can’t get much worse than this.

Then we were going through his stuff. He’d sort of become a hoarder, so just boxes and boxes of papers and mail he hadn’t opened and magazines and newspapers and stuff he’d never thrown out. We’re going through all this stuff. We found all of these unopened envelopes from the State of Connecticut’s Office of Child Support. We all just assumed that they had to do with the four of us because he’d been really bad about paying my mother his child support. Then we opened up one of the letters and realized that he had another baby, yet another baby who was basically the same age as my daughter Phoebe was. The whole thing was just a mess. It was really, really awful. It made me think a lot about the things you think you know about somebody, the things that you think that you believe about them, and then what turns out to be the truth, and just all of the things that formed his own life. I’m sure there was probably undiagnosed mental illness, untreated mental illness. I think there were just things people didn’t know about then. It’s ongoing. It’s not the kind of thing that you ever really get over, I think, for good. What I’m trying is just to give my own daughters a better sense of men in general and fathers specifically as they move out into the world. Boy, Father’s Day is never an easy holiday. I’m always glad when that one’s over.

Zibby: I am so sorry. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I feel terrible to even relive it, and the telling.

Jennifer: Like I said, the thing that I found when it happened, I was just like, I’m never telling anybody any of this. This is so embarrassing. I’m so ashamed. How could I have been so clueless? How could he have been so awful? When I talked about it, the first person I told was like, “My dad left my mom. He ended up living in a trailer. He was homeless.” It happens. I just think that — it’s such a cliché. We’re only as sick as our secrets. Whatever he did, it wasn’t my fault. I try to feel like, if I can make somebody else feel less alone or more seen or more recognized by talking about what happened, I think that’s important. I think that’s an important thing to do. I do talk about it. I do tell this story, but thanks.

Zibby: I didn’t mean like it had just come out publicly now. I just meant thank you for talking about it. Francine, I think you have a question.

Francine: Just a quick couple of things. Just so you know, when you talk about stuff like this, it’s very freeing. It opens us up. You would be surprised how supporting people will be. We all have stuff. If you talk about it, it is so liberating. I went through addiction with a daughter. I used to try to hide it. It just got worse. Now she’s fine. She’s the one that was a brat, but she came back to be a great human being. Yours will too. Just give it a little time.

Jennifer: I’m so glad.

Francine: She will. I always say this. Mine made it to the other side. She’s a respectable, conscientious, loving human being. Anybody’s can turn around. I’m grateful for that every day. This is my first book of yours. It won’t be my last. Thank you.

Jennifer: I’m so glad. Thank you.

Francine: We all want to be your friend.

Jennifer: Thank you. Thank you.

Zibby: Diane is raising her hand down there patiently.

Diane: Can you hear me?

Zibby: Yep.

Jennifer: Yes.

Diane: Jennifer, thank you for sharing that. My parents were divorced. It was in the sixties. We were the only family. I understand it, but my father was not as present, I don’t think, at the beginning. I have a question for you. Growing up with a father like that, how did that influence your writing as a best-selling author? Also, how did your mother deal with that? You were living with her, yes?

Jennifer: Yeah. The story that happened was, my parents got divorced. My dad was just gone. My mom was basically a single mother for ten years. Then she fell in love with a much younger woman. The four of us were just in shock and were like, did anybody see this coming? Did anybody notice any signs? I will never forget my sisters and my brother and I. My sister’s like, “Well, she always had short hair. She would always wear those boxy L.L. Bean jackets.” I’m like, “Molly, we lived in New England. That was everyone. They all had that haircut. They all wore those jackets.” Then we’re like, “It’s like a quiz show, almost. New England or gay? How do you know?” Yes, I lived with my mom. In terms of my writing, Good in Bed, my very first book, was very autobiographical. It was about a woman in her twenties who had been dumped by her boyfriend, whose mother was newly gay and would not shut up about it, and whose father had just fallen off the radar and had been this very loving, present father. She just didn’t know how to make sense of that. It was about her trying to make sense of it.

Many novelists will tell you that fiction is the tool that they use to make sense of things that don’t make sense, whether it’s something personal, something that happened in their family, something that happened in their own relationship, something that’s happening in the world, whether it’s politics or the pandemic or whatever it is, 9/11, the 9/11 novels that we’re starting to see now. Fiction is where we go. It’s where I go. It’s where I went first as a reader. I was a voracious reader as a kid. I always joke I was this weird little kid. I had no friends and a giant vocabulary. I read all the time. Books were my safe place. They were my haven. They were my place where nobody judged me. Nobody made me feel bad. I also joke a lot that the thing that made me a writer was having an unhappy childhood because it gives you stories to tell. It gives you something you need to make sense of. Jodie Picoult, who is a friend of mine, had the happiest, the most normal childhood. I’m always like, “Jodie, how did you ever become a writer with all this normal?” I joke that all of the dysfunction and all of the, okay, now your dad’s gone, okay, now your mom’s gay, all of that was a gift because it gave me something to try to make sense of in my novels and something to try to figure out. It made me a reader. Then it made me a writer. I’m grateful. I am.

Francine: Beautiful. Thank you for sharing. You really shared a lot. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Melissa, go ahead.

Melissa: Hi. How are you, everybody? Thank you so much for having us, Zibby. Thank you, Jennifer, for being here. This is really exciting. I have a confession. This is my first book of yours.

Jennifer: That’s okay.

Melissa: However, it clearly won’t be my last. I just wanted to say something that some of the other ladies said and I thought that was significant to our chat prior to you coming. Your writing is so transparent. The stories that you share are so incredible. I’m the oldest of four. My dad passed away. I just feel close to you. I’m grateful for your reading and your writing. Thank you for being here.

Jennifer: You’re really welcome. Thank you for saying that. I don’t know if Zibby told you guys or if any of you guys follow me on social media and know this, but my mom died on Mother’s Day. This has just been the most unbelievable year. I know that books are one of the things that got me through it. I know that reading stories, whether they’re specifically about mothers and daughters or they’re just a good book that can take me out of whatever I’m going through, books are such a gift. I’m so grateful. I’m grateful that I’m a reader. I’m grateful that my parents were readers and that they modeled that for the four of us. I’m grateful that my daughters are readers. I honestly do not know if they could still live here with me if they weren’t. I don’t know how I would handle that. Thank you for saying that. I’m really glad to hear it.

Melissa: I followed your bike journey. It’s just awesome. Good for you for taking care of yourself and doing what you find is important and taking a step back. We’re here for you.

Jennifer: Thanks.

Zibby: Last question. Dara, go ahead. Unmute, though.

Dara: There we go. Hi. Thank you. I’m getting teary-eyed. Very rarely cry in public, which I’m working on, by the way, so thanks for the open vulnerability. There’s so much you have shared that I and, I’m sure, many other people, if not all of us, relate to. I just want to thank you from my heart. I’m curious as a writer that if your father were alive — even, your first novel you said was autobiographical. I think for a lot of fiction writers that is the case. Did you get any pushback? Did you have any fear of your mother lashing out? How did you handle all that? I really would be transparent and still protect your loved ones. How does that all…?

Jennifer: That’s a great question. My dad at that point, he was just so gone. I wouldn’t have known how to find him if I’d wanted to let him know about the book or anything. My mother, I felt very differently about. I always say that Philip Roth famously said novelists can’t concern themselves with present-day people. You are writing for the ages. You are writing for posterity. Who cares what Aunt Marlene thinks of what you wrote? I would always read that and think, I got to go home for Passover, Philip Roth. I don’t know where you go, but I got to go home. I can’t have everybody mad at me because it’s going to make the seder super uncomfortable. When I wrote my first book, which had a gay mom character, I gave the book to my mother. I said, “Okay, so there’s a mom in this book. She was inspired by you. I didn’t write this to hurt you. I didn’t write this to embarrass you. I will change anything that you want changed, except please do not make me change the name of the lesbian women’s softball team, Nine Women Out, because everyone thinks that’s really funny. Don’t make me change that, but I’ll change anything else.”

I give her the manuscript. Then I have the unforgettable experience of sitting in my childhood living room in the house where I grew up listening to my mother flipping the pages of my manuscript. I’m hearing, flip, flip, flip. Then she would scream, “Jenny, goddamn it.” I would know that she had gotten to one of the pages with the mother. She ended up not asking me to change anything. She said, “It’s fine. It’s all okay.” She just said, “I’m going to tell everyone it’s fiction.” I’m like, “Well, it is.” She said, “Yeah, but I’m just going to tell everybody it’s fiction.” I’m like, “All right, Fran, whatever works for you. If that’s going to cover your bases, that’s fine.” That is how that worked. I think that every writer has to figure out her own path through that particular thicket. You’ve got to decide. The other thing that I found is the people who you really genuinely use as inspiration for your villains, they don’t recognize themselves, ever, ever. They’re just like, who is this awful person who is treating the heroine so terribly? You just have to keep your mouth shut.

Dara: fascinating. Thank you for sharing that for so many reasons. So much love. Thank you.

Jennifer: You’re very welcome.

Zibby: Jen, thank you so much for coming. This was amazing. You’re amazing. Even more friends now for you, not that you need them. Thank you for entertaining us with your book and your presence and all of it and using all of your pain for good.

Jennifer: You guys are so welcome. Zibby, thank you for everything and for all you do for so many women writers. We are all so grateful.

Zibby: Thank you.

Jennifer: Bye. Have a great day, everyone.

Everyone: Bye. Thank you.

Zibby: Bye.

Jennifer Weiner, THAT SUMMER

THAT SUMMER by Jennifer Weiner

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