Jennifer Weiner's ‘The Next Best Thing,' her new book

The book's heroine is a young writer.
The book's heroine is a young writer.
Posted: June 28, 2012

A FUNNY THING happened to Jennifer Weiner on her way to making a TV sitcom about a plus-sized girl trying to make it on Broadway: Her star got skinny.

OK, so maybe it wasn't so funny a year ago, when her ABC Family show "State of Georgia" was showcasing a radically downsized Raven-Symone in a role originally written for an actress with a bit more heft.

But when you're a writer, having things go ridiculously wrong is the next best thing to having them go perfectly.

And so Weiner, who had a life in Philadelphia and a career as a best-selling novelist to fall back on when "Georgia" was canceled, went to Hollywood to make a TV show and came back with her latest book.

In The Next Best Thing (Atria Books, $26.99), which comes out next week, she dishes — fictionally, of course — about the TV business with enough specificity that it had to be asked: Can she ever eat lunch in that town again?

"You know what? I hope so," Weiner said, laughing.

"I think that there are people who are hopefully going to recognize things and laugh about them. So, yeah. I hope I can," she said. "Of course, the caveat is that no woman eats lunch in that town ever. They're all on juice cleanses."

The book's heroine, Ruth Saunders, is a young writer who's followed a more traditional path than Weiner's, working her way up from being a glorified gofer to the point where she finally sells an idea to a network and is put in charge of her own show, only to find out that being in charge isn't the same as being in control.

Among the things she can't control: the network's choice of an actress, Cady, who doesn't exactly fit her vision of her lead character, "a regular girl."

But as Weiner writes, "TV-normal did, of course, mean regular-world gorgeous."

And when the actress the network has chosen decides — after the pilot's shot — that she'd be even more gorgeous a few dress sizes smaller, things get tricky.

It's easy to point to what went wrong when a show doesn't make it, but what if "State of Georgia" had become a hit?

The book "was going to be the same story," either way, Weiner insisted.

"It was going to be woman with dream gets show made and then show changes. Because even if the show had been a hit, it wouldn't have been the story I wanted to tell, if it had been a hit with a skinny lead," she said.

"I, honest to God, wanted to go out there and write a show about a girl who was bigger than a bread box, who got the great jokes and the great clothes and the hot guys and was the star. That's what I wanted. And if ‘Georgia' had been a hit the way we ended up making it, part of my heart still would have been broken, yeah."

Many people would say that's just how the business works, but "I would like to see that change. I would like there to be room for some diversity on TV in terms of what the women look like. And I wanted to be part of that change and sadly that wasn't what happened," she said.

"I should say for the record that I understand a young actress in Hollywood losing weight to get more work. I mean it was frustrating for me because I was saying, ‘Look, we gave you a job, we wanted you the way you used to be. We would never have asked you to lose weight. This would have been like the one job where you would never have gotten grief if you came back from vacation five pounds heavier.'

“But I think Raven-Symone was looking at the long picture, looking at a career and realizing, very realistically, that you get a lot more work as a 0 than you do as a 10 if you're an actress. So I get it," Weiner said.

She doesn't know if the actress will read The Next Best Thing, "but she's been around writers long enough to know how we work, where there's a grain of something that happened in real life or there's a small bit of something that you recognize from reality and then it's all made up. And Cady was very much a made-up creature."

As for the woman who made her up, "I was sent out there to learn a lesson. And if I ever have this chance again, I'll know sort of when to compromise and when not to and when to obsess and when not to and what to fight for and what to let go," said Weiner, predicting that more writers would be taking their shows online or looking for deals like Louis C.K.'s at FX for "Louie," "where it's like, ‘OK, network, you give me X number of dollars and I give you a show every week and you don't give me notes and we don't do run-throughs for you and you don't approve my casting and there's none of that.' ?"

But, hey, she's not bitter. Really.

"I think I learned a lot. I'm grateful, like really grateful, to have had the chance to go out there and to work with the people that I worked with. And to have a new job. At 41. Which no one gets. It was amazing and it was fun and it was heartbreaking in some ways, but I don't regret a minute of it."

Jennifer Weiner will read from and talk about The Next Best Thing at 7:30 p.m. July 11 at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 19th and Vine streets. Admission: Free. Info: 215-567-4341.

Contact Ellen Gray at 215-854-5950 or graye@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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