An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Jodi Picoult
whose latest novel is My Sister's Keeper (Atria/Simon & Schuster, April 2004)
By Doris Booth
In her 11th novel, My Sister's Keeper, New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult tells the heartbreaking story of what happens when a mother and father decide to create a child for the purpose of saving the life of another sick and dying sibling. Jodi explores the ethical, moral, and emotional fallout involved in genetic planning, and examines what it means to be a good mother, father, sister and a good person.
My Sister's Keeper is the spellbinding story of the Fitzgerald family, who lives with the specter of death. The oldest daughter, Kate, has a rare form of leukemia. The younger daughter, Anna, was conceived to be a donor for her sister and has undergone many hospitalizations and invasive procedures for this purpose. When at age 13, Anna learns that a kidney transplant is planned to save Kate's life, she decides to sue her parents for the rights to her own body. She hires a lawyer and proceeds with her case, despite the fact that she deeply loves her sister as well as her parents-and Kate is becoming more and more ill by the day.
In this exclusive Authorlink interview, the author, whose previous novel, Second Glance, made it to The Times list, reveals where she gets her ideas, what it feels like to be on the bestseller list, and how she deals with her personal compulsion to write.
"The ideas usually stem from a question I can't answer." Picoult
AUTHORLINK: Your ideas for stories are so original. Where do they come from?
PICOULT: I wish that I could tell you that I take a magic pill and the stories happen. I write with tremendous speed. It's the pace at which I'm comfortable. I have to constantly move on to new and different things. It's like having a baby. Every nine months I'm turning out a manuscript and starting a new one.
AUTHORLINK: But where do you get your ideas?
PICOULT: My ideas can come from anywhere–from research I'm doing on a different book, a conversation overheard in airport, a dream I've had. The ideas usually stem from a question I can't answer. I have to keep pushing the question to the maximum. I have to walk inside its parameters. Sometimes I can write a 400 page book and still can't answer the original question. But, I try to get my reader to think hard about the issues from the other person's point of view. For me, that's what qualifies as an idea. It has to be big enough, and confusing enough, and irritating enough to get your attention.
AUTHORLINK: In the book, Kate is very ill. Did this require a lot of research? We understand one of your own children has been ill. How did that influence you in writing MY SISTER'S KEEPER?
PICOULT: As part of my research, I spoke to children who had cancer, as well as their parents. To a fault, terminally ill children are the most wisecracking upbeat group youll ever meet. And by the same token, their parents are all just waiting for the other shoe to drop. A lot of their stories wound up in the booksuch as the one about the mother who freaked out when she saw a chest X-ray of her daughters with a huge tumor in the middle until the doctor told her that the mass was her daughters heart. As for my own experience with illnessmy middle son, Jake, who is now 10 years old, was diagnosed when he was five with cholesteatomas: benign tumors in the ears that will eventually burrow into your brain and kill you, if you don't manage to catch them. So, he had a series of ten surgeries in three years. When you have an ill child in the family it can take over your entire way of thinkingof making choices. I can tell you exactly what its like, as a mom, to tell your other children that theyre going to have to change the date of their birthday parties, because Jake has a surgery scheduled. I can tell you what its like to watch your child being given anesthesia and to think: OK, take my ear off instead. Lets just leave HIM alone. My own experience helped me capture what the Fitzgerald parents would have been feeling
AUTHORLINK: You tell the story from a lot of different viewpoints, in fact from every family member's perspectivemother, father, brother, and both sisters. Why?
PICOULT: It was like sewing a patchwork quilt. Anna, the planned child, was the first character to come to me. She originated from a news story I had found while researching another book. The item was about a couple in Colorado whose younger child had been conceived as a bone marrow match, and after a donate of stem cell umbilical cord cells, his sister went into remission. I started to think about what would happen if you pushed the experience to the limits. But I also realized early on, that I needed more than Annas voice to tell the story. Ultimately, every character gets the chance to tell you why theyve made the choices theyve madeits up to the reader to decide who was right, and who was wrong if you even can.
AUTHORLINK: You used an interesting technique in the last third of the book, starting each family member's chapter with the phrase, "It's raining. . . " Then you described the day from each character's viewpoint.
PICOULT: I used the weather to bring all the voices together in the same story. They all start out at exactly the same starting point of thought, but what happens that day, inevitably, changes everybodys lives in different fashions.
"I am grateful to be doing what I love most in the world. . ." Picoult
AUTHORLINK: Where did you learn to write so well?
PICOULT: I believe people are born storytellers, but you can be taught to be a better technical writer. I credit everything to Mary Morris, my mentor from Princetons creative writing program.
AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to be a New York Times bestselling author?
PICOULT: I had wanted for so long just to see my name anywhere on the list. Last year, when my novel, Second Glance, made it to #28 I was thrilled. But this yearto debut at number 11well, it felt absolutely amazing to see my name among all those huge authors. It was like being on the A-list of publishing I kept wondering if someone had made a mistake, sticking my name there next to Grisham and Mary Higgins Clark.
AUTHORLINK: Is it difficult for you to revise your own work?
PICOULT: Mary Morris taught me that writing is hard work. There is no muse sitting on your shoulder. It's just you sitting at the keyboard pounding out the words. Part of learning to be a writer is to learn how to edit your work, and to take criticism without it feeling as if youre undergoing surgery without anesthesia.
AUTHORLINK: Have you experienced a lot of rejection?
PICOULT: I had hundreds of rejections from agents. A great deal of being a successful writer is believing in yourself in the face of repeated rejectionits sort of a whos left standing at the end thing. I kept sending out my manuscripts until I met mine, who at the time, was just starting out as an agent. She said, I think I can sell you and I liked her approach. Three months later shed sold my first novel.
AUTHORLINK: And My Sister's Keeper is your 11th novel! You're the mother of three children, ages 8, 10, and 12. How can you find the time to be so prolific?
PICOULT: I can't not write! Writing is a compulsion more than anything else. I'd be harder pressed to say what would keep me away from writing. Even when I'm on the road, going to 61 places in two months, I have my laptop with me, and I continue to write as I travel. I am grateful to be doing what I love most in the worldand making a living at it.
AUTHORLINK: There are a couple of real surprises in the end of the book. Did you plan the story that way?
PICOULT: Yes, I knew that was going to be the ending. And its brutal. Believe me, its the last thing I wanted to happen, too but it was the right way to conclude the story, as I hope the reader will agree.
AUTHORLINK: Do you feel that you have finally "broken out" in the publishing world?
PICOULT: I never felt I would ever be a published writer in the first place. But I think I must have had the longest breakout book on the planetbecause I wrote and published nine books before Second Glance made it to The Times list.
Theres a big difference between being published, and being a well-known authorit's tough to crack the glass ceiling. Sheer perseverance got me through. I believed I had a quality product. I knew I could build a solid fan base.
But in todays market, thats not enough to push a writer to the next level. Like all of my novels, Second Glance received very positive reviews, and had the backing of independent booksellers. However, it was the chain stores, and their willingness to give me front-of-store placement for My Sisters Keeper that really pushed sales sky high for the new novel.
I have been with Atria (Simon & Schuster) for five years now, because I was impressed with their willingness to grow with me. My editor, Emily Bestler, is great at what she does. With respect to everyone else at Atria, she's the bulldog in my corner. She lets everyone know I'm worth keeping. In truth, most breakout books are made when an author leaves his/her publishing company and moves on to anotherin the hopes that theyll get more support and advertising dollars given to their book. And sadly, often, this works: a decent-selling mid-list author can exponentially increase his/her audience with a little advertising and good store placement. The cool thing for me is that I managed to land on the NYT list without leaving Atria and by being loyal. My reward is that now I get to celebrate with all the people who really helped me to get to this spot in the first place!
"Sheer perseverance got me through." Picoult
AUTHORLINK: What role has your agent played in helping your career?
PICOULT: Laura Gross has been my agent for 15 years. She made a lot of smart moves along the way, doing what needed to be done at each point in my career. In a lot of ways, shes like my second marriage!
". . .my long-term goal is to stay on the New York Times list for more than a week." Picoult
AUTHORLINK: When you're not on tour, what is your writing schedule look like? And how do you juggling being a mom?
PICOULT: When I'm not on tour, I write eight hours a day. It is my day job. I turn into a mom spontaneously at 4 PM, when the kids come home from school; and I dont write on the weekends. I have an incredible husband who is supportive of what I do, and makes the life I lead possible.
AUTHORLINK: What is your next goal? Your next project?
PICOULT: As mercenary as it sounds, my long-term goal is to stay on the New York Times list for more than a week. My next book, Vanishing Acts, is finished and will be released next March. It's the story of woman raised by her single father, who has a great life: a four year old daughter, her own search and rescue dog service, and a fiancé she loves. But as shes planning her wedding, she begins to have memories of a life she cant recall living and when she digs a bit deeper, she discovers her father stole her during a custody visit when she was four, took her cross country, and gave her a new identity. The rest of the book centers on his kidnapping trial. Im also three-fourths done with the book after that: It's a narrative novel that has a graphic novel intercut throughout it,and integrated with the story. Im excited about it because I havent seen this technique used before.
"The ones who succeed have the fortitude to stand until the end." Picoult
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice for people who want to be writers?
PICOULT: Stop talking about it, and do it. Sit down and write your book. Finish the whole thing. Read your favorite authors and figure out who their agents are. Then send the manuscript out to agents. Expect to be rejected! Once you expect to be refused, it's not quite as hard. Rejection will happen. Don't throw in the towel when it does. Not everybody has to love you, just one person does. So much of this business is about weeding out. The ones who succeed have the fortitude to stand until the end. The agent's job is to sell you. Part of your job is to believe in yourself. A lot of beginning writers want to know how I do what I do well, I always say thats not as important as figuring out how YOU do it.
"I want to be remembered as writer who made people think. . . " Picoult
AUTHORLINK: How would you like for people to remember you? .
PICOULT: Many bestselling authors can develop a quick digestible read, but not many writers can make you think. Id like to be remembered as writer who made people think, and could tell a good story at same time.