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Jodi Picoult - The book that changed me

Best-selling author Jodi Picoult tells Keren David about the lessons that she learned writing about racism

    Jodi Picoult
    Jodi Picoult

    There are authors, best-selling authors, and then there's Jodi Picoult. Her books debut on the New York Times best-seller list at number one and replicate that success across the world - there are estimated to be 40 million of her books in print today worldwide.

    She's currently undertaking a book tour across the US to promote her latest novel, Small Great Things, which, typically, tackles a moral dilemma that goes to the heart of contemporary concerns. This book is her first to tackle the explosive subject of race in the US, with a story about a black midwife who is banned from touching a white supremacist's baby and finds herself deciding whether to give the child life-saving resuscitation.

    At the end of this month, Picoult will speak about the novel at a special event at JW3. As a curtain-raiser she took some time out to answer the JC's questions.

    "Small Great Things" has been marketed here pre-publication with a blank cover and without your name - why did you and your publisher decide to do that? Do you think people have preconceptions about "a Jodi Picoult book"? What responses have you had from the blank cover?

    My UK publisher organised it all - because they wanted to go up against that unconscious bias that is one of the central themes of the book. I guess there is a perception out there that I write chick lit, or women's fiction. In reality, my readers are both male and female - 48 per cent of my fan mail comes from men so, to be honest, the label comes not from what I write, but what gender I am. I am told that the blind proof provoked a huge flurry of comment and guessing and that the second proof, with the jacket on it, went down extremely well, too. So - a success!

    Picoult's new book about racism
    Picoult's new book about racism

    The novel tackles the subject of race in America. Were you nervous about taking this on? How did you research the subject and what did you learn in the process?

    Yes - but, I knew I wanted to write from the point of view of several characters - a black nurse, a skinhead father and a defence lawyer, a woman who, like me, and like many of my readers, was a well-intentioned white lady who would never consider herself to be a racist.

    First, I read many books by social justice educators, and enrolled in a social justice workshop. I listened to an Asian-American woman recount her love/hate relationship with eye liner, because of her features; I heard a black woman say that she had to put on a mask every day just to act the way white people needed to her act. I left in tears every night as I came to see that I was not nearly as blameless as I thought I was.

    I then sat down with women of colour who overlooked my ignorance and graciously shared their successes, failures, hopes and fears.

    There was the young black mother who recounted her panic after police shot yet another unarmed black youth. She showed me pictures of her beautiful baby, and asked how she could possibly keep him safe forever. A poised, brilliant college graduate told me how, whenever she rode the subway, she carried a Vassar water bottle, which she would prop on her knee as if it to say: "It's safe to sit beside me."

    I also interviewed two former skinheads for hours. They explained to me what white supremacists believe, described some of the violence they had personally inflicted, and told me how the movement has changed its approach since its heyday in the 1980s. Now, skinheads let their hair grow out and dress like us - and they don't run in violent crews in inner cities. They are connected on the internet, and spreading hate in local communities, posting flyers meant to incite fear.

    Here is the grievous mistake I had made for the majority of my life: I assumed that racism is synonymous with bias. Yet you could take every white supremacist and ship him off to Mars and you'd still have racism in the world. That's because racism is systemic and institutional… and yet it is both perpetuated and dismantled in individual acts. Of all my books, this one will stand out for me because of the sea-change it inspired in the way I think about myself and how far I still have to go in terms of racial awareness.

    Your book 'The Storyteller' took on the subject of the Holocaust. You've said that you had a huge response to that book. Do you think you will return to the subject again? Might you one day write about contemporary antisemitism?

    I haven't yet returned to the same subject. Each of the books has come from a particular time, or stage, in my life. When the kids were young, I wondered about some things, and then as they grew older, the questions changed with them. Right now, racism is a topic that weighs heavily on the hearts of people in my country - and heavily on my heart. But most white people have no idea how to talk about it.

    It's very easy to make a mistake when we talk about racism - or to unintentionally offend someone. And so, as a result, white people often don't talk about it at all. For example, I had been trying to write a book about racism for 20 years, but couldn't figure out how to do it. I kept asking myself: why do I have the right to write it? I grew up white and privileged. True, I do research. True, I've written about many kinds of people I'm not: rape victims, cancer patients, school shooters, men - but racism is different. The answer came in realising who my audience was. Yes, I hope people of colour read the book and find it resonant. But I really am reaching out to white people who - like me, like many of my friends - would never think of themselves as racists - but need to think a little harder.

    I was pretty blissfully ignorant about racism before I began this book, because I had the luxury of being ignorant. Now I can't NOT see race, and I can't stop discussing it.

    You're Jewish by birth, yet you've said you don't consider yourself Jewish, but a humanist. Are there any ways in which your Jewish heritage affects you - now or when growing up?

    It definitely created a structure for our extended family gatherings - around holidays, in particular. Today, I still cherish those large gatherings.

    What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

    DO IT. Many people have a novel inside them but most don't bother to get it out. Writing is grunt work - you need to have self-motivation, perseverance, and faith… talent is the smallest part of it (one need only read some of the titles on the NYT Best-seller list to see that…). If you don't believe in yourself, and you don't have the fortitude to make that dream happen, why should the hotshots in the publishing world take a chance on you? I don't believe that you need a qualification to be a writer but I do think you need to take some good workshops.

    These are often offered through writers' groups or community colleges. You need to learn to write on demand, and to get critiqued without flinching. When someone can rip your work to shreds without it feeling as though your arm has been hacked off, you're ready to send your novel off to an agent. There's no magic way to get one of those - it took me longer to find my wonderful agent than it did to get published! Keep sending out your work and don't get discouraged when it comes back from an agent - just send it out to a different one. Attend signings/lectures by authors, and in your free time: read, read, read! All of this will make you a better writer. And - here's a critical part - when you finally start to write something, do not let yourself stop…even when you are convinced it's the worst garbage ever. This is the biggest caveat for beginning writers. Instead, force yourself to finish what you began, and then go back and edit it. If you keep scrapping your beginnings, however, you'll never know if you can reach an end.

    You've written two Young Adult books with your daughter - are there any more coming?

    I'm afraid you're going to have to talk to my collegiate daughter about that. She's busy writing her own YA book as a thesis to collaborate with me. But there is something new for the Between the Lines series - it is being adapted as a musical, hopefully bound for Broadway. We are collaborating with book writer Tim McDonald (James and the Giant Peach), composing team Samsel/Anderson (currently working for Disney animation). Our director is Jeff Calhoun (Newsies) and our producer is Daryl Roth (Kinky Boots).

    Do you enjoy coming to the UK? Will you have any free time or is it all work?

    Oh, I just love coming here. My fans are the greatest, most responsive people and I have such fun meeting them. You have an amazing country and I really enjoy exploring it when I come. I have holidayed here with my family a lot and came to Scotland on my 10th anniversary. So I am really looking forward to being back. This time round, my schedule is pretty full but, very occasionally, I will have some free time to be a tourist - and to shop!

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