PHILADELPHIA — Best-selling novelist Jennifer Weiner is going Hollywood.
And not the way she did when her second book, “In Her Shoes,” was made into a Major Motion Picture and she got to cash the check, drop in on the set and bring her family to the premiere.
Or even in the way the former Philadelphia Inquirer feature writer’s semiautobiographical Cannie Shapiro did in Weiner’s first, breakout novel “Good in Bed,” selling a screenplay and becoming BFF with a movie star.
It’s been 10 years since “Good in Bed” was published and Weiner’s ninth book, a novel about the formation of a very modern family, will be out July 12, her name large above the title — “Then Came You” — in recognition that it’s her name that sells books. (And she pronounces it, FYI, the way the former congressman from New York only wishes he could.)
Her career looks like many a writer’s happy ending.
Yet for months now, Weiner’s been out west in the sitcom trenches as the executive producer of an ABC Family series, “State of Georgia,” that stars former “Cosby” kid Raven-Symone and premieres next week.
If “Georgia’s” is like any of the writers’ rooms I’ve visited, Weiner’s new line of work is more frenetic than the one I’ve imagined her pursuing in the years since she left the Inquirer (where she at one point was my competition on the TV beat) and began writing her books in a neighborhood coffee shop. It’s also a job that comes with restrictions that someone used to total control of her characters’ universes might chafe at.
Not to mention a killer commute.
For the life of me I can’t figure out why she’d want it. But then I don’t work as hard as Weiner does. I suspect few people do.
That work includes our interview, which took place over coffee on the Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, a time carved out of one of her visits home. (Until earlier this month, her older daughter, Lucy, 8, was still in school in Philadelphia and wasn’t as free to travel as her bicoastal sister Phoebe, 3, who’s in “nursery school there and in nursery school here,” said her mother.)
Weiner, who credits a Brazilian treatment of her curly hair for the fact that she looks more like her author photos in everyday life than she once did (“I always know I’m having a good hair day when somebody recognizes me”), seemed wider awake that Sunday than she probably had a right to. And at 41, the woman who helped make happy endings safe for the women she calls “big girls” appeared not much older than when I first met her more than a decade ago, with the glow of someone who’s long embraced food and exercise.
So go ahead: Hate her if you dare.
News that Weiner’s become, in Hollywoodspeak, a hyphenate, is likely to trigger another bout of that peculiar blend of anger and envy that she’s long excited in certain circles.
But the author-producer’s far more numerous fans love her for her prickly advocacy for equity in the treatment of popular fiction by women, her obsession with pop culture (recently included with the likes of Margaret Atwood, Susan Orlean and William Gibson on Time’s list of the Top 140 Twitter feeds, she somehow finds time to live-tweet episodes of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”) and most of all for her flawed but hopeful characters, whose happy endings are never wholly dependent on some guy holding a ring (or a rose).
These are the people who preorder Weiner’s books weeks in advance and who won’t be happy if the writer’s new day job interferes with their summer reading.
“The thing that I tell people is that I wrote ‘Good in Bed’ when I was working full time,” she said.
The book she’s working on “that will be next summer’s book, God willing, this is coming more quickly than anything has in a while. There’s something about it being forbidden, you know? It’s like sneaking off to see your boyfriend when you’re married. It’s actually a lot of fun.”
TV, the way Weiner sees it, is just a way to tell stories to more people. And she’s done the math.
“If you have a best-selling novel, it’ll sell a hundred thousand copies, two hundred thousand copies, in hardcover, maybe another three or four hundred thousand in paperback,” she said.
“If you have a TV show, even if it’s on basic cable and fails, you’ll probably have at least a million people who will see your thing.”
Still, it’s a funny business to be in if you “grew up in a house where we weren’t really allowed to watch TV.”
Strict parents might consider that a cautionary tale.
“There’s four of us, and we’re all in entertainment now,” Weiner said. “One of my brothers is a producer, one’s an entertainment lawyer and my sister sort of works as an extra and does stand-in work, body-doubling, so she’s on sets all the time ... You keep your kids from watching TV, they may grow up and make it someday.”
Her own interest was first piqued by a drama, not a comedy.
“I remember watching ‘Twin Peaks’ when I was 20, I think ... and just being like so blown away by the storytelling and everything you could do with narrative and visually and with music and with lighting and costumes and characters, and that kind of canvas, to tell a story over 20 weeks, was amazing to me,” she said. “So I think I always had it in the back of my mind, like wouldn’t it be great to come up with something and have that kind of canvas and have years to tell a story?”
The stories Weiner expected to tell when she signed a development deal with ABC Studios a little more than three years ago — brought there by Mark Pedowitz, who recently became president of the CW — involved women who might not fit TV’s usual mold.
“It was sort of like, ‘Love the women characters that you write, see if you can come up with something for television,’ ” she recalled.
Partnered with producer Jeff Greenstein (“Desperate Housewives”) — “a match made in studio heaven” — she began pitching.
There was the “half-hour comedy about a fertility doctor who hates kids. We loved it.”
“We pitched it and the network bought it, and then they said, ‘We’re developing this other thing about a fertility doctor ... so do you guys have another idea?’ And so we did and it was ‘State of Georgia.’”
What about “Jane and Dick,” the pilot for which Weiner took to her Twitter feed last year to try to win a pickup?
“That was a drama. That was another production company,” she said.
“Jeff and I wrote ‘Georgia’ in 2008. I wrote ‘Jane and Dick’ in 2009. And then last year I had another drama, we wrote it and they ended up not picking it up and that was called ‘Afterwives,’” she said.
So four projects, one show in production?
“That’s development. They’ll buy 60 pilots. They’ll shoot 12, they’ll pick up four and two of them will be canceled after three airings. Which is one of the reasons I’m happy I’m at ABC Family. They don’t do that. Like if they pick you up for a season, they’re going to air you for a season. They’re not going to air three and decide they don’t like the ratings and toss you out the door,” she said.
Which doesn’t mean it’s not still show business.
“I’d go in and say, ‘She’s kind of a regular-looking girl,’ and they’d look at me and say, ‘TV regular?’ And I’m like, ‘TV regular’s pretty, isn’t it?’ And they’d be like, ‘TV pretty.’”
“State of Georgia” stars Raven-Symone (“She’s So Raven”) as Georgia, an aspiring actress in her early 20s who’s out to take Broadway by storm, and Majandra Delfino (“Men of a Certain Age,” “Roswell”) as her geeky best friend, Jo.
Georgia was meant to be the kind of full-bodied heroine fans of Weiner’s books hoped for when her TV deal was announced, and Weiner herself envisioned the character as “Anna Nicole Smith in the Guess ads ... big on top, big on the bottom, a waist, but a girl who was too big to sort of be fashionable.”
When Raven’s name came up, “they gave us the DVD of a movie she’d done for ABC Family ... ‘Revenge of the Bridesmaids,’ and she was like a curvy girl. And I was thinking, ‘OK, she’s not quite as I imagined Georgia,’ but she’d be fine.
“They were a hundred percent onboard with making the show with a plus-sized girl. We auditioned gorgeous plus-sized girls,” she said.
“The first time I saw Raven, she’s like tiny. And they’re like, ‘She’s not L.A. tiny. She’s Philadelphia tiny, maybe,’” Weiner said.
Since then, “she’s of course lost even more weight,” she said.
“It’s ‘In My Shoes’ all over again. Because when they hired Toni Collette (to star as the heavier sister opposite Cameron Diaz) it was like, fantastic, she’s going to gain weight, it’s going to be like ‘Muriel’s Wedding,’ she was a big girl in that. And then it was like, she gained about 15 pounds and then she called, or her people called, and they were like, ‘She’s hit the wall,’” Weiner recalled.
“Wall? What wall? Like 15 pounds, that’s a good weekend for some of us.
“So, anyhow, it was supposed to be a show about a big girl. It is no longer that, exactly. But the thing about Raven is that she is fantastically talented and she’s funny and she can find a joke,” Weiner said.
Delfino’s character, meanwhile, has been endowed with something called “uncombable hair syndrome” — “look it up on Wikipedia, it is a thing, I swear to God” — that slightly suppresses the actress’ usual resemblance to Scarlett Johansson.
“She is like the prettiest thing in the world and we have just like messed with her so badly,” Weiner said gleefully.
Delfino’s still plenty attractive, I told her.
“I know. She’s TV pretty!”
The weight thing clearly rankles.
“I will tell you that as the mother of daughters, and as someone who pays a lot of attention to pop culture and what’s out there, I would really have loved ... to do a show where it was a girl who wasn’t zero or a 2 or a 4 getting to wear the fabulous clothes, getting the guys, getting the jokes and not being the punchline. I really would have loved to do that. And maybe someday I will,” she said.
“Maybe we’ll get a 20-episode back order and Georgia’s best friend/rival will move to town and she’ll be a big curvy girl.”
Should “State of Georgia” take off, would Weiner be taking off, too, and leaving Philly behind?
“I’d think about it,” she said. “There’s a lot of factors to think about, and one of them is, is L.A. a great place to raise girls?”
She’s also realizing that limiting kids’ exposure to TV might not be the worst idea.
“I have a feeling I’m going to be like, ‘You’re not watching that, you’re not watching that, and don’t even think about asking me to watch that one,’” she said, while admitting that her daughters have seen her watching “The Bachelor.”
“Lucy, being Lucy, I’m in there and I say, ‘Mommy’s working,’ and she’s like, ‘You’re not working, you’re watching the stupid ‘Bachelor.’ And Lucy’s like, ‘Why do all those ladies want to go on a date with that one boy?’ and I’m like, ‘I have no answer for you. I do not know.’ And then she’s just sitting there, like disgusted,” Weiner said, laughing.
For a woman who’s on the record as liking happy endings, isn’t “The Bachelor” a tad dark? We’re talking after all, about 24 women who are going to be ...
“Brokenhearted, brokenhearted. TV brokenhearted,” she said, completing the thought.
And even the happy ending’s not likely to end happily.
“No. Except,” and she paused, “I think that for most of them the happy ending will actually be getting a gig as a correspondent on ‘Good Morning America’ or getting on to ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ I don’t believe that any of them want love at this point. I mean, how could you, after ... seeing the track record?”
(A few days later, Weiner tweeted her followers: “#bachelor contestant from Ali’s season just auditioned for#stateofgeorgia. So I guess they’re looking for careers, not love. Huh. #whoknew.”)
At one point or another in most of Weiner’s books, one of her characters disappears from her day-to-day life: Could that be her own fantasy?
“No, no. But fiction needs conflict to work. There has to be conflict, there has to be resolution, there has to be sort of that moment of rupture so there can be that moment of resolution at the end ... In life, you just kind of soldier on, you do the best you can, you hope for the best with your kids, you hope you’re not messing them up too badly,” she said.
“I think deep in their hearts, every woman has the fantasy of the life they didn’t choose and I think in my books, sometimes my characters get to choose that life.”
So there’s a life Weiner hasn’t yet gotten to choose? She laughed.
“I’ve never been TV pretty.”
STATE OF GEORGIA
8:30 p.m. EDT June 29
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article