Readers, summer reading is so close you can almost taste it. I’ve been investigating upcoming summer releases for months now, on the lookout for new and notable titles that should be on your summer reading list. Prepping for the Summer Reading Guide brings up an important question — what makes a book a “summer read”? What’s the perfect balance of frothy to grounded, fun to thought-provoking, or relatable to rich-people-problems?
Today I’ve brought in author Jennifer Weiner, proud author of several quintessential summer reads, to discuss her criteria for a great poolside book, the upside-down and backwards season the publishing world is about to have, and her appropriately-titled new book Big Summer.
Let’s get to it!
JENNIFER: That’s one of my favorite things that reviewers say about me is the food descriptions were drool-worthy. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 234.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, my ninth annual summer reading guide comes out this week: we’re delivering it by email to our subscriber’s inboxes on Thursday. Did you know we have a What Should I Read Next newsletter? Each Tuesday when we release a new episode here in your podcast player we also send an email with a little background on that day’s episode plus 3 things I love, 1 thing I don’t and a little peek into what I’m reading right now. I so enjoy sharing my interesting reads and fun finds about books and reading with you each week. If you want the 3-1-1 each Tuesday and you want that Summer Reading Guide text SUMMERREADING to 44222. That’s the phrase “summer reading” all one word to the number 44-222.
Readers, summer reading is so close you can almost taste it. I’ve been investigating upcoming summer releases for months now, on the lookout for new and notable titles that should be on your summer reading list. Prepping for the Summer Reading Guide brings up an important question — what makes a book a “summer read”? What’s the perfect balance of frothy to grounded, fun to thought-provoking, or relatable to rich-people-problems? Today I’ve brought in author Jennifer Weiner, proud author of several quintessential summer reads, to discuss her criteria for a great poolside book, the upside-down and backwards season the publishing world is about to have, and her appropriately-titled new book Big Summer. Let’s get to it.
Jen, welcome to the show.
JENNIFER: Thank you so much. I’m so glad to be here.
ANNE: Oh, well, it is a pleasure to have you. Especially right now when we are in an unprecedented moment, culturally. I’m so excited to talk to you about your book and our favorite thing around here, summer reading.
JENNIFER: Oh, yes. Boy oh boy, it feels like summer has been slightly cancelled on us, so I’m happy that at least there’s some great books out there.
ANNE: I would like to start by reading your own words back to you. How’s that?
ANNE: [LAUGHS] You said it on social media, how bad could it be? [JENNIFER LAUGHS] But that’s appropriate in this larger context as readers will soon hear.
ANNE: We’re in a weird publishing landscape, and every year I put out a summer reading guide. We’ve done this for nine years on Modern Mrs Darcy. This is the first year where I’ve had to check and double check and triple check and check again all the publications dates because, I mean, it’s like somebody took the jar of marbles and just dropped them on the floor and they’re scattering everywhere and so many dates for books that readers have been so looking forward to, and this is serious right now because we really want those books we’ve been anticipating and we need our bibliotherapy, but they’re being pushed back to August, November, even summer 2021. It’s not good for morale.
So you hopped on social media and announced, regarding your book Big Summer, which was scheduled to be published on May 19th that right now we are all looking for a little bit of distraction and escapism. With that in mind, I’m thrilled to announce that my publisher and I have decided to move up the publication of Big Summer to May 5th so that you all can get a crack at it earlier than expected. I wish I could wave a magic wand to make the book available tomorrow, but that would require actual magic, along with cutting ahead other books in the production train. This is the fastest we could get it to you, and I am very grateful to my publisher for making it happen.
Everyone else is pushing these books that we are eager to get into our hands further away from us, and you pulled yours like closer into our hands. And I feel like that says something deep about the space of reading in all our lives, in times of trial, yes, but also on a regular, every day basis. Would you tell me a little bit about that?
JENNIFER: Well it’s like you said, the coronavirus has upended the publishing landscape. Nobody knows what to do, nobody knows how to handle this. And so in the middle of March when the stay at home orders were starting to come, my publisher and I sat down and we looked at all of the projection models that probably they were looking at in the White House, and it looked like the middle of May was not going to be a good time to be releasing a book. And they said, what do you want to do here? They said, we could look at summer 2021. We could try to move it to the fall, although selling a book called Big Summer in September maybe not the easiest thing.
And I said, there’s not a good answer here. There’s not the perfect thing to do, so I said, listen, if people are going to be stuck at home, if my book tour’s going to get cancelled, I would like to get this book out as soon as we can do it. Because like I wrote on my Facebook and my Instagram. I said, people need some escape. People need some relaxation. People need some literary comfort food and I would like to give them that.
ANNE: I understand the publishers and authors and booksellers that we are all facing difficult decisions. Although honestly, to break it to my kid that book he couldn’t wait to read that was scheduled to come out April 7th was going to sell 3 million copies no matter what, is now coming out in the fall.
JENNIFER: Well I think for a book that’s going to sell 3 million copies, the publisher’s doing some real hard math, and they’re looking at, okay, we know we can count on x percentage of people to get that book no matter what. They’re going to order it. They’re going to get it from their local bookstore somehow. They’re going to walk five miles through snow in their bare feet.
But they also know that another million people are just going to be like, oh hey, there’s that new Wimpy Kid book, let me grab it at Target or at Costco. The more casual readers, and I’m sure they did the math and they figured that okay, x percent of our sales comes from those more casual readers. We can’t lose those sales and therefore, we’re going to postpone the book.
And we did some math too, and yes, probably Big Summer is not going to sell the way it would in a normal retail environment, but I just really felt strongly maybe we’ll make those sales up in the paperback. Maybe lots of people will dust off their ereaders and get it that way. But I felt strongly, this is … A book whose time has come if I can sound a little grandiose, like, this is a book we need right now because it’s fun and it’s relaxing and it’s set in a beautiful beach community that will hopefully if I did my job make you feel like you’re there with the sand in the toes and a drink in your hand and a plate of oysters right beside you.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I loved how the oysters got specifically called out in critical reviews. That was fun to read. I love the food touches you put in your book.
JENNIFER: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It’s funny, four months ago we were planning everything on the calendar around all the days I would be out of town, and there were a lot of them, and now we’re looking going, is there anything to plan around for these zoom calls? I just have no idea.
JENNIFER: Ugh. We have like I’m sure a lot of families we have like the giant family calendar that lives on the kitchen island and I finally moved it to the dining room because it just got too depressing to see things getting crossed off, crossed off, crossed off, you know. No, it was a downer to have to look at that everyday, so [ANNE LAUGHS] I moved it. I hid it.
ANNE: That was probably best for the soul. So we’re not going anywhere this summer, but I love how the pages of a good book, you can escape to a different time and a different place, so this might be many readers only chance to visit the beach this summer.
I gotta tell you, there was one literary reference that played on a novel that I’d been meaning to read for ten years and haven’t yet and I just really I found that delightful ‘cause only someone who loved books would sneak in something like that, and that was cryptic on purpose. Readers, you’re going to have to read it and then you’ll see what I’m talking about. But I really love how a book can take us away to a new time place and that was especially fun right now. Let’s talk about the book a little bit.
ANNE: So I really enjoyed this book about two friends if you can even call them that with a complicated past. I mean, Drue is such a mean girl who’s abused her ex-bestie so badly. And I thought the way you wrote about this relationship, I mean, it’s a great summer novel so it’s a little bit over the top, but so real and relatable. And what I didn’t expect in this novel that I enjoyed so much was the way that you really lampooned influencer culture. [JENNIFER LAUGHS] Would you tell me a little bit about your inspirations for the themes here?
JENNIFER: For starters, the reason that I wrote Big Summer, the reason that I wanted to write kinda this fizzy, fast-paced mystery was I had just finished writing my previous novel, Mrs. Everything, which took place over 70 years and it dealt with themes about feminism and religion and sexuality and gender and it was this super intense, lots of research, really intricate timeline. And when I finished that, I said to my husband, I am going to write a book that takes place over a long weekend in Cape Cod [ANNE LAUGHS] because I know Cape Cod really well. I didn’t want to have to deal with, like, a crazy timeline, and I wanted something purely fun. Even when that’s my intention, that never ends up being exactly what happens.
So I knew that I wanted to write about a young woman, except even though I can remember my young womanhood pretty well, I’m 50. I’ve got a teenage daughter. So I’m thinking what is different about being a young woman today? What - what do they have, what are they dealing with that I didn’t have and that I wasn’t dealing with? And the answer is obviously social media. And when I started writing the book there were some pretty noteworthy, I’ll call them antics that were going on in the influencer subculture.
There was a woman who had just gotten engaged and her fiance had planned this elaborate scavenger hunt that took them to Paris and Morocco and all over the world and it turned out that this wasn’t sorta a holistic thing, it turned out that the whole thing was sponsored. And they weren’t telling people that. They were being really coy about it. But it turned out that every move had been planned. Every sponsorship had been secured, and what you were seeing presented as real wasn’t real at all. So that was one thing that I was watching and then there was the Caroline Calloway thing. Where …
JENNIFER: Yeah. Where this was a woman sorta touting herself as a creativity guru and she was going to host these events and people were going to pay lots of money, and then she started cancelling the events and saying things like if you bought tickets for the Boston event, just buy a train ticket. Come see me in New York. And there was this whole disconnect between what she was presenting and what she was selling on her social media platforms and what the reality of her situation was.
So I started to think about social media and specifically about influencer culture. The good, the bad, and the ugly of it. The way that you can find connection and you can find support and you can make a little money vs all of the sand traps I guess, all of the temptation to spin a version of yourself that doesn’t have much to do with who you really are. Those were things that really interested me, and so those were things I ended up weaving into the story of this toxic friendship.
ANNE: Well I found it was so much fun to read about so many of us listening, we read about Caroline Calloway. We read that expose when somebody leaked out the sales pitches basically [LAUGHS] for that sponsored engagement and we shook our heads and thought, what is the matter with people?
ANNE: And I’m just picturing you rubbing your hands, like oh, I could use this.
JENNIFER: What is the matter with people is really a great question for a novelist because then you’ve got 400 pages to figure it out.
ANNE: So did you know from the beginning that female friendship was going to be a big theme?
JENNIFER: I did. Because I knew that I would be writing about a young woman and I think that friendships are essential at any time in a woman’s life, but I think particularly at that stage, at that moment, when a woman is in her 20s, in her late teens, really trying to figure out who she is, where she’s going to live, what she’s going to do with her life, who her romantic partner’s going to be, all those big questions. And as you define yourself, one of the ways you do it is by who are my friends? So I knew that there was going to be a friendship at the heart of this story, and I knew that it was going to be kind’ve a toxic friendship. There was going to be a lot of pushing and pulling within the context of this relationship.
ANNE: Now you’re a mother of young daughters and a woman who’s lived. you know. decades with female friends in your life. Having just written about a young woman who has had to navigate the chasm between appearances and reality that can exist these days in a way it couldn’t 20 years ago, how do you feel about raising girls right now and about your own relationships?
JENNIFER: It’s a little terrifying in terms of my daughters and social media and everything that’s out there. My daughters’ schools, and I’m sure maybe your kids’ schools would have, you know, seminars for parents like social media bullying, or how to be a responsible social media user, or how to make sure you know what your kids are doing on social media. And I was the mom that went to every single one of those seminars and sat in the front row taking notes and just wanting to keep her kids safe, which is the instinct I think that all parents have. We want to keep them safe.
One thing that my 12 year old was going through is she had this friend who was a little bit of a frenemy and every once in a while my daughter would go on Tik Tok, which is this you know, it’s for very young people and they do viral dances and they do really funny creative things. She would go on Tik Tok and see that she’d been tagged in a video of all of her friends hanging out together without her.
And I just remember thinking my god, like, when I was a kid, you would go to school on Monday and you’d hear about the big party that you didn’t get invited to and maybe you’d see pictures, maybe you wouldn’t, but kids today they can see that party that they weren’t invited to unfolding in real time in their hands as they hold their phones and watch. And I can’t imagine how devastating and how hard that must be.
So I think a lot about the good parts of social media, the ways that you can find connection, the ways that you can find community, the ways that you can find affirmation and support. And then all of the ways that it’s just another tool to make women feel like crap about themselves.
ANNE: It was painful listening to you describe what it’s like to be a young person knowing in real time that you’re left out of things, let alone to experience it for yourself.
ANNE: Something else that was really fun this middle class Kentucky reader was to read about rich people behaving badly at this million dollar wedding Cape Cod wedding weekend. Tell me a little bit about what it’s like to write those kinds of scenes and how you even begin to prepare to do so.
JENNIFER: Well, the rich are different and I always loved when I was growing up, I would read Judith Krantz novels and I would read Jackie Collins novels. And those were books, they were sorta dismissed as sex and shopping books that were set in this very upper class milieu where you would read about the fabulous clothes and the fabulous houses and flying on the concord and drinking some exclusive vintage champagne that you’ve never even heard of, and loved that stuff.
I loved living in that world even if it was just for a little while, and so when I was writing Big Summer and I knew that there was going to be this crazy bananas over the top wedding, I spent a lot of time in the archives of Vogue of all places because Vogue online covers weddings. And so I would read about all of these crazy ridiculous, I mean, to me it sounded like just setting a pile of money on fire more or less. [ANNE LAUGHS] But people did.
So one of the details in the book is that there is a bed on the beach. This rehearsal dinner, it’s a party on the beach, and they’ve set up three bars and basically an entire catering facility. And there’s this giant king sized bed with selfie sticks stuck into all four corners of the bed frame so that you can get on the bed and take pictures of yourself. And obviously the whole thing is sponsored. The mattress company sponsored it. The linens are sponsored. It’s all spon-con, but that is a detail that I actually ripped from an IRL wedding that I read about … I don’t remember if it was in Vogue or in Town & Country, but that was something that I saw and I thought there’s no way I can’t not use this.
ANNE: I’m sitting here thinking there’s no way that’s actually real. Wow.
JENNIFER: It’s real. Oh, it’s real. You can probably go find it. It’s all these people with like five names and they’re like minor German royalty or something like that [ANNE LAUGHS] and the wife is like some sort of slash, like she’s an actress/designer/something else, and it’s like this world I’ll never live in but it’s sure fun to visit.
ANNE: I feel that way as a reader.
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ANNE: Jen, you’ve mentioned the research process in your books a few times. You are on the record as being a strong advocate for aspiring writers to get a real job for the background and that journalism just might the right job for them. I’d loved to hear you tell a little more about that.
JENNIFER: I graduated college in 1991 and there was a recession. I’d been an English major. I’d taken every creative writing course that my college offered. I knew that I wanted to write fiction, but I also knew that when you looked in the Want Ads, there wasn’t anyone hiring novelists. There wasn’t anybody saying come work for me and I’ll pay you to write the great American novel. So I went to my parents and I said would either of you be interested in becoming a patron of the arts and supporting me [ANNE LAUGHS] for a couple years while I write a novel about your divorce and how it’s hurt me? And they were both like no, we don’t want to do that.
So I considered the jobs were you got paid to write. Those jobs were advertising and journalism. And of course I was a very self-righteous 21-year-old. I was like ah, I’m not doing advertising. I don’t want to sell things to people. In my nightmares, I figured I’d get put on like the Tampax campaign, and my entire career would just be coming up with synonyms for absorbent. And I didn’t want that.
And so I got a job at a small newspaper in central Pennsylvania. I covered five local school districts and part of my job was I typed the school lunches every Monday. I learned a ton. I worked at a small newspaper in central newspaper and then I worked at a medium sized newspaper in Lexington, Kentucky. And then I got hired at my big newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was wonderful training for writing fiction because it teaches you to write on deadline. It teaches you to be very dispassionate about editing your own work and having your work edited. It teaches you to notice details, and to listen to how people talk so you can write dialogue.
ANNE: Did you recognize at the time what an extraordinary training ground that was?
JENNIFER: I did because I had a really amazing professor who was the one who kinda pushed me to go work for a small newspaper. And he said you’re going to see a part of the world that you wouldn’t ever live in and you’re going to get all of the training that I mentioned, the deadlines, and the editing. And reporters don’t get writers’ block because then they become unemployed reporters. [ANNE LAUGHS]
And so people are always like, what do you do about writers’ block? What do you do when you just can’t write? And I can honestly say after almost a decade of working for newspapers, I don’t get writers’ block. Because a newspaper reporter can’t go to her editor and say, you know, I just … I know I was supposed to turn in that 12 inch story about the sewage board meeting, but my muse hasn’t spoken to me yet because then you and your muse are going to be collecting unemployment. So I feel so lucky that I got to do what I did and live in parts of the country that I would never get to see otherwise and learn everything that I learned.
ANNE: Now just so all the listeners can join me in weeping with envy, we’re talking about John Mcfee, are we not?
JENNIFER: We are talking about John Mcfee, yeah.
ANNE: [SIGHS] Big sigh for that.
JENNIFER: Yeah, he was amazing. Just an amazing professor, a lovely, brilliant, kind man.
ANNE: Yeah. I mean it’s true for writers I’ll never meet as well as ones I do, readers love to hear that the people they admire, whether or not they’re authors, it goes beyond that, are good people so I’m glad to hear that.
JENNIFER: Yes. He was - he was one of the good guys.
ANNE: Jen, was the research process different for Big Summer than for your other previous books?
JENNIFER: Well I go about all of it the same way. I look for primary source material, and when I was writing Mrs. Everything , that meant copies of the Detroit Free Press in the 1960s. And when I was writing Big Summer, that meant Town & Country from the now.
You always want to go to those primary sources. It’s the who, what, where, when, why, which is what you learn in journalism, but then you think about the senses. You want to know how things looked, how they sounded, and how they tasted and how they felt. Just put readers in the moment as much as you can. So, I try to visit the places I’m writing about and spend some time there just to get a sense of the things that a picture can’t tell you. If I’m referencing something real, I try to make it as true to life as I can.
So, there’s a real murder that is buried very deep in Big Summer. It was the only murder on the outer cape, the last one had been 50 years before that. And it was a young woman, a young single mother who was killed in her home. And it was an unsolved mystery for many, many years. While the police were trying to solve it, this woman’s reputation got dragged through the mud because everyone assumed that because she was a single mom who had been dating, who’d been romantically involved with different men on the outer cape, that it was because of her lifestyle because of the choices she’d made that she got killed.
And I went back and read newspaper reports. There was a nonfiction book written about this murder. I read that whole thing, and just really tried to get the details right even though I was using that story exactly. I wanted to make it to feel as real as I could.
ANNE: So many readers think that a great novel is the product of an incredible imagination. How is that true and not true in your mind?
JENNIFER: Well, yes, you absolutely do need to imagine your plot. You need to imagine the clothes that people wear. One of the parts of the story of Big Summer is that Daphne, my main character, is a plus-sized Instagram influencer. She’s sorta the brand spokesmodel for this line of clothing, and I had to sorta invent the clothes in my head. And you know, how they would feel when she put them on.
So you need to have a good imagination, but if imagination is the flesh, then truth is the bones of your story and you need to make sure those bones are strong as they should be and where they should be.
ANNE: Jen, I’m impressed with all the research and travel you’re able to do to write these books considering your not-languid publication schedule.
JENNIFER: [LAUGHS] Not-languid, I love that. Yeah, I was a book-a-year person for part of my career. Now I think it’s going to be back-to-back books sometimes, and then maybe like a year or two gap between the next one. I think that sometimes women will look at, certainly I will look at a successful woman and think, how did she do that? How did she have kids and houses and job and look a lot better than I ever do? Like how is she making all of this work.
A lot of times, I will try to ask myself like what is getting edited out of the picture? Because I know that every once in a while you’ll see a picture of a celebrity looking beautifully groomed with her beautifully groomed children with her in some beautiful setting, and you will know that there was a nanny or a caregiver who got cropped out of that picture. Who was somewhere in the shot, and sometimes you’ll see an arm or a leg or a purse, and you’ll be like oh, there she is.
So I always try to be really, really transparent about how I make my life work. I have a full-time assistant. I have a housekeeper, and when my kids were little, I had lots of help with them. I wasn’t doing it all myself. I’m not superwoman. My secret is outsourcing.
ANNE: I was just thinking that you weren’t messing around when you said there’s no time for writer’s block.
JENNIFER: [LAUGHS] I don’t like leisure time. Like I remember once I was talking with a friend of mine and we were doing the what if you won the lottery thing. And my friend is like, I would just buy an island and I would just bring a big stack of books and I would just sit there and read and lounge in the sun for days. And I’m like yeah! I would do that too! And she looked at me and she said, you would not. [ANNE LAUGHS] You would do that for a day and half and then you’d be like you know, going to start building something or writing something or doing something. So yeah, that’s true. Like I love writing and it doesn’t feel like work most days, and so I’m really happy to do it.
ANNE: Jen, what’s your favorite moment in Big Summer?
JENNIFER: When you’re writing a mystery and when you can get the twists to land and when people say I didn’t see that coming, that’s a good feeling.
ANNE: Did you sit down to write a mystery with this book?
JENNIFER: Yeah, I kinda did. I knew there was going to be a friendship. I knew there was going to be a wedding. And then I’m like, okay, but then what happens at this wedding that is going to allow my protagonist to resolve all of these complicated feelings that she has? And that’s also going to incorporate social media because I knew I wanted to talk about social media. And when I sorta shook all those things together in my brain, that’s when the plot sorta revealed itself to me.
ANNE: Thanks for writing a fun, you know, what does it say that I just really want a food analogy here?
JENNIFER: [LAUGHS] That’s one of my favorite things that reviewers say about me is the food descriptions were just drool-worthy. [ANNE LAUGHS] I’m like uh-huh. Listen, I like to cook. I like to eat. I love good meals. And I love when things are delicious, and so I always want to put those in the book. If this book tastes like a really indulgent treat, then I have done my job.
ANNE: Well we are in need of some literary comfort food right now, so thanks for putting this on the table.
JENNIFER: You are so welcomed.
ANNE: Now as someone who wanted to put literary comfort food, like you called it, in reader’s hands, you must be someone who has experienced the pleasures of consuming such things yourself.
JENNIFER: Oh, yes, ma’am.
ANNE: Jen, tell me a little bit more about what your ideal literary comfort read would be.
JENNIFER: Susan Isaacs one of my absolute favorite writers, and her books are witty and they are fast-paced and they are smart. That’s what I look for in a comfort read, a summer read, a book that you turn to when times are tough and maybe you don’t want War & Peace at that particular moment.
Again, like, not too overanalyze with food, but I think that some days you want the seven-course tasting menu as per say and somedays you want the Kraft Mac & Cheese in the blue box. And for me, literary comfort food has to be somewhat substantial. There has to be some brains there. I just love it if like this main character is somebody who feels like a friend, where she’s familiar and she’s annoying and I love her, even though I want to kill her sometimes.
So I always call out Susan Isaacs because I think that she is somebody who hits that sweet spot of sorta smart and fun. Curtis Sittinfeld, who is friend of mine, her book American Wife, is something that if somebody is like oh, what to take to the beach? If you haven’t read that, you should read that. It’s a reimagining of Laura Bush’s life of all people and it’s wonderful.
And I love Elin Hilderbrand’s books. I love feeling like I’m in Nantucket. I love a good mystery, too. I read lots of Jonathan Kellerman’s mysteries, which he’s got like 30 of them at this point. [ANNE LAUGHS] And they’re good! You know, he nails the plot piece, the characters are well written and well developed, and I think he does a really good job of it.
ANNE: What books are on your radar for summer that you can’t wait to get your hands on? Or that you’ve already gotten your hands on and you’re looking forward to everybody else enjoying?
JENNIFER: [LAUGHS] Curtis Sittinfield again has a new book out called Rodham, which answers the question what would happen if Hillary Rodham never became Hillary Rodham Clinton? If she didn’t marry Bill and charted a different course. That book is so interesting because it has so much to say about freewill really, and - and sorta how do we become who we end up becoming. So I loved that book.
Elin Hilderbrand has a new one out called 28 Summers, that I am very, very much looking forward to. I mean, like you said, a lot of the books that I had been looking forward to, they got moved and now I don’t know when they’re coming out anymore. I read My Dark Vanessa, which came out right before this all went down, and that was terrific. It was also super disturbing.
ANNE: I was going to say I’m scared of that one. I’ve heard very mixed things … Not about the book, but about ability of some readers to absorb it.
JENNIFER: I would say that if you are somebody who has had anything close to the experience that the main character goes through and you can just like glance at the flap and figure out what that is, I would say proceed with caution because for me, it was an extremely wrenching book to read. Because it’s basically, the woman who has had an entanglement with a much older man, a person in a position of power, and in her head has recast this as a love story where they are the doomed and fated lovers who society won’t let be together. It’s all about the prisms that we put in front of our eyes sometimes to keep from seeing a truth that is right in front of us. And I thought the author did an incredible job with it. Although again, I’m not sure I would recommend it for sitting on the beach.
ANNE: I’m really grateful these days for the authors on the summer release schedule that we can count on, like Elin Hilderbrand. I did not know about that premise. I thought mmm.
ANNE: Is this a good idea? But oh, she sucked me right in. I really … I breezed through that one. It’s in our summer reading guide, readers, so you can read all about it.
Jen, I know that you like the fizzy, fast-paced books, but that still have a sense of depth. I know lots of readers struggle with spotting those, with knowing when they pick up a book, is this going to have the balance I’m looking for between just fun and frothy, but also smart. Any tips for readers on the hunt?
JENNIFER: What I have found is that frequently, even literary fiction, those authors want people to pick their books up and sometimes those books will get covers that make them look a little lighter than they are. And I think that even the very commercial writers want to be taken seriously, and so sometimes they will lean into the description or the buzzwords or the blurbs and endorsements that make them sound like there’s a little more heft to them. And it’s tricky. And everyone’s taste is different, so I would say find a friend whose taste is like yours or find a critic who always seems to be endorsing the books that you loved, and just see what that person is reading and loving.
ANNE: Such good advice, and no joke on the covers these days. Like one of the books I really enjoyed for summer is by Emily Henry. It’s called Beach Read.
ANNE: And thank you, everybody, for signaling [JENNIFER LAUGHS] so hard that this publication date is not getting moved.
ANNE: The cover is just so happy, it’s cheerful and fun, and so I picked it up expecting romantic comedy, and it is not that.
JENNIFER: And believe me that was on purpose. I’m sure that her publisher was saying let’s get those women who are on their way out of Target and are just looking to grab something fun and make this look like that. The premise is fantastic, but I’m really interested to see how she pulls it off.
ANNE: Well I really enjoyed it, and it didn’t take long for me to recalibrate, but I definitely did think, hey, this is not what I expected.
ANNE: As a writer, do you enjoy plots that reveal around the writing life?
JENNIFER: Yes, I do. I’m not sure how interesting they are to sorta people who aren’t in the industry, but I could read anything about a writer with writer’s block, or a writer who is trying something different. One of my all time, all time favorite books is by John Colapinto and it’s a book called About the Author. It is a young man who is desperate to be a published author and his nerdy roommate who it turns out is secretly writing a book. Then the nerdy roommate dies in a tragic accident and what does the aspiring young writer do? Discover his work in progress, take it to a literary agent, publish it as his own, and everything is going great except then it turns out the roommate might not be as dead as we thought.
ANNE: Wait, what?!
JENNIFER: It’s amazing. It’s amazing! Everybody go read that. [LAUGHS] About The Author. It’s great.
ANNE: I’ll read that next. That sounds fantastic.
JENNIFER: So good.
ANNE: Well I don’t know about readers on the whole, but I do know that our listeners and I say this with great pride, we love the behind-the-scenes like how are the books they enjoy reading, how are they written? How are they put together? What is the process? Jen, I mean, tell us what your writing desk looks like. This is the kind of thing our listeners want to know.
JENNIFER: Well, I’m sitting in front of it right this very minute and I actually had to take a little video of it for the skim, if any of you guys are Skimmers. I write in my closet, which sounds like a terrible joke. [ANNE LAUGH] I know. I know. But when my kids were little, it was the only place that I could close not one, but two doors to get them from getting to me. Right? I could close the bedroom door, and then I could close the closet door. They couldn’t get in here no matter what. And it’s also a very roomy closet I have to say, but I don’t really have the wardrobe to justify this closet. So I turned kinda into an office/storage space.
I write at the vanity I guess it would be. If I was a fancier person I would be doing my makeup here. So there’s a big, round light up mirror that I ignore, and I, like, plop my laptop down right in front of it. And then there’s like this little thing full of pens. There’s a stack of notecards ‘cause I’m writing people personal notes. There’s my little tube of vitamin E oil ‘cause I burned my arm when I was ironing napkins, and I’m trying [LAUGHS] trying to make it not have a scar, so I’m like rubbing Vitamin E oil on myself. There’s a tiny little painting of my late dog Wendell. It’s a little square that a reader did for me and gave to me at a reading.
JENNIFER: And then there’s a little painting of another rat terrier right next to that that is not Wendell but sorta looks like it could be a relative of his. And there’s a vase that is shaped like an owl that my husband gave me that’s full of dried eucalyptus. And there’s a couple of funky glass paperweights, my iced coffee and my adult coloring book, and that’s it. THat’s what you got.
ANNE: Tools of the trade. [JENNIFER LAUGHS] And you know what I just realized I was laughing at you writing in the closet, but I’m sitting here recording at my desk, which I think is actually in the room intended to be the bedroom and adjacent is my bed, which is in the room which I’m pretty sure intended to be the closet/dressing room.
ANNE: So I mean, you know, you do what works for the writing life and the rest of your life as well. Okay, can we close with like one final great summer reading rec?
JENNIFER: Well, I’m looking forward to J. Courtney Sulllivan’s book Friends and Strangers, which looks terrific. And I am super excited to read that one.
ANNE: Ooh, okay. I really love her work. I think The Engagements is my favorite. If you haven’t picked this up, listeners, I’m sure we’ve talked about it on What Should I Read Next, but in The Engagements you get several different stories of unconnected families whose only link is this beautiful, expensive heirloom ring. And also she weaves through it the storyline of the always single woman who wrote the - the advertising slogan, we’re coming full circle here, a diamond is forever for De Beers and it was very interesting take on a subject I love to read about which is complicated families. I really enjoyed her new one, Friends and Strangers, which is also about a complicated sort of family situation.
JENNIFER: And has again that Internet Instagram influencer cultural angle to it.
ANNE: Oh. It really does, doesn’t it?
JENNIFER: It’s a new mother who’s sorta feeling a lot of mom shame because of this like new mommy chat that she’s in. And it’s her sister who’s an Instagram influencer, I think.
ANNE: Had I read Big Summer first, I would have been way more queued into that aspect. [JENNIFER LAUGHS] But the messiness of the increasingly entwined family friends is what really captivated me. Okay, so, I totally agree with when it’s time for an absorbing summer read, whether you’re reading that on your couch or on the sand someplace with an ocean roaring next to you. I love something, like, hefty that’s going to keep me busy for a long time. Recently, the past couple summers I mean, I feel like I’ve been recommending Rosamunde Pilcher like crazy.
ANNE: The Shell Seekers is my favorite, which I did not pick up for like 20 years after first seeing it because I thought the cover looked just old fashioned and inaccessible, nothing to do with anything I’d be interested in reading, and I was so wrong. So this is the multigenerational family story and the beach in question is not one I’ve ever been to, but the shores of Cornwall. And it goes from maybe even before the ‘40s all the way up to contemporary time, which is the ‘80s when she wrote it.
It’s a story of art and family and love and war and money and legacy, and I love it so much. But also I just want to give a plug for the reads that sometimes readers think of as more serious so they don’t pick them up in the summer. But this would be a good time to pick up something substantial that still has that page turning quality like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah .
JENNIFER: Oh, yes.
ANNE: I first read in the summer, maybe that’s why I think of it as a summer read, but you know what, that features a blogger in a way that’s not too far off with what we’re talking about. All right. Well, Jen, thank you for talking with me today about Big Summer, and about your summer reading plans. It’s been a pleasure.
JENNIFER: This was fantastic. Thank you so much for having me.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Jen today. Get our full show notes at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/234; that’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. Learn more about Jen’s books at jenniferweiner.com. That’s Jennifer W-E-I-N-E-R, jenniferweiner.com, and keep up with her on Instagram @jenniferweinerwrites and on Twitter @jenniferweiner.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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● Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner
● Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
● Author John McPhee (try The Crofter and the Laird)
● Author Susan Isaacs (try Goldberg Variations)
● American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
● Author Jonathan Kellerman (try The Wedding Guest)
● Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
● 28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand
● My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
● Beach Read by Emily Henry
● About the Author by John Colapinto
● Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan
● The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
● The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
● Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What’s YOUR recipe for the perfect summer read?