Rumor has it that the best day of a writer’s life is when you get to go home and tell your parents that you’ve sold your book, that it will be in stores for the world to see.
Or I assume that is true, for debut authors who did not call their first book “Good in Bed.”
The year was 1999. I was 29, a newspaper reporter quietly working on a novel. I didn’t tell my friends or colleagues, in case I never finished. But I did tell my mother, Fran. She was not impressed.
“How is your novel?” she would ask, giving the word a breathy pronunciation that evoked a Southern belle suffering an attack of the vapors. It was a happy day indeed when I went home and said: “Remember my novel? Well, an imprint of Simon & Schuster has acquired it in a two-book deal! And foreign rights have been sold in 15 countries, and HBO bought the film rights!”
Fran’s mouth fell open. Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m so proud of you!” she said as she hugged me. For a moment, all was right in the world.
“What’s it called?” she asked.
Um. “Good in Bed?” I said.
Fran’s expression became horrified. “Jenny,” she cried, “how much research did you do?”
The answer was: not a lot. Like many first-timers, I pulled from the raw material of my own life. So “Good in Bed” became the story of Cannie Shapiro, a plus-size female Jewish journalist not-too-loosely based on me. Cannie’s mother, Ann, was not-too-loosely based on Fran, who in her mid-50s, after a long marriage, four kids and a divorce, had fallen in love with a much younger woman.
I handed over the manuscript, sat down and waited for my mom to encounter the parts about her fictional doppelgänger’s new partner smelling like an ashtray and possessing a tongue like an anteater, bracing for her shouts of “Jenny, goddamn it!” when she hit an especially explicit bit.
In the ensuing years, I’ve written other books and invented other people. But that character, the mom-character, the woman who knew she could love women and have a big life in a big city but ended up with four kids, married to a man, living in the suburbs, was never far from my mind. Who was my mother, really? What must her life have been like?
Her mother, my nanna, told us that Fran had been a stubborn girl who’d loved to read and ride her bike, a tomboy who’d refuse to wear dresses and would put on her cowboy costume instead.
My father had his own stories. “She never liked men. Never,” he said one night on the phone. I didn’t want his version of the truth in my head, but there it was, and it fueled my imagination: Had she told him about herself? Had she even known enough to tell him?
Then came Trump.
After the 2016 election, I wanted to write a big, sweeping book, one equal to what the times demanded. And yet the story of my mother still called to me.
It’s just a story about women, I thought, when I would consider a book about two sisters, one based on my mom. Then I remembered what the novelist Grace Paley said when people asked why her books weren’t more political. “I have to explain to them that writing the lives of women is politics,” she said.
If the personal is political, then the stories of women’s lives — how they live, who they love, the children they have, or don’t; the sex they have, or don’t — all of that is consequential. All of it signifies.
But the prospect of writing about my mother, in all of her dimensions, was terrifying. I finished entire drafts with pages left blank where I’d put the naughty bits in later. To stall, I immersed myself in the details of Detroit, and Connecticut from the 1960s to the present, the Motown music and the shag carpet and the shoulder pads. I imagined a character who was smart and ambitious, who always had to keep part of herself hidden. I thought about how it would feel when she discovered who she was by way of who she loved, and I squeezed my eyes shut tight, put her in bed with her first girlfriend, and I went there.
Almost 20 years after “Good in Bed,” there I was again, in a different house, on another couch, listening to my mother turn the pages of my new book and praying that she hit the road before she hit the first sex scene.
Twenty years ago, all I could see was how my mother’s choices had hurt me. Now I can see all the ways the world hurt her — the chances she didn’t have, the doors she couldn’t open. And as the current administration continues its assault on transgender people, gay people and women, I can see that her story is big, and that it is political.
Fiction helps us imagine other lives, naughty bits and all. These days, that empathy feels more necessary than ever. I hope that some of the readers who chuckled at Ann and Tanya in “Good in Bed,” who laughed at their matching L.L. Bean hooded sweatshirts and their softball team, Nine Women Out, will read “Mrs. Everything” as a companion piece and a critique of the times, a consideration of how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.
Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) is a contributing opinion writer and an author. Her new book, “Mrs. Everything,” comes out Tuesday.
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