Monday, April 19, 2010

Interview with Jodi Picoult

From Forbes --

No Rules For Jodi Picoult --

By: Stephanie Dahle --
03.15.10 --

Jodi Picoult is one of the world's most prolific bestselling authors. Over the last 18 years, she has turned out 17 novels--three of which were turned into television movies and another, My Sister's Keeper, starring Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin, opened in theaters last summer.

Picoult's fans have come to expect dark and controversial scenarios that detail some of the worst that could happen to families: a medical emancipation battle between a 13-year-old who is expected to donate a kidney to her sister dying from leukemia and her parents; the murder of a newborn child born to an out-of-wedlock Amish mother; a teenage couple's murder-suicide pact.

Not this time. House Rules, Picoult's latest novel, involves a far more common family situation: autism. Approximately 1 in every 110 children currently has autism spectrum disorders. House Rules follows the fictional life of Jacob, a highly functioning boy with Asperger Syndrome, and his single mom, Emma. Hyper-intelligent and obsessed with crime scene forensics, Jacob becomes a suspect in the death of his young tutor. Picoult's novel chews on the question: How can Jacob interact with police, judges and the other upholders of the law when his autism prevents him from fully engaging in the outside world?

It's these intricate dilemmas that allow readers to grapple with life's mysterious questions--and have, in turn, earned Picoult praise from a large audience. She even has her own Apple iPhone app, which enables devoted readers to find out when Picoult is in their area via GPS tracking, and provides Picoult's own music playlist to play at their book-club meetings.

ForbesWoman spoke with Picoult as she prepared to embark on her book tour across America, Europe and Africa.

ForbesWoman: You profile an autistic boy in House Rules, and your next novel deals with being gay in today's world. How do you choose what to focus on?

Jodi Picoult: It's usually a "what if" question that I really can't answer and that keeps coming back to me; that I worry about before I go to bed at night and wake up thinking about. And if I keep thinking about, it's probably a good idea for a book.

I think the reason it feels so timely is because the things that I worry about are the same thing everybody worries about.

Before publishing, you actually had an autistic young woman with Asperger Syndrome read the sections of your book written from Jacob's perspective. Why was the important for you?

Even though I don't write nonfiction, it's critically important for me to get it right. So many people help me and open their lives up to me while I'm doing research for a book. If I weren't going to do my homework and try hard to get the voice or the conditions accurate, I would not be doing my job well. I feel a real personal responsibility to get it right so that I really honor the people who have gone out of the way to help me.

Are your books chick lit? Women's fiction? Literature?

I wouldn't call them women's books because 49% of my fan mail comes from men. My demographic ranges in age from teenagers all the way up to people in their 90s and up. I do think that I do cross genres--I would just call it moral and ethical fiction.

You have a demanding schedule: publishing a book every year and having three teenage children, ages 14, 16 and 18. How do you balance motherhood with writing?

I never had a choice. My first book was published when my first son was born. I kept writing, and I kept having babies. I was alternating books and babies for a while. Finally, I stopped having babies and just had books.

I've really patterned my writing in between the moments when they needed me, when I didn't have very much time. Even now, when I do have a lot more time, I still function that way. If there's a time when I'm sitting down to write, I sit down and write.

Do you have any assistants?

No. I would never hire a research assistant because one of the most fun parts of the writing is the research, and I learn so much that informs my writing when I'm doing the research.

I read and answer all my own fan mail. I go to the post office, and I get books from people who want them signed, repack them in envelopes and send them back out.

I think it is really important to remember where you came from and to thank the people who got you there. I'm not writing back a long missive to people who write me a fan letter, but I am listening to what they say and writing back a response. It means an awful lot to them and it means a lot to me that out of all the books in the world, they're picking up mine. I think it's really my responsibility to be able to say thank you personally.

Have you had a mentor? What impact did it have on your writing?

My mentor is Mary Morris, who was my mentor at college. She is a wonderful writer. I wouldn't be here without her.

I really thought I was a good writer when I got to Princeton, and she reminded me that I was not nearly as good as I thought I was. She almost had to cut me down so I could build myself back up. The way she did it was to give me the tools that I needed to learn how to edit myself, to be my own best editor and tell the best story. If not her for, I wouldn't be doing what I am doing today.

What advice do you give to young writers today?

Write. Do it every day if you can. Carve out a piece of time. Don't answer the phone, don't answer your mother and don't answer your e-mail. Just write.

If you can, you need to take a writing workshop course because that's the only way you'll learn how to give and get criticism. You don't need to keep taking them, you don't need an MFA, a creative writing degree, but you do need a workshop course.

When you get stuck, and you think you're writing the worst story that was ever created on the planet, most people stop at that point and throw it away. Don't let yourself stop. Go all the way through to the end, or you'll never know if you can go all the way through to the end. When you get to the end, then you can decide if you want to scrap it or fix it. You really need to get to that point to prove you yourself that you can finish something.

A lot of your books have a religious or spiritual component. Where does that come from?

There's a big difference between religious and spiritual, and that's what I tend to address. I not by any stretch of the imagination call myself religious, but I stand up on the side of belief--the right to believe in anything, even nonbelief. I think my problem with organized religion is that it says there is only one right way to do this, which is why I will constantly take them to task and will continue to do that in my books.

Your next book deals with being gay and gay rights today.

What's really cool is that I do believe I might be the first mainstream writer to attack this issue, gay rights. That's amazing me to me, but I'm glad I'm doing it. There's a real sense that gay rights is a political issue and not a personal one. I think it's about people, which is why I want to write the book.

What makes it unique is my belief that people that are against gay rights are the ones that forget that it's about people and who haven't really heard the voice of someone who is trying to do what most of us take for granted.

The main character in the book is a music therapist and a musician. In addition to the narratives of the different characters, the book is going to be packaged with a CD of original music that is theoretically written by this woman. You will literally get to hear her and hear what's important to her through her music, in addition to through her words.

I want you to hear her voice. Hear her pour out her heart to you and then be able to say, "You should not get this right." Let's see if you can still do that.

I hear this book might have an ending that is unusual in your novels?

It is a downright bona fide happy ending! My readers won't know what's happened to me.

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